Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pandora's Box - judging the Koestler Prize

There are an astonishing 90,000 prisoners languishing in Her Majesty's jails.  All but 4,000 of them are men, and most of them are young.

But prison isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, most prisons have their own website. You can browse through the pages and (perhaps) be surprised by the enlightened attitudes of many of them.  Some offer a whole range of classes, which must be a welcome break from boredom for many of those banged up. These classes are run by an army of volunteers - including poets, writers, artists of all sorts.  People who give their time to help prisoners express themselves creatively.  Or, perhaps, simply to learn to read and write.

I am not one of those who venture into prisons, but last year and this year I am one of the judges for the Koestler Trust, who administer the prize.  Last year there were more than 5,000 entries for a total of 1,500 awards.  Total prize money is £30,000.  My area is Poetry Anthology, and this week I am taking delivery of a large box of entries from prisons all over Britain.

When I opened the box last year, all the troubles of the world flew out.  Here was remorse, anguish, love, self-pity, boredom, humour, longing, fear - and hatred.  Hope was there, too.
The anthologies showed me the reality of prison life, and changed my attitudes completely. Beyond the websites, prisons are stuffed with suffering humanity with years of empty time to reflect on the things they have done. There's no doubt that some have inflicted terrible damage on others, or on society - and often on themselves.  Some are mentally ill, or sharing a cell with someone who is mentally ill.  Some are due for release, but still take part - even though they might never know whether their contribution has won a prize.

Judging is strictly anonymous.Nicknames or first names only. I read every entry, and give each one a hand-written report, with individual contributors singled out for special praise.  The standard of work varies from the brilliant to the banal.  Presentation of the work varies, too, from pretty much professional to a hand-written one-off.  Some are illustrated. Lots of them are genuinely funny.

Later in the year, some prisoners, judges and tutors will join the great and the good at the Royal Festival Hall, where there will be an exhibition of all the winning entries. Celebrity supporters include Will Self, Grayson Perry and Jeremy Paxman.  Go to the website and take a look - I promise you, you will be amazed.


  1. Great post.
    A propos - I used to lead CW sessions at a tough residential drugs rehab - one resident had almost given up - he'd been in and out of prison most of his life, lost family, friends, job and most damaging of all, self-esteem. Nattering to him, quietly, it turned out he'd won a Koestler award - talking about it reminded him of how he'd felt when he was told he'd won something. That conversation, the memory, was a turning point - and he went on to kick his drugs habit completely. These awards are so important, in validating the person despite what society requires them to go through in prison.

  2. fantastic! I didn't"t realise you had been involved with that. I'll go check it out now.

  3. Very interesting post, and great work.

  4. It certainly is interesting and keep me posted as I want to support this in any way I can.