Dissertation concerns autobiographies written by prisoners in the United
Kingdom. As is so of many writers of autobiography, these prisoners are
marginalised so these autobiographies give them a voice to express their
experiences of the prison and their full identities and what they
perceived as injustices encountered on a daily basis where they, like
other prisoners, were victims. The writers thematise the ways in which,
as prisoners, they were not given a voice and how their autobiographies
counter official discourses that circulate about the hidden world of the
prison. The Dissertation begins by looking at autobiographies written by
men before, or in one case just after, the 1990s Strangeways Riots and
then at more recent examples. Looking at the sociology of imprisonment
and drawing this division is key; we see how prior to the riots various
prisoners used the law to challenge the injustices explored but how the
riots saw the wider prison population taking matters into their own
hands and how their actions may or may not have affected major changes
in the official law and prisoners’ experiences. We also see how
prisoners with negative experiences which violate the ECHR can seek
redress. Still maintaining an emphasis on the sociology of imprisonment,
the Dissertation then probes autobiographies by ethnic minority, and
women prisoners and argues that these have distinctive features as these
people encounter this part of the criminal justice system. Their
writings show how prison autobiography is useful empirical material and
again explore the social conditions that the law engenders and which can
lead to changes in prison law or official calls for change to the way
the law is exercised or better prison management. However, the essay
asks whether further autobiographical writing by prisoners (not only by
ethnic minorities and by women but also by elderly prisoners) be
encouraged to give a contemporary picture of prison life and alert us to
changes that need to be introduced.
Literature review and methodology
delving into an examination of prisoner autobiography, it is first
important to summarise what has already been written about the topic and
prisoner autobiography’s ties with autobiography more widely. It will
also be necessary to outline the methodological approach to this study
and to answer the question of why we should be concerned with
prisoner autobiography and how it differs from other genres. Steve
Morgan writes about how the autobiographical genre at first celebrated
the lives of individuals who tended to be white, male and privileged
but that then there was a move towards ‘alternative accounts’ to the
dominant voices, those of women, blacks, and those who intersect between
categories like black women. Morgan places prisoners within a
marginalised group who inhabit a hidden world
and generally lack a voice.
By writing autobiography, these prisoners come to engage in, what Morgan
calls, a ’counter discourse’.
idea links prison autobiography with the autobiographies of other
marginalised groups, such as ethnic minorities and gay men, and some
prison autobiographies are indeed written by members of these minorities
showing how they cross categories. The problem of finding a voice was
key to American black writer Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird
being raped by a white man leaves Angelou mute but she learns to voice
her predicament. Gay men and lesbians grapple with language in a
different way. Since gay men and lesbians are not visible minorities
they begin life ‘in the closet’, with their true identities hidden and
in later life many ‘come out’ and express themselves openly by saying ‘I
am gay’. Paul Robinson has written about how gay autobiography, for
instance, traces the coming-out process where writers unmask themselves
both to those around them and to the reader through the act of writing.
Later, Georgia Johnston wrote that contained within gay autobiography is
the psychological double being, where there is the closeted gay man who
is one thing on the surface and another in reality and the ‘writer’ who
has come-out as whole.
As the ‘auto’ in autobiography indicates, the genre concerns expressing
the true self. This idea of finding a voice to express what lies hidden
and to express one’s full identity is also pertinent to prison
autobiography, as we shall see.
have written on the way in which prisoners’ use of language is censored
or is not curtailed. Steve Foster comments on the case R. (on the
application of Nilsen) v Secretary of the State for the Home Department
and on whether a prison governor breached the Prison Act 1952 and
acted ‘ultra vires’ by confiscating a prisoner’s autobiography. Foster
considers whether the ECHR 1950 Article 10 permits such expression by
Foster picks this up in a second article questioning whether the prison
Governor has the power to prevent the publication of prisoners’ works.
Similarly, Julian Broadhead examines the Police Service Standing Order
5B which prevents the publication of works which attack the prison
However, as Broadhead discusses elsewhere, the rules are treated with
flexibility and many prisoners are not prevented from publishing their
But more recently in Part 7 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which
came into force on 6 April 2010, the notion that it was illegal for
prisoners to profit financially from such writings came into law.
have further written about the value of such criminal ‘insider’ accounts
and their contribution to criminology.
Hayley Killengrey writes about types of research methods used in
studying prisoners experiences and points to their limitations. For
example, she points out that one method is researcher participant
observation but that this is fraught with difficulty since there is
limited access into the research locale of the prison.
She also notes that prisoners, aware that they are being observed, may
alter their behaviour to send out a certain picture.
Another method, raised by Killengrey, is that of conducting interviews,
however researcher biases may enter the questions and prisoners may
shape their responses knowing that they are being studied.
Studying prisoner autobiographical first-person accounts at least
side-steps the problem the researcher faces in gaining access to the
research locale. Melissa Dearey et al make much the same points,
looking at prisoner life writing in the context of teaching and
They also argue that many prisoners would not be willing to participate
in academic research or would answer the interview questions with
Mike Nellis further argues that studying these autobiographies is a
‘life history approach’ used in social science degrees and he argues
that these texts can be used in training probation officers.
methodology in this Dissertation is therefore to treat the prison
autobiographies as primary sources and to quote extensively from them
for what they reveal about prisoners’ experiences and the law. By
quoting from these works I am treating them much as Nellis argues
interviews and questionnaires are treated in the social sciences. It is
important to realise that these are not just books taken off the shelf
and read for entertainment but that they can be used for empirical
qualitative research. So I have not just read books and am not just
presenting a string of quotations from them. Also, as shall become
apparent, the lack of certain autobiography means that we are still
reliant on already completed qualitative surveys. Additionally, it needs
to be mentioned that disciplines such as English are just as important
to this study as the social sciences like sociology since literary
genres are alluded to by prisoners, since structuralist analysis reveals
similarities between these autobiographies, and since techniques like
irony are employed.
while it is important to see that these autobiographies can be studied
in disciplines like English, the question of why these autobiographies
matter to legal scholars is an important one. The approach
here begins by looking at the sociology of imprisonment, probing the
experiences of those affected by the law, but does not stop there and
investigates how some of the social factors of imprisonment led to the
development of prison law. In order to gain a full picture of prison
life, then, one must go beyond black-letter law, as a set of rules and
principles, and this is something that autobiography as a genre, which
commonly involves marginalised figures voicing a true identity, enables
us to do. Solely studying black-letter law is very limited since it does
not highlight the way the law affects people through imprisonment and
does not allow for the way social conditions of imprisonment affect
legal change. These books matter because of the way some male prisoners
turned to legally fight what they perceived to be the prison injustices
described in the initial part of this Dissertation; because these
prisoners, and others, then acted contrary to official law by rioting in
order to protest their conditions; and because these texts detail the
effect that this had on the development of prison law and, in turn, on
prisoners’ experiences. So looking at autobiography, rather than relying
on qualitative surveys, is also important to gain a historical
perspective of the development of prison law. Moreover, prisoners have
opportunities to seek redress for violations of the ECHR showing how law
which was not particularly designed to safeguard the interests of
prisoners is important. Furthermore, looking at the sociology of
imprisonment matters because it reveals that prisoners are not a
homogeneous mass. Rather there are different groups affected by the law
in different ways with specific needs which must also be addressed by
the law and by better prison management. Some would use the term
‘socio-legal’ to express the approach I am taking.
looking at what these autobiographies tell us about prisoners’
experiences and the law, these works differ from other genres. David
Wilson reveals that prisoner autobiographies have their origins in the
picaresque novels of the eighteenth century, in the confessions
contained within the Newgate Calendar and in execution broadsheet
pamphlets which were distributed on ‘hanging days’.
