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Prison Writing

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

(page 4 of 4)

Other Art Forms
Inevitably, once writing produced by offenders comes under attack so will other art forms. If writing for profit is banned the same sentiments can be dressed up in other ways to circumvent the ban. Is it a manuscript, picture or an engraving?

Is a sculpture that conveys a message or meaning, or that actually bears an inscription, a statue or a book? A legal field day, in other words. Will the authorities go after the countless artists who have already emerged from the prison setting, from the better known hard men Jimmy Boyle (who also wrote A Sense of Freedom a salutary account of his time inside and outside of prison) and Frank Cook to those who are lesser known, such as the hugely talented artists Peter Cameron and Tom Carrigan, or those who prefer to adopt an even lower profile or remain completely anonymous, perhaps working in an arts centre or craft workshop near you doing anything from glass-blowing to making horseshoes. Unfortunately, HM Prison Service has been obliged by financial constraints to curb far too many creative outlets over the past few years, at least in terms of paying for them as part of everyday prisoner education as noted in books such as Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation by Professor David Wilson of the University of Central England, a former prison governor, and Inside Art by Mary Brown. I know for a fact that the acquisition or honing of such skills whilst in prison has helped many an offender to go straight on release. It’s a mix of achievement, self-respect, occupation, encouragement, an interest shared, self-belief and satisfaction.

Broadsheet to Internet
What is the difference between offenders who profit from their crimes and third parties who do so? Would Charles Dickens need to sanitize his Fagin scenes in Oliver Twist (should the musical be banned)? Could a modern-day Brendan Behan be arrested not for his wrecking behaviour but for a book and play based on his time in Borstal? What about the Hull Truck Theatre Company who recently staged a telling account of the notorious Hull Prison Riots (which writing and freedom of expression avoid a repetition of perhaps: the pen being ever mightier than beating-up someone in the recess of a prison landing)? Where would the tabloids be without gore or an occasional of Jonathan Aitken, Lord Brocket or John Poulson (also prison writers)? Like them, Milton knew all about falling from grace.

The tradition of interest in things criminal or punitive stretches from the Penny Dreadful via broadsheets and The Newgate Calendar to works such as Murders of the Black Museum, the Dictionary of Murder and Mayhem, An Infamous Address (a guide to places you can visit to gawp at the spot where a notorious crime was committed) to Gallows Speeches (often bought from the condemned person ahead of the execution so that the speech could be printed before that person delivered it). I am sure that many people with a special (but what to the general public may seem to be a morbid) interest have whole collections of materials that focus on little else but the activities, lives, progress and sometimes the enlightenment of offenders; all of which add grist to the mill of an understanding of crime, punishment and the mind of the offender. Murder, robbery, highwaymen, corruption, bent coppers, predators, books on rogues, fraudsters, con-men, persistent offenders and penitents. I even have a book on the Capital Punishment of Animals. Will the new law apply to their owners? Not yet, but perhaps next week in Criminal Justice Bill No.63, do I hear the Home Secretary say as he learns of the phenomenon?

Everything from Dick Turpin to the The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why; The Robbers Tale: The Autobiography of a Thief by Bruce Reynolds the Great Train Robber, a 30-year sentence man, now long rehabilitated and an informed supporter of many initiatives in penal reform, to A Product of the System: My Life In and Out of Prison; I’m Still Standing; Going Straight (which, incidentally, includes a piece by the actor Stephen Fry about how he, a descendant of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, came to give up his youthful offending and sorties to prison) and a host of similarly titled books by people who have turned their lives around. The walls are lined with such things: everything from the experiences of Ruth Ellis’s daughter to stories of people killed in prison (a section labelled “Deaths of Offenders”: should their stories not be told?) to the second-hand accounts of people like Tony Mancini, who beat the gallows after being charged with and tried for the Brighton Trunk Murder and who then got a journalist to write up his paid-for confession; as did his 1950s spiv counterpart Stanley Setty. Would people like that count, changes to double jeopardy apart? If so, they are one of the few potentially, if now outdated, arguments in support of the kind of suggestions being promulgated by the Government.

Will I be raided for my collection? Is crime the new pornography? Should I buy a mackintosh with a large collar so that I can continue to search dusty second-hand bookshops for such gems? Would it be guilt by association? Should I tell those ex-offender authors who I have come to know personally, and in many cases to admire for their talents, courage and preparedness to put their head above the parapet – and who to me are no different from those Judges, magistrates, lawyers, academics and politicians who also write about their cases or preoccupations – that they are no longer welcome to call? They learned their trade in prison and honed their skills. It is the capital on which they now rely to keep them out of further trouble.

Else and without prison writing, on the outside, as on the inside, where Wilde noted that “The vilest deeds like poisoned weeds/Bloom well in prison air”. The sheer volume of prison writing means that it would be like trying to stop the tide; or maybe to walk on water.

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

The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice is available in colour paperback.

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