Prison

Prison

Saturday, 7 March 2015

My Top Ten Prison Books

A regular reader of this blog asked recently if I could recommend a few books about the reality of prison life. He is facing the possible prospect of his first jail sentence in the not too distant future and wants to do a bit of reading to prepare himself for what he can expect to experience behind bars. 

My personal Top Ten prison books
In response to this request, I started to put together my top ten recommendations, together with a few words about why I think each book merits being included in the list. I should stress that this is my own personal selection and I may well have missed others that blog readers might want to recommend.

With one exception, I’ve focused on books and memoirs about British prisons, principally because I wanted my choices to be directly relevant to our prison system and that’s why excellent books about the US experience have been omitted, such as Shaun Attwood’s triology which includes the bestselling Hard Time, a must-read memoir of US prison life that I first read in between loading washing machines while working in a Cat-B prison laundry. For the same reason I’ve also omitted another of my own favourites, Siberian Education (2011) by Nicolai Lilin. 

Anyway, here goes:

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)

For me, this Russian classic will always be the top of the list when it comes to describing the bleak mental and emotional landscape of Soviet labour camps during the Stalinist era. However, that’s not why it’s particularly relevant to life in a modern British prison. Solzhenitsyn’s gift is being able to capture in a very slim volume all the major ‘types’ that you can encounter in prison: the decent con, the grass, the screw-boy, the religious fanatic, the thief, the scrounger, the loser, the naïve lad and the wise old lag. They are all here and it doesn’t much matter that this all happened in Russia. 

I first read this book when I was still at school and interested in Russian literature. However, it was only when I started re-reading it as a prisoner banged-up behind bars that I realised how little I had understood it when I was a kid. If you are facing a stretch, read it – or better still, save it until you’ve been inside for a few months. Then you’ll understand everything.


2. In It by Jonathan Robinson (2014)

I recently reviewed this book for the new monthly prison newspaper Jail Mail (see here). If you really want to read for yourself about the mind-numbing boredom and sheer waste of opportunity that characterises our current prison system, then this recent book is a very good place to start. 

Although he was only serving a few months inside for theft, helicopter pilot Jonathan Robinson’s daily diary still manages to take you on a journey into the bizarre, weird and mundane aspects of prison life, particularly relevant if you are a first-timer facing a short stretch. Since he served his time back in 2012, a few things have changed – notably the imposition of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013 which introduced all sorts of ideologically-motivated nastiness, such as the ill-fated ban on posting in books to prisoners – but otherwise it is spot on, especially when it comes to dissecting the convoluted prison bureaucracy and exposing how any real efforts at achieving rehabilitation seem to have just dropped off the Prison Service’s agenda.

Likely to be doing some time in a Cat-D (open) prison or just fancy a timely antidote to the lies about jails being ‘holiday camps’ served up regularly in the Daily Mail? Then this is probably the best account of what really goes on inside at the moment. 

The follow up volume – On It – documents the author’s battles with politicians, the Ministry of Justice and other authorities to get key issues of rehabilitation, particularly literacy and education, back onto the agenda. His mission continues and in December 2014 he gave evidence before the House of Commons’ Select Committee hearings on Prisons: planning and policies (see here).   


3. Porridge and Passion by Jonathan Aitken (2005)

When he was a Tory politician former MP and cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was widely reckoned to be an arrogant shit. His spectacular fall from grace after he took on The Guardian in an ill-judged libel action and his subsequent imprisonment for perjury in 1999 was much enjoyed by many who felt that he got his deserved comeuppance.

However, even some of his critics were forced to admit that his own account of his prison experiences during the seven months he spent inside out of the 18-month sentence he received was a compelling and humane insider’s view of imprisonment in HMP Belmarsh (Cat-A) and HMP Standford Hill (Cat-D). This is perhaps one of those prison books that shows there can be some redemptive value in serving a sentence that has been justly imposed, quite aside from the religious sentiment that comes from the author’s discovery of evangelical Christianity.

Although some of what he describes in his book is now out of date, it is still a compelling read for anyone who might be facing jail time. Since his release, Mr Aitken has studied theology and remains active in prison reform as a regular speaker and commentator on imprisonment and rehabilitation. 