The picaresque novel was, like autobiographies, traditionally written in
the first person, and was told in a Realist manner, but was ‘invented’
and did not concern incarceration; the main character was of a low
social class and his or her behavior was roguish but not criminal.
The Newgate Calendar, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
meanwhile, began as a monthly bulletin of executions but other
publishers appropriated it and put out biographical books about
criminals along with social commentary. These, however, were written in
the third person.
Broadsheet pamphlets would be released on the very day of hangings and
surprisingly, given the public enthusiasm at executions, were not
sensationalist. Giving details of the prisoner’s life and family they
too were third-person accounts and were not about prisons. Melissa
Dearey et al
also point to another form of text. Execution sermons were the
predominant form of criminal narratives in New England in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which drew in large crowds.
However, unlike autobiographies, these Christian sermons were preached
in the third person and, rather than detailing the system of
imprisonment, were concerned with the spiritual redemption of the
‘condemned’ ‘sinner’ also the fault of the community.
has also noted that prisoner autobiographies are a staple of the ‘true
while Dearey et al have argued more persuasively that ‘true
crime’ runs alongside prisoner autobiography and that prisoner life
writing can be seen as a ’sub-genre of true crime’.
There are important distinctions to be made between the two. Dearey
et al cite Jean Murley
and write that true crime is a highly accessible biographical account,
whether in novel form, magazines, documentaries etc., which marked a
departure from a concern with the spiritual condition of the accused, as
evidenced by the execution sermons, to a fascination with ‘gothic horror
and gore (depicting the offender as ‘other’, a ‘monster’, and rendering
visible the gory details of the crimes)’ and the life which led up to
This ran alongside a modern twentieth century interest in forensics and
These, however, are not the first person accounts of autobiography which
detail incarceration, and critic Alex Ross is sceptical about the ‘true
crime’ genre’s contribution to an understanding of crime and punishment.
approach of this Dissertation, of teasing out what prisoner
autobiography tells us about prisoners’ experiences and the law through
a close reading is itself not exhausted. Studies such as those by Morgan
do not provide detailed readings of the autobiographies. Julian
Broadhead’s book Unlocking the Prison Muse,
meanwhile, gives a very brief summary of all types of prisoner writing
and does not go into the depth that this Dissertation does.
remains one important point to be made before turning to the
autobiographies. Just as there are pitfalls involved in research methods
such as participant observation and interviews, notably the reliability
of the subjects, there are dangers associated with studying
autobiographical writing. This goes for all autobiographical writing and
not just prisoner autobiographies. As Killengrey notes, events can be
exaggerated but she explains that this still reveals much about the
criminal state of mind.
The reliability of accounts is raised in relation to specific
autobiographies. One writer, only in prison for a year, tells us that he
has ‘avoided relating prison “legends”’ and has also ‘checked’ his
‘recollection of details…with others who are well acquainted with them,
in order to neutralize the chance that’ his ‘memory has made some things
seem worse than they actually were’.
One editor notes that ‘As to such matters as authenticity…I cannot give
He continues ‘We all live…“selected fictions”. These fictions can never
be fully checked out’.
The editor says, ‘Of course [the writer] has…reconstructed his past,
selected and repressed, emphasized and played down. Of course his story
But this does not mean that there are not valuable insights into prison
life contained within. The editor states that he has checked
authenticity as far as possible since there is a ‘hierarchy of
credibility’ where deviants are ‘thought to have forfeited their right
to be believed’.
Another autobiography is lent credibility by a foreword by a judge, His
Honour James Pickles.
Prisoner autobiographies 1970s - 1992
section looks at autobiographies by males from the 1970s up until 1992,
just after the Strangeways Riots and highlights, in a sociological
manner, the experiences of those affected by the law. These books are by
John William Fletcher,
and Trevor Hercules.
This section does not examine of texts written before the 1960s like
Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis,
Wilfred Macartney’s Walls Have Mouths,
Jim Phelan’s Jail Journey,
Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy,
or prison diaries.
appropriate to begin with a discussion of one of the main characters in
prison autobiographies: the external appearance and layout of the prison
itself because it is a physical place of incarceration. We earlier saw
connections between prisoners, gay men and blacks as groups who are
marginalised, however there is also a key difference when it comes to
considering prisoners. Unlike gay men and ethnic minorities, prisoners
are not born into their category and unlike these other groups the
category of ‘prisoner’ is directly linked with a physical environment
into which these people are placed. These people are moved around the
different prisons, often, following the 1960s Mountbatten Report,
according to how they are categorized in terms of the threat they pose.
Caird writes of the prison as having ‘great wooden gates, and grey
forbidding walls’ like a ‘fortress’,
while Leech comments on the ‘huge gates’ closing behind him.
Also, Trevor Hercules describes the physical structure of the prison in
relation to the genre of gothic-horror. One of the conventions of the
eighteenth and nineteenth-century gothic was its uncanny setting whether
that be an old decaying castle, a monastery, a haunted house or a
graveyard and another convention was the use of the pathetic fallacy
where turbulent nature such as thunder expressed an emotional condition.
After noting that ‘the gates of hell swung open’,
Hercules makes an intertextual reference to a famous gothic novel,
stating that ‘Entering the gates of Wormwood Scrubs prison on a cold
December night was just like entering Dracula’s castle’ with a ‘maze of
preparing for a discussion of the prison as a sinuous and emotionally
The connection with the gothic is also important since as Caird
highlights many prisons in the United Kingdom ‘were constructed around
the middle of the nineteenth century’.
The links with the gothic here are different from those in the true
crime genre, noted earlier, where the crimes were depicted with gothic
do some writers describe the external appearance of the prison, but they
all go to great pains to describe the inside layout; descriptions of the
various wings and of the cells (including those in the segregated
punishment blocks) are given in minute detail.
Indeed, Caird likens the cell to another gothic motif, the tomb, when he
says that the doors being shut made one feel as though one was in ‘an
provides a first-hand account of Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes’
discussion of the nineteenth century prison having been built with
splendor to emphasise the state’s power, resembling castles or
monasteries with the design typifying penance and punishment.
The gothic also created a feeling of the sublime in keeping with Edmund
and, as has been seen, prisoners are overwhelmed by the sight of the
prison; they undergo a sublime experience feeling the power of the
State, just as their hearing is played with when the cell doors bang
Hancock and Jewkes further note that the insides, which had resembled
that of factories, creating a link between workers receiving a wage and
prisoners ‘doing time’,
now served the function of the ‘psychological’ as well as physical
‘compression of inmates’.
This was also earlier discussed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham who raised
the notion of the Panopticon. All this clearly differs from those
prisons designed to resemble a school or university campus in the 1960s
and the few ‘new generation prisons’ of the late twentieth century,
which were designed ‘devoid of the dehumanising features of their
Victorian predecessors’ in order to cater to prisoners.
comes across in these autobiographies is that prisoners in the criminal
justice system are marginalised and find a voice to express the
invisible world within, and so in this way their autobiographies
mirror those of blacks and gay men. Many of the writers under
consideration reveal their origins as mute figures and so the
autobiographies trace their journeys to find speech. Fletcher reveals
how the official in charge of Reception told him ‘From now on you keep
this buttoned’…pointing at [his] mouth…‘you don’t speak to anyone under
any circumstances whatever…This is an absolutely silent system’.
