Today I’m privileged to share a letter from a Hidden Voices participant which I believe demonstrates why this project is worthwhile.

Before hand a little update and a few thoughts on where we are.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks I have chosen to attend a number of online events for a variety of specific reasons and, aside from a desire to access personal education opportunities and gain increased awareness of different issues, one of the notable motivating factors was to continue to feel part of the wider societal community.

Being largely cut off from what we would classically refer to as real human interaction as a result of Covid-19 has been exhausting these past months. As someone who thrives on being in the room, for want of a better expression, making the choice to adhere to government guidance and stay home has been a real challenge.

That said I feel fortunate on two fronts.

Whilst it’s true that everyone has been inconvenienced by Covid-19 it’s also true that many, too many, people and families have not been that fortunate with so many lost to this invasive pandemic – I feel blessed to date that my family has escaped that tragedy – and my heart goes out to everyone affected so tragically.

Additionally, I had a choice.

I could get up in the morning switch on my phone and PC and connect with the world on a virtual level. I could shower, eat breakfast (before lockdown indiscipline saw the shaggy hair, sweatshirt, shorts and flip flops become normal working attire of course) and go for a walk. Who would have thought or foretold that the simple act of going for a walk could be considered by society to be such a luxury? The inhalation of fresh air once so taken for granted now part of a recognised process of self-care, the smell of the trees and birdsong once ignored now embraced with a skipping heart and a beaming smile. That casual wave or call out to socially distant neighbours positively endorphin inducing when previously perhaps – if I’m honest – it was no more than a little robotic or muscle memory.

Choice should never be taken for granted or casually dismissed as an entitlement. As I asked previously, who could have imagined a walk being a luxury?, well of course every single one of our Hidden Voices shared through 2020 would tell you that a simple walk is exactly that. For them, there is no getting up in the morning and making free choices about what to eat, when to shower and certainly no virtual connection to gain free access to wider society.

When I first considered the concept of Hidden Voices back in the winter of 2018 I wondered if it would be possible to find a small way to bridge that gap between those discounted by or lost to society and people in society who until that bridge was built would have no reason to connect beyond perhaps a minimal working requirement.

You see I have a belief that until society truly understands that there but for the grace of their God go they, barriers to change will exist and I don’t mean comprehend on a intellectual level but truly understand on a visceral level.

We – each and every one of us – have five senses, if we fail to appeal through our work to more than a couple then I’d ask what’s the point? We know better, we know that through connection change can happen and that relationships more broadly can resolve many issues, these are not new concepts these are long since established and accepted facts. Instead of attempting to reinvent an ancient wheel – or jargonise an existing term –  our job I would suggest is to create paths for the existing wheel to travel down allowing those things we know work to flourish.

Create communities that allow that wheel of connection and relationship, a wheel we all know to work, to travel. That of course requires a parking of ego, a willing to set aside self interest and embrace the possibility that multiple agendas can be successful collaboratively if competitive instincts can be overcome.

Last year Hidden Voices created both a bridge between those discounted voices and society as well as a community that provided a fertile ground for change to occur. A community drawn from many walks of society with one single aim, to make a wee difference as a collective. At the risk of sounding patronising I must share the fact that I am immensely proud of everyone who stepped up to offer their time and I love every one of them for their kindness.

Our project Saughton Sonnets was a small example of what can be achieved when society takes the time to engage with those they have perhaps forgotten, those that we often consider out of sight out of mind. An example of the transformational impact that engaging on a visceral level really can offer. It was and remains a small project thrown together without any public funding at all – more a statement of celebration that people from the too often demonised private sector cared enough to make a small contribution rather than a shout of entitled angst demanding support – that connected and made that wee difference simply by giving those incarcerated in HMP Edinburgh a voice or more accurately an outlet via creative writing for their voice.

For some as you will see shortly – when reading todays input from a Hidden Voice – the experience was transformational.

In the words of Governor Abernethy of HMP Edinburgh;

“I just wanted to put on record my admiration for what you have done with the “Hidden Voices” platform and in particular the partnership with HMP Edinburgh, now known all over social media as “Saughton Sonnets. 

Having visited the prison a few weeks ago you have now seen for yourself what I saw when I was telling the poets about the publication of their work and how much it was loved by so many people via the FTI platform. I think it’s fair to say it has had a profound impact on the poets and the readers; laughter and tears in equal measure – actually maybe a few more tears!

As you and I know, a few of the poets have seen being part of this project as a transformational experience. They are seeing themselves in a whole new light and want to use this as a springboard to more and better experiences in poetry and in life. What an amazing achievement and something they should be so proud of, and so should you as it is only the engagement of FTI  that has made that possible. I am excited to know you are thinking of doing more and we would love to be part of that. I know other Governors would feel the same and want to get people from their prisons involved.

 It has been an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with you.”