4. The Pain of Confinement: Prison Diaries by Jimmy Boyle (1985)

Jimmy Boyle’s prison memoirs – A Sense of Freedom (1977) and his Prison Diaries – describe a very different experience of incarceration to most of the accounts penned by fallen politicians or celebrities who have ended up inside. Jeffrey Archer he isn’t.

The sheer brutality and degradation through which Jimmy Boyle lived in various Scottish prisons is the stuff of real nightmares, ranging from brutal violence (much of it his own) to spending long periods being kept stark naked in a special ‘cage’ within a cell and being moved between jails frequently as no governor wanted to have to deal with him. His anger and hatred almost literally drips from every page, at least in the early years of his sentence.

Fortunately, most cons these days don’t get quite that sort of treatment (although some pretty awful things can still happen to those who opt to assault members of staff) but this remains a compelling account that doesn’t spare the reader any sordid detail of life in high security nicks and segregation units back in the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s. These are the kind of books to read when you are already in prison as they make you realise that no matter how bad things may seem, they could always be a whole lot worse. Despite his violent past, Jimmy Boyle is one of the best examples of successful rehabilitation through education and is now a well-known author and sculptor.


5. The Little Book of Prison by Frankie Owens (2012)

This is a very interesting little guide to going to prison for the first time. It is written with the first-timer in mind and contains loads of very useful little tips about getting through a short sentence. While most prison memoirs or diaries tend to skip over crucial practical issues – such as cell etiquette, induction, drugs and – yes, even the vexed question of masturbation in the nick – Frankie Owens deals with it in a frank and forthright way. Although a couple of things are now a bit out of date due to more recent changes in the rules, his book remains an invaluable guide.

He also gives good advice on dealing with the various wackos and weirdos you encounter on every wing and has a very sensible section entitled ‘Getting on with your bird’ (serving your sentence). I can see why this little pocket-sized handbook, which is so very readable, won a Koestler Platinum Award. It deserved to win.

I only read this book when I found it by complete chance in a prison library at my first Cat-C nick – which was a bit late to be honest as I’d already done plenty of jail time. I really wish that I’d had a copy before I got sent down because it would have been a great preparation for my own time in the slammer. Every solicitor and barrister could do worse than recommend it to any literate client they think might be facing a spell behind bars.


6. Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer by Ronnie Thompson (2008)

I’ve included this book in my list because I found it a fascinating read, even if I only came across it months after I’d been released. ‘Ronnie Thompson’ is the pseudonym used by a former screw who became an author after he left HM Prison Service. To read Screwed is to see prison life from the other side of the door – how uniformed members of staff view cons, their colleagues and senior management. I read it cover to cover while sitting on two trains during a seven-hour journey.

To be honest, this book doesn’t make happy reading. Like too many frontline prison officers, Mr Thompson really didn’t like his job, or most of the cons he encountered, or many of his own colleagues. It was probably for the best when he finally handed in his keys. However, he can write and what he has written is both very readable and accurate.

His book does catalogue many of the institutional flaws and shortcomings that are endemic within our dysfunctional prison system – including exposing examples of bent screws stabbing their own colleagues (metaphorically) in the back. The author also penned Banged-Up (2010) which deals with imprisonment from a con’s point of view and Knifer (2011), a very bleak account of young offenders.


7. Parkhurst Tales: Behind the Locked Gates of Britain’s Toughest Jails by Norman Parker (1995)

I first read Parkhurst Tales while I was still a prisoner myself. I came across the paperback edition on the shelves of the true crime section of a Cat-B prison library and plunged in. Norman Parker served over 24 years inside, including a life sentence for murder. His books are both readable and entertaining and I read this one over a single weekend of bang-up. It is one of those rare books you really can’t put down, particularly if you have time on your hands. 

If you only read it for his description the infamous ‘shit-bomb’ incident in a wing office it’s still well worth it. I laughed out loud for quite some time while lying on by prison bunk and I’m still smiling at the memory as I write this.