At the start of his autobiography, Caird details the journey to Wormwood
Scrubs where prisoners were escorted by sympathetic and paternal
officers, the senior of whom told them ‘You lads’ll be all right. All
you have to do is keep your mouths shut and do what you’re told’.
theme of the censoring of written language recurs in a number of
autobiographies. For example, Caird writes about how every prisoner was
entitled to send one letter per week paid for by the prison authorities
and a second letter paid for out of earnings (a ‘canteen letter’),
however that there are ‘restrictions regarding to whom you can write,
and what you can say’.
These restrictions not only mean that prisoners cannot write to
non-blood relative prisoners in other penal institutions but also mean
that it is illegal to write in a foreign language, ‘to complain about
treatment in prison, to insult the prison staff, to use abusive language
(about anything) and so on.
We are told that at Coldingley there is an attempt ‘to control prisoners
beyond the demands of physical containment. Influences are exerted not
only on prisoners’ actions, but also on their thoughts’.
Again, we are informed that as well as reading materials, letters could
Obviously, by writing autobiographies, however, these people are
ultimately complaining about treatment in prison, insulting the prison
staff and often using abusive language; their thoughts are very much
their own. Although, as noted earlier, many prisoners were not
obstructed in their attempts to publish their autobiographies,
one writer McVicar indeed had to tell wardens that he was preparing an
upcoming defense for firearms charges since at HMP Brixton he was
monitored 24 hours a day (one of those spent in the exercise yard) and
prison rules explicitly forbade prisoners from writing memoirs for
Luckily for him, the prison wardens never became suspicious and he was
left to write his manuscript, then taken out of the prison for
publication under the guise of ‘defense documents’ by one of his
Even then, though, before the 2009 decision that only profiting
financially from publishing autobiographies be illegal, he faced no
opposition when the autobiography was published.
writers are able to express, then, that prison is a different world with
its own rules, its own language, and a daily routine which includes meal
times and work times. It is by this routine, for instance, that one
Caird refers to ‘the language and way of life of prisons’
and says: ‘I was now directly under the control of the Prison Department
and it acted as a buffer between me and reality…I was now in a different
world, with its own rules and norms, and even language’.
He notes that they ‘began to pick up the prison language and discover a
little of what conditions were like and…the routine’ from those who had
been imprisoned before.
a prevailing sense in these autobiographies that as the prison system is
closed off from the public view that prisoners are victims of injustices
which are ignored. According to these writers, prisoners are largely
seen as ‘the other’ and prisons act to dehumanise them while some
inmates tell their life story giving them a human face. This
dehumanization, though, occurs physically and psychologically at the
same time. In this way too, the autobiographies deal with the lack of
identity and the expression of a true identity that we have seen is so
key to autobiography. Caird, Probyn, Leech, and Hercules reveal how they
and prisoners generally were stripped of their identity. Caird writes:
‘We were taken…down a long corridor…It is a tunnel which strips off
every connection a man has with the outside world and provides him with
a number and a set of prison clothes, quite anonymous and
Caird goes on to say that ‘innumerable forms retain the man’s identity
for his release date, and a store holds all his clothes and belongings
in limbo until he has paid his debt as a convict and is thought fit to
become a whole person again’.
Caird also reveals that there is a bath-house and that he, like others,
‘had surrendered the belongings of normal life, taken off the clothes of
normal life, and washed off the smell and dirt of normal life’.
Therefore, there is a type of baptism taking place, using water, but
here rather than being a positive religious one it is one into the ways
of prison life.
details the move from being made to disrobe, to, as in Caird’s
to being examined by a doctor in a ‘brutal and dehumanising process’
where ‘No part of one‘s anatomy was allowed to escape scrutiny’.
Here the younger prisoners generally were degraded through the use of
their bodies since the case of disrobing was ‘particularly trying for
very young boys who would have to suffer the leering stares of
sex-starved men who had developed homosexual tendencies’.
But clothing, footwear and the human figure are also used slightly
differently by Probyn from the other writers considered here. He states
‘A heap of clothing was thrown at one…no selection of size was made, and
one was often issued with odd shoes’ which, very importantly, were
‘shapeless things that were made by the prisoners and had little
resemblance to the shape of human feet’.
Therefore, the notion of dehumanising comes across here too, as it does
again when Probyn describes being marched to a cell where ‘The sense of
isolation from humanity felt total and complete’.
meanwhile, states that ‘Before the new arrival has been in the door
twenty-four hours, he has been stripped of his name and had it replaced
by a number, and his clothes are removed and replaced by cast-off
clothing’ and ‘he is given a cursory medical examination by prison
Leech importantly reveals that the cast-off clothing ‘frequently…doesn’t
but, unlike Probyn, does not emphasise that the clothes do not resemble
the human anatomy in order to highlight the dehumanising nature of
also visits the dehumanising theme, writing: ‘the screws at the desk had
begun to call us up one by one to be stripped of our own clothes and
issued with prison clothing, and a prison number’.
He continues ‘We were stripped of all personal possessions…you were left
with nothing that personalised you…You were no more a name but a
Hercules illuminates how the screws ‘were conditioning you to accept
that you were nobody’.
Leech and Hercules also emphasised the dehumanising nature of prison in
another way, which is to reveal the unsanitary conditions suitable only
for animals. Caird describes in detail the process of ‘slopping-out’ and
of cleaning oneself more generally.
Leech adopts a bitter ironic tone characteristic of his autobiography.
Leech writes that at dawn the prisoner ‘will be unlocked and told to
slop out the plastic pot which may have held his and his cell mate’s
bodily waste for anything up to sixteen hours’.
Leech continues: ‘He will carry his pot to the recess which is often
flooded because of overuse and, treading amid faeces and urine, he will
add to the overflow by pouring its contents down the common sluice’.
He then tells us using irony: ‘When this is completed, a charming
start to the day, everyone goes for breakfast’.
Hercules, meanwhile, tells of the difficulties of going to the toilet in
the Segregation Unit because of being visible and being told to hurry up
as well as ‘slopping-out’ which consisted of emptying the ‘piss-pot’
‘like you were some kind of animal’.
And if the sight and sounds of the prison inspired terror then another
sense is played with here: that of the awful smell of human waste.
writers also convey the way that both they and prisoners generally are
victims of these dehumanising conditions through emphasising that they
belong to a lineage of prisoners. Caird, for example, writes that there
were traces of previous prisoners at the Scrubs such as the ‘many recent
scratches and flacked-off patches’ on the wall.
Probyn, meanwhile, states of the dehumanising bathing process: ‘Having
stripped naked, one would then have to step into a bath of water, the
sides of which were coated with the scum of previous occupants’.
Again, when Probyn is marched up to his cell, ‘The heavy wooden door
swung open to reveal a dark filthy hole that stank of the previous
occupant and oozed with generations of despair and misery’.
Prisoners are also ‘othered’ and further treated as animals by officers,
tortured psychologically and physically. Hercules illuminates how the
screws poked fun at prisoners and their anatomy.
But more commonly, animal imagery is employed. For example, Fletcher
writes of the two and a half years he spent in Solitary Confinement at
Dartmoor when he ‘even went on exercise inside a cage, like a trapped
Fletcher says that ‘One prison Governor…treated us like beasts’ so the
next day they ‘all made animal noises at him from behind’ their ‘bars,
from donkeys to sheep, just like a human zoo’.
Fletcher writes that one ‘gets so dehumanised by the lack of any common
Similarly, McVicar states ‘In the 60s, the only cattle left in Durham
Town were the prisoners and they were farmed by the screws’.
