Illustration: Becky Bryson

Locks, a novel by Author, poet, playwright and rapper Ashleigh Nugent, explores themes of race, sexuality, class and gender through the eyes of a sixteen year old boy from Liverpool, imprisoned in Jamaica. He speaks to Mary Olive about the criminal justice system, his work within prisons and what inspired him to write the novel.

I’ve been reading Ashleigh Nugent’s Locks for a couple of weeks now. Buried under blankets with my dog asleep on the floor and the rain battering my window, it feels like a slice of serenity to engage in a piece of art which doesn’t pierce my eyes through a screen. A blue cover without the blue light. At first, I read to escape. But as I continue my journey with this novel, I realise this is a kaleidoscope of realities. A melting pot of identities.

The book’s protagonist, Aeon, is a mixed raced teenager from Liverpool who finds himself imprisoned in Jamaica following a holiday with his cousin, Increase. During his first few days on the island, Aeon is stabbed, mugged and arrested. The novel then continues to follow Aeon’s personal growth as a young man navigating his place is in the world.

Battling issues surrounding race, sexuality, gender, age and class, Locks knows no bounds. It seeps into the lives of readers, grasps us at the heart of who we are and asks us a simple question; “Where are you going?” Everything within the novel is threaded to a cause and effect, with a reason behind every comma or word.

The result of eight years hard work, it is unsurprising Ashleigh is still coming down from this most recent publication. Speaking today from his home over Zoom, the colours which surround him are natural, textures of wood and paper fill the spaces in his room. Books are stacked into shelves surrounding him and a map of the world hangs behind his head. He wears his fleece zipped up to his chin and his face fresh and alert. His fingernails I notice are short but filed neatly and his smile full. He strikes me as a person who cares for himself. Working in rehabilitation and the arts, he also strikes me as a person who cares for others.

Based on true events, the novel is a defiantly unforgettable stance against injustice, prejudice and inequality. “I like reading things that touch very deeply. There’s a surface level story and then stuff happening underneath that can touch you on a deeper lever,” Ashleigh tells me, his scouse accent rolling over his words. “I touch on masculinity, sexuality, class and gender – not just race, and that’s dead scary. It’s incredibly vulnerable. It’s like poetry as well. If it’s not vulnerable, if it’s not opening something up that’s ‘not meant’ to be open, what are you doing?”

Ashleigh is (although not one for labelling his art) a poet, theatre maker, rapper and author. His writing has a relentless driving force, describing it as a “UK Hip Hop album in a book”. Ashleigh’s work pulses with rhythm and soul. Found in between scenes of incredible energy there are moments of delicate subtlety. Ashleigh writes his novel as if writing music. There is one moment within the novel where the prisoners begin to sing together;

“You don’t know me,

Like you think you do,

Don’t know my light,

Don’t know my life,

Like I know you,”

The poetry of this scene is simple in its presentation yet layered with intricate nuanced ideas of race and identity. Ashleigh presents race as a social construct throughout the novel, emphasising how damaging preconceived ideas of people due to their race can be. “You don’t know me, like you think you do,” unveils the layers of identities attached to the prisoners, and how ultimately, we can never fully know an individual.

There is a tenderness at the heart of this novel which pulls you in, a sense of not quite forgiveness but an understanding of anger, violence and criminality. It is a story which challenges. In stark honesty it leaves the reader bare. Left with only our thoughts, reflections and in some cases questions, it begs the reader to get angry. To understand the depth of the scars left on our society from colonialism, the slave trade and on-going white supremacist destruction. To remember the ones all too easily forgotten, especially those in prisons. It asks us to contextualise everything, and then to change it.

LOCKS Image 2

Having worked with BlackFest and Unity Theatre, Ashleigh is no stranger to speaking up for social change. The novel, however, is a new adventure for Ashleigh. Perhaps this is because he is so intrinsically woven into the words.

Aeon is a complex underdog of a protagonist. Although violent and, at times, a maker of wrong decisions, Ashleigh weaves the context of Aeon’s upbringing into the action of the novel to show his poor decisions are not meaningless. Aeon is not just an aggressive hard-lad, but a victim of a misogynistic, oppressive white supremacist society. These issues are what is at the core of not only Ashleigh’s novel, but his own experiences.