In recommending this book, I feel that I should add that it documents life in Parkhurst in the ‘bad old days’. Many similar characters still populate our prison wings, but the sense of solidarity between cons – and the truly visceral hatred that existed between most prisoners and screws – appears to have dissipated over time. If you really want to know how to spark off a prison riot or mount an escape attempt, then this is the book for you. Norman Parker embarked on an Open University degree course while he was still a serving prisoner and later earned a Master’s degree in criminology. It just shows what access to education can achieve.


8. The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About Our Prison System by Jim Dawkins (2008)

This is another prison memoir written from the viewpoint of an ex-screw. Like Screwed by Ronnie Thompson it deals with the author’s own experiences as an Army veteran who entered the Prison Service and was shocked by what he discovered while working in several London jails. 

Instead of being encouraged to develop good working relations with inmates in pursuit of reform and rehabilitation, Jim Dawkins quickly became disillusioned by the many flaws he found in the system, including the bullying and victimisation of prisoners by some of his colleagues. After seven years in the job he resigned and wrote this book in order to highlight his views on why and how prisons fail to deliver against their own stated objectives. 

Although a few of the issues covered are now a bit dated, most of the serious problems he describes have actually got much worse as our prisons have become more dangerous due to overcrowding and understaffing. A grim read with moments of humour, but worth taking the time whether you are facing a prison sentence or just care about prison reform. It is a pity we don’t seem to hear anything from the author about the current prison crisis. Perhaps he’s just moved on.


9. Prison Diaries (1-3) by Jeffrey Archer (2002-2004)

I truly agonised before including Lord Archer in my top ten prison reads, but in the end I weakened, so here he is. His three volumes of prison diaries – despite being one of the longest love letters in English literature (Jeffrey Archer’s profound love for Jeffrey Archer) as well as a lengthy whinge about the ‘injustice’ of having been sent down in 2001 for four years for perjury – have still become bestsellers. The man can write.

I had read volume one of his diaries – Hell: Belmarsh (2002) – years before I ended up inside for a similar stretch myself, but I only tackled volumes two and three while serving my sentence. I think that it isn’t an exaggeration to observe that his books can be found in every prison library across the land. I also met a couple of screws, now governor grades, who actually knew the great man himself while he was a con. They are not among his fans. I say no more.

One of the joys of finding well-thumbed copies of these books on the shelf is to see what successive generations of cons have scrawled in the margins – little of it complimentary. However, even though Lord Archer’s spell in the slammer bears all the hallmarks of the privileged ‘accidental’ inmate whose experience behind bars has little in common with that of the average con, these books are still compelling reading. Go on. Give them a go – and enjoy the guilty pleasure.    


10. A Good Man Inside by Will Phillips (2014)

This is a relatively new prison diary written by another untypical white collar prisoner who found himself getting banged-up. Will Phillips is a singer-songwriter and chef whose personal life imploded following depression and misuse of alcohol. In 2010 he ended up getting ‘four sheets’ (years), of which he actually served 300 days inside.

There are some striking parallels between his diary and that of Jonathan Robinson (see above). However, the similarity is limited. Mr Robinson freely acknowledges that he deserved to go to prison for the theft of £80,000 from his then employer; in contrast Mr Phillips believes that he was hard done by and shouldn’t have been sent down at all. That sense of injustice manifests itself across the book. Having said that, it is still readable and many of his observations and criticisms of our prison system remain as valid in 2015 as they were in 2010, although based on my own experiences as a con until 2014 I’d say that things have deteriorated a lot further. 

This is a very slim diary and to be honest it sort of peters out in the middle – whole periods just disappear unmarked – until the diarist regains his interest right at the end of his sentence just prior to his release. I say that less by way of criticism (you should see my own unpublished volumes of prison diaries) and more to highlight just how difficult it is to chronicle long days of nothingness and crushing boredom. It’s worth reading A Good Man Inside if only to get some sense of what prisoners really go through pretty much every day.

33 comments:

  1. I liked "Gopper's Screw", I read it in a Scouse accent:
    http://www.prisonofficer.org.uk/about10.html

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    1. Thanks for the link. I've previously read it myself, but I don't think it's ever been properly published as a book. I saw it more as a work in progress that seems never to have been finished! Interesting though.

