Imagination cannot be imprisoned

28th January 2019

John McCormack, Network Manager (Projects), provides an insight into the work the Scottish Recovery Network did in partnership with the ALLIANCE Self Management Network and an HMP Perth recovery group in 2018.

…nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. – Oscar Wilde.  De Profundis.

Recovery in Prison

What is it about working in a prison that makes it so rewarding, satisfying and leaves you feeling like you are in the very crucible of human potential and possibilities?

One answer to this lies in the fact that although prisons exist in plain sight they are also citadels of mystery and imagination. With fearsome reputations built on sensational television dramas and ‘documentaries’ they could seem unlikely places where recovery and rehabilitation might flourish.

Our experience of working in prisons with the Write to Recovery project have shown us beyond doubt that the prisoners are simply men and women harbouring the same hopes dreams and wishes as we all do. We want to be in good relationships. We want to be good mothers and fathers. We want a job that pays a decent wage. We want somewhere secure to live. We want to love and be loved. We want to experience wellbeing.

1st Write to Recovery pilot in HMP Perth

We were aware of HMP Perth’s commitment to recovery so in early 2017 SRN made contact with two of the prison’s physical training officers Adam and Alex and their manager Graeme, to discuss how Write to Recovery might be of service.

In pitching it to them we highlighted a number of advantages of the approach including the fact that participants are not required to disclose their vulnerabilities or past traumas. This is always important but especially so in a prison setting. Our emphasis is on relationships, boundaries and creating safe spaces in which we can explore our personal stories from within a strengths based and trauma informed framework.

The upshot of these discussions was that Write to Recovery Group Facilitators Emma and Erin piloted eight sessions at the prison. The group comprised the two physical education officers, 4 prisoners and a student of counselling. Together they explored, discussed and wrote about resilience, identity, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), their preferred future and other issues that came up spontaneously.

This first course of Write to Recovery at Perth prison earned fulsome praise, both from prisoners and staff. The feedback included comments such as “I have renewed hope”, “I can see a better way ahead for myself”. The course was described as stimulating and enjoyable. The outcome of this was that the Moving on in Recovery (MOIR)  addiction treatment group wanted to try the course too.

2nd Write to Recovery pilot

Thus it came to be that in the summer of 2018 John from SRN along with Rhona Miller from the Health and Social Care ALLIANCE Scotland facilitated a Write to Recovery course for prisoners with addiction issues. We did this in partnership with the prison’s NHS substance misuse team of enthusiastic and positive staff, who are focused on helping group members build their recovery skills and overcome their addiction issues.

The group work in Action

Typically mental ill health and distress are not topics that are readily or openly discussed in a prison environment, but from the outset the group were happy to talk about how they survive distress, how they have overcome challenges and in this way we learn about resilience and strengths through real life examples. The Write to Recovery group work themes are designed to enable the exploration of feelings and emotions whilst emphasising that ‘baring your soul’ plays no part in the process.

Group members showed compassion and expressed an acceptance and openness towards each other. One man in particular spoke about how writing about his anger helped him to look at a difficult situation with a new perspective. By acknowledging anger, he said he had taken ownership of it and refused to let it control his actions or thoughts.

This approach helped to break down barriers, allowing the men to see past their identity as ‘prisoner’ or ‘offender’ and more as people for whom other positive roles and identities could be adopted and owned.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and recovery

It is well known that prison populations have very high levels of trauma and childhood adversity. Indeed it is known that the ACE is four and above for more than half of the people in prison. So perhaps the real recovery journey is from a troubled past, of trauma, pain, loss and distress. We did discuss ACEs and we did show educational videos in both courses. This was done only after careful preparation and ensuring the safety of the group. This knowledge had a profound positive effect on prisoners leading them to recognise often for the first time that their own back-story played a significant role in the circumstances that led to their incarceration.

Prisoners reported that their new understanding of ACEs was one of the highlights of the course and had helped provide them with ideas and resources useful to their future.

Imagination cannot be imprisoned

Rhona and I had an amazing experience thanks to the MOIR staff and of course the men in the group who shared their stories with us and allowed us to connect with them emotionally. We left each session for the train back to Glasgow absolutely buzzing with ideas and insights. This work was one of the highlights of the year and we hope to continue this into 2019. The transformations we witnessed and the power of people’s stories were so moving and rewarding that there is not enough space in this short article to do justice to them.


Oscar Wilde’s stunning account of his own prison experience De Profundis is now available free of charge and free of copyright from Project Gutenberg

Get in touch

For more information about Write to Recovery contact or call 0141 240 7790. You might also be interested in reflections from our partner Rhona Millar from the ALLIANCE Self Management Network in her feature and learning points about the project ‘Self Management and recovery: It’s for everyone and that means everyone’