“I came from a place of failure, essentially,” says Jonathan Asser. “I came from a place of failure, bewilderment and, to be frank, mental health problems.” This is how our interview begins.
I’d asked him an innocuous question about his background. But we’re right into it now. Because with Asser, transparency is key. It’s key to who he is; it’s key to understanding how for years he was able to run a one-of-a-kind programme for high-risk violent prisoners, and how his first screenplay, inspired by those experiences, has been made into one of the most powerful British films in a very long time.
We’re in his north London house, a cosy, bright creative space far away from the boarding schools and prisons he used to call home. During the course of the afternoon, sat on his sofa, we discuss all that has led to Starred Up, which has been startling viewers and winning plaudits since it began screening at film festivals last year.
Named after the term given to young offenders so violent they need to be transferred to adult prisons, it stars a blistering Jack O’Connell as Eric Love, a primal, troubled, dangerous individual who is not so much a loose cannon as an entire rogue arsenal. After a series of serious scrapes he is offered the chance to attend a unique therapy group for the prison’s most violent inmates, run by a man named Oliver (Rupert Friend) who has more than a few issues of his own.
Also incarcerated within those same walls is Eric’s father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn), not exactly the best role model a young man could have. The father-and-son story is the beating heart of the film and, as I discover through talking to Asser, more important than the film’s compelling prison politics.
As a child, Asser felt as if he didn’t exist. An aggressive kid, he rejected his mother physically and emotionally. I ask him about an old quote used to promote Outside the All Stars, his book of poetry that was published in 2003: “I think the book is about men who don’t have dads, and how that makes them violent, mad, lonely, criminal — as well as being an emotional challenge which they can rise above, wading through the shame and the wish to switch off by using their creativity, bravery, humour and their ability to be helped by others.”
“Did I have a dad?” asks the 50-year-old. “Yes, I did have a dad, he’s still very much alive, and that’s something for me to be aware of in any interviews I give. What I’m very happy to say is that I didn’t have a sense of emotional connection. In a way it was my father’s rage that gave me something to attach to as a child growing up. It was better than nothing, it was better than emptiness.”
Did it make him feel something? “It made me feel something: that I existed, that I was human, that I was here,” he replies. “And I remember actually enjoying it because there was something happening.”
On the red carpet at the British Independent Film Awards in December, Asser hinted at Starred Up’s father/son strand being wish fulfilment of sorts. “Yeah, I think so,” he concedes. “Actually, I was asked a question at the London Film Festival with my father in the audience — somebody asked where the story comes from. I found myself saying it was a difficult thing to talk about while my father was there. But yes, it’s a wish- fulfilment story in terms of emotional contact. My father always did the very best that he could do, there’s no blame whatsoever, and yet at the same time, authentic genuine emotional contact and closeness is not something that either of us experienced with each other. It’s neither of our faults, but nevertheless, that is the case. But I have absolutely no blame or bitterness towards my parents. I had a very privileged upbringing.”
Asser grew up in a north Oxfordshire village. At eight years old he was sent to his first boarding establishment, The Dragon School, then at 14, his second, Radley College. Institutionalisation suited him, he found, but his aggression began to manifest itself in myriad new ways.
“There’s a hierarchy and a gang culture in a sense in boarding school,” he says. “There’s very limited adult supervision, at least there was in my day, and I was certainly involved in bullying.” As punishment, he was segregated and isolated, action he came to oppose and combat in his prison work.
After Radley, Asser went to Exeter University — “another total institution”. Then, as an adult in the outside world, he suddenly found it hard to cope. Did he feel a sense of insecurity without routine and structure?
“Routine, structure, your meals done, accommodation provided for you, people to interact with on tap around you, that kind of thing. A family, really. My reason for being institutionalised was because I didn’t feel that I had strong emotional bonds outside of the system. In a way I loved boarding too much. I needed to feel that I had emotional bonds outside that were dragging me from it, but I didn’t feel that. That was where my personality unravelled once I no longer had that structure around me. I turned my aggression in on myself, and that’s where the mental health problems came in.”
Feeling increasingly anxious and scared, he spoke to his GP about his psychological self-harming, and was placed with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. In between sessions, Asser began writing poetry “as a therapeutic way of working with internal trauma”.
He developed a live performance character and began gigging on a low-key basis, and spent a year teaching in east London. Then, in 1998, Asser was invited to Feltham Young Offenders Institution to run a creative writing workshop. It felt good to be behind bars.
