Announcement of Results:
Between our two writing competitions, we had well over a thousand entries, and the standard was really high. We are grateful to all writers who submitted work for us to consider.
Please note that our winning pieces contain very adult themes. Trigger warning: incarceration, abuse, drugs, violence.
THE WINNER: One Day at a Time, by Alex South
FROM THE TEAM: One Day at a Time is a stunningly brave and raw piece of writing. It confronts what is, for most people, the unimaginable reality of life in a prison with such humanity and grit that you can’t help but read it and feel both horror and deep empathy for everyone involved. We created this competition in the hope of finding writers who were willing to tackle difficult, sensitive subject material from their personal experience with creativity and courage, and that is exactly what Alex South has done.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
He’s just sitting there. His knees are shaking and his bottom lip is wobbling and I just don’t know what I can do. I’ve been doing this for years now but moments like this don’t get any easier, only harder.
What can I say? There is nothing I can do that will change his situation. He’s 22, a university graduate, never been in trouble with the police before, then one night out and something goes horribly wrong, a punch is thrown and someone is dead. And now he’s in a high-security prison, his hands trembling, and I can tell he is just waiting for the click of the door so he knows it’s closed. Then he can cry.
I sit opposite him at a cheap wooden desk, the surface dirtied with coffee stains, chewed biros and hastily scrawled notes on torn printer paper.
The door finally clicks.
He says he’s struggling.
He says he doesn’t know how people get through long sentences, like the one that has just swallowed him whole. He asks, ‘How do they cope?’ After all, he’s only 2 days in and the contours of his world are paling, family and freedom being replaced by solid bars and razor-tipped barbed wire.
I tell him honestly – there are lots of ways that people cope. Some use violence and anger to get through it; their fists are their language. Others become driven by the need to survive; extra courses, heavier weights, more miles on the treadmill. Others steady themselves in denial or escape into the ugly comfort of drugs. Some create entirely new worlds for themselves in their minds that inevitably lead to a stint in Healthcare, or maybe Broadmoor. And some don’t cope. They kill themselves.
I don’t say the last bit. I don’t actually say the last few bits because I can’t see that helping. Especially as it’s not just ‘some’ anymore, it’s a lot.
I feel guilty for sneakily checking my watch as we talk but I need to start lunch soon or I’ll have 191 angry men on my hands wanting to know why there’s no greasy half-green bacon on their plastic plates (someone does moan that the bacon ‘is really too green this time guv’). These frustrations are commonplace; everything is bound to a schedule that’s too tight and unrealistic considering what prison officers are actually meant to be achieving.
So what do I say? I say that he’s going to have to get used to prison, because that’s the truth. Last week we had a slashing, a three-on-one assault that turned into an ‘all available staff’ with three officers injured and a nasty weapon recovered. It still had some of the victim’s beard in between the razor blades. These incidents aren’t isolated like they used to be, but then there used to be a productive regime, more officers, resources, funding, opportunities. Now the days blur into one another, the crude shudder of one shank barely distinguishable from yesterday’s, the thunder of black boots running to an incident sounding just as frequently as they plod, wailing alarm bells accompanying staff from stabbing to brawl to hostage to hanging to fire to trauma to trauma to trauma.
So I tell him to take one day a time. Don’t borrow anything and don’t lend anything. He should write letters home and soon as his numbers are cleared he must ring his family – that link to the outside world will be invaluable. And be smart. Don’t put yourself in vulnerable situations. Not all the prisoners in here are bad, many of them are great guys who will look out for him and lift him when he feels himself buckling. Take one day at a time.
And you know what, now I am sitting here writing this, I think maybe I could use that advice myself. I am tired. So tired. I am tired of being shouted at, threatened, called a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’, or my personal favourite, ‘dirty sket who sucks dick for cheeseburger’ because I took your TV after you punched someone or I won’t let you on the yard with flip flops on. I’m tired of putting people in the recovery position because they’ve taken too much spice, gently moving their heads away from the cupboard so they stop licking it. I’m tired of restraining people so mentally ill they wash their hair with butter and flood their cells because it reminds them of the ‘monsoon in Bangladesh’. I’m tired of putting my hands on someone’s wrists while the blood is spurting so high it actually drips from the ceiling. I’m tired of looking into that man’s vacant eyes and asking ‘why have you done this again Patrick?’. I am tired of then noticing the cuts on Patrick’s thighs and thinking I don’t have enough hands to stem the bleeding. I’m tired of asking for another shirt because mine has blood on. Again. I’m tired of shouting into my radio, ‘I need more staff, batons drawn’. I’m tired of drawing my baton. I’m tired of using my baton. I’m tired of seeing a fist clench and knowing what’s coming next. I’m tired of never knowing what’s coming next. Of not knowing what I am running to. I’m tired of going to see the nurse because I got hit with a plug in a sock trying to break up a fight, or going to A&E because some lost angry 18 year old whose parents failed him has spat in my eye (and then shouted, ‘I’ve got Hep B miss!’). I’m so tired.
