This week I spent a day in prison, thanks to the good offices of the writers’ organization, English PEN. I was part of an ongoing programme aimed to get prisoners talking about their own writing and reading with professional authors.
In a sense, the conversations I had with the men of HMP Downview and, in the afternoon, the women of HMP High Down were not unlike meet-the-author sessions in the free world. We gathered in a library. I talked a bit about the books I’ve written, specifically my biography of Willie Donaldson. The men were a small group (there had been trouble in one of the houseblocks which reduced the numbers, I was told). After an initial wariness, we were soon talking about friendship and funerals, self-censorship and what is permissible to write, how putting things down on paper often helps to make sense of them.
There was a larger gathering in the women’s prison. It was more spirited but less focussed, funnier but somehow sadder.
But these author-reader conversations were quite different from those one has in the outside world – edgier, more hard-eyed, alienated. There was little engagement with the everyday stuff of the outside world. Among the men, books recounting conspiracy theories were particularly popular. A surprising literary hero turned out to be David Icke.
It was an extraordinary, haunting experience, meeting the men and women whom society has removed from itself and, for me at least, it put in perspective the lust for punishment that has been so much in evidence around the Venables case in the media and in the public at large.
Anyone who utters the tired old cliché about modern prison being a holiday camp clearly has never visited one.
Does it work, the author prison visit? For some of those inside, reading and writing does seem to represent a small window into a world of better possibilities. For the visitor, talking to them is privilege.