Friday, March 26, 2010

Prison Writers

Along with many other difficult situations, prisons seem to have the potential for fomenting great literature.

Perhaps personal distress and solitude leads to a level of reflection that is difficult to achieve when leading a happy life? It may be that only through suffering can the human conditions be best explored. Or that good writers are invariably miserable buggers.

Yet the canon of prison literature is not a large one, particularly when it is understood that many tens of thousands of people pass through the gates each year.

There used to be extremely strict efforts put in place to prohibit prisoners either writing, or getting the material over the wall. When I began, our only source of paper was either of the toilet variety or official notebooks.

These were essentially old-style school exercise books, with the addition of a list of prohibitions printed on the cover. Most pertinently, we couldn't write about ourselves or prison and, when full, we had to hand in the book in order to get a new one.

This restriction was supplemented by a strict regime of censorship. No letter left (or entered) prison without being read by staff and if they found it objectionable in any way (such as any complaints) then it would be returned to us for re-writing.

Given such restrictions, then, it is amazing that any worthwhile material managed to reach the outside world. And this isn't to consider the panoply of unofficial sanctions that could be levelled against prisoners who managed to evade the official barriers.

Officially, the situation has improved. I have listed the restrictions I must work to and they are hardly onerous and when needed, I will always be quick to challenge the legal status quo.

Today, we can buy our own notebooks and paper and no one cares what we write in them. That said, we have no privacy, our papers are liable to be searched and read by staff at any time. Being slightly circumspect is only sensible.

Censorship has been relaxed in some categories of prison, though I always write with the assumption that staff will be targeting my incoming and outgoing mail. Overall, though, it is far easier to write material and have it reach the outside.

And rather than being restricted in publishing outlets, the advent of the web should give prisoners endless channels for dissemination.

And yet... Where are all the prisoner writers? Even in the pages of our newspaper, Inside Time, the range of writers is not broad. I'm not complaining about this, as it means I get a piece published most months!

Society should be awash with prisoner-generated materials, to an unprecedented extent. That I remain the only prisoner-blogger several months after defeating the Ministry of Justice is a genuine surprise. My ego is pleased for the lack of competition but the campaigner within me deplores this situation.

Prison can be a place of torment. It reveals so much about the individual, with the years grinding away and revealing an inner strength - or weakness - that begs to be explored. It is a nexus of morality, conscience, law and politics that few other situations can offer. So why are there so few prison writers?


  1. Because most prisoners are illiterate Scrotes?

    The kind of intellectual who is likely to want to write, absent a totalitarian regime, is unlikely to find himself in prison.

    The journey you've made, I imagine is easier for people who toe the line? You're a sub-set of a subset. Someone who is capable of writing and bloody-minded enough to do so despite the consequences, and this is rare.

  2. It's hard enough for anyone not in prison to get published. There are loads of prisoners with plenty to say but, as out here, without the craft skills to write well enough to get into print. It takes years to learn to write well; the better you become, the harder it gets - as you know. It's a masochistic craft.

    But there's probably a lot of unpublished stuff around?

    In any case, isn't the favoured medium of a great many prisoners the spoken word?

    Prison cells would be much more productive if a would-be writer could check into one for a while. The solitude and freedom from distraction would concentrate the mind wonderfully. But writers are a tiny, neurotic minority. It may be that there is no reason why prison should be any more inspiring than the dead end jobs most 'free' people have to endure?

  3. Yes Charles!! I know someone who was inside for just under a year. He read 140 books and wrote two plays...

  4. "48% of prisoners have a literacy level below that expected of 11 year olds, rising to
    65% for numeracy" - from the House of Commons
    Justice Committee
    Role of the Prison
    Twelfth Report of Session 2008–09

  5. & Anon1 - My brother always relishes his spells in prison as opportunities to catch up with his reading. He's done lots but, to date, despite long-held intentions, alas, nothing!

  6. Hey Charles,
    Spells eh?

  7. I firmly believe that art - ANY kind of art, from painting to writing - can help people change negative behaviour patterns.

    I think if a lot of people currently in prison had been given access to the necessary materials and supportive environment where they could express themselves constructively that they may not have channeled their frustration into crime.

  8. As someone who is also a writer and serving a Life sentence, I can certainly appreciate your ability to write.

  9. Ben will be pleased to know that prisoners are giving the blog a once over! Spread the word... -Ed.

  10. Hello from Ukraine !

    I believe this Blog to be interesting !

    I too am the prisoner, no, I do not have the guard to say me when I can use the toilet, instead I have entire Western Governments saying me no to a simple Visa that would allow me to look their nations as a tourist.

    Anyway, that the story for another place maybe.

    I will follow this Blog now, with interest, thank you for it.