Published writer

Public speaker

Ex-prisoner

Mark’s story

In 1992/3 my life was falling apart, but I didn’t even realise that things were going wrong. My life had become chaotic. I was working 18 or 19 hours a day as a chef for two different agencies at the same time as training for a job in the church ministry. I had recently split with my girlfriend, after moving to Cambridge to be with her, and didn’t know the consequences of not taking time to deal with it all. Rather than discuss my emotional issues with friends, I hit the bottle and went drinking with my mates to try and mask the problems that I now realise I had. It was like a painkiller to help me hide from my feelings. I was also setting fire to things, as another form of escape, which soon got out of control. It was at this time that my world as I knew it collapsed.

My life was falling apart and I didn’t even know that things were going wrong

I now understand, after years of therapy and hard work, that the arson I was eventually convicted for was psychologically cathartic for me – a release or coping mechanism to help me deal with what I was feeling. However, I didn’t realise this at the time. I started with little fires in bins and skips and it progressed to sheds, cars and finally somebody’s house. It was the only way I felt in contact with anyone or anything. I realise, many years later with the help of therapy and a lot of soul-searching, that it put me back in touch with the comforting feelings of burning garden rubbish with my dad. However, setting the fires didn’t make my issues go away. It was just a moment of excitement and then a return to the chaos. It also, I am not proud to say, caused a lot of trouble for the emergency services. If it was one single fire, that would have been bad enough, but I cannot recall how many fires there were at the time.

After I set fire to the house in the early part of 1993, I turned myself in to the police and, while these were dark days, they were – as I would later find out – the pre-dawn hours of my new life. It was a weird moment as I stood at the front desk with my church minister trying to get the policemen to believe that I was the person they needed to talk to concerning the fires. It was difficult because part of me wanted to run from there, but I stayed put. That was the last day I walked in Cambridge as a free man, although I actually question if I was really free in those days.

When the judge sentenced me to life imprisonment, he didn’t know he was giving me a life worth living

I was given a discretionary life sentence for ‘arson with intent to endanger life’ and started my sentence in HMP Bedford. It was not long before I was on my way to HMP Wormwood Scrubs – a vast Victorian jail with a long dark corridor from the reception to the Life Wing (D wing). I was given a job in the kitchen, was seen by a psychologist on a regular basis and was approached by the Bible College to see if I wanted to continue my studies by distance learning, which I did and graduated some 18 months later – being ordained in the prison chapel with some of my closest friends around me.

The work with the psychologist continued and this led to a real turning point for me, when my application to move to HMP Grendon was accepted. Grendon is a place that offers men the chance to look at their lives and to change. When I arrived in reception, the very first thing that happened shocked me: I was offered a hot drink in a proper mug! This was my introduction to a prison that did things their way – and arguably a better way than many others.

At Grendon, after the induction, I was assigned my wing – a community that I would be part of for the next three and a half years.  This place became the start of me living my life. When the judge sentenced me to life imprisonment, he didn’t know he was giving me a life worth living. I found out so much about myself and the masks I had been wearing throughout my early life that Grendon prison became my maternity ward – birthing me into my new life.

I was given access to therapy and was encouraged to discuss my issues with both peers and professionals, including examining the secondary benefits I was getting from starting fires. Therapy at Grendon was not easy and those who have tried to go there for an easy time are found out and removed. There were a lot of tears shed and much heart and head searching in the communities at Grendon. This meant that each of us got to know our peers far better than we know anyone else in our lives. I found the time and space to take things slowly so valuable and I found there was a lot I needed to unload before I could start again.

I found out so much about myself and the masks I had been wearing throughout my early life that Grendon prison became my maternity ward – birthing me into my new life

Some of the most valuable work I did was in Art Therapy and Psychodrama. I was able to sketch out issues and, at times, link events in my life where there was a theme or thread that joined aspects of my poor emotional management. In psychodrama, I was able to play out scenes from my life that I wanted to examine. That was one of the hardest things that I have ever done in my life. It shone a bright light onto some dark areas of my childhood and my early adulthood. It highlighted where I was not doing things well and where I was hiding from decisions that I ought to have been making. It also made clear the route that had taken me into the offending that landed me in prison.

There were a lot of other people in this prison for arson and discussion with them was what led to that self-defining moment where I finally understood how I was setting fires to try and recreate that time with my father. I also now understood that it was dangerous and that there was help available. The group learning in Grendon, with people in similar circumstances, was key to my rehabilitation.

Leaving Grendon was never going to be easy, but I had to do this for my own progression. I ended up in HMP Wayland in Norfolk – a category C prison that trains prisoners towards their future employment. I was given a number of roles here: Health Care Orderly, Probation Orderly and then Store and Reception roles. I also made some great friends here, including one who became such a close friend that his wife used to send me birthday and Christmas cards.

I changed my perspective: I was no longer a prisoner that writes, I was a writer in prison

After stays in a few more prisons, under open conditions and where I had several jobs as well as preaching regularly at local churches, I left prison in 2003 and moved in with my girlfriend. It was a difficult journey and, at times, I became unsettled – twice leading to recalls back to prison for my own emotional well-being. It was on one of these recalls where there came another turning point in my life and one that changed everything for me. I was bored watching TV in prison and started to write a short story. This turned into a novel draft and I went on to gain a Koestler Award for this work. I decided that if one person liked it, then it was reasonable to think that other people would like things I might write. It is nice to do your art for yourself, but when somebody else enjoys it, it is an explosive moment. I next had a piece published in Inside Time, the prison magazine, and went onto gain more Koestler Awards. It was this that cemented all the learning I gained earlier in my sentence. I changed my perspective: I was no longer a prisoner that writes, I was a writer in prison. From that moment on, I went on to learn all I could about creative writing.

I have since gone on to spread the word about the power of creative writing, including through articles on creative writing as a route to rehabilitation and education being a route to rehabilitation. I believe that, through creativity, you give someone the ability to take back control of what they do. This outlet is of vital importance to me, to the balance of my life and to my ongoing well-being.

In 2014, I met a man who helped put everything into place after watching a TV channel in prison: Jezz Wright who works for Wayout TV that is set-up and operated from within HMP Wayland. It was not long before I was working for this project – checking the media content to ensure it met with prison standards.

On release, I was commissioned by Wayout TV to write an ‘Introduction to Creative Writing’ course, which is now broadcast on its sister channel, Way2learn. In March 2019, Jezz invited me to talk about Wayout TV to a group at the House of Lords, where – just as I was introduced by the CEO of People Plus – he turned to the audience and said they were offering me employment with them at the Wayout TV office. This came as a fantastic surprise and I am pleased to work for this organisation, where I still compliance check all the media content that Wayout TV broadcasts and also have started to make adverts for the prisoners who use our services.

It took a lot of hard work, sweat and pain to get here, but today I am in a much better place. The one question that I often ask myself was “Why did I have to offend to get to this position?” I reflect now how I should have asked my GP for help much earlier in my life and explained what I was going through before it escalated to this, but I didn’t think to do this at the time. I would encourage anyone in a similar position to seek out the help that is available and also to develop your creative side as a way of expressing yourself and maybe even finding out you have hidden talents that you never knew.

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