Writing ourselves into reentry?

It’s been a long time since the last post on this blog. Since I’m on route to a(nother) desistance conference (once again aiming to explore how research about desistance and about effective practice might interact), I thought I’d write something… But, picking up on Sarah Anderson’s post back in July, here’s something a bit different.

Sarah offered some reflections on a songwriting workshop organized by a charity called Vox Liminis in HMP Castle Huntly (Scotland’s open prison) in June on the theme of ‘reentry’. I was one of the criminologists that took part in the workshop. The challenge from the facilitators was for all of us to take part not as prisoners, prison staff or criminologists but just as people with some experience of some kind of reentry… and to write a song about that.

As Sarah’s post suggests, it was a fascinating and rich experience, in which people in quite different situations and with quite different histories nonetheless found resonance in sharing some aspect of their lives and experiences. I think I had some of the deepest (and most challenging) conversations about reentry in those three days that I have ever had. By making us reflect on our own experiences at the same time as hearing others’, a more affecting, emotionally-engaged dialogue was created. More than that, relationships were developed that have endured as many of us have continued to think about reentry (and many other issues and questions) together — and to take action in certain ways (more of which later).

So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are the lyrics of my song — and then a little more about the background to it and what it might reveal about leaving home and going home.

Johnny Blue’s Well

The gate latch metal slaps behind us

Creosote air, the breeze in our hair, blowing

Carefully packed

Rages intact

We are never, never going back


The long hill, heat spills on Tarmac

Burnt feet, sweat beads, soul aching

Come on now John

The job’s nearly done

We are never, never going back


The chocolate melt rung bells of summer

Plastic cheese pieces ripen… sour

Tupperware smells

At Johnny Blue’s well

We are never, never going back


Wings whirr, sick stirs inside me

The tickled neck of black cleg plugging me

Drawing my blood

Jesus, this sucks

Come on John, I think I’m going back

The song was based on a childhood memory of running away around the age of about 8. As I recall it, my best friend John and I used to sometimes grow frustrated with the (doubtless trivial) injustices of family life. Sharing those frustrations, we’d conspire to run away to a life free from the tyranny of parents and elder siblings.

Rather than packing our bags and sneaking off, John and I would share our plans with our mums — aiming, I suppose, to punish them with the knowledge that they had driven us away. Looking back, I guess they too must have conspired (more amused than concerned?) since, in our separate houses, they provided packed lunches and helped us pack our bags. This was not, I should stress, because they were callous. Rather, it was because they knew full well that we’d be home in time for tea, much the better for exhausting our grievances through our adventures. The pattern became so familiar that these outings came to be referred to as our ‘run away for a day’ scheme.

The verses of the song reflect the typical narrative arc of our adventures. We left energized by whatever new slight we had suffered and excited by the prospect of an open road and an uncertain, undetermined, unsupervised future. But the route was immediately uphill — into the hilly farmlands that bordered our 1960s housing estate. In my memories, the sun is always shining warmly. So, we’d get sweaty and tire quickly but not so quickly that we didn’t get to our usual destinations; the darkest corners of Arthurlie Park, the summit of the Craigie, or, as in this song, Johnny Blue’s Well (more of which below).

In verse 2, I seem to cast John as the more reluctant runaway, but I suspect that’s just an echo of my 8-year-old ego: I tended to see him as the Little John to my Robin Hood.

The third and fourth verses reflect our predictable sense of unease and disenchantment as our resolve melted like chocolate or soured like the plastic cheese ‘pieces’ (meaning sandwiches) in their Tupperware boxes. By the time we had eaten our lunches, freedom was already weighing too heavily on our hands. We never had a plan for the next step: where to go, what to do, where the next meal might come from, where we might sleep that night?

And then came the buzzing cleg (Scots for ‘horsefly’) and its painful bite, sucking away the last of the poisonous rage in my blood and making me want my mum and all that she represented: comfort, security, love, home — and the promise of meat and two veg.

Some time after writing the song, I googled ‘Johnny Blue’s Well’, curious to know the origin of the name. Local legend has it that Johnny was a worker in one of the cloth-dyeing works in nearby Neilston. He stopped at the well every day to wash away the blue dye stains before heading home to his sweetheart.

Johnny lost his stain; John and me walked off our rage — and all of us found our way home. I suppose we did that through being released from the confinements of work or family. Our rages and Johnny Blue’s stains were trivial, so our reentries were as swift and easy as our exits had been. We were welcomed with ‘open homes, open arms’ (to quote another Vox-produced song).

So, my reentry was not the same as ‘prisoner reentry’ — it was nothing like it, in many respects — except maybe that it reflects somehow on some of the things that drive us away; some of the mixed feelings associated with being away; and some of the things that draw us home, if we can get there.

One other important thing about this experience, and this process: I think that academic researchers (and in a different way as practitioners) tend to study other people’s lives and (admittedly to varying degrees) to leave ourselves out of the picture, or on its margins. Even when our intentions are good in research or practice — when we aim to be appreciative and respectful in our descriptions and analyses of the lives of others — there is something ‘othering’ about the process. The way the Vox works seems to require us all to write ourselves into the story; ideally a shared or collective story.

Maybe I should challenge you to write yourself in. What would your reentry song be about?

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