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  2. Here's the second chapter:
    http://prisonofficer.org.uk/about12.html

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  3. I will only comment on the ones I have read.

    (1) Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is good. But I disagree with you about why it is good. For me it captures for the form of prison life rather well. The arbitrary and unstable nature of decision making (the temperatures at which point the system decides it is not acceptable for prisoners to work outside) and the passage of time. I think the way the latter is 'translated' (the novella has no chapters) is actually very elegant.

    Solzhenitsyn's book is not actually the best in Russian though. Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead is what established prison memoirs as a separate form (at least in Russia) and is head and shoulders above everything else. Dostoevsky's work is much longer. He characterises a lot of the types you get in prison but delves much deeper into the psychology of offenders, including 'psychopaths', and what being in a prison environment does to people. He perfectly captures the way the offenders act 'irrationally' but when when you actually look at the situation of course they acted relatively rational; it is the system that is irrational. (This was brought home to me when I had a rather frank conversation with a prisoner about why he self-harmed). This book was one of the main motivators for me wanting to work with offenders.

    (2) I have mixed feelings about Robinson's book. I really do not like the form. He describes the absurdity of the prison system very well. But he is too self-conscious when he writes. His remorse is admirable but I think he is too conscious of his audience, and the political result of his writing, and he ends up going too far the other way (comes across insincere at times even though he probably is not).

    (6) Thompson's Screwed was slated by Professor Wilson in Inside Times when he reviewed three prison officer autobiographies. What Thompson does well is capture the ruinous effect that prisons can have on staff (in Thompson's case his marriage), and how poor management and bullying destroys staff who actually want to make a difference to prisoners' lives. They can become self-destructive in terms of drink and drugs, and I can understand why Wilson thought Thompson exaggerated things for dramatic effect (reviews from prison officers on Amazon criticize him on the same grounds), and you are left with the sense that the only difference between the prisoners and the staff is that one has a set of keys. It is definitely worth reading but I would take things with a pinch of salt.

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    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your very helpful contribution! I think that everyone's choice will be different and I am interested to see what other blog readers suggest. My own list grew out of a request for advice and I felt it might be worth sharing it with readers.

      One of my guiding principles was the extent to which the recommended books would help a first-timer who might be facing imprisonment, so I focused on mainly on titles that were either practical guides (such as 'The Little Book of Prison') or had been written by first-timers (Archer, Aitken, Robinson, Phillips), and then added in a couple by ex-POs for balance and an alternative take on the subject. Solzhenitsyn is my own eccentric choice, included because I found the re-read while I was inside so fascinating. Boyle and Parker's memoirs and stories are 'classics' of their genre, but are now pretty outdated, to be honest.

      I would agree with your analysis of Thompson's Screwed - as you read on his personal life disintegrated, so I think he was wise to get out when he did (and perhaps he made the wrong career choice anyway). However, when it comes to exaggeration I have honestly seen similar incidents to those he describes, particularly in Cat-B locals - and some that were much worse - which is why I submitted an extensive written report to HMIP about abuses at one particular establishment.

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  4. For me, I think there are some glaring omissions in this list. You might see Erwin as a journalist but his A Life Inside (2003) is much better than most of the books listed above in terms of content and the actual standard of writing. His account (albeit in The Home Stretch [2005]) of how Felton Leaky deals with prison staff using excrement is hilarious. The way he blends fact into these stories is very engaging.

    For me, though, the three best contemporary accounts of prison life are Leech's A Product of the System (1992), Turney's I'm Still Standing (2002), and Barker's Bending the Bars (2006). Leech's work is just so powerful. You feel the emotion (often anger) coming off the page. I would be surprised to find anyone who had read it and did not feel any sympathy towards Leech and his situation. It fundamentally questions what you think motivates criminal behaviour and destroys simplistic explanations.

    Turney's work is similar to Leech's in that they both suffered traumatic experiences in childhood but I am was interested by his religious conversation towards the end of the book. I do not question his sincerity but I would have liked him to think about the development of his religious views in the context of his past behaviour as lots of people view prisoners becoming religious rather than cynically. I would have liked him to address that rather than his partner's religious views.

