My daughter taught me to read in prison

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Emmanuel | 30 October 2017

Yes, she was still the teacher and I the pupil but the scripts we swapped became longer and more detailed. Can you believe the subject we were writing about was Shakespeare?

Twenty-three years. When you repeat it to yourself, it sounds so far away; I’m not even sure how many times I had repeated it in my head. A quarter of a century, that sounds even worse. “I sentence you to twenty three years.” This is the first hurdle to climb over – acceptance of my fate, that I will not see my old neighbourhood for the next sixteen years or more, if I don’t get time off for good behaviour.

Being classified as a double ‘A’ category ‘dangerous prisoner’ was not a very good start, I was placed into solitary confinement, in what is called the Block or Hole. An envelope with a sheet of paper was slid under the cell door, along with an A4 sheet of paper, the only words that I could make out were ‘Seg-Rules’. Not being able to read or write compounded my bitterness. My hard-core emotions were all I had for company, and as I became angrier the judge’s words in my head became louder.

I started to speak to myself: “When will I talk to my children?” “What do I tell them?” The emotional rollercoaster just continued to flow around in my brain, I marched up and down the eight by four cell talking to myself until my legs gave up. I sat down contemplating my fate. ‘This is my home now; forget the old neighbourhood.’ Saying this to myself, I fired up more intense memories of my life growing up in LayLow Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill West London, and the murder of my brother – one of the first of a spree of black-on-black teenage murders, in 1972.

How embarrassing, 38 years old and not able to read and write properly, the piece of paper and envelope on the floor in the cell seemed to be taunting me. The cell door opened with a bang, the screw shouted, “Get to the back wall of the cell, phone call bookings”. “Can I call now?” I shouted back at him. “Ok but make it quick, that’s your call for today.”

My daughter answered on the second ring, as though she was sitting next the phone waiting, “Dad E, mum said you’re not coming home until I’m grown up!” I tried to change the subject, “How’s school?” I asked; “Fine, were doing SATs now, shall I send you my school work so you can see?” This was how, after two months in the Block, with a few phone calls and my daughters’ tuition, we started to write letters to each other.

The need for education, created a burning desire within my very soul: the more I gained knowledge the more powerful I felt. The next years had passed very quickly; I was signed up in full-time education, three GCSEs, English, Maths and History. My daughter was doing her own at the same time so we continued our constant telephone tutorials. Yes, she was still the teacher and I the pupil but the scripts we swapped became longer and more detailed.

Can you believe the subject we were writing about was Shakespeare? She was doing Hamlet and I was writing an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, therefore it was helpful for us both to read each other’s work.

For me, serving such a long prison sentence, it became a beautiful aspect of my reality to continue to be able to play an active role in my children’s lives. We often exchanged talk-tapes, my boys liked to pretend to be DJs spinning tunes as they talked to me. They would tell me how they were feeling, and talk about the changes in and around LayLow. The main subject that we all held in common now was school and education; I began to find pride in myself, being able to help with their homework and study skills. Being a father from a distance hurt a lot, however not as much as it did before.

She ignited within me a trust for humanity. She said something to me which I shall never forget: “You don’t have to always fight. Choose your battles carefully.”

I started to make every day count, and no longer counted the days, whilst striving for perfection created a learning demon within me. Frustrations that had led me to use violence to express disagreements or settle them were now defunct, but I was asking more questions. I was moved from prison to prison, and this, as well as so much time spent in solitary confinement affected my mind. I became overly suspicious of everyone when at the same time it weirdly seemed as though everybody wanted to help me. ‘What the hell was that all about?’ I started talking to myself again.

Around the end of 2004, I was attending education to restart my GCSEs. I became quite emotional thinking about all the months I had spent in solitary confinement which had created a deep rooted mistrust of authority. Then I was introduced to a woman who convinced me of the need to start to trust people, so that I could receive the help to better myself.

That wonderful person was [former PET director] Anne Creighton of Prisoners’ Education Trust. Meeting her broke down barriers and for the first time I felt I could trust someone.

She arranged for me to apply for an Access course which was equivalent to five A-levels, even before my exams for GCSE’s were sat. We then had a debate about the possibility of this actually happening. I passed my GCSE’s and five A-levels and went on to study DD100 Social Sciences with the Open University, all funded by Prisoners’ Education Trust.

I am currently in HMP The Mount studying for my BA Honours in Arts and Humanities. I now take time to spread the message of education to those around me as I believe it helps not only with the individual but with the amount of violence in the prison around them. I regularly hold team building workshops focussing on violence reduction. This was very successful in my previous prison where the violence had escalated, and continues to be successful here at HMP The Mount.

I have recently published my first book ‘Killing Time’ which focuses on my quest to bring Afro-Centric education (Knowledge of Self) within the prison system.

A million and one thanks to Prisoners’ Education Trust and to Anne Creighton, I trusted you and you helped me! Real meets Real.

Emmanuel has just published his autobiography: Killing Time. His website, including lesson plans on violence reduction, is here.

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