He continues ‘Tradition was not entirely lost though, since those Durham
screws had a little of the reivers’ steely blood coursing through their
veins. They like their meat red and raw and their favourite cut was a
slice of London convict’.
McVicar explains that the ‘treatment provided for the rebellious…was the
time-honoured one of a good kicking’,
with the term ‘time-honoured’ suggesting how prisoners on the whole are
victims of these beatings.
also says that he ‘was now becoming an animal in a caged environment
where’ he ‘couldn’t get out, and the baiting and taunting of the keepers
made’ him ’more and more angry’.
He later comments ’We were angry at a system which…merely contained you
in conditions that dehumanised you and turned you into an animal’.
These were ‘conditions under which you had to be macho…to survive with
your dignity intact’.
He notes that he ‘thought of what it would be like to be free of the
confinement of an enclosed space of being locked up in a small cell like
an animal ’.
prisoners are concerned with portraying their captors as monsters or
savage animals and themselves very much as victims. If the prisoners
were dehumanised by the prison system, they equally dehumanise the
prison officers. Most prisoners are identified by name and form part of
a shared culture, which only excludes prisoners such as the ‘nonce’, the
sex offender, who is the target of prison violence by younger inmates.
McVicar refers to sex offenders - as ‘fucking animal[s]’,
who, as Caird notes, are confined away from other prisoners under Rule
But these officers, who conduct beatings, are impersonal, not identified
by name. Also, while the prisoners can be like ‘zombie[s]’
so too are the officers: the walking, emotionless dead, as Hercules puts
or themselves ‘snarling animals’ issuing threats, as Probyn expresses.
writers, then, are concerned with voicing this dehumanising system, as
it affects themselves and other prisoners as victims. This is key since
we will see in the next section how these prison experiences led to
challenges to the law (both officially and unofficially) by these
writers. The fact that the experiences are not unique to the writers of
these autobiographies but are shared by the wider prison population is
also important to the next section where we see how there was a
mass-scale rebellion against the prison system by inmates.
important then to realise that the stories about what occurs in prisons
are rooted in fact and to be aware of how writers stress making visible
the dehumanising victimising nature of prisons which is usually kept
hidden by the justice system and by the media. Caird refers to the
‘warning’ he was given on the way to the prison ‘against some of the
elaborate stories which constantly circulate round the prisons’, such as
‘accounts of beating-ups and victimization, gruesome attacks on
prisoners by officers’, but he points out that ‘most…have a foundation
in fact…beneath the…legend’.
thematises making visible the brutality of officers to prisoners
of which we have seen specific writers as victims. He appeals to the
reader of the autobiography directly: ‘So please, dear reader, remember
when you read in the papers of violence in a prison, that there is
usually a prisoner’s side to this but you are never given this side of
He sums up: ‘the newspapers condemn the prisoner every time’.
He then tells us that ‘Whenever there is an enquiry or an important
visitor comes to a prison, things are always prepared for the visit and
the visitor only sees what the prison authorities wish him or her to
see’ so that the public will not be ‘up in arms over atrocities
committed in English prisons’.
also writes about the reality of what transpires in prisons compared to
the common perception, and the way the reality is also ignored. In
addition to stating that ‘Walking in a line with other unfortunates’
the prisoner ‘is…put into a narrow concrete box - which, contrary to
general opinion, frequently doesn’t even contain a pot to piss in’,
Leech tells us about prison brutality. This was experienced by himself
and other prisoners. He states ‘I am well aware that many people believe
that such brutality does not exist in our prisons, or that a “clip
around the ear never hurt anyone”.
‘The first view’ he writes ‘takes innocence to the point of idiocy,
while the second stretches innocence to the very edge of dishonesty’.
Leech notes that ‘the postmortem on’ one man ‘revealed more than eighty
bruises, a fracture of his lower spine, and two of his teeth lodged in
Leech concludes in a bitter ironic tone that ‘The inquest, which lasted
for nine days, failed to discover how he had sustained these injuries
while locked in a strip cell in the hospital wing of the prison’.
is evidently a place then which dehumanises inmates and where criminals
were sent for punishment rather than just as punishment,
an idea which, Caird notes, was championed in the nineteenth century by
Sir Edmund du Cane but was not supported by the Gladstone Committee.
This is also a notion raised by Probyn. According to Probyn, prisoners
are branded with the ‘label’ criminal for life, by both the criminal
justice system and indeed also by the media, and the aim is to punish
rather than rehabilitate them. Rather than being seen as having a human
face, as comes across in the autobiography, Probyn tells us that he was
dubbed with the name ‘Angel Face’ to emphasise how his youthful angelic
appearance was a front for wickedness and that this ‘label’
was one that stuck.
This notion of ‘labeling theory’ is highlighted in the Commentary to the
The prisoners are not the kind of ‘ideal victim’ described by Sandra
Walklate who is blameless and worthy of help, like the murdered or
abducted little girl,
and their plight is indeed created by the criminal justice system. It is
up to them to fight back.
and Leech’s autobiographies are important since they argue that this
system could be challenged from within, using law (either successfully
or unsuccessfully), and therefore their books are useful to legal
scholars. For example, Probyn abandons his attempts at escape, conducted
with McVicar, and, having taught himself to read and attended law and
sociology classes on the wing,
seeks freedom from the dehumanising system we have seen and petitions
the Home Office (unsuccessfully) for parole. He sees his penalty as an
‘abuse of the law’
and against a statutory duty to the public ‘to facilitate the
He explicitly states that he has ‘become the victim’, and this
‘torture…is only a new variation on those’ he has ‘already suffered
these many years’.
Only after considerable time, was his parole granted in 1974 when unlike
on the previous occasions he had petitioned for parole he had no promise
of employment and building a new positive life on the outside.
also ’threw’ himself ‘into legal studies’
and his concern is with the harsh disciplinary procedures that existed
in prisons along with the other dehumanising features we have seen.
Leech reveals, for instance, that in 1978 the case of St Germain
held that adjudications by the prisons’ Board of Visitors (BOV’s) were
as was key in the 1984 case of R v Secretary of State, ex p Tarrant
which held that the BOV had failed to apply the law fairly. The BOV’s
were an independent body created by the Prison Act 1898.
Following Tarrant, the Prison Rules (Amendment) Act 1989 saw the
introduction of a new Rule 47, detailing specific offences which the
Governor could refer to the BOV.
Leech also went on to challenge the 1984 case of King v. Deputy
Governor of Camphill Prison
which held that ‘a prison governor’s disciplinary adjudication was not
susceptible to…judicial review’
with the 1988 case Leech v Deputy Governor of Parkhurst Prison.
these writers emphasise the lack of official concern with rehabilitation
and the harsh conditions prisoners had to endure, there were, however,
attempts at reform through the constructions of open prisons.
But Leech also presents a different model of the prison still which
seems to offer greater ‘justice’: this is the therapeutic prison of HM
Grendon Underwood, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom, which
emphasises rehabilitation. Firstly, it is worth mentioning that while we
have seen that the normal prison is a forbidding place in external and
internal appearance, Leech describes his first impressions of Grendon as
different from ‘the mists of sodden Dartmoor’ which he had left behind.
Grendon conversely has ‘pleasant gardens blooming with flowers’
and ‘highly polished’ floors and a building which ‘actually smelt clean
Leech also refers to the different atmosphere where the ‘screws’ asked
questions of him rather than barking orders
and addressed him by his first name, leaving him ‘trying to suss out the
Grendon, involves what its members refer to as ‘Grendonspeak’.
Members recount their life story, which in Leech’s case include
revealing his long-kept secret of being the victim of child abuse and
coming-out as gay.
