Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Books to Read in Prison

Perhaps one of the strangest things about prison reading habits is the seemingly endless interest inmates have in other people's prison memoirs. Every prison library I've visited has a few shelves of dog-eared paperbacks about 'hell-hole' jail experiences in Thailand, Colombia or other foreign countries. Other popular titles focus on prison memoirs of famous (or infamous) British cons, such as Norman Parker's Parkhurst Tales. Along with true crime stories, prison-themed autobiographies provide inmates with books to which they feel they can relate.

Even Jeffrey Archer's trilogy of prison reminiscences appear in virtually every prison library, as do Jonathan Aitken's autobiographical volumes Pride and Perjury and Porridge and Passion. That's not to say that Lord Archer's offerings are always well received by prisoners. I remember finding a well-thumbed copy of A Prison Diary: Volume 1: Hell in one wing library that had been most amusingly annotated in pen by successive borrowers. Needless to observe none of the comments were positive or complimentary in respect of the fallen peer.

In particular, his rather smug attempts to bend or subvert prison rules just made him seem determined to better his own lot, often at the expense of other inmates - such as his glee at getting a double portion of dinner. The hand-written biro footnote under this diary entry simply read: "So some other poor sod presumably went without. How I hate you Archer, you callous c___!!" That was about the only publicly printable comment of the many that had been written throughout the whole book.

In my own case, I was fortunate to have been permitted to bring in with me about a dozen books. I'd had them in my 'bang-up bag' which I made sure I had with me in the dock, hidden out of sight of the jury. A very friendly and helpful young dock officer had been with me throughout much of my trial and he gave me invaluable advice on what to pack "just in case" things didn't go well. I listened carefully to what he had to say and was very thankful I had followed his guidance when I was sent down.

My own collection of books included Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a classic novel I'd first read as a teenager and one I really wanted to re-read. I also had the thick paperback Stories of John Cheever - a very engaging collection of short stories and the only book I was allowed to have with me during a week down the Block (segregation unit). It did help to keep me going when the going got tough.

During the course of my sentence I also re-visited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, starting - as many prisoners do - with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I also ploughed my way through Cancer Ward (another grim Soviet period piece). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Solzhenitsyn's works are widely available in translation in most prison libraries. One of the delights of One Day in the Life is seeing how many prison 'types' (the slacker, the snitch, the religious fanatic, the decent con) depicted by Solzhenitsyn are mirrored in every prison. These characters truly are timeless pen-portraits.

Another prison-themed read was Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. I'd first read this when I was 14 or 15, but re-reading it as a prisoner myself gave the whole experience new meaning and relevance. What I found particularly interesting is that many of the background details concerning the prison experiences of the main character, Old Bolshevik Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, were not entirely dissimilar to how things are done now, right down to the putting of the cash he had in his pocket when he was detained into his prison account so he could order tobacco from the canteen. Re-reading the book, I just kept finding parallels with my own experience, and that is one of guilty pleasures behind reading prison literature when in prison.

In a way it seems counterintuitive. Surely people in prison would want to read books about absolutely anything else other than jail memoirs? Of course, some do try to lose themselves in science fiction, or fantasy novels or books about football. However, reading about the prison experiences of others is one way of trying to make sense of one's own situation. How did Nelson Mandela cope with 27 years in prison - served in often extremely harsh conditions - and still emerge full of humanity and even generosity towards those who had been his captors? That's what makes his Long Walk to Freedom so fascinating and many prisoners do read this book while they are incarcerated.

For me, serving a prison sentence, particularly a long one, without being able to read would be almost unthinkable. Those who are disadvantaged by illiteracy seem to serve a double sentence. Of course, there is always the rented TV with its nine channels, but reading offers momentary mental escape from confinement. Particularly during my first year in prison I read voraciously (when I could actually get to the library). I suddenly found that I had the enforced leisure to tackle many books that I'd wanted to read for years, but just hadn't found the time.

Denying a prisoner access to books (which I think goes beyond the current controversy about the ban on parcels) seems to me not only unnecessarily cruel and vindictive, but also deeply counter-productive. If rehabilitation is about anything, then surely it should be about re-examining and re-evaluating one's own life and how it has been lived to date. Prison psychology and offending behaviour programmes are all about 'change' and how to achieve it. Books, along with other forms of culture, do have an important role to play in developing empathy and understanding of others. Restricting access to reading material for prisoners would only really be advocated by those who have no understanding of what rehabilitation really means.


  1. Good! I re-read these books recently, however not for the same reason as you.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's amazing how much more you can get out of some books on a second reading!