In 2008, I began to teach creative writing at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, a prison for young men in Scotland as a volunteer. Society would like to believe prisons are nice & tidy: prisoners go in, spend some time, are rehabilitated, come out reformed. It’s not that simple. However, the programme is still going strong and has gotten attention and support from the First Minister to Her Majesty the Queen.
At the end of my first visit, when I walked out, I left the front door open. My escort-guard smiled and said, “Hey Martin, close the door, it is a prison, remember?” No, it’s never sunk in. They look like human being to me.
Full information of the programme, inspired by Belle Chevigny in the USA (Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing), Augusto Boal (Theatre of the Oppressed) and Theatre in Education — in the Scottish Review of Books article.
Polmont Young Offenders Institution Creative Writers Reflect on the page:
“Today I awoke to a voice commanding me to get up. At first, I thought it was one of the screws [guards], so I got up and quickly realized it wasn’t. I assumed it must be my cell mate, but couldn’t have been because he was sound asleep. I wondered to myself what the hell it could have been. No one at the door. It was only four o’clock in the morning.” —Garath
“Top of bunk bed, the floor, the screws, cell mate, the can, TV, table and seat: basically I wake up in here and think, what is the point of life?” —Ian
“I was never a bad person, but mind you never the pride of Britain either… When I was sixteen I did what every teenager does in the country. I had a drink.” —Kenneth
“I am not claiming to be an angel, I was a wild kid growing up. I have a big heart and won’t back down to anyone or anything, but that could be my downfall. My best mate had the same attitude… and now he’s dead.” —John
“Today has been like most other days: get up, wash, shave, breakfast, etc., except for a documentary film I saw after dinner which made me think… I used to hate everyone and everything, and hurt a lot of people along the way. I thought I was worse-off than anyone, but I’ve come to realise there are a lot of people in worse shape than me—people who need intensive care, attention and the like — and if I can just change myself for the better, and help some who are worse-off than myself: maybe, just maybe I would have done something worthwhile for a change.” —Garath
SCOTTISH SUN ARTICLE – April 2013
By MATT BENDORIS
TOUGH-talking American Martin Belk has gone from punk to poetry — teaching literary classics to some of Scotland’s toughest young cons. A former mover and shaker on the New York punk scene, Martin once ran hip celebrity hang-out Squeezebox in the city’s Manhattan. Now he spends his time inspiring young offenders in Polmont Young Offenders nick in Stirlingshire. The 46-year-old insists the hoods and murderers lap up the likes of literary giants Samuel Beckett and ancient Greek philosopher Plato. And after six years running his creative writing course for hundreds of inmates, Martin boasts an incredi ble 98 PER CENT non-reoffending rate among his students. He says: “I know half of my class are in for murder but I never ask what they’ve done.
“I simply say, ‘I don’t care that you’re a criminal — just don’t be a stupid criminal’.” Born in North Carolina, 6ft 3in Martin moved to the Big Apple dur- ing the 80s where he lived in some of the roughest districts. But by 1994 he helped launch punk revival club Squeezebox where a string of A-listers hung out — including Charlie’s Angels star Drew Barrymore, Jackass legend Johnny Knoxville and ageing Holly- wood director Steven Spielberg. Martin — who has penned a book about his wild days in NY — said: “Spielberg used to come to the club simply to dance. It was a place with no cameras or mobile phones to take pictures and where people could just do whatever they wanted. “One night Drew Barrymore got her boobs out in the middle of the dance floor — that was a great night.” But after a decade of constant partying the club producer was burnt out. He went to a New York university to study — where he met a Scot who told him he should move over here. Martin took her advice and six years ago launched the Polmont Young Offenders’ Creative Writing Course, going on to teach more than 200 of Scotland’s most violent young criminals. But the lanky yank with the southern drawl admits it was a real eye-opener at first. He says: “It was difficult for me as I had to learn to speak Glaswe- gian to start with. Then they taught me what being a ‘ned’ was all about. “But I soon discovered that they all came from totally chaotic back- grounds. One guy told me how he started looking after his three-year- old brother when he was just six. “Another didn’t speak for six months. Then one day he opened up his notebook and started reading his life story. He used to be tied by a rope to his neck and burned with cigarettes. He had all the scars to prove it. “How he’s still alive is beyond me. His classmates were wiping away tears by the time he finished. “Many students were totally illiterate. They couldn’t read or write. So I’d get them to draw pictures of their lives instead.” Martin got off to a rocky start when he clashed with prison chiefs who insisted a guard should be posted on the door. He explains: “I fought that deci- sion because how are you going to get someone to open up if one of the ‘screws’ is in the room. “I told them I didn’t survive on the lower east side of Manhattan for 17 years for nothing. Those were wild times. You either fought back or got killed by gangs high on crack and running around the streets with knives.” Martin — who has invited a string of guest speakers behind bars, including Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh — wastes no time introducing his new recruits to the literary heavyweights.
He says: “I took Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in and told them it was about being this per- fect thing who changes into this thing no one likes, then dying. “I gave them all copies and we took five weeks to read it all. And let me tell you this, never underestimate these kids just because they are in Polmont — they understood it all. “Then I ask them to keep a jour- nal. So if they have a thought, they can put it down. “If people write consistently that’s when they learn to find their voice. Then you can’t shut them up. That’s the magical break- through moment for me.” Martin claims he’s only had two inmates drop out of the class. However he admits he doesn’t count those who have not become regular students. He says: “If someone tells me all they want to do is party and get high then that’s no use to me. “If someone insists on wanting to check out of their own brain there is not a lot you can do. But I’ve got a high, almost perfect, non-reof- fending rate among those who actively engage in the course. “In the jail I’m telling these guys to look inside to find something else to think about through creative writing. I’m trying to get them to complete a few essays so they can get on to college courses when they come out.”
“Several have done really well in further education. One guy started up his own business. “I just want them to change that mentality of constantly going in and out of jail.” But doesn’t he worry some of his students risk a beating for carrying around the classics? Martin says: “Only one guy I know was beaten up for being a smartass by going to classes. “Once they are through my door they know they are in a safe environment. Sure my classes are rau- cous and noisy and there’s a bit of name calling like ‘Ya bawbag’. But I tell them I don’t mind criticism as long as it’s done intelligently.” Martin has been a guest at the Queen’s garden party at Holyrood Palace and met First Minister Alex Salmond through his prison volunteer work. And for those who think he’s wasting his time working with cons, he says: “I don’t believe in throw-away people. “We are doing what the ‘experts’ usually say can’t be done. If that’s wasted time, I can live with that. “Some of these kids have never read anything in their lives. “All I want them to do is to have read a book by the time they leave jail.”
Scottish Sun, 23/4/13