And members face up to their criminal ways with other members of the
group supporting each other critically. As Leech points out, ‘Grendon
looked…to the criminal’
treating them in a humanised way which encourages self-advancement.
Leech describes his fellows since there is very much a shared culture.
Leech comes to realise that he must carry the experience of Grendon
within him. Leech suggests some ways that the Home Office may learn from
Grendon: firstly, by making sure everyone knows what Grendon does,
perhaps by a video showing Grendon in action; and also by developing and
distributing literature packs giving information on how to apply, and
who would be suitable.
This autobiography is written by the Leech who has already undergone
therapy at HM Grendon, and is comfortable with speech, since as Dorothy
Sheridan notes autobiography involves different layers of time, where
the person’s life is being narrated much later on after the events which
conclude the autobiography.
The approach adopted here of looking at what autobiography has to say
about Grendon is similar to David Wilson and Steven McCabe’s article
which focuses not only on Leech’s autobiography but also on those by
and Alex Alexandrovich.
other viable alternative to the traditional prison was a psychiatric
hospital, however these were technically for the insane and according to
reports could be dehumanizing. Probyn, for instance, builds up the
suspense of encountering a psychiatric patient, referring to the sound
of a creature coming slowly towards him: ‘I heard a ghastly groan and
the slither of a body moving along the corridor towards the entrance of
my cell. I could hear grunts and gasping breath as whatever it was drew
Probyn then describes a creature appearing visually like ‘something from
a horror film’, with ‘The face…bloated and covered on one side with a
mass of scar tissue’ and ‘The eyelid on the scarred side of the face’
drooping ‘away from the eye showing the blood-red socket’
before his ‘horror turned to…sympathy’ and he came to know ‘This
wretched creature’ by name.
The staff did not treat this figure as a person, punching him as hard as
they could and, ‘Even though it might not hurt him’ as he was paralysed
on one side, ‘the enthusiasm with which it was administered was
is an exception and the 1990 Strangeways Prison Riot, which saw
prisoners taking matters into their own hands and acting contrary to the
law, can be read in the context of what these autobiographical writers
have to say about more common prison conditions where prisoners are
victims. The Strangeways Riot, mentioned by Leech,
occurred at Strangeways Prison in Manchester and is notable for its
scale. It lasted for 25 days, beginning on April 1 1990, and spread from
the prison chapel through most of the prison involving a rooftop
The violence led to the death of one prisoner and one officer with
nearly 200 injured.
The cost of the damage was £55 million.
This led to similar uprisings in prisons across the United Kingdom and
an official inquiry into prison conditions was launched by the
then-Conservative government and headed by Lord Woolf,
however the Home Office took steps to create an offence of ‘prison
mutiny’ carrying a maximum sentence of ten years’ extra imprisonment.
Prisoner autobiographies post-1992
section examines what prisoner autobiographies have to say about the
prison experience post-Strangeways. Did Strangeways affect a notable
change in the law in favour of prisoners? Are their experiences much
improved? And can those with negative experiences which violate the ECHR
continue to seek redress? The section excludes Hugh Collins’ Scottish
since, although published later, Collins only refers to events as
late as 1991, where his book stops. Most of Johnny Steele’s book also
concerns his imprisonment in the pre-1990s in a Scottish prison.
I also exclude Jeffrey Archer’s work since his are diaries,
and Erwin James’ series of letters to The Guardian.
Those autobiographies that will be focused on are John Hoskison’s,
the later sections of Razor Smith’s,
and Jonathan Aitken’s.
Strangeways Riots and Lord Woolf’s report wrought changes to the prison
system for the better, but this was an ‘all-too-brief honeymoon period’,
shattered by the arrival of Michael Howard as Home Secretary. Howard’s
influence is touched upon by Hoskison but is dealt with in more detail
by Smith, making his book of use to legal scholars. According to Smith,
as a result of Strangeways, new jails had been built like Highdown,
Woodhill and Blakenhurst and Smith refers to the Woolf Report in detail
which recommended that attention be paid to improving the following: the
cramped conditions of three to a cell built for one; the filthy nature
of prisons where inmates were forced to go to the toilet in plastic
buckets and pots; the restrictions on inmates showering and changing
their clothes; and the low priority given to work and education in
Woolf was concerned with rehabilitating prisoners. As Smith suggests,
this Report briefly improved the system.
as Smith goes on to explain, Howard’s policies included slashing the
prison education budget by 89 per cent; and both eliminating home-leave
towards the end of prisoners’ sentences
and shelving resettlement projects.
Smith also reveals that a couple of prison break-outs, at Whitemoor and
Parkhurst, which left Howard embarrassed, led to his taking an even
harder line on prisoners: he commissioned the Woodcock and Learmont
reports prompting him to introduce a system called ‘Volumetric Control’,
where a prisoner was only allowed to possess a quantity of personal
items which would fit inside two standard size cardboard boxes and could
be forced to repack and unpack everything over and over as a means of
As well as what Smith calls ‘The Gestapo-like Dedicated Search Teams’,
one of a number of initiatives to monitor prisoners, Howard introduced
the IEPS (Incentive and Earned Privileges Scheme) where behaviour in
prison determines inmates’ access to association, the length of their
visits, whether they have to wear prison clothes and how much of their
own money they are allowed to spend per week at the canteen.
Smith also explains how mandatory drug testing led to addicts switching
from cannabis to the more harmful heroin. Prisoners may do so because
heroin is easier to get into the prison, and makes users unaware of
their incarceration, but also because, unlike cannabis, heroin stays in
the blood stream for only three days, important where drug testing was
Injecting heroin is also dangerous because sharing needles can lead to
the spreading of infections such as HIV and hepatitis.
Smith tells us that Howard’s reign had a ‘serious effect…on the prison
system and is still having today’.
also comes across in prisoner autobiographies, however, is that the type
of experiences inmates have largely depends upon the individual
governor. These prisoners are circulated among different prisons.
Hoskison describes prison as dehumanising and the cells as
and anything but the holiday camp described by the newspapers.
Prisons could be ‘shitholes’
and ‘alien and antagonistic’ ‘like landing on another planet’
but could be ‘on another planet’ from one another.
Hoskison reveals how the governor at Coldingley stated that his
decision-making powers were largely tied by the Home Office.
However, Smith discusses arriving back at Highdown in 1995 and finding
the prison ‘more settled’ with a ‘good atmosphere’ which he puts down to
the Governor ‘a progressive liberal who believed in treating prisoners
Aitken also writes about how the change in atmosphere during the final
months of his sentence was due largely to the arrival of a new Governor
at HMP Standford Hill. Aitken says that ‘Like a brisk new headmaster
taking the reins of a school that had fallen into bad habits, he made
his presence felt by smartening the place up…he was…accessible and
always ready to talk to’ and even apologise to, any inmate.
Aitken reveals how he promised the prison officers not to be too hard in
his book on those doing a job with ‘fairness…under enormous pressures’.
Michael O’Brien’s book
is noteworthy since it draws a contrast between the violation of
prisoner’s rights which still occurs, where prisoners are not treated
humanely, and the way the law can be used to redress this, giving
prisoners human rights, making his work also of use to legal scholars.
