Tuesday, April 7, 2015

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My Top Ten Prison Books

Alex Cavendish details his top ten books on prison. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

A regular reader of this blog asked recently if I could recommend a few books about the reality of prison life. He is facing the possible prospect of his first jail sentence in the not too distant future and wants to do a bit of reading to prepare himself for what he can expect to experience behind bars. 

My personal Top Ten prison books
In response to this request, I started to put together my top ten recommendations, together with a few words about why I think each book merits being included in the list. I should stress that this is my own personal selection and I may well have missed others that blog readers might want to recommend.

With one exception, I’ve focused on books and memoirs about British prisons, principally because I wanted my choices to be directly relevant to our prison system and that’s why excellent books about the US experience have been omitted, such as Shaun Attwood’s triology which includes the bestselling Hard Time, a must-read memoir of US prison life that I first read in between loading washing machines while working in a Cat-B prison laundry. For the same reason I’ve also omitted another of my own favourites, Siberian Education (2011) by Nicolai Lilin. 

Anyway, here goes:

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)

For me, this Russian classic will always be the top of the list when it comes to describing the bleak mental and emotional landscape of Soviet labour camps during the Stalinist era. However, that’s not why it’s particularly relevant to life in a modern British prison. Solzhenitsyn’s gift is being able to capture in a very slim volume all the major ‘types’ that you can encounter in prison: the decent con, the grass, the screw-boy, the religious fanatic, the thief, the scrounger, the loser, the naïve lad and the wise old lag. They are all here and it doesn’t much matter that this all happened in Russia. 

I first read this book when I was still at school and interested in Russian literature. However, it was only when I started re-reading it as a prisoner banged-up behind bars that I realised how little I had understood it when I was a kid. If you are facing a stretch, read it – or better still, save it until you’ve been inside for a few months. Then you’ll understand everything.

2. In It by Jonathan Robinson (2014)

I recently reviewed this book for the new monthly prison newspaper Jail Mail (see here). If you really want to read for yourself about the mind-numbing boredom and sheer waste of opportunity that characterises our current prison system, then this recent book is a very good place to start. 

Although he was only serving a few months inside for theft, helicopter pilot Jonathan Robinson’s daily diary still manages to take you on a journey into the bizarre, weird and mundane aspects of prison life, particularly relevant if you are a first-timer facing a short stretch. Since he served his time back in 2012, a few things have changed – notably the imposition of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 which introduced all sorts of ideologically-motivated nastiness, such as the ill-fated ban on posting in books to prisoners – but otherwise it is spot on, especially when it comes to dissecting the convoluted prison bureaucracy and exposing how any real efforts at achieving rehabilitation seem to have just dropped off the Prison Service’s agenda.

Likely to be doing some time in a Cat-D (open) prison or just fancy a timely antidote to the lies about jails being ‘holiday camps’ served up regularly in the Daily Mail? Then this is probably the best account of what really goes on inside at the moment. 

The follow up volume – On It – documents the author’s battles with politicians, the Ministry of Justice and other authorities to get key issues of rehabilitation, particularly literacy and education, back onto the agenda. His mission continues and in December 2014 he gave evidence before the House of Commons’ Select Committee hearings on Prisons: planning and policies (see here).   

3. Porridge and Passion by Jonathan Aitken (2005)

When he was a Tory politician former MP and cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was widely reckoned to be an arrogant shit. His spectacular fall from grace after he took on The Guardian in an ill-judged libel action and his subsequent imprisonment for perjury in 1999 was much enjoyed by many who felt that he got his deserved comeuppance.
However, even some of his critics were forced to admit that his own account of his prison experiences during the seven months he spent inside out of the 18-month sentence he received was a compelling and humane insider’s view of imprisonment in HMP Belmarsh (Cat-A) and HMP Standford Hill (Cat-D). This is perhaps one of those prison books that shows there can be some redemptive value in serving a sentence that has been justly imposed, quite aside from the religious sentiment that comes from the author’s discovery of evangelical Christianity.

