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Prison Writing

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

There is a long and proud tradition of prison writing that the Government now seeks to kill off by either banning such activity altogether or scooping up the proceeds. Apart from the (unfashionable) human rights implications of such a move and the inevitable flood of appeal cases that this would generate concerning added punishment, proportionality, causation and intellectual property rights, whoever in their right mind would want to close a door on the insights provided by the writing (or other creative talents) of many ex-offenders? It is yet another example of short-sightedness; another headline grabbed at the risk of a detrimental outcome. There are perhaps few situations in which it might truly be said that offending is a cash cow, even if the modern way is celebrity whatever it takes.

The mind boggles. Will it extend to foreign publications, spin-offs, fiction, adaptations and the internet? What about the presumption of innocence? How will the new copyright work? What about covert versions, or those by ghost writers? What is “benefiting from their crime”? Does it count whilst someone is on remand? What about books that are already in print or reprints? What about the families and friends of offenders, will they be allowed to write about the crimes of a relative or associate, or the effect that his or her offending had on them? How about campaign books written by an offender or on his or her behalf (including where there has been a miscarriage of justice)? Can offenders write about the issues and skirt around their own crimes? Might there be exceptions, such as books that add public value; where the offender acted in self-defence but used too much force; offences taken into consideration; or other charges involving acquittal? What about charges left on the file? At what point, if at all, will the prohibition bite re anti-social behaviour orders? Where does the Assets Recovery Agency come in? Does it mean forever banned? Will the courts admit argument about sources of inspiration, or is it just crime, story, kapow!

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.

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.

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.

⌐ 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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