O’Brien’s book differs since he spends less room recounting his own
experiences. O’Brien revisits the idea that what transpires in prison is
hidden from the outside world
and draws attention, very importantly using case studies, to the way
prisoners are degraded in violation of Article 3 of the ECHR,
the point that prisoners are not given a fair hearing within prisons in
violation of Article 6,
that prison officers should be charged with murder, or at least
manslaughter, when causing the death of an inmate, under ECHR Article 2
which states that everyone has a right to life,
and so on. O’Brien points to a variety of cases involving prisoner’s
rights, the most important of which was the 1983 one of Raymond v
which established that prisoners retain their civil rights in prison
unless Parliament has expressly taken them away
but sums up that ‘the Prison Service and governors of prisons are a law
unto themselves and ignore the law if they don’t like a certain right
that a prisoner has’.
He refers to a 2010 report where the Chief Inspector of Prisons
expressed concerns such as the un-cleanliness of the prison and poor
visitor facilities and added that incidents like mistreatment of
prisoners need be addressed.
O’Brien is therefore like Probyn and Leech in drawing attention to how
prisoners should be treated according to the normal law. There are also
a range of other cases dealing with the breach of prisoner’s rights in
the UK. To note just a few, Edwards v United Kingdom,
Keenan v United Kingdom
and R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex p. Amin
concern the violation of Article 2 where there is a duty to protect
Autobiographies by certain groups of prisoners
section will consider autobiographies by prisoners other than white
young males as they encounter this part of the criminal justice system.
This section explores the sociology of imprisonment where the
experiences of those affected by the law will be probed, and where this
leads to new prison laws being introduced and official recommendations
for improvements to prison management. Hercules, seen earlier, wrote a
pre-Strangeways autobiography and we return to him because he is black.
His aim is to be a ‘real voice for the black community’ and ‘to put
forward their real grievances about living in a white society’..
He begins his Preface: ‘I wrote this book because I felt certain things
needed to be said’.
Hercules writes that ‘those black people in a position to be a real
voice for the black community have failed to speak out on our behalf’,
so his autobiography fills a void.
extent, then, Hercules’ concern is to combat official discourses about
blacks in society and to explore what leads them to imprisonment. He
writes about how he came to have an awareness of black history by
discovering black writers, albeit American,
that the white race had hidden in school and in the media (e.g. on
Hercules looks to black heroes as role models
and notes that blacks had great civilisations
whereas all that was taught is the fact that blacks were slaves making
black youths, such as him, ashamed.
He writes about how socio-economic conditions lead blacks to crime and
and scholars such as Loic Wacquant, writing about the United
States, indeed see the prison as an extension of the poverty-ridden
Hercules revisits the idea of prison as not being for reform but ‘for
confinement; or for spite’,
where, returning to Probyn’s idea of labeling, prisoners and
specifically black prisoners are marked as criminals as well as the fact
that ‘When criminals are lumped together then criminality is accepted as
But where our interest lies is in the actual experiences of
imprisonment of a black man which Hercules equally voices in an angry
other writers seen earlier, Hercules’ writes of his experience of being
in a cage but here that links with that of black people generally as
revealed in the title of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird
Sings. Hercules draws on the black experience and does not only use
animalistic imagery to reveal how he was dehumanised by the prison
system but also makes an analogy between prisoner and slave. Hercules
writes of a prison officer: ‘Not saying a word he stood there, like some
slave-master putting the fear of God into his slaves’.
Traditionally, American slaves, who were bound to their white masters in
captivity, were seen as non-human by white people, not worthy of being
treated with dignity, and this is also the case in the prison. So the
experiences of blacks in prison fit in with larger social trends.
further writes about how racism exists in the prison where guards bait
blacks into conforming to negative racial stereotypes but where Hercules
resists conforming to these, unlike Fletcher’s discussion of prisoners
Hercules writes that the guards ‘were…having their fun…using racial
jibes to taunt’ him.
He goes on: ‘Their minds were unable to comprehend anything other than
the superficial stereotyping’ and that ‘Had’ he ‘jumped up and began
ranting and raving’ he ‘would only have reinforced the stereotype’ so he
looked through the hole in the prison door and ‘coldly and calmly’
threatened a guard.
does recognise some positive features about the experiences of blacks in
prison. He explains the importance of black pride and solidarity. He is
a member of a group of brothers.
Hercules continually uses the word ‘pride’ to describe how he carried
himself in relation to the white ‘screws’,
and how he related to other inmates. For example, he describes how two
new arrivals sat by him in the prison church: ‘I knew they were special
people. They had that confident air, that aura that surrounds a proud
person…They were black brothers’.
Soon afterwards he writes: ‘I didn’t feel too…isolated, mainly because
there were a lot of black prisoners…like any minority, we tended to
stick together because we had a lot in common’.
Such group solidarity is suggested by Hercules who also says ‘The
Irish…also mix freely, though they do stick together as well’.
This type of grouping is discussed by Coretta Phillips in relation to
young offenders but she also highlights the way grouping takes place
along lines of locality and also that all prisoners can be seen as one
for all the discussion that Hercules gives of the solidarity of black
men in prison, he does come to recognise that in prison black and white
men are all in the same situation.
Writing about a riot, Hercules states ‘We were now all the same. Colour,
creed, religion and size were all forgotten about in our new-found
equality, and the comradeship that flowed engulfed us all with a mutual
Broadhead writes that Hercules’ autobiography is the only significant
first-hand account of a black prisoner’s experience in the United
One can hope that further such autobiographies will materialise. What
Broadhead does not do, however, is suggest the alternatives to studying
ethnic minority prisoners’ experiences. Hercules’ autobiography is now
rather old but Kimmett Edgar reveals that black and ethnic minority
prisoners are over-represented in the prison system of the United
and that while institutional racism in the criminal justice system leads
to these people being stopped, arrested, and convicted of crimes in the
prisoners experience victimisation from officers ranging from verbal
abuse and threats to actual assaults.
They are like Hercules and even the other white prisoners noted earlier
who were victims by being imprisoned. But they are not the ideal
blameless victims seen by many as worthy of support. With the lack of
further ethnic minority prisoner autobiography, one must turn to books
such as O’Brien’s which stand as witness to prison racism
and both quantitative surveys such as that by Ros Burnett and Graham
and even more recent qualitative studies such as those by Kimmett Edgar
and Carol Martin
to see the extent and nature of the problem. These surveys reveal that
racism is not only felt from other prisoners but also from the prison
staff and there can be malicious racism, and more covert racially biased
Prisoners now have opportunities to combat the type of racism Hercules
was forced to endure and we see how the social conditions of
imprisonment lead to changes in the law; there can be an internal
investigation under Prison Service Order 2800, taking the prison to
county court under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, asking the police
to investigate, and, as a last resort, complaining to the Prisons and
It is to qualitative surveys such as Edgar and Martin’s
that we must look to, though, to see problems with these remedies such
as the fact that prisoners do not trust the system, that they have
little say in what happens, that they fear reprisals, and that indirect
racism is not adequately addressed, meaning that many prisoners choose
not to report instances of racism.
While the prison service emphasises confidentiality, there are narrow
interpretations of a ‘racial incident’,
although the idea of mediation between parties has potential.
It would also be useful to see other black prisoners writing about how
there is group solidarity.
category of prisoner autobiography which Broadhead looks at is that of
However, Broadhead does not probe the way in which these autobiographies
highlight the gendered experiences of imprisonment, in a sociological
manner, or the way the conditions lead to a call for change in the way
the law is exercised and improvements to prison management. In doing
this, there are certain books which shall be excluded from my
discussion. Molly Cutpurse’s A Year in Holloway
is not an autobiography but does reveal much about imprisonment. It
uses authentic documents to detail the conditions of imprisonment just
prior to World War II. Joan Henry’s memoir Who Lie in Gaol
was accused of sensationalism and Yield to the Night
is a novel inspired by a fellow prisoner’s plight who had been sentenced
to death in the 1950s but reprieved.