“It was in stepping through the prison gates and feeling and experiencing the prison environment that I felt relaxed and safe and at home for the first time in years,” he explains. “I felt comfortable in prison, safer in prison than outside prison, and wanted to go back. Without understanding it at the time, I’d found another total institution that I could understand.”
Through the creative writing workshop he also found fulfilment. He began running discussion groups for Feltham’s education department and, completely organically, the programme he would later call Shame/Violence Intervention (SVI) was born. Asser discovered he was a unique proposition. Within the groups, tensions would often escalate, and Asser was able to control situations without violence from any party.
“There was no set manual to work through, just living in the moment with what came up,” he says. “That was linked to my therapy in terms of free association. And what I found was the more violent prisoners enjoyed the sessions, which could become heated at times. People higher up the gang hierarchy liked it, while people lower down opted for other things. I found a niche with prisoners being violent in the system. I found them, they found me. It happened for us without any of us planning it.” It was, he agrees, a two-way street: “There was no way I could do it without a huge amount of buy-in from them, because it would just be too dangerous."
When funding stopped for his work at Feltham, Asser went to Wandsworth, then the largest prison in Europe, to continue and expand SVI. There, he “taught” (the inverted commas are his) Social and Life Skills, for which no prisoner had earned a credit to that point. But those attending Asser’s group would do their written work for the course between sessions, writing about their SVI discussions. Soon the credits amassed. The authorities at Wandsworth were happy for SVI to continue, and it evolved.
Asser’s theory is that shame triggers violence. Feelings of humiliation and disrespect result in physical behaviour, he says; behaviour that’s designed to protect the psyche from shame. “If we’re threatened by shame and disrespect, it triggers a fight or flight response in us,” he explains. “We either attack, or, if we’re lower down the pecking order, we run away and hide.”
In order to avoid violence and deflate tensions in the sessions, Asser would, as he terms it, stay with his shame, through lessons he learned from his own therapy. “Hold that shame. Work with that disrespect. It’s important to communicate shame and fear, to be very emotionally transparent in high risk situations, but not to act on it, in terms of submissive body language, even half a centimetre. Be present with it.”
When participants felt disrespect, Asser would urge them to actively confront it before de-escalating the feelings. He would match the power of those bringing the shame, making himself the target, giving them the choice to attack or stop. By having that choice, he says, habitually violent prisoners were able to manage their shame, and there would be no violent outcome.
The aim of SVI was to reduce violence in the prison, but it had no agenda for rehabilitation. None of the prisoners he worked with were under any illusion that SVI would help them get out. “Absolutely not,” he emphasises. “Because the moment your release is based on successful completion of a programme, obviously you’re going to manipulate anything you can to successfully complete that programme in order to get out. The moment one becomes dependent on the other, the authenticity is out the window.”
SVI was unique. The usual procedures for prisoners acting violently within the system involve punishment and segregation, which Asser sees as counter-productive, an intrinsic failing.
“Huge! Huge failing,” he says. “If you take dangerous people and concentrate them you’re going to get violence that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t taken those people and brought them together. Prison actually creates a risk there. Because if you then separate those people and don’t have any form of mediation, the beef is still live and it gets passed down the system into the next prison, or indeed back out into the community where members of the public can also be involved and injured. So it’s an absolutely huge failing, massive.
“The problem is that governors are only motivated to reduce the violence happening in their establishment,” he says. “So they separate people after violence has happened, and have no intention of bringing them back together, to see how they can live safely on the wing. They don’t see that as their problem. That can become someone else’s problem. And they don’t want to run the risk of bringing them together and something kicking off again because that looks bad for their figures. But it’s an insane way to proceed in terms of managing risks that you’re creating through incarceration.”
SVI was, in fact, the opposite of segregation: it brought the most violent prisoners together. “We’d work it out: ‘Can we do this? Can I bring you into this setting with that guy who you assaulted last week or who assaulted you — is that possible?’ Bit by bit we worked together to see if it was.”
Despite there being no rule against violence in the sessions, in the 12 years Asser spent running SVI at HMP Wandsworth there never was any. Former participants have stated numerous reasons for the success of the course. They felt happy to be on it. Being, as it was, invite only made them feel part of a group. It felt like a gang. It eradicated disputes and helped them to talk.
