It is quite incredible to realise that this First Time Inside (FTI) Hidden Voices collaboration with HMP Edinburgh supported by The Faculty of Advocates and Beltrami & Co is coming to an end.

An end in terms of weekly poetry output and judging panel involvement with the same but we are however hopeful that the social impact made by Saughton Sonnets will live on for quite a bit longer.

There are so many people to thank for participating in and supporting this initiative and I will pay them the requisite attention in a reflection piece next week but for today it is all about the poets, their talent, their voices and their dazzling raw authenticity.

When you have read the poems and discovered our champion you will see comments from some of our judging panel talking about their experience of being part of Saughton Sonnets.

And to add to the impact notes from our panel below this from, an unsolicited letter, received this week from one of our poets who has an entry in our final three below –

“I took part in Saughton Sonnets and found it a rewarding experience, it allowed me to gain closure over extremely emotional topics and has inspired me to be a better human being. I am going through my own voyage of self discovery and recovery and Saughton Sonnets has quite possibly changed my life, I feel inspired to make a difference, thank you so much.”

Over the past four Fridays the men and women of HMP Edinburgh have presented us all with a stunning array of poetry which has not only entertained but more importantly challenged wider perceptions around those resident in our prisons and expressed in an incredibly honest, courageous fashion a range of emotions which have connected with a huge audience every single week.

The past month has allowed us to shine a bright light into the reality of prison lockdown, during an extreme set of circumstances generated by the global pandemic Covid 19  and presented us with an opportunity to connect as a community with hitherto hidden voices. There have been tears of joy and sadness reading the creative work, there have been moments of excruciating pain reading raw accounts penned by our talented wordsmiths. Our panel, every single week, experienced an emotional rollercoaster which was then exacerbated by a demand from FTI to pick their favourites, in fact, many have commented that this was, at times, the hardest part of the journey for some such was their connection with the wider body of work.

And as we do every week we give the final word pre-poetry to the Governor of HMP Edinburgh who I must take a moment to commend for his willing to share unedited, raw accounts from the men and women in his charge. FTI has at all times strived to respect the environment, the poets and our collaborative partners when sharing this content, I hope everyone agrees that on that front we have been successful.

“It has been a rollercoaster 4 weeks and I have to say that when we first discussed following Barlinnie into the world of lockdown poetry I could not have envisaged in my wildest dreams the impact the poems would have on social media. Great credit goes to the Family Contact Officers here at HMP Edinburgh, who had the idea in the first place, particularly Karen whose initiative has been embraced by staff and residents alike. A massive thank you to the poets too – I know the panel and others on social media have been blown away by the standard of the work. I hope that friends and families have seen what people have been saying and fed that back to the poets. I have tried to explain to them, but I don’t think they believe me. Finally thank you and good luck to First Time Inside and their Hidden Voices platform in whatever they do next and whatever marginalised community’s work they try to showcase next.”

David Abernethy – Governor, HMP Edinburgh

Ladies and gentlemen without further ado I give you the spectacularly talented Saughton Sonnets top three for 2020.




A gloopy mix,

Of ‘Graham’s Low Fat’

And milk

Sit in an old Pot Noodle pot,

Perched on a pipe.


For the transformation to occur.


I will eat yoghurt

A Milkybar.

Kettle-melted, thick and sweet

Nuts, raisins, cereal


A crunchy conglomeration

Of childhood memories;

The promise of delayed gratification

Next week

I will have chocolate crispies every day.

A used ice-cream tub,

Filled to the top with tea leaves,

And a tiny, seemingly insignificant seed,

Salvaged from my plate.

They sit on a barred windowsill

In Spring sunshine,

Sprouting new life.

This summer

I will eat fresh tomatoes

My most prized possession:

An Encyclopedia of Plants,

Three inches thick,

Heavy and beautiful.

Almost spiritual,

As if the whole of creation were condensed

Into its precious pages

Next year

I will be a gardener.