Pat Arrowsmith also lightly disguised her prison experiences as fiction
so while she has much to reveal about the system her work lies outside
of my remit. Jane Buxton and Margaret Turner’s Gate Fever
is composed of a series of fictional letters written from inside
prison that the writers would have liked to have composed while in
Holloway but were not allowed.
Like autobiography, though, it seeks to give the outside world as
represented by the letter reader and us who are also reading the letters
a picture of the enclosed prison world. Anna Reynolds’ autobiography
not only concerns her imprisonment at age 18 for the murder of her
mother but details her whole life up to the age of 22 but was withdrawn
since it was claimed that she had libeled the trial judge.
prisoners face different, or more extreme, issues from male prisoners
which make them vulnerable. An early example of a female prisoner’s
autobiography is by Phoebe Willetts’ in the 1960s.
Willetts was given a custodial sentence of only six months for an
illegal demonstration and relates her experiences in closed and open
the latter of which she sees as part of reform due to the Christian
faith of individuals.
However, she believes that with this new prison must come a change in
attitude to seeing the prisoner as more than ‘sub-human’.
Women’s themes appear in Willetts autobiography which would be revisited
in later female prisoner’s books along with additional ideas: the
separation of a woman from her husband and children in both closed and
the point that children suffer more greatly without their mother’s
affection than were their father to be sent to prison;
and the fact that a mother could only keep her newly born baby in a
closed prison with her for nine months but no longer.
Willetts comments that prison is separated from the rest of the world,
so her book to an extent opens up knowledge of the system.
Peckham wrote her 1980s autobiography.
Peckham’s case was atypical since she was an educated middle-class
schoolteacher who was sentenced for incitement to murder her lover’s
wife and spent time on remand and in Styal Prison for eight months.
Peckham describes being in the police cells as being like ‘a cage at the
and although most of her gripes are with remand centres,
where families are forced to travel long distances for very short visits
and where she had a breakdown,
she also writes about the prison. Revisiting a theme of Willetts,
Peckham states ‘Most of these women had children…and the talk’ according
to Peckham was ‘About how the children were reacting to what had
happened to their mother, about the ways grandparents were caring for
the children, about husbands who had gone off, about children who had
been taken into care’.
Very significantly, Peckham then remarks ‘I was left in no doubt that
there is an extra penalty for women in prison’ than for men.
Peckham also remarks about the pregnant women prisoners who were sent to
have their babies in a local hospital so that the babies were not
branded as having been born in prison but who, as previously mentioned
by Willetts, were allowed to keep their babies with them for only a
certain amount of time before the baby was put into the care of
relatives or the local authority.
Furthermore, Peckham gives information about her fellow prisoners: one
was a victim of domestic abuse whose husband was in prison for burglary
and who, like many other prisoners, lived off of prostitution and was
arrested for drug offences.
These women had ‘a deep contempt for men’ and had defrauded their past
clients when possible.
So this one woman who had been in an abusive relationship was trapped
for a second time.
Ward’s autobiography was published in the mid-1990s but details her
imprisonment from the 1970s to the early 90s.
Ward was an atypical prisoner since she was wrongly convicted of
terrorist activity. However, Ward’s innocence is not of concern to us
here. What is of concern to us is the fact that she paints a very
gendered picture of imprisonment. Like the male writers of
autobiography, Ward tells of how women were subject to strip-searches
which were diminishing and ‘degrading’.
However, while having one’s belongings searched resulted in the feeling
that ‘privacy’ had ‘been invaded’ by a ‘stranger’ and was like burglary,
the strip-searches are compared to another type of violation which is
often likened to being robbed of one’s chastity.
Unlike the male writers who write of strip-searches as dehumanising,
Ward employs a more gendered simile when she states that being
strip-searched ‘is probably the closest thing to rape that many inmates
have to endure’.
While it is true that men can also be the victims of rape, and indeed
certain male prisoners write about being ‘leered’ at in a homosexual
the rape victim is more frequently perceived as female and the woman is
more likely to think in terms of being raped. Ward’s analogy of rape
also returns us to the way in which prisoners see themselves as
further refers to instances which are unique to women. She not only
writes about being on remand and the degradation of having to use a
but also explains ‘There were times when a period would start in the
middle of the night and there was no water to wash yourself, no… Tampax
to hand, and no chance of an officer unlocking the door to give you
some. The feeling of degradation was great’.
and the inability to have children are also key themes in Ward’s
autobiography. She comments that unlike most inmates she did not dream
about having a nice home with a loving husband and kids.
However, when she considers the sameness of her routine she reflects on
the fact that ‘There would be ‘no boyfriends, no marriage, no kids’.
She later describes pains in her abdomen, how ‘It is really terrible to
be locked in your cell at night with little water to wash yourself when
you have a heavy period’ and how, with other treatments not working, she
‘jumped at the chance’ of a hysterectomy when advised by the
She says ‘the immediate situation was such that I couldn’t think in
terms of never being able to bear children. Not knowing how long I would
be in prison, my chances of bearing a child seemed very remote. I was
nearly thirty-seven years old’.
But later she states ‘I fiercely regret that my chances of having a
marriage and children of my own have been robbed from me’.
Again, then, the idea of robbery surfaces, the notion that prison
forcefully takes something away from the female prisoner which is here
the womb. Interestingly she earlier referred to remand as a ‘womb of
Victorian ethics and ideals’
so the womb of prison ends up replacing the normal womb.
Ward further genders her autobiography by at various points directly
contrasting women’s experiences of imprisonment with that of her male
counterparts, as do other writers. These observations not only include
the use of ‘prison argot’ (prison slang) ‘mainly employed by male
and the way inmates became ‘barons’ and gained profits from other
inmates’ bartering but also the more serious occurrences such as
self-harm and suicide, seen in male prisoners to a lesser degree. For
example, on remand Ward had tried to self-harm herself by cutting her
but at the very beginning of her autobiography, Ward writes of
discovering a woman in prison who had self-harmed and notes ‘Male
inmates tend to fight and be aggressive; women can also be aggressive,
although the majority tend to withdraw into themselves and often relieve
their depression…by inflicting pain on themselves’.
It is for this reason that ‘Suicide nets stretched across each landing’.
Johnston’s 1989 autobiography details her imprisonment for nine months
in the mid-1980s at Holloway, Bullwood Hall and the open prison of East
Sutton Park for drug offences.
Johnston was from a privileged background but many of her fellow inmates
were also serving time for similar offences.
Johnston does revisit themes associated with her male counterparts such
as being treated ‘no better than an animal’,
although she also refers to sympathetic screws who did not make the
women feel like a ‘human sub-species’.
Women’s themes reappear such as women’s separation from their families
and children (acutely felt at Christmas, a time of ‘family
a girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather and had run away
from home into a life of prostitution;
and prisoners who are driven mad by the experience of being locked up
and attempt suicide where they have been put on a psychiatric wing
rather than being sent to a proper hospital.
more recently, a gendered autobiography is Ruth Wyner’s who was
imprisoned at the turn of the century.
Wyner again is an atypical prisoner: a middle-class charity worker who
was sentenced to five years for making insufficient efforts to prevent
drug dealing in a homeless shelter. But again Wyner’s insights ‘from the
inside’ are invaluable. Again, Wyner revisits common notions that can be
found in the autobiographies of her male counterparts. Wyner likewise
emphasizes prison as dehumanising writing that ‘you ceased to be a
person when you got to prison, were not of any import at all’.
