A Poem for Onley: where the inmates showed me the true face of humanity

I wrote this poem inspired from teaching at Onley Prison last year. I also wrote this poem for Howl by Allen Ginsberg and Bedfordshire’s Alex Levene with his poem Groan.

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
6 min readFeb 14, 2020

That even behind bars their minds were by far the sharpest I’ve ever seen. And talking to these bright, inspiring individuals showed me that prison is only a cage if you allow it to be; and that my own cage called itself the British education system.

“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals. The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be his punishment-as well as the prison.” — Dostoevsky

And on entering HMP Onley, it was confirmed to me that prisons were not built for rehabilitation, but disempowerment. And these Black men… as if Black people need disempowering anymore… they reminded me of home… where I got my aptitude for history, education, etiquette and good manners.

I saw the best minds of my childhood destroyed by education, educating madness, revision, repetition dressed as intelligence, what Marxist philosopher and political theorists Gramsci called Happy Robots,

clambering their way through Beyblades and Tamagotchi, RuneScape and Club Penguin at dawn, in an epilogue of Iggy Pop, Katherine Harwood and 9/11,

the Harry Potter generation, lusting for a human connection to the street-level communities in the night-time online cyber worlds of daylight,

now broken and blistered in a deluge of 2020 vision and ergonomic offices and sunbeds, bouncing under the brevity of policy and practice of austere times,

floating through the Babylon streets of London, in the colour of money…

Photo by Lenin Estrada on Unsplash

here begins my birdsong

our right to education, in the vice of Cons

but I’m sure you’ll agree with me

that learned people often come from poverty

education’s not always in books

nor the pages of Oxford yearbooks

and stand in rooms of Etonian faces

murderers with smiles and briefcases

but to think:

to challenge, to critique

to embolden the shy

to explore, knowledge to seek

and uncover old lies

but listening to your mind’s sound

seem to be the action least profound

but stand with your cerebral cortex

stand with Cerebro and Professor X

read as much you can,

but we all have stories and knowledge

boys, girls, women and every man

within us, stories were once oral traditions

before they were published on commission

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

for education, be the tool of dictators

for education, be the tool of demonstrators

protest and politics, be it in Labour’s gauntlet

and Jeremy stands on stage and flaunts it

and for those who learn, listen

from degree to those with nothing,

to those who get fat on Mr Michelin

but not Mr Eton getting high on Ritalin

whose words and thoughts puff hot air

leading populations on roads to nowhere

for even at the end of days

people that sound educated can amaze

education is not available for all

as Malala was shot

protesting her right to go to school

way way back, in those olden days Britain’s education system was built for men:

white, straight, rich, noblemen

Women? No. Black people? No.

They’d study algebra, equations and Pythagoras’ Theorem

anything by Africans, women, they didn’t wanna hear em

but education has liberated enslaved minds

as Harriet Tubman fled slavery and went back

to liberate slaves by infiltrating enemy lines

but education’s sound of drums in your brain

it’s defending your reputation and good name

it’s finding a place that you belong

to be denied one is morally wrong

in every nation, education should be a choice

and not be killed for using your voice

reading the words of the dead on the page

picturing performance on that Globe stage

it’s protest; it is freedom

it’s liberating slaves from the masters

it’s Haiti’s revolution killing the bastards

to learn is the flicker of a flame

in the belly of the youth

the smile that comes from imagination

and writing your own truth

“And the next comes an act or enormous enormance no former performer’s performed this performance” — Dr Seuss

“Good artists copy, great artists steal” — Picasso

and education is where I found my passion and zeal

Learning inspires, but it needs your commitment

and it’s not always what’s published and written

it’s changing structures, so voices can be heard

to decolonise the practices of scholars and old nerds

through the bellows of crowds and hoards

allowing the masses to partake in political discord

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

no poetry, no edits, no jargon

no Dutchmen about to commit arson

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera

to educate, to learn

this is where it starts

remember to light a fire in your heart

because one day, it’ll be vital

at violent family political discussion

Mom plays brass, you play percussion

or in that lecture, at the setting of the sun

cumulus melt into orange and blue begins to run

the working class who vote Tory like cattle

laugh at remoaners and lose their heads in battle

the longevity of the class war, dead dead dead

don’t fight with your fists, fight with your head

I could talk history, domestic violence and pain

proletariat oppression and the homeless without names

but we know about the corrupt and cheats

but seldom do we hear about the likes of Blair Peach

The Nazis burned books, Trump might as well

but mitochondria’s the powerhouse of the cell

what defeated Hitler wasn’t Winston’s cigar

it was education in tactics, and those tank cars

education provides your chance to be heard

no hiding behind ignorance, no measly words

learning is activism, politics and protest

not regurgitating facts on some weaselly test

Noor Inayat Khan

from art to activism,

the Nikola’s (Rollock and Tesla)

no vacuum-packing that meeting’s agenda

Malala, Greta, Angela Davis

Stormzy, Dave and Gary Younge

activism goes past the setting of the sun

Agatha Christie, Sassoon, Wilfred Owen

Larkin, Virginia Woolf and Shashi Tharoor, Decolonise

HE., diversify the workforce

Education isn’t binary you see

learning comes in many forms,

books to discussions and watching TV

but beware: The Danger of the Single Story.

from WW1 / WW2 and the blitz air raid alarms

remember Walter Tull and Noor Inayat Khan

but if boring and fake is all that you need

relax, search the Daily Mail and give it a read

do you enjoy poetry,

like education on and on it goes

did you hear that

are you listening Mr. Gove?



Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Award-Winning Educator | Creative | Public Historian-Sociologist | Speaks: Race, Neurodiversity, Film + TV, Black British History + more | #Autistic #Dyspraxic