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Voices of the Prison Community

Since 2011 Mass Observation has been developing links with prison librarians nationally as part of our 12th May day diary project. This has resulted in a valuable collection of diaries from both men and women, in varying institutions from youth offending and open prisons to Category B security.

The diary collection acted as a springboard for further activities. In 2013 we were involved in creative writing workshops at Lewes Prison, using Mass Observation Archive material as inspiration. A subsequent University of Sussex pilot research project was undertaken in 2014 and then in Spring 2015 a writing residency was completed in partnership with Mass Observation and The National Archives, culminating in the launch of Unlocked Reflections, an anthology of writings for the wider prison community.

“If you had to ask what people got out of this, you know, I would have to say, this is about confidence”

“I found the ability to write for experienced, sympathetic listeners to comment really eye opening”

“Helps to reflect on how we feel and how we can move on“



12th May

The 12th May day diaries provide a window into the daily lives of secure institutions often unknown to us and are voices previously absent from within our collection; enhancing its breadth and depth.

The diaries show a significant amount of detail around times of the day. As a reader, you see the routine running throughout their days.

Lewes Prison partnership

The 12th May collection was a springboard for further engagement with offenders.

In 2013 a creative writing project was delivered in partnership with East Sussex Library Services, and Lewes Prison; with Mass Observation archive material being used as inspiration for their writing exercises. Workshops were led by a Poet and creative writer, with support from the Librarian and ourselves. Her warmth and intimacy ensured the men were comfortable to respond and then share their work amongst the group. The writings were raw and at times moving.

The writing anthology produced Here to Me was exhibited as part of the Koestler Trust Exhibition 2014; Arts by offenders, secure patients and detainees.

University of Sussex 

In partnership with academics at the University of Sussex, we returned to Lewes at the start of 2014 to support a pilot research project ‘Using Materials from the Mass Observation Archive to Elicit Prisoners Subjective Responses’ led by Dr Lizzie Seal.

The pilot involved four creative writing sessions on two themes – Belonging and Time and two forms of writing: Diaries and Letters. The pilot culminated in an anthology of writings and an evening event with readings of poetry, which was also attended by a few family members.

Unlocked Reflections

In Autumn 2014 we were pleased to support a six-month Creative Writing Residency at Lewes Prison in partnership with The National Archives. This culminated in an anthology of writings and exercises to support the wider prison community.

The collection of diaries and creative writing publications are available for teaching and research at The Keep 


Three publications have been produced as part of this partnership. These are:

download icon Here to Me

download icon Writing Lives

download icon Unlocked Reflections