She comments ‘I did not belong to myself anymore, was merely an object
of state custody’.
Soon afterwards, Wyner states: ‘I feared that the real “me” had been
destroyed. Would I ever get her back again?’.
Wyner sees herself as having become like the homeless people she helped,
nothing but a ‘shadow’, rather than a real solid person to be treated
while Wyner revisits this theme, a lot of her concerns are with her
roles as wife and mother. Wyner states that she has been separated from
her three children. Obviously, with her youngest, her daughter at age
16, the situation is not so bad that the children must be relocated
but still Wyner asks ‘What on earth is the point of sticking me in this
jail? Look at the financial cost of it, let alone the cost to me and my
She continues ‘I worry constantly about my daughter, feel pure hatred
for what the police, and the judge, have done: they have stolen her
As a result, she ‘feel[s] desperate…that [her daughter] will have to
spend more time on her own while her father is at work, that’ she
‘cannot care for her daughter as’ she ‘should’,
where her daughter is on ‘the threshold of womanhood’.
Wyner also addresses the fact that many women are incarcerated for drug
use which, as mentioned in relation to men, continues in prison with
Wyner raises the theme again of prison as a hidden world with its
practices cut off from public perception. Upon her release, she tells
the press sarcastically ‘Prison is a…secret society…The public doesn’t
really know what goes on. I’ve had a privileged glimpse’
autobiographies also deal with the ways in which women experienced, and
coped with, imprisonment without men. Earlier prisons saw men and
women segregated under the same roof and there were also prisons solely
Not only does Ward write about the way in which most female prisoners,
apart from those with mental health problems,
take pride in their appearance, as a fight against degradation, ‘which
challenges the widely held view that most women only do so for the
benefit of men’,
but she also writes about lesbianism. Prison is seen by many in a
heterosexist society as disrupting what they perceive to be the natural
order of things. Hancock and Jewkes’ comparison of the external design
of the prison to a monastery
is key since, like the monk, the male prisoner is supposed to be
cut off from sexual relationships. Towards the end of his autobiography,
when contemplating leaving prison, Hercules thinks ‘to the many things’
he ‘had missed’ and his ‘whole body tingled with excitement at the
prospect of making love to a woman’.
Earlier when visited by his companion Dolly he ‘had an erection thinking
about the times’ they ‘had lain together’
and later managed to get one of the female nurses to briefly masturbate
Hercules thinks of ‘not tender, warm lovemaking, but hot, passionate,
so he sees a move from being a caged beast to having animalistic sex. In
his more recent autobiography, Hoskison refers to the availability of
since with the absence of women prison sex between men could be
explains, in prison women would either talk about their fantasies for
men or become ‘prison lesbians’, where they would form sexual bonds with
women for the duration of their incarceration before returning to
heterosexual relationships on release.
This lesbian activity, however, was ‘viewed as “abnormal”’ and was a
Ward uses language to play with the notion of captivity and release.
Prisoners are both captive in that they are literally kept in an
enclosed area with no hope of escape and are captive in that they are
kept away from their sexual desires with the word ‘release’ not only
signifying being let out of prison but also referring to satisfying
one’s sexual desires. As Ward puts it, ‘For most of the women simply
talking about men provided a necessary release’ and ‘many women who
would probably return to heterosexual relationships on release formed
relationships with other women whilst in prison’.
Ward makes clear, however, that there were also real lesbians and that
there was a small percentage of lesbian staff.
Ward, Johnston writes about lesbianism. She explains the difference
between ‘nick-bent’ (women who engaged in lesbian relationships only in
prison, for ‘companionship’ as well as sex) and ‘ordinary bent’ (women
who were bona fide lesbians on the outside).
Johnston also refers to the ‘screws’ who would ignore drug use by women
with whom they were having sex.
However, rather than dwelling on sex, Johnston values female solidarity
and ‘association’ time
and describes her companionship with Sarah, who was of a similar age and
at Holloway and then Essex. The two were in jest ‘accused of being
lesbians’ but Johnston tells us that theirs was ‘not…a physical
relationship’ but that ‘mentally’ they ‘had become very close’.
She says ‘in some ways we were like an old, retired couple’.
When Johnston is transferred to ESP she is reunited with Sarah.
On their release they ‘smiled at each other, silently saying thank you’.
Johnston does, however, reveal that some women who were child-molesters,
violent towards children and granny-bashers were despised and not part
of prison solidarity.
solidarity also comes across in Wyner’s autobiography. One way in which
this is manifested is through the idea of ‘prison gossip’,
seen Peckham’s autobiography and indeed mentioned by Johnston where the
‘prison netball court’ is ‘alive with inmates…exchanging gossip’.
Indeed, Leech also noted that male prisons ‘thrive on gossip and
Gossip is something that is important in binding together members of
counter-cultures, with shared experiences, as would become apparent in
relation to the gay community in the works of the American New Narrative
and is just as important here. The women are connected to one another by
being women and by being specifically women prisoners.
seen, then, how autobiographies are key to revealing women’s experiences
of prison. Female writers draw portraits of their fellow inmates
describing them in detail. What this does is firstly give a sense of a
shared prison culture but also secondly presents a wider perspective on
the experience of female prisoners than were the writer to solely
concentrate on themselves. Willetts relates the incident of a weeping
woman who has been separated from her husband and children who is due
Ward tells us about her lesbian friend.
Peckham, for instance, was, as we have seen, an atypical prisoner - a
middle-class educated woman. She therefore stood apart from the other
women who had either suffered domestic violence or were prostitutes and
drug-users. She indeed frowns upon the female prisoners who ‘had
never…experienced the tenderness and passion of a really caring
relationship’ with ‘sex’ being ‘just smut’.
To her ‘this seemed a grave pity’.
So she was able to stand as witness to their deviant culture. Similarly,
Wyner worked for a homeless shelter filled with drug-addicts and she
herself has never used heroin: ’I have never before been tempted by
heroin; it has always horrified and frightened me…But…it is a chance to
escape from the misery…”No, no, but thanks all the same”, I say and
And Johnston writes of her aim to observe people she met in prison.
women’s autobiographies serve a more important function, then, than just
presenting the experiences of one individual and while prisoners develop
ways of coping with their predicament we see how there should be a
reform to the way the law is exercised, so that the use of incarceration
is reduced, as well as there being an official call for better prison
management. Wyner, for example, remarks that women are more severely
punished than men
and that women’s families all over the United Kingdom suffer as a
result: ‘every year an estimated 8000 children lose their main carers
due to imprisonment, a terrible punishment for these young innocents’.
Wyner calls for a better system, where fewer women are given custodial
sentences, just as Johnston suggests the need for developing alternative
forms of punishment.
experiences, such as the problems of the primary carer being separated
from her children, of her ability to reproduce being removed, of
substance abuse, and of self-harm and suicide have also been raised in
and are areas that the official House of Commons Justice Committee
addresses in suggesting limiting the use of custodial sentences and
improving the conditions for those women who are imprisoned.
Further work is needed to see whether recommendations have been
sufficiently addressed such as prisons being located closer to home so
that families can visit more frequently and at less financial strain,
the use of video-calls and emails to replace expensive telephone calls,
allowing more frequent home visits, more emphasis on treatment and
rehabilitation for female drug addicts, and the use of therapy to reduce
self-harm and suicide. Moreover, it is to work such as Ruth Chigwada-Bailey’s
book-length qualitative survey of the experiences of black women in
prison that we must turn in order to see the plight of some
since there is to date no autobiography written from this perspective.
Chigwada-