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Prison Writing

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

(page 2 of 4)

Classical Writers
There are many great writers whose work has been sharpened or triggered by their prison experiences, or who have produced some of their greatest work whilst tangling with the criminal law. Nowadays, it is being suggested that they be “harried, hassled and hounded”, which might or might not enhance their output. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is an obvious example. The Ballad of Reading Goal still ranks as one of the world’s great poems, and has handed English literature and penal affairs such eternally telling phrases as “bricks of shame” (of which all prisons are built) and “souls in pain” (the parallel between pain and punishment having long since been drawn by criminologists). Wilde is perhaps the most successful writer in terms of conveying the prison experience to those who have never experienced it. He put forward ideas of isolation, degradation, loss of power, identity and hope that go hand-in-hand with incarceration. He did not know whether:

“... Laws are right
or whether Laws be wrong
All that we know who lie in goal
Is that the wall is strong”

As with Wilde, so with Home Secetary John Reid, at least as to the first two of these lines! His record on instant public pronouncements about new laws and similar matters that need later to be withdrawn, watered-down, over-ridden or quietly shelved must be a nightmare for his (possibly already alienated) civil servants.

Virtually everyone now accepts that it was a thoroughly bad law that sent Wilde to prison for homosexual offences in the first place. In this, the ballad played no small part.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is another writer, journalist, pamphleteer and Monmouth rebel (though never proved) who founded a newspaper in Newgate prison, The Review, that ran for three years – albeit that his crimes were mainly of a dissenting or subversive nature (hence his parody, The Shortest Way With Dissenters) and the action taken against him was akin to censorship. He was feted in the pillory when flowers rather than rocks were hurled at him, flowers that turned into brickbats so far as the authorities were concerned, and the trigger for yet another burst of creativity, Defoe’s Hymn to the Pillory. He also chronicled The True and Genuine Account of Jonathan Wild, the first organized crime boss. John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of The Pilgrim’s Progress was a further prison writer. He was confined several times in Bedford Goal for preaching without a licence – but that, in reality, meant preaching to his own non-conformist flock in competition with the established order. He also wrote of the “devious, disreputable and reckless behaviour of the criminal classes including them that pick pockets in the presence of the Judge, or that will cut purses under the gallows”.

Precedents for writing by prisoners-cum-offenders had already been set by the subversive actor playwright Ben Johnson and his radical friend John Selden (1584-1654), the barrister politician. Various of Seldon’s works were suppressed by royal dictat despite the fact that he was also the principle author of the Petition of Right (1628). He was imprisoned for his part in the Parliament of 1629. His name lives on in the Selden Society founded in 1887, of which Queen Victoria became the first of a line of royal patrons that extends into the present day. Will Reid seek to close it down? And what would Reid do about William Shakespeare himself, who, according to certain accounts, left Stratford-on-Avon as an outlaw and remained on-the-run even after the success of his theatrical ventures in the capital, fearing arrest if he returned to Warwickshire? The story goes that he eventually bought out the estates of his accuser with what might be described as blood money.

The history of criminal justice abounds with such characters – great and small and without whose writings and expressions of anger, remorse, regret, defiance, acceptance, denial and so on, the annals of crime and punishment would be the poorer. That very phrase Crime and Punishment, reminds one that Fyodor Doestoevsky should not be left out of the balance sheet; any more for example than the prisoners/former prisoners Arthur Koestler, Nelson Mandela or even Adolf Hitler who wrote both Mein Kampf and his second book, aptly but somewhat ridiculously named, Das Zweite Book (“The Second Book”!) whilst in prison. Perhaps we have yet to hear John Reid, the Home Secretary, assert the example of Hitler in support of his case.

Continued ... 1 2 3 4

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

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