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Prison Writing

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 3 of 4)

Into the Championship
There are countless lesser literary mortals who have been behind bars. The library catalogue of prisoner and ex-prisoner writers is massive and international; the range of work that turns up at car boot sales enormous. It ranges from that of prolific authors such as Jeffrey Archer (whose A Prison Diary does contain the occasional gem, if not particularly profound) to the memoirs of people like the late Kray twins to the one-step-ahead-of-the-cops accounts of drug dealers such as Howard Marks or arch-fugitive Ronald Biggs. At a somewhat more professional level, one national newspaper now employs at least two ex-offenders as regular prison correspondents and/or columnists, one of these, Erwin James (a pseudonym) was a lifer who wrote an invaluable series of articles (and a book, A Life Inside) during the latter stages of his life sentence around the processes of resettlement, rehabilitation and reintegration.

Aspiring Authors
One thing that the idea of penalizing those who write about their crimes and experiences of custody ignores is that, in prison, writing is an everyday occupation. Even the totally illiterate are encouraged in this as part of the acquisition of basic skills, nowadays an HM Prison Service priority. At another level, writing about offences that have been committed is a form of therapy, closure and sometimes provides information on which assessments about prisoners can be made. The scribbles, jottings or pictures of a deranged serial killer may not be everyone’s cup of tea and may even stick in the craw, but they may well say something of value to the world in general, and especially psychologists and criminologists. Many prisoners, talented or less so, pursue authorship out of (and in most cases perhaps forlorn) hope of eventual publication, whether in “in-house” magazines such as It’s Wandsworth, the Acklington Informer or Wolds Quarterly, national prison newspapers such as Inside Time, via Koestler Award initiatives or in collections such as Prison Writing or more narrowly focused works such as In Place of Rage and Violence: Poems and Stories From Welford Road (a collection of writings by serious offenders held in Leicester Prison). O. J. Simpson, it seems, either had second thoughts about publishing his book called If I Did It, or his publishers feared being drummed out of town. Life can sometimes take care of things on its own. Prison Writing, edited by Julian Broadhead and Laura Kerr (both probation officers from Sheffield) has seen the emergence of several icons of the genre, including Noel “Razor” Smith, Ian Watson and Clare Barstow. There are, in fact, few things that you can do whilst locked in a cell on your own for up to 23 hours a day. Writing is one of them. It helps countless prisoners to get through their sentences, to survive, and I suspect that without it there would be a quite significant security and control problem.

There is a recognizable genre of “low end” prison writing that appears to be all about aggression, antagonism, hostility towards the authorities, veiled justification for offences and casting blame, often typified by an excess of four letter words, blood curdling or psychedelic images and motifs of power and revenge. But even this may be better to imagine than to carry out – writing can also vent feelings – and again it is saying something, even if people concerned with crime and punishment have not yet worked out how to bottle it so that others may flush it from their system. It may also be of considerable use to anyone who bothers to read it and listen. Is all this to be discouraged by taking away the (albeit for many prisoners) distant prospect that their efforts whilst in prison might end up in a book, newspaper (or even more remotely) as film script or on the stage or TV (but that does happen from time-to-time). Many prisoners emerge from their sentence clutching a dog-eared manuscript or dossier. Some, the better ones, get published; even though I guess that hundreds end up on the bonfire of wannabe authorship. But at critical moments inside prison, they give hope.

Continued ... 1 2 3 4


© Bryan Gibson 2007. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in February 2007


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