“I wasn’t really conscious of what was happening,” Asser says of SVI’s success. “I’m not sure the prisoners necessarily were either. It was very much under the radar that a movement was building where prisoners further up the gang hierarchy involved in violence and territorial disputes had somewhere to go where they could engage and interact; where things could escalate but it could then be de-escalated and they could walk away without having to look over their shoulder.”
In 2008, Asser won The Innovation in Counselling and Psychotherapy Award from the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. SVI was beginning to attract attention, and in October 2010 counter-terrorism officials got in touch. Investigating a potential link between gang culture and radicalisation, they explored whether SVI could be useful.
However, the day after Asser told the prison about their visit, Wandsworth’s security governor suspended SVI. Asser’s access to the prison was withdrawn. A few weeks later he was summoned for a meeting in which a National Offender Management Service representative informed him that SVI had been terminated for good. The official statement from Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, read: “A decision was taken not to continue SVI at Wandsworth on the basis that it is not an accredited programme and no longer met the specific needs of that establishment.”
Asser still burns about it today. Due to the state of the economy, funding had stopped in 2009, so for a good year he had continued his work in the prison for free, which makes the decision seem all the more astonishing. He twice asked Spurr to investigate why SVI had been stopped, and twice was refused. The reasons for the cancellation are spurious and don’t add up, Asser insists.
SVI could never have been accredited because, he says, “accreditation applies to offending behaviour programmes which are there to reduce offending after release, which is not the primary task of SVI. And in order to get on one of those offending behaviour programmes you have to be violence-free in prison, which is not the target group for SVI. I was working with people who wouldn’t be allowed on an offending behaviour programme.”
Some former SVI participants are of the opinion that it was shut down because such a course, especially one with such positive results, is a threat to the system. Indeed in Starred Up, when Eric is offered a place in the group sessions, he makes the point that if it’s successful for prisoners, staff would be out of a job.
Asser won’t be drawn on it. “I don’t want to go down that route myself,” he says, smiling. “I’m happy for the prisoners to say it and I’m happy to write it in the movie.”
Jonathan Asser began writing Starred Up in 2004. After the publication of his poetry, an agent suggested he write a film. He then spent six years penning a story inspired by his experiences both before and during his time at HMP Wandsworth. Once completed, a screenwriting tutor took it to a producer, and it soon found its way to director David Mackenzie, who developed it further with Asser over a couple of years.
The tone of the story changed substantially after SVI was cancelled. Bureaucratic negativity towards the programme, as fictionalised in the film, is prominent. “Certainly the way SVI was terminated influenced the portrayal of the prison backdrop,” says Asser. “For sure. No question.”
Asser is keen, however, to point out that Starred Up is a work of fiction, a drama first and foremost. While certainly impassioned, there is no political grandstanding. Indeed, group leader Oliver ends up in a very different place to the one Asser found himself in. The story’s father/son arc is what counts, and Asser is keen to point out that he’s as much them as he is Oliver. “All the characters come from deep inside,” he says. “In a funny way I feel I more identified with Eric or Nev than Oliver. I’m working with deeply traumatised aspects of myself.”
He would like to see SVI continue in some form, potentially in schools, but he says he needs to be researched before anything can be done. “We need to find out what I was doing and why I was able to do it,” he asserts. “Without that replicability there’s limited point in proceeding. It’s no good if it’s dependent on me. Maybe it’s easy: great, then we can train lots of people to do it. But no one’s done that research into me to find out what it is. Until that happens we just don’t know.”
Today, Asser is in a good place. He won Best Newcomer at the London Film Festival, and a boxing film he’s written is currently in the development stage. Now, more than ever, he finds he’s able to cope with the outside world. But he’s still learning.
At one point during our interview, I ask about the concept of shame for someone like me who’s had a stable and somewhat sheltered upbringing. Asser picks up his pad and goes to make notes, demonstrating that it’s an ongoing process.
I wonder if writing the film might have given him a new perspective on it all. It didn’t, he says, probably because he was writing it while being in the thick of it. He does, though, say the process of promoting the film is informative.
“This has been interesting,” he says of our interview. “It’s given me some new thoughts around trauma and shame. I think I’m learning from this process of talking about myself, it’s helped me understand more. But I haven’t got to a point of why I was able to do SVI. Or what was it about me that enabled me to do this very high risk thing and manage those risks.”
He may never find out, and SVI may never be practiced again. But people will watch the incendiary Starred Up, and they will be affected by it, and they will learn things about themselves. In the end, bureaucracy is no match for the power of a writer.
Starred Up is out now