“This is one of these clever poems whose meaning is very much in the subjective eye of the reader. I like it because it is forward looking, the writer is using good images of what the current situation is but there are plans for personal improvement. There is a tacit acceptance of growth and that is positive, with a clear goal in sight…and all with a bit of spirituality thrown in for good measure.”

“I loved this. A real poet’s eye. Steps outside the box to write about the gold at the end of the rainbow. Glorious language used throughout, including “Kettle-melted”, “a used ice cream tub, filled to the top with tea leaves”, and “an encyclopaedia of plants” makes this my first place.”

“This was a beautifully evocative description of transformation of things and people. Beautiful use of language, creating a truly memorable piece of writing. Really special and unforgettable.”

“This was actually my out and out favourite of all the poems.  I both smiled and cried as I read, the story that was being told was of making do, finding a way, ingenious, inventiveness when supplies are sparse. I could smell the yogurt and the crispies, feel the heat on the window ledge. The hope and passion of growing the seeds. My heart sang with the hope of sun and growth and a garden.  I found myself willing the future for this author, that his desire to be a gardener will manifest.”

“ingenuity here is priceless, looking beyond the situation to what is possible to achieve”




Found a Friend on Lockdown

Sitting here in lockdown I got lost inside a book
Not much way of comfort, chocolate was all it took
I was sitting reading in my cell but got rudely interrupted
I flew up to my sweetie stash which was terribly corrupted

I counted all my sweets but one? How could this be?
A mouse was running we the last mars bar! He’d made an enemy
I pounced but flounced and saw him scurry over the floor
I had to grab him in a hurry before he reached for something more.

I held him in a vice like grip then saw a tear jerk from his eyes
It didn’t matter what he had done. I couldn’t bring his demise
“Gone then Miss Convict! Go on tak my life”
“Being a prison mouse is nought but hell and strife”
“Ah waz born and bred in Saughton ma daddy wiz a rat”
“He used to beat me badly but ell no go intae that”

With that he reached an pulled the fur back from his paw
There tattooed was a skull and crossbone’s I saw.
“Oh man that’s grim” I said. “You can come stay with me.
As long as you behave yourself I’ll not charge any fee”.

I made a wee pal in lockdown an saved him from myself
Now all that’s left is to protect him from everybody else!


“I really like Sonnet 8 – Found a friend in Lockdown -, the way it tells a story, and inside that story, so many other stories are hidden: How prison life can make you intolerant of others taking your things; how we default to violence; how empathy builds connection; how we see our own suffering in others’ pain and fear. This poem speaks of the traumatic experiences of so many people imprisoned. And, also, how blind we can be to those experiences if we haven’t had them ourselves. I love the mouse character – it reminds me of Robert Burns’ ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ – and his tattoos and how he comes to represent friendship and loyalty.”

“What a joy of a poem. This two hander between the narrator and her new wee pal is so multi layered and captures so much truth of life – not only in prison- through the parallels of the ACEs experienced by the mouse. The final couplet ties the whole piece up beautifully and the humour never wanes. Just lovely.”

“It had elements of Robert Burns. ‘Being a prison mouse is naught but hell and strife’ Who is the mouse in the poem? The mouse personifies the fear experienced in prison and projected onto the mouse by the authorship ‘Saves it from herself’ But the mouse kept his humour ‘A wiz born and bred in Saughton My daddy was a rat’ How many people have no real chance? This is a very good poem”

” Wonderful story-telling, compassion, humour, rhythm and rhyme. Also demonstrates a flair for spoken word. I believe this would be greatly enjoyed read out live. My top pick.”

“I loved this! It’s utterly brilliant! Leaving to one side the quality of the composition of the poem, I loved the story it told and the story I heard, the humour and the humanity, the compassion and the kindness. There is so much in this poem that speaks to so much more that I couldn’t stop reading it – and each time, I took something different from it. I’ll let the reader take their own thoughts from this though, in keeping with what I interpreted as the spirit of the poem.”