“School was a nightmare. They diagnosed me ADHD. I was bouncing off all four walls, was very creative, very energetic but couldn’t sit on my arse all day with people telling me what to think.” He explains how the lack of support and belief in his early years had a lasting impact on his adult life. “Because the school thing wasn’t for me, I didn’t have the confidence in my own ability. All the police harassment all that stuff led me down a particular path and I became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I became this skin-headed acting-hard guy with a crazy lifestyle.”

Now far removed from the chaotic, aggressive lifestyle, Ashleigh understands the interconnectivity of the world, the cause and effect of things. “I left university the top of my class, but I left school the bottom of my class. It’s a change of mindset. That’s why we do RiseUp. We teach your mind.” Ashleigh tells me, “It doesn’t matter what’s happening out there, what are you doing up here?” he presses two fingers into his temples as he says this.

RiseUp is a creative organisation which works with prisoners, schools and those who are unemployed and at risk of offending or reoffending. Working alongside established artists and trained psychologists, RiseUp works with people in prison to help overcome mental challenges and encourage reformation using creative expression and cognitive behavioural therapy. The work Ashleigh and the team carry out is invaluable. Their holistic approach encourages mindfulness and well-being whilst giving autonomy back to prisoners.

When I ask Ashleigh about his work in RiseUp he becomes animated, leaning forward in his chair and speaking quickly. “We’re trying to communicate on a level deeper than the ego, it’s not complex it’s simple really,” he tells me, “Don’t patronise people, don’t tell people to change don’t tell people to rehabilitate what a nonsense saying. If I go into a room of prisoners and tell them to rehabilitate and live a better life, they’re going to look at me and say ‘who are you? I don’t know how you live, who are you?’ That’s why it doesn’t work. It’s patronising and it pretentious. How dare you try and change what people think. You don’t know where they’ve been, you don’t know their story. Only they can change what they think.”

This attitude is clear to see in Locks as well with real change coming from within the characters. External authoritative figures are rarely understanding throughout the novel with a lacking awareness of the characters experiences. This reflects how at RiseUp, Ashleigh and the team simply give space for participants to make changes from within themselves, free of judgements or expectations.

Ashleigh’s direct, no bullshit approach removes all sugar-coating fluff from wellness work. “When people come up to me and tell me we’re helping them rehabilitate I say, ‘I don’t give toss mate.’” He goes on to explain, “There’s 7.5 billion people in the world. I can’t be thinking about what they’re all thinking and doing and trying to change them, I’m not god, that’s ridiculous. But if you want to take this information and you think this can help you to live a better and more harmonious life, then good on you mate,” he adds in frank humour, “If you want to use it to be a better criminal mate, sound. You’re responsible for yourself.”

“The way we connect to ourselves, other people, our community, nature and the universe is through the arts”

Throughout our interview Ashleigh continually uses the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” to describe his experiences as a young man. He describes this as, “The expectation for me to become a criminal, an idiot, a school drop-out,” and adds, “I over-came that. I was lucky I had creativity which lead me into finding other creative people.”

This experience has enabled Ashleigh to see past the stigma of people in prison, to see beyond the criminal label and seek to understand the reasons why people commit crimes. “Some people are (for sometimes unknown reasons) really dangerous, and society needs protecting from them and they need protecting from themselves. But, that’s a miniscule portion of people who commit crime. The majority of people who are involved in criminal activity just need help and support and opportunities.”

For the first time during our interview Ashleigh stills. “If they took everyone out of prison who was abused as a child,” he pauses to let this sink in, “if they took everyone out who had a mental health issue,” he pauses again as a knowing silence drifts between us. He says finally, “there would be hardly anyone left.”

Government statistics for ‘Safety in Custody’ suggest it is clear the criminal justice system is protecting no one from their demons. With self-harm, mental illness and suicide rates alarmingly high, it is clear changes need to be made. Ashleigh feels the weight of our criminal [in]justice system, and the damage punishment causes on victims of the system.

“Help people rather than punish them,” he says, emphasising, “It should not be about punishment. If society needs protecting than fair play but punishing people is barbaric. It’s archaic and it’s barbaric. And it’s ridiculous! If they thought it would change things and reform people and make them act in a less criminal way it would have happened by now. The crime rate in UK and USA has gone down since the 80s, and the prison population has gone exponentially up.”