    Barker's experiences are from a different time but he links his experience to the present by suggesting that successive political parties have been systematically negligent in their treatment of the criminal justice system. I think statement is truer now than when the book was published during the previous Labour government.

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    1. Thanks again for your further thoughts on this! I have read both of Erwin James' books - and greatly enjoyed them as examples of excellent journalism, since they were written for publication in his Guardian column. I think that one of the main reasons I didn't include either book in my list is that I felt they wouldn't be as helpful for a first-timer as some of the others I selected.

      I've also read Mark Leech's memoir and to be honest it wasn't particularly relevant to the task in hand. While I think it is a powerful book, it is probably of more help for criminologists than for soon-to-be prisoners!

      Had I been selecting my top ten recommendations for a different purpose - for example for student criminologists or trainee prison staff - the list would have looked very different. I'd really like to read your own top ten list of prison books, so if you fancy sending me a guest contribution for the blog by e-mail, I'd be happy to post it! Cheers for all your support.

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  5. Good list although I found Aitken's book rather strange. I'd add Podmore's "Out of signt, Out of mind" and Noel Smith's "A rusty gun"

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I must admit that I prefer Jonathan Aitken's prison memoirs to Jeffrey Archer's - although Archer is probably the better writer. I suppose that the author's stance on why they got sent down - either repentant or self-righteous - does have some impact on the finished product! Many cons who have read Archer found him insufferably smug, as well as manipulative of others (such as paying fellow cons to run errands for him) and I think that does come through in some of his diary entries.

      John Podmore's book is excellent, but I feel that it is more relevant to prison policy, as is Andrew Coyle's The Prisons We Deserve (1994) - although that is also now pretty dated. When compiling my list I did try to include some of the more recent books written by ex-prisoners - especially first-timers - as I thought that they might be more current and helpful to the reader who asked for advice.

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  6. I thought Alex was limiting himself to fiction/autobiographies so I did not discuss non-fiction. Podmore's Out of Sight, Out of Mind is probably the best non-fiction book I have come across on prisons.

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    1. Thanks for the follow-up comment, Richard. You're right - I steered away from more academic books about prisons and prison policy for this list. Having said that, I might be inspired by all this feedback to think about a further list along those lines for a future blog post.

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  7. Dan Angelino's "Prison on an L Plate" is a great little book. Written in a very easy to understand way, it answers most of the questions a first-timer would ask - as well as some they probably hadn't thought of!

    Available on Amazon at a nice low price: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B00KOUPQ28?ie=UTF8&redirectFromSS=1&pc_redir=T1&noEncodingTag=1&fp=1

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have read the reviews and had a look at his website and the book looks interesting. I'm afraid I'm one of those old-fashioned types who prefers a book to be a book, rather than a Kindle electronic version (since I don't own a Kindle!). If this came out in print, then I'd definitely want to read it, but maybe other readers will download it and add some reviews!

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  8. Have you read "Shantaram"?

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    1. Thanks for your question. No, I've not read the book, although I gather it's by an Australian author who had previously served some years in prison and also on the run in India. I've never come across a copy for sale in the UK.

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  9. The film version of "Porridge" was on tv over the weekend. I watched a bit when McCay complains about the low moral of the prison staff at Slade Prison, i guess little has changed since 1979.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I've come to realise just how close 'Porridge' was to reality - minus the violence, of course. I've actually been in a prison with a Scottish prison officer who admitted that he'd modelled his mannerisms and sarcastic wit on Mr MacKay. He could be hysterically funny, as well as fantastically grumpy at times.

      I think that staff morale is at an all-time low. The job has become very bureaucratic, very focused on processes and procedures - yet at the same time staff numbers have been cut pretty drastically, inmate numbers have risen to an all-time high. Our prisons are full of people living with mental health problems, plus an epidemic of so-called legal highs on most wings. Not a great working environment - or a nice place to live! Today's announcement that most prison staff won't be getting any pay rise won't be helping.

