10 things I learned ‘inside’
I’d never been inside a prison before I took my job as writer in residence of a high security jail for men. So almost everything I came across was a complete eye-opener. People often ask me what it was like. It’s really hard to appreciate it until you’ve been ‘inside’ yourself. But here’s a taster.
1. Some of my men looked like a stereotype prisoner. Very short hair. Mean face. Thuggish. The kind of chap you might cross the road to avoid for safety’s sake. But others looked like a next door neighbour. Clean prison uniform – usually joggers and sweatshirt. Polite. The sort of person who washes his car every Sunday morning. I had a student like this who turned out to have done something rather nasty to his girlfriend.
2. Many crimes are committed when under the influence of drugs or drink. One of my best writing students took me to one side and said he needed to tell me what he had done. It involved rape after cocaine use. Another of my students had murdered a friend when he was high too. With the governor’s permission, he gave talks to schools about the dangers of illegal substances.
4. Prison is like a small village. My men were on different teams, known as work parties, to help run the place. They gardened; cooked; cleaned; did whatever else was necessary. There was usually a fish tank in each wing. The fish were looked after very carefully. Scary when you think what might have happened to some of my men’s victims.
5. You need to learn a new language in prison. ‘Pod’ means ‘kitchen’. ‘Pad’ means cell. ‘Canteen’ isn’t a place. It’s a list where you order things like newspapers. I had one man working in the pod who put bird poo in someone’s pudding.
6. Prison isn’t always safe. When I was there, one prisoner murdered another. It sent shock waves through all of us. I didn’t have a guard with me when I ran my classes or gave one-to-one writing feedback. Once, when my usual room wasn’t available, the men suggested I ran my workshop upstairs near their pads. This wasn’t usually allowed but the officer said I could ‘if I wanted’. I knew that if something happened to me, the newspapers would brand me as being foolish. But that if I didn’t, the men would think I didn’t trust them. So I went upstairs and it was fine.
7. I was treated very kindly by most of the prisoners. They held doors open for me. They helped get me students. And they really appreciated having a writer in their midst. However, there were a few hairy moments. I was constantly followed round the prison by a man who was in for attempted murder. (I told one of the officers.) I lost a prisoner’s poem and he told me that he was very, very angry. (I found it.) And I was subjected to a barrage of sexual innuendoes by one man during a workshop. (The other men told him to shut up. Eventually he did.)
8. You have to be careful if prisoners get too nice. They might be trying to ‘groom’ you so you will then do them favours. One previous member of staff had apparently sold mobile phones to prisoners and was then jailed as a result.
9. There’s a lot of talent in prison. I found some great writers. Many of my men were doing OU degrees. Another had already been published. I would take in The Bookseller every week and we’d have a good gossip.
10. When you’re about to go into the prison for work, you are scared. You never know what each day is going to bring. But when you’re ‘inside’, you forget to be frightened. You just get on with your work. Then, when you come out at the end of the day, you’re almost on a high because you’ve been in different world that is potentially very dangerous. It would take me at least forty eight hours to ‘come down’. Then it would be time to start again…
Jane Corry recently spent three years working as the writer-in-residence at a high-security prison for men. The experience left her with fascinating insights into prison life and the criminal mind, and these have informed her writing. Read an extract from My Husband’s Wife, her first crime novel, here.