Locks reveals a rawness to characters otherwise perceived as dangerous, criminal and thuggish. This sensitivity comes from a place of fear, vulnerability and neglect. Not only does this shine a light on the issues surrounding what causes offending, but the mental health strain placed on people within prisons.

Locking criminals away does not prevent crime, furthermore it does not help with reformation when mental health services are defunded and not reaching the most vulnerable people within prisons. People do not act without a cause, and all too often it is the system which continually fails the people who are then at risk of offending. “You can be brought up in a crappy family, you can be abused, you can be abused by the system, you can be written off by your school, you could be harassed by the police,” Ashleigh’s voice rises with passion, “you could be beaten up and bullied your whole life, but if you go and hit someone it’s all on you. Then it’s solitary confinement.”

He continues, “No wonder we have men hurting themselves and killing themselves they’re just constantly holding all this crap down.” He tastes frustration in his words. “It’s an absolute mess. White supremacist patriarchy has left us in an absolute mess.”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced for people in prison, is the release. To return back to a society who doesn’t want them. The lack of opportunities and support for people on probation is a leading cause for reoffending. It is an issue which can be followed back to the communities that people return to.

“We had this guy who said to me ‘even my wife wants me to be a drug dealer.’ He got angry and he left the course at first and then he came back, and he was like ‘I don’t know what to do. This is changing my life and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to see my wife’. And yet,” Ashleigh continues, “but we kicked him out with a few quid and said, ‘here you go, get on with it’. What’s he supposed to do? What opportunities are there, what training is there? What job is he supposed to be getting?”

“Help people rather than punish them”

This is why organisations such as RiseUp are so important. The arts are not just entertainment, they are way of understanding ourselves, and each other. “I have 50 year old men in our sessions,” Ashleigh tells me, “who suddenly go click, ‘oh my god, I have a choice. How has it taken me until I was 50 to realise I have a choice?’”

RiseUp allows people the space to decide to begin a journey of self-exploration, understanding and acceptance. “It’s imperative that you think for yourself and decide who you are yourself,” Ashleigh explains, “and if someone comes to your door with something that isn’t yours, you’re more within your right to shut the door on them. Tell them no thanks, you can keep that.”

But understanding self-worth and what our own place is can be more than a challenge for some people. Ashleigh speaks about this from his experiences as a young man. “You get so much of this aggression put on you,” he shares openly, “and you have all the hormonal confusion, and then the marginalisation because of race and it was like, ‘hang on. These people have been undermining me all of my life and I’m not having it any more. I’m actually very strong physically, and I’ll show them.’”

For people who the education system doesn’t work for, or for people who are in low income jobs, for people who have countless other pressures layered onto them due to the system’s countless failures, criminality becomes the only option. Violence only breeds more violence.

Ashleigh ignites as he begins to connect Locks to the subjugation and marginalisation of black and mixed raced people, more specifically the racism Aeon encounters within the novel, and how this is all impacted by countless other variables dating back to the beginning of the slave trade and systemic racism that has perpetuated. This includes stereotyping and white supremacist beliefs. “I think I still feel like an angry young man regarding racism. I have that drive and anger which comes from being subjugated. I don’t feel aggressively angry,” as he speaks the phone begins to ring and the chaos it creates only adds to the passion flowing from Ashleigh. “But I have that drive, that energy. I didn’t realise how much of a cathartic experience it would be to give [Locks] to the world. There’s stuff in there I didn’t realise I was still dealing with.”

Perhaps this is what is at the core of art, in particular story telling. It helps us to understand ourselves, connect to others and preserve lessons learnt. “The way we connect to ourselves, other people, our community, nature and the universe is through the arts,” Ashleigh says, “it’s intrinsic.”

The arts are incredibly healing and perhaps it is our answer to help engage people lost in the toxicity which exists in our society. The work Ashleigh and the team at RiseUp are doing gives me hope. It is an option. Another way of doing things. Without violence. Without aggression, segregation, subjugation and marginalisation.

Ashleigh summarises his novel as being “about a person trying to find their identity, about society, about history, and culture and who we are. The connectivity of human beings and the universe.” It encapsulates so much within its pages, offering a lifeline to those who are cut off. It is a book to be felt, not only read. It is a tool to help us understand, heal and progress. If, of course, we chose to use it.

Locks is available now via Rise Up


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