But I can quit at any point. No one is forcing me to be here.
And then he comes up to me at dinner with tears in his eyes and says he doesn’t think he would have got through today without me, and he promises he will try to eat all his food tonight and get some sleep.
And I know I can’t quit.
I will take one day at a time.
ABOUT: Alex South is a senior prison officer with a decade of experience working in various prisons and a passion for improving conditions for both staff and prisoners. In 2017, she was awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to research the impact of trauma and prolonged exposure to violence on prison officers. She lives in London with her partner and family.
THE RUNNER-UP: Lore from the Valley, by Taylor Gardner
FROM THE TEAM: Lore from the Valley is a brilliant, poetic portrayal of the way children process and protect themselves from fear and trauma. It's atmospheric, tender, and subtly clever. In playing with form and voice, the author circumnavigates the central darkness of the story, which is captured mainly in allusion, and felt all the more strongly for it.
LORE FROM THE VALLEY
If the air rests heavy and warm on your shoulders like an old friend, there will be rain. If you smell copper, reminding you of the pennies you’d suck on as a child, there will be lightning. If you do not have an umbrella, make sure you at least have a friend to run through the water with. If you do not have a friend, wonder why as you wait inside a twenty-four-hour laundromat for the sky to stop howling. If the thunder does not remind you of your father, you are lucky. If it does, I’m sorry. If you believe you’re going to sitting there for a while, would you like to hear the valley-tale about the mountain-trolls? If so, listen leisurely:
There were all different kinds of trolls. Under the bridge, over the bridge, forest trolls, river trolls, knoll trolls, dust-mite trolls, and so much more. We had mountain trolls. Big enough to live on the very peaks of the mountains and peer down over the trees. Look through the rain, do you see that white spot jutting a little from the trees?
If you do, then that is White Rock. If you’ve already faced the rock, maybe even climbed up the pile it’s towering, then you already know that it’s not much to look at. If you’ve only wondered from a distance, keep that wonder. If the rain outside has lessened and the air is beginning to taste like petrichor, you can trek home. If you fear you will face a different storm at home, and the mat is warm and you’d like to wait till your father falls asleep, listen leisurely:
Mountain trolls were not vicious. Vindictive, maybe, rough and earthen, but not an outright threat. They liked to play sport. Who can uproot the most trees with the roots intact? Who can uproot the biggest? Who can dig the largest trench with the biggest tree? Who can hack up the most? Who can fill the trench first? These types of games dug up the valley, one competition at a time. I’d think twice about the river, now. Though, the centuries might’ve washed actual water against the banks.
If you are tired, please go home, your father will be tired, too. If the ground is wet, that’s not unusual. If everything is dry and the air feels like a man when you are a girl, run away. If the coyotes can be heard from town, it is okay to howl back just walk near the street lamps. If they are heard out of town, carry a stick. If they do not howl at night, not even from the back roads, there is something larger but slower lurking between the trees and you are safe. If you are safe, then you have time to listen leisurely:
There’s always a tale about the runt of the litter who happened to be the cleverest. It doesn’t change much here. There was a troll smaller than the others but just as rambunctious. She wanted to participate in and win the boulder rolling contest but how could she, when she was the size of the largest troll’s torso? She spent days looking around for a large but light rock and then days more looking for a way to hollow the rocks. No luck. Then, she noticed something; the unshaded clearing she slept in at night was larger when bathed in the morning sunlight. It hit her! She did not need to find a large, light rock or spend fruitless hours hollowing out stone. She just needed a stone she could lift that appeared larger than it was. Perhaps the ending has become obvious now. She outsmarted the rest and won the competition by painting the boulder with who knows what, and, at such an unexpected victory, the others celebrated by placing White Rock on top of all the others.
If the story was satisfying, then do not feel small beneath the dark sky. If you stepped on a Daddy-Long-Leg when walking across the dewed grass this morning, that is the reason it rained. If the river you walk by splashes up the sides of the banks, it will not flood. If the crickets are chirping, tomorrow will be sunny. If you step outside at sunrise and let the light slowly climb you, you will feel larger than you are.
ABOUT: Taylor Gardner has been writing for four years. She is a junior in college, studying Creative Writing and English. She’s been published in a handful of poetry anthologies.