“I found this experience (I originally wrote ‘exercise’ but realised that suggested that this was a chore – it was anything but a chore) a pleasure. It was also a challenge just to imagine how difficult it must have been for these individuals to confront their own situation and fears and then put their experiences in writing. My stomach turned in heartache at some, smiled at others and LOL’d at others. Thank you for permitting me to be part of this experience and thank you to each and every author for opening their hearts and minds to us.”




A Little Jail Phone Call!!

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

This call originates 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 I’m 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 emotionally & mentally 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
I’m the one meant 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 sweet dreams when you go to bed
Dear wife I love you remember every single word I’ve said
If we didn’t have these moments I don’t think we would cope at all
We might be locked down but I’m still grateful for,
A Little Jail Phone Call

“This is an exceptional poem with a different angle from anything else written. Family-orientated, the consolation of prison phone calls becomes all-important, and the writer articulates this breath-takingly and beautifully.”

“Strong poetry that uses the outbound phone call from a locked prison world as an asset to maintain relationships on both sides of the prison wall, helping everyone affected to survive and cope with separation in family relationships. Building on the phone call as an asset, this work evokes a tangible sense of missing loved ones and the longing to reconnect, seeking in the words to atone the writer’s own responsibility for absence.”

“This made me cry – the isolation caused by imprisonment, the fear for your family, the wanting to help care but you can’t and the lack of control on even the most simple things in life. The importance of relationships shine through as does the hard reality of prison.”

“This literally brought a tear to my eye and made me look at my family with even more appreciation and gratitude than ever.”

“A Little Jail Phone Call really spoke of the lifeline that contact with families is. I could see this man standing in a noisy hall singing to his child or sitting alone in his cell with thoughts and worries of how his wife was coping. It was a privilege to read and resonated so much with our own experiences. It brought into sharp focus the impact of having no visits for 3 months or no access to in-cell telephones.”

“A Little Jail Phone Call moved me so much, brimming with humility and humanity. The suffering of separation eclipsed only by the extent of the love between the poet and their family. It absolutely emphasises too how important it is to facilitate meaningful contact between those imprisoned and their families – for both parties – and not just under lockdown!!”

“Sonnet 12 – A Little Jail Phone Call – moved me to tears . The isolation felt by this man and the way he acknowledges that pain and also sees the pain of his family through those precious phone calls is truly breath taking.”

“This sonnet tells a heart wrenching story about grief – loss and separation. The recurring focus and visualisation in the poem about the phone call reiterate the importance of human connection and how this has become a lifeline to the people we cherish most – but also highlights the negative ripple effect on families when incarceration is imposed. The poem evoked strong feelings– which most people are experiencing in COVID but stripes away all the bravado and unearthed every fathers/human’s deepest vulnerability which is to be alone and separated for the family/people you love. The line “Daddy I drew you a picture and can we sing you a song’ I thought of my own children and wept at the thought and anguish of this separation. It was encouraging that while the author unearths such strong feelings, the poem had nice breaks every 4 lines which allows the reader space to connecting with. Finally, despite the separation and loss of personal visit, the authors attitude remains grateful for the smallest things keeping him surviving.”

“The simple sadness of the message running through this lovely poem will stay with me for a long time. Sincere thanks to the writer for perfectly capturing the love and care that he feels for his family and the loss he lives with every day . It was a privilege to have these deeply personal emotions shared.”

We hope you have all enjoyed the Saughton Sonnets journey and we hope that you all agree that the top three were indeed worthy of their positions whilst also acknowledging that every poet who made a submission to the project was a winner in their own right. 

Some of our panel have been commenting on their experience of participating in the Saughton Sonnets journey and there are excerpts below to get a feel for the impact this project has had on them personally.


“Entering this project, you couldn’t be sure if residents of HMP Edinburgh would take it seriously, or if the range would be a similar style of bleating that of Me vs the World. We should never have worried. The prisoners have written candidly, beautifully, hilariously, angrily, bizarrely, hopefully and hopelessly, sweetly, romantically (certainly did not expect that!), intelligently, crudely (but in the best Scottish-way) and most of all, honestly about life behind bars during coronavirus. This was a reflection of the human spirit in its most desperate and vulnerable state. It demonstrated talent, and opened the eyes of the Hidden Voices panel, social media users, and even the press. It gave a voice to people shunned by society, often acting as a “confession box” to the reader.

