Medway STC’s enrichment officer, Nathan Ward, tells Judy Cooper how he discovered some untapped poetry talent in the secure estate
Most people would associate poetry with the tomes of Byron or Tennyson rather than young offenders, and Nathan Ward, the enrichment officer at Medway Secure Training Centre, run by G4S Care and Justice, was no exception when he took up his post nine years ago.
However, after helping to start LockDown magazine for young people in the youth justice secure estate, the former social worker was amazed at how much poetry was submitted.
“When you think about it, most of the young people here are into rapping and MC-ing, which is all about telling their stories and is really the modern equivalent of poetry,” he says.
“Also, when people are in custody they have a lot of time for reflection in their rooms and it’s sometimes easier to express those thoughts in poetry.”
Faces lit up
So impressed was Ward with their work that he collected the poems together and found a publisher in Wales.
“When I showed the young people the book and pointed out their poem in it, well, it was like a child’s first Christmas,” he says. “Their faces lit up and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
Ward says this experience is more intense for most of the teenagers he works with because many were not high achievers at school. “For some this is the first time their efforts have proven worthwhile.”
He is keen to ensure the experience is not a one-off and is now trying to transform this positive momentum into something more sustainable. “I’m in the middle of writing individual letters to all those young people with a poem in the book, just to say why we liked their poem and why it was included,” he says. “I’ve also sent a letter to every secondary school in the country to offer the books to them free.”
Educate other children
He hopes this could not only give the book a wider readership but also educate other children.
“The book isn’t exactly full of the cheeriest poems you’re going to read,” he says. “But we’re working with some of the most damaged young people in society. These poems are about their experiences and an opportunity to channel that energy within them positively. Poetry gives them a platform for unpicking their lives, which is important for others to read as well.”
Although Ward admits he has “always been more interested in those people who live on the fringes of society than the mainstream,” his experience as a social worker had centred on child protection and domestic violence. He became a youth minister with the Church of England and made his first contact with youth justice through chaplaincy positions.
Surprisingly, he reveals a previous life as a corporate magician. “I travelled all over the world doing that and it was great pay – £500 for half an hour’s work is pretty good,” he says. “But after a while I got fed up performing for drunk people. There comes to a point where you think ‘why am I doing this? What’s the point or purpose?’.”
This is not a question he has ever asked himself in his current job.
Extracts from Unlocked – Hopes, Dreams & Regrets Set Free:
Red mist fading hands stained red
As sirens are closing in
My life’s over mistakes been made
I’ve lived a life of sin.
I raise my head and look around
My nightmare will never end
I’m forced to stay behind these bars
With my memories as my only friend.
Hollie D, 15, Hassockfield Secure Training Centre
You say you care but you don’t
You say you are here to help but you don’t
You say you will always be there but you are not
The day you left me I was mad
But now I’m just sad.
Kirsten W, 15, Swanwick Lodge Secure Children’s Home
“I am a black kid who got locked up
I am a black kid who girls think is hot
I am a black kid who never ran from beef
I am a black kid who had friends on every street
I am a black kid who a lot of kids hate
I am a black kid who loves to eat cake
I am a black kid who made my mum sad
I am a black kid who wants to make my mum glad”
Tafari C, 14, Oakhill Secure Training Centre
➔ E-mail Nathan Ward for copies of Unlocked – Hopes, Dreams & Regrets Set Free
This article is published in the 14 January 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Rhyme and reason”