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  10. on a completely different topic is anyone else appalled that Jeremy Clarkson hits someone and some idiot starts a petition for him not to get sacked? WE, as a country, need to get away from a mindset that condones the rich and famous behaving badly where if the average Joe in the street did the same thing they'd end up in jail

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Obviously I don't know the whole story, so it's probably not something I'd want to pass judgement on. However, I do think that celebrities - particularly those who are paid using licence-payers' money - do have a responsibility to behave lawfully and decently.

      In an ideal world, everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law and celebrities should be subject to exactly the same legal processes as the rest of us. Unfortunately, the current ideological campaign against Legal Aid is resulting in a clear division between those who have the means to seek legal remedies (or to defend themselves in court), while those who don't are now at risk of being denied access to justice. When you take a look at some of the terrible miscarriages of justice in the USA I think we can all see which way this is going.

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    2. It's always been one rule for the insiders at the top and another rule for the little people. Clarkson is establishment through and through.

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    3. Thanks for your comment. Shocking how some people (too many) reacted by blaming the victim and even threatening him. Absolutely horrific.

      The media - particularly social media - has been full of hatred and vitriol of the kind normally reserved for the murderers of children. Just shows how selfish and blinkered so many otherwise ordinary people can be. Frankly, anyone who feels it is OK to make dire threats of violence online (or in person) against the victim of an unprovoked assault is probably in need of a quick trip to the magistrates court for a timely reminder and an appropriate fine or a stint of community service.

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  11. Hi Alex,

    My neighbour and I are avid readers and are constantly swapping books.

    Thanks for this list of books. I'll try to read a bit of each one before buying a few.

    Incidently I don't have any books on this subject (have watched a few movies though (Escape from Alcatraz and Pappillon - showing my age there!). So am looking forward to getting stuck in!

    Marcel

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    1. Hi Marcel, thanks for your comments. Although this is just a personal top ten, I selected the titles because I felt that each one was specifically helpful to a person who is facing the prospect of imprisonment. I hope that the list will also be interesting for general readers who have an interest in the subject, so enjoy your reading!

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  12. Are HMP Grendon and HMP Dovegate the only therapeutic prisons in the UK?

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    1. Thanks for your question. Although I've never been in either of these establishments, I believe that to be the case, although if I recall correctly there was some kind of therapeutic community ('TC') project at HMP Gartree. I've no idea whether this is still running.

      Having spoken to a couple of people who have been at Dovegate, I gather that in recent years the regime has become much less innovative and experimental - as well as less 'democratic' and therapeutic. In other words, more like a standard prison.

      On the other hand there is a much greater focus on psychology and 'offending behaviour courses' across the prison estate than there was years ago. There is now an expectation that inmates will "address their offending behaviour" while in custody - with penalties for those who can't or won't participate. Lifers and those on other types of indeterminate sentences find it very difficult, if not impossible, to progress towards release without participating.

      Prisoners' opinions on the effectiveness of these programmes and courses is very mixed. Many people don't think they achieve anything, but are just boxes that need to be ticked. Others report that thinking skills courses, anger management programmes and similar interventions have helped them. I think much depends on the individual and their willingness to participate.

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  13. http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31861568
    Prison drugs scanner

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Well that all turned out to be a false rumour! Typical of how these stories do the rounds.

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  14. Shaun Attwood's books are good.

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    1. They are. I actually read his Hard Time memoir when I was banged up in a Cat-B jail. I found it fascinating. If I ever write a post on my top ten books about foreign prisons then his will be close to the top of the list.

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  15. "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler is a good one.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Yep. That's another favourite of mine. I mention it in one of my early posts about reading in prison. It's amazing how many of the prison processes of Stalin's era are still similar to current practices - such as putting any cash you have on you when you arrive in reception into your prison canteen 'spends' account. Koestler's main character has exactly this experience. Amazing really.

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  16. The Pain of Confinement: Prison Diaries has always been my favorite, mainly due to the authenticity, together with the Star Rover from London.

    However, this week I read the University of Solitude from this guy who'd been locked in Iran and for me this is the book every prisoner should have an access to, especially in solitary confinement...

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