In times when the world is addressing the status quo of how things are perceived and handled, Saughton Sonnets was a welcome reminder to look outside of our own prejudices and question how self-centred we have become over the past decade – it was genuinely that important.” 

Stephen Watt – Poet and former Makar.


The privilege of participating is having a long lasting impact on my ability to see the diversity of people who are at any time within our prison walls. The strong sense of wanting everyone to be safe, places in plain sight the strength of wanting positive futures as a shared ambition for all.

The ability to speak honestly, even when to read is difficult for both the writer and the reader, is essential in building trust and a new belief that the future can and should be better.

There are words that repeatedly come out of the works into my mind, capturing the worth of this project; reflection, future, isolation, faith, empathy, safe, loneliness, insight, destiny, longing are among them and all offer at times competing ambition and views on each individual’s circumstance.

Sonnets have proven to be a wonderful medium to engage in Saughton’s own inside community with the wider outside community who await their return.

Thank you everyone who has taken part and to Gerry for your significant role in all of this.”

Tom Halpin – Ex CEO Sacro


Being part of the FTI’s Hidden Voices project has been a humbling and connecting experience. Being part of an international ‘little community’ of people — reading, engaging with and ‘judging’ the merits of poems shared by imprisoned men and women — has revealed a sense of collegiality and common experience — both in terms of being moved by the poems, and being troubled by the invisibility of the strengths and potential of the poets.

There is a sense for some in the broader community that people imprisoned deserve to be forgotten, to remain unseen. But then, by the same token, we expect people to emerge from that state as ‘better’ people.

This little poetry project has brought to light the value of giving to voice to the pains of imprisonment and our common humanity. And the sense that judging each other on the worst thing we’ve ever done is a way of separating ourselves from each other, denying what makes us human, and forgetting that none us is perfect.

We all make mistakes. To recover from them, and to make amends, we need ways of communicating. Ways of opening up to each other.

Poems and stories are ways of saying the unspeakable. Poems and stories give us ways to connect. Poems and stories open windows, let light in.

I’m grateful to have been able to look through some of these windows together. Thanks Gerry.

Diana Johns – Senior Lecturer and Criminologist – Melbourne University


“I think pushing out creativity from all of us is great. To be locked up 23.5 hours a day is not just the removal of your liberty but your dignity. Yet, those taking part in the poems show not only dignity & perseverance they show hope. I wish those on the outside could see what we see. Folk who do bad things are not bad people. You have brought those in prison into the community whilst locked up. The goal is to keep them in the community when at liberty. Labels. Shunning. Othering. All does not work. Well done with your efforts.”

Iain Smith – Criminal Defence Lawyer


“I have LOVED being involved with this project.  I believe Gerry will achieve great things and I only wish I could do more to support these initiatives.  Saughton Sonnets has only affirmed to me what I already knew, that those incarcerated are people, not ‘non-humans’ vilified by the ever sensationalist media.  Admittedly there are complex issues surrounding those people but the material produced by the Hidden Voices project illustrates the creative and emotional intelligence within our prisons.  This is fertile ground for rehabilitation.  My involvement in Saughton Sonnets has allowed me to show my own social media network what I have been trying to say about our prison population and why I feel the way I do about my practice in Criminal law.

Being part of the community has been a wonderful bolster to my convictions on criminal defence too.  I can see now that I am not alone in my beliefs and not only that, but I have made professional connections that I feel I can now turn to.  I have found my involvement to be hugely rewarding.  Thank you, Gerry, for having me.”

Cheryl Ferguson – Lawyer


“I have to say that it is impossible to put into words how grateful I feel to have been included in this venture. My life has been unexpectedly enriched and challenged by having access to these poems.  I have always loved language and poetry but these creations have touched me deeply and my heart has been both crushed and uplifted, it bled and it sang.

