How a Die Hard movie inspired me to swop prison for university

Author: | 11 Apr 2023

Alex is serving the last final years of a long sentence at an Open prison. With a Longford Scholarship, he is studying on day-release at the University of East London. For Longford Blog he describes how education had never figured in his plans, until he was in prison watching a lousy Die Hard action film on TV.

He knew he could write something better.

When I landed in prison there were two options to get paid. One was you work in the prison – cleaner, servery, painter. The other was you attend education – maths, English, journalism, IT.

Growing up in Hackney, I had seen it all. What we were taught as teenagers was – it wasn’t cool to get a job or even go to school. The cool thing was to go to prison and get fast money.

But in prison, I picked education. It was a no-brainer for me. I tried every course that they had to offer because I have always been a believer that knowledge is power. Plus, most of the courses I would have to pay for in the real world.

A Better You

I noticed, though, that a lot of prisoners wanted to work and despised education. They were scared to do something that they had never done before, or felt had no real value in their lives.

There is a huge number of people in prison who don’t know how to read or write. That lead me to write an article for the prison magazine called ‘A Better You’. It was basically giving tips on how to better yourself in custody and have something to carry out with you into the real world so your sentence didn’t feel like a big waste of time.

My light-bulb moment

I had never known what I wanted to be, and really enjoyed in my life until one day, in prison, I was watching a film, A Good Day to Die Hard. I thought to myself, ‘what the hell? I can come up with a way better script than this’. So, I put pen to paper and got creating.

I called my friends in the acting world and they sent me scripts which helped me learn about the format. They also sent me a book called Save the Cat. It really helped me out a lot because it taught me about writing a film.

Throughout my years in prison, I used to go around to the staff and ask, ‘is it possible you will let me put on a play in prison that would be really educational and helpful to others’? But I got rejected year by year.

Passion for film

Still I had a real passion for film. Something felt different this time. I knew this was my future. So I never gave up. I kept writing and I kept asking to put on a play.

When I got to Standford Hill (a category D prison) I had a big break from writing because there was so much freedom there, I couldn’t concentrate.  The courses they had were mostly manual handling (which I tried, but I knew straight away, this wasn’t for me). Or others I have already done in other prisons.

My creativity was fading, so I told my prison offender manager to send me back to a Category C prison so I could focus on my scripts. Suddenly me and a staff member got speaking. I told him I wrote screenplays and he said, ‘great, can you pull off a play in a month in the prison?’ I told him yes, then realised I had to get actors, props, sound, staging… and write a script.

Getting the green light

I gathered a group of people for a writer’s room and then went around approaching prisoners to act. And we made something that prison and prisoners had never seen before in a prison. We have carried on putting on plays and well-known film makers and industry professionals have been coming to watch and giving the prisoners words of encouragement.

Today we have a company called F.A.T.E (film art theatre entertainment), we have performed numerous plays in the prison, we have been approached to do plays in other prisons, and we have a short film in the pipeline. We are also working on a prison series with a TV director known for a TV drama series called Noughts and Crosses, adapted from a book by Mallory Blackman.

Destined for greatness

One of our main ideas behind the company is giving back. We have planned some events to raise funds for charities that help victims of crime, the sort that help keep youth off the streets and people not to re-offend. As a fundraiser, and to remind people when they are feeling defeated to keep on target, we have developed silicone wristbands emblazoned with ‘destined for greatness’ on them. Sales of these bands will be split amongst the charities we support.

Another idea in the pipeline is working alongside the Koestler Arts Award to host an annual auction event selling prisoners’ work. The money raised would be split two ways between a victim awareness charity, and the artist’s family. It would make the artist feel proud of themselves and maybe inspire them to continue their art upon release.

My main message…

So, don’t give up when you get told NO. Use that NO as motivation to better yourself. And DON’T be scared to fail.

If you feel inspired by Alex’s story to find out about going to university, contact Clare Lewis, the Longford Trust’s scholarship manager, or write to her at Freepost, Longford Trust. You don’t need to put a stamp on it.