Although some of what he describes in his book is now out of date, it is still a compelling read for anyone who might be facing jail time. Since his release, Mr Aitken has studied theology and remains active in prison reform as a regular speaker and commentator on imprisonment and rehabilitation. 

4. The Pain of Confinement: Prison Diaries by Jimmy Boyle (1985)

Jimmy Boyle’s prison memoirs – A Sense of Freedom (1977) and his Prison Diaries – describe a very different experience of incarceration to most of the accounts penned by fallen politicians or celebrities who have ended up inside. Jeffrey Archer he isn’t.

The sheer brutality and degradation through which Jimmy Boyle lived in various Scottish prisons is the stuff of real nightmares, ranging from brutal violence (much of it his own) to spending long periods being kept stark naked in a special ‘cage’ within a cell and being moved between jails frequently as no governor wanted to have to deal with him. His anger and hatred almost literally drips from every page, at least in the early years of his sentence.

Fortunately, most cons these days don’t get quite that sort of treatment (although some pretty awful things can still happen to those who opt to assault members of staff) but this remains a compelling account that doesn’t spare the reader any sordid detail of life in high security nicks and segregation units back in the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s. These are the kind of books to read when you are already in prison as they make you realise that no matter how bad things may seem, they could always be a whole lot worse. Despite his violent past, Jimmy Boyle is one of the best examples of successful rehabilitation through education and is now a well-known author and sculptor.

5. The Little Book of Prison by Frankie Owens (2012)

This is a very interesting little guide to going to prison for the first time. It is written with the first-timer in mind and contains loads of very useful little tips about getting through a short sentence. While most prison memoirs or diaries tend to skip over crucial practical issues – such as cell etiquette, induction, drugs and – yes, even the vexed question of masturbation in the nick – Frankie Owens deals with it in a frank and forthright way. Although a couple of things are now a bit out of date due to more recent changes in the rules, his book remains an invaluable guide.

He also gives good advice on dealing with the various wackos and weirdos you encounter on every wing and has a very sensible section entitled ‘Getting on with your bird’ (serving your sentence). I can see why this little pocket-sized handbook, which is so very readable, won a Koestler Platinum Award. It deserved to win.

I only read this book when I found it by complete chance in a prison library at my first Cat-C nick – which was a bit late to be honest as I’d already done plenty of jail time. I really wish that I’d had a copy before I got sent down because it would have been a great preparation for my own time in the slammer. Every solicitor and barrister could do worse than recommend it to any literate client they think might be facing a spell behind bars.

6. Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer by Ronnie Thompson (2008)

I’ve included this book in my list because I found it a fascinating read, even if I only came across it months after I’d been released. ‘Ronnie Thompson’ is the pseudonym used by a former screw who became an author after he left HM Prison Service. To read Screwed is to see prison life from the other side of the door – how uniformed members of staff view cons, their colleagues and senior management. I read it cover to cover while sitting on two trains during a seven-hour journey.

To be honest, this book doesn’t make happy reading. Like too many frontline prison officers, Mr Thompson really didn’t like his job, or most of the cons he encountered, or many of his own colleagues. It was probably for the best when he finally handed in his keys. However, he can write and what he has written is both very readable and accurate.

His book does catalogue many of the institutional flaws and shortcomings that are endemic within our dysfunctional prison system – including exposing examples of bent screws stabbing their own colleagues (metaphorically) in the back. The author also penned Banged-Up (2010) which deals with imprisonment from a con’s point of view and Knifer (2011), a very bleak account of young offenders.

7. Parkhurst Tales: Behind the Locked Gates of Britain’s Toughest Jails by Norman Parker (1995)

I first read Parkhurst Tales while I was still a prisoner myself. I came across the paperback edition on the shelves of the true crime section of a Cat-B prison library and plunged in. Norman Parker served over 24 years inside, including a life sentence for murder. His books are both readable and entertaining and I read this one over a single weekend of bang-up. It is one of those rare books you really can’t put down, particularly if you have time on your hands. 