I read them out loud each week, several times and today my son and husband heard me and came in to listen. They both cried and laughed and fell silent. My son, 13, told me at the end that it reminded him of his privilege and it put his struggles of feeling lonely and fed up this last week into perspective.

Incredibly powerful work, I hope you make great strides as a result of this work. what you have accomplished is amazing, well done.”

Fiona Larkin – Education Officer


“I volunteered for this project for a number of reasons. Firstly, having served a short sentence I full appreciate the need to keep your mind busy and any external validation that could come from someone on the outside would be good for those writers on the inside. Lockdown has provided the opportunity to participate due to not having much else going on at this point. I am not poet by any manner or means but as someone who has used words and understands their importance I was more than willing to offer feedback. At the outset, I also wanted to be honest – if I thought it was rubbish then I would say so. My main concern was that my absence of poetic licence would not do justice to those involved…

The first batch put me at rest. The contents of each were amazing. This was the point where I realised again just how much talent is wasted behind bars. The insights from the inside were perceptive, empathetic, caring and could hit any emotion. This first batch of nine really set the bar at a high level. The biggest problem was then trying to rank them. They were all extremely good and the scoring then became a bit of a task – changing and changing my mind numerous times before settling on what I considered fair.

The interesting bit followed the official publication on the Friday – it was really good to read the thoughts of my fellow community contributors. Clearly they have much more experience in the poetic world and imposter syndrome set in very quickly – what the actual am I doing here, I’m right out my depth etc. etc.  However, I got over that very quickly when I was in total agreement with one of the comments – that was exactly how I felt about that poem. I could recall the exact same feelings; perhaps I was more in my depth than I thought! It was only when I went to compare what had been written with my own version that I realised they were the same.

I liked the community connection on twitter – Friday mornings became a veritable hive of activity where retweets and likes were the order of the day. You really felt part of something and it was nice to try to extend its reach to the wider community. Whilst reading the comments I also liked to try to guess who had written it – I know a few of the other participants and whilst entirely futile and totally inaccurate, it added something to reading them (well certainly in my mind!).”

Jim Watson MBA – A relevantly experienced citizen.


“Every week I thought it would be easy; it never was.  It’s funny the way you relate to some poems more than others although can see the talent in them all.  Some made me smile, some made me cry but they absolutely all made me think.  A huge thanks to every single one of the poets who was brave enough to put their thoughts down in writing, it’s never an easy task and must have been even harder knowing other people were going to read them and comment…what would they say?!  It’s never been hard to comment, even if I hadn’t been asked to I would have.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Vikki Binnie – Community Justice Manager


“This was a true humbling pleasure. My beacon in lockdown, a welcomed escape from ‘front-line working’. I have learnt so much from all the poets, a privileged insight into their worlds and minds. A reminder of the pain, suffering and fear they face alongside the unwavering hope and messages of gratitude. To expose themselves on paper for critic and judgement show bravery, selflessness and confidence- this was not lost on me. The raw emotional talent was challenging, provocative and at times frustrating- frustrating your talents couldn’t be more widely showcased far earlier.

Can I say thank you to all the poets- truly well done. You should be very proud, you have contributed to a literacy world during a global pandemic. Your words will be immortalised and rightly so.

Fiona Kennedy – Community Justice Manager


“It’s absolutely remarkable and humbling to read of the difference that participating in #HiddenVoices is having.”

Dr Beth Weaver – Associate Director, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research


During our reflection piece next week I will include more of the panels comments and their hopes for the future. Thank you to everyone has taken the time to read our Saughton Sonnets, to actively engage and support.

But the biggest thank you of them all must go to the poets, you have afforded me a great privilege and I look forward to thanking you in person soon inside HMP Edinburgh.

Hidden Voices is a collaborative concept and we are happy to discuss how this style of collaboration may support your own organisation or business in the future. Please do not hesitate to get in touch to discuss any ideas in that regard, you can reach us initially by e mail at [email protected] send for the attention of Gerry Hamill and Gerry will revert promptly.

That’s all for Saughton Sonnets folks @FirstTimeInside out.

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