The power of writing should not be underestimated, indeed I have always regarded language as a superpower that those blessed with voices of influence should treat with the utmost respect. Perhaps the words of the legendary crime writer Ian Rankin, taken from the preface of our Hidden Voices anthology, ring most true for many including the poet who has shares his thoughts with us today –

“Writing for me has always been a form of therapy and a form of escape.  It allows my imagination to soar above the everyday world.  I may be sitting in a small room, but inside my head I can travel anywhere and to any period of history.  I can become a vast range of characters and enjoy their adventures and misadventures.  But writing also allows me to confront the world and comment on it.  It helps me deal with problems and issues in my own life and also allows me to make sense of human nature and to communicate with the world outside that small room in which I write.” – Ian Rankin

It is lovely to see an increasing number of larger publicly funded organisations now also share their service user stories in a similar way to Hidden Voices to help create connection and influence change. Of course this platform stands available to any organisation who wishes to do the same.

With all that said, todays Hidden Voice belongs to one of our courageous writers from the Hidden Voices initiative known as Saughton Sonnets who collectively served us a challenging banquet of authenticity at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic last year. A collective which lead leading QC John Scott to say;

“Not enough people realise just how narrow the margins and random the accidents are that separate us from life “in a peter” or “behind the door”. Not enough people can see or think themselves inside these hidden parts of our community. If you read these poems, you’ll be there – not just for a visit, but to live, even if only for a few minutes.” – Which ties beautifully to the final lines of our Hidden Voice below.

What you will read below is in my opinion a tale of hope, a realisation that aspiration is not exclusive to a certain cohort and a window to the thoughts and dreams of a very a talented human being. It also reflects back positively to everything said in introduction today.

In addition to the author’s note their winning poem is attached below for your reading pleasure, stay safe folks and now over to PSD (you’ll figure that out).

A Letter From Saughton

“If I’m being completely honest I originally entered into the Saughton Sonnets for the prize, I was bored and thought I’m in this crazy lockdown and doing nothing else – or at least that’s what I told myself – but with hindsight I think in a strange way that was me justifying my participation with the part of my ego that got me into my current predicament. I was also extremely aware of my environment and the general view amongst my peer group as normally any kind of self-expression in the medium of poetry is ridiculed and I was slightly afraid of the reaction.

So I decided to hatch a plan to write under a pseudonym originally so that no one would find out I’d entered the competition but it soon became so much more to me.  I played around with a lot of names before settling on one but even at this point my creative juices had started flowing and my wheels were turning and thank God because I was in a really bad place psychologically and emotionally. Here we all were in a self-imposed state of limbo (Prison sentence) with an imposed state of limbo (lockdown) and that means plenty of time to think, regret and worry about your family. I had put myself here by breaking the law they had done nothing wrong, I was the one in a place of safety and that upset me.

Once I had settled on my pseudynom (P Sue Denim) I just sat in front of a blank piece of paper and wrote the first thing that came into my head and that meant my poetry was about my emotions, the way I was feeling and then the subject matter took care of itself. I never sat down with an idea first. I realised thinking about it first made my poetry less authentic compared to when I just sat down and let it spew from my mind to the page.

I can remember feeling really proud of my first poem and I kept reading it over and over again thinking to myself “Did I really do that?” All I knew for certain was I felt so much better because of it. It was as if it had provided me with some closure over the subject and emotions attached to it.

The next seven days were quite literally the most exciting, expressive and emotional of my life to date simply because I had found a way of coping with all my thoughts and feelings through an art form and I was truly proud of what I was achieving. I’ve always been opinionated and quite political but now even the if the subject is brutal the words themselves make it beautiful and spur me on to challenge myself with ever more personal subjects. As I conquered each subject my self-worth and confidence grew and before I knew it the last day for entries had arrived.

If only I hadn’t waited so long to get started but the truth is you never know how something is going to be until you get involved so in a way that was a lesson in itself.

When the competition was over I thought what will I do now I was a bit overwhelmed with the hole that not writing poetry had left in my life.

So as I had done during “Saughton Sonnets” each time I was overwhelmed with emotions I got a pen and paper and bled on to the page. That was my salvation in that moment and every moment after that and that means more than any prize because that is mine forever and nobody can take that away from me. It is mine and mine alone, I can create beautiful things that come out of moments of despair or anguish and then come back to them at any time of my choosing and that’s a powerful tool to manage my life.

I must admit it felt like an eternity waiting for the results to come back and I would check the prison tv channel religiously hoping to see something but each time there was nothing self doubt would creep in and I would remember that everything is slow here for us but I also had achieved so much already. Some time later and when I’m no longer checking the TV me and another prisoner were summoned to the governor’s office. In my experience that had never been a good thing but he then proceeded to explain how Saughton Sonnets had had taken on a life of its own on the internet and had been viewed an unbelievable amount and that people were even subscribing to read it and that the following day the judging panel would be picking their winners. People like Ian Rankin and Darren McGarvey were reading or judging my poetry. I was so overwhelmed as I listened and to be honest part of me thought it was a joke and I was acutely awaiting the punchline but it never came.