If you only read it for his description the infamous ‘shit-bomb’ incident in a wing office it’s still well worth it. I laughed out loud for quite some time while lying on by prison bunk and I’m still smiling at the memory as I write this.

In recommending this book, I feel that I should add that it documents life in Parkhurst in the ‘bad old days’. Many similar characters still populate our prison wings, but the sense of solidarity between cons – and the truly visceral hatred that existed between most prisoners and screws – appears to have dissipated over time. If you really want to know how to spark off a prison riot or mount an escape attempt, then this is the book for you. Norman Parker embarked on an Open University degree course while he was still a serving prisoner and later earned a Master’s degree in criminology. It just shows what access to education can achieve.

8. The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About Our Prison System by Jim Dawkins (2008)

This is another prison memoir written from the viewpoint of an ex-screw. Like Screwed by Ronnie Thompson it deals with the author’s own experiences as an Army veteran who entered the Prison Service and was shocked by what he discovered while working in several London jails. 

Instead of being encouraged to develop good working relations with inmates in pursuit of reform and rehabilitation, Jim Dawkins quickly became disillusioned by the many flaws he found in the system, including the bullying and victimisation of prisoners by some of his colleagues. After seven years in the job he resigned and wrote this book in order to highlight his views on why and how prisons fail to deliver against their own stated objectives. 

Although a few of the issues covered are now a bit dated, most of the serious problems he describes have actually got much worse as our prisons have become more dangerous due to overcrowding and understaffing. A grim read with moments of humour, but worth taking the time whether you are facing a prison sentence or just care about prison reform. It is a pity we don’t seem to hear anything from the author about the current prison crisis. Perhaps he’s just moved on.

9. Prison Diaries (1-3) by Jeffrey Archer (2002-2004)

I truly agonised before including Lord Archer in my top ten prison reads, but in the end I weakened, so here he is. His three volumes of prison diaries – despite being one of the longest love letters in English literature (Jeffrey Archer’s profound love for Jeffrey Archer) as well as a lengthy whinge about the ‘injustice’ of having been sent down in 2001 for four years for perjury – have still become bestsellers. The man can write.

I had read volume one of his diaries – Hell: Belmarsh (2002) – years before I ended up inside for a similar stretch myself, but I only tackled volumes two and three while serving my sentence. I think that it isn’t an exaggeration to observe that his books can be found in every prison library across the land. I also met a couple of screws, now governor grades, who actually knew the great man himself while he was a con. They are not among his fans. I say no more.

One of the joys of finding well-thumbed copies of these books on the shelf is to see what successive generations of cons have scrawled in the margins – little of it complimentary. However, even though Lord Archer’s spell in the slammer bears all the hallmarks of the privileged ‘accidental’ inmate whose experience behind bars has little in common with that of the average con, these books are still compelling reading. Go on. Give them a go – and enjoy the guilty pleasure.    

10. A Good Man Inside by Will Phillips (2014)

This is a relatively new prison diary written by another untypical white collar prisoner who found himself getting banged-up. Will Phillips is a singer-songwriter and chef whose personal life imploded following depression and misuse of alcohol. In 2010 he ended up getting ‘four sheets’ (years), of which he actually served 300 days inside.

There are some striking parallels between his diary and that of Jonathan Robinson (see above). However, the similarity is limited. Mr Robinson freely acknowledges that he deserved to go to prison for the theft of £80,000 from his then employer; in contrast Mr Phillips believes that he was hard done by and shouldn’t have been sent down at all. That sense of injustice manifests itself across the book. Having said that, it is still readable and many of his observations and criticisms of our prison system remain as valid in 2015 as they were in 2010, although based on my own experiences as a con until 2014 I’d say that things have deteriorated a lot further. 

This is a very slim diary and to be honest it sort of peters out in the middle – whole periods just disappear unmarked – until the diarist regains his interest right at the end of his sentence just prior to his release. I say that less by way of criticism (you should see my own unpublished volumes of prison diaries) and more to highlight just how difficult it is to chronicle long days of nothingness and crushing boredom. It’s worth reading A Good Man Inside if only to get some sense of what prisoners really go through pretty much every day.