It felt like I floated back to my cell. My feet not once touching the ground, I felt extremely proud and just kept bursting into fits of laughter and saying Ian Rankin out loud. I couldn’t get it through my head that educated people were interested in anything a convicted criminal would have to say but I was wrong and wrong Big!!!

The next day I was handed sheets of paper and I read the comments of the judges on each of my pieces and was blown away. Here were people talking about my fears and hopes and connecting with it like they were living my words. Let me tell you there’s truly no greater feeling than moving someone to tears or having them truly engage with your body of work, I felt bullet proof and as if I could achieve anything I put my mind to and to be honest I’ve never looked back since and now I attack life like I do poetry with confidence and emotion and kindness.

I am confident and happy with a vision of my future that doesn’t include crime and prison. I wrote to the chief executive of Scottish Prisons and congratulated him for hiring good forward thinking and progressive minds that are finally taking SPS out of the dark ages and embracing rehabilitation and I meant it. The people running prisons are starting to attack the old problems that existed with new directions and opportunities that promote self growth just as Saughton Sonnets did for me.

Looking back now I can see the points in which I had changed and if I could go back I’d change nothing I feel incredible.  Blessed to have taken part, it has gave me the confidence to try new things and helped me grow as a person. I have become extremely passionate about my poetry and have entered other competitions and one of my poems was singled out by the poet laureate I would never have done any of this without taking part in Hidden Voices and Saughton Sonnets it has allowed me to create my own superhero. That allows me to right poetry in a subjective way. P Sue Denim has become my alter ego of sorts and lets me express myself in ways I didn’t think were possible.

It’s crazy that I made the name to hide behind it and now I claim it with pride and confidence.

Thanks to all those who listened and cried along with me and thanks to the few who made it possible. Thanks for letting me dream and believe I could rub shoulders with giants, even if it is just for a breath.”


A Little Jail Phone Call

Lying awake in the dark my thought’s are of my children & the wife
Im worried for their health my precious children are my life
And now theres no visit’s or bonding absaloutly nothing at all
All I can give to them is a little jail phone call

This call originate’s from a Scottish prison if you don’t want this call please hang up
But they have been waiting patiently I thank the stars for my luck
I chat away or listen intently to all they say and when its over Im standing tall
This is what they give back to me with a little jail phone call

Daddy I drew you a picture and can we sing you a song
Obviously I say yes and was over joyed to try and sing along
These are all the thing’s that pick me up when I feel I could fall
I don’t know what Id do with out a little jail phone call

I’m starting to realise the wife is struggling just to try and cope
I can hear it in her voice she’s reaching the end of her rope
I need to support her emotionaly & mentaly I can not drop the ball
This is what I give my wife with a little jail phone call

I also phone my nana and get a big family report
Im the one ment to be strong but she’s the one giving me support
This is what my family & I need if not I would hit the wall
The only thing keeping our spirits up is a little jail phone call

So goodnight my little babies sweetdreams when you goto bed
Dear wife I love you remember every single word Ive said
If we didnt have these moments I don’t think we would cope at all
We might be locked down but Im still grateful for,
A Little Jail Phone Call

I’ve said, that the most liberating feeling is the realisation & acceptance that you are not the expert but that you can through a process of collaboration add value to and create a fertile environment that offers a level of expertise to engage those who need a wee helping hand. It’s a source of great pride that Hidden Voices is offering a helping hand.

We have two new projects planned and building behind the scenes and will update everyone via social media in the next week or so as to start dates. The first to launch will be Baw Bards which is being run alongside four Scottish prisons, all the work has been received, just a little collation required prior to start date being announced and Preston Prose a collaboration with the Lancashire Violence Reduction Network which is also well underway. Updates here soon…

In 2021 Hidden Voices will move beyond the prison estate and offer other marginalised or discounted voices a platform to communicate too, I look forward to sharing more on that soon.

When some two years ago I fell in love with the concept of community justice and the idea of smart justice I instinctively – as a reflex to a previous life – purchased the domain name with a view to creating some kind of supportive messaging platform to reinforce the amazing work being done elsewhere in this justice space, maybe this year I’ll find some time to get to work on that alongside kindred spirits and as well as developing other justice related domains and ideas that are awaiting attention. More about that in future blogs I’m sure.

Thanks to our wonderful writer today and thank you for taking the time to read this Hidden Voices account, have a safe and relaxing week.

The final words of todays blog are provided by Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf who when writing in our anthology commented that ;

Far too often, society does not see the human being behind the prison walls. They see a statistic, a crime, a court case – the Hidden Voices anthology challenges us to remove our prejudices and see the person.

Having a creative outlet such as this anthology can provide prisoners with a valuable way to consider their current circumstances, their previous history, and their hopes and aspirations for the future.

I hope that taking part in the Hidden Voices process has been helpful to all that participated. 

I will certainly follow the journey of Hidden Voices with great interest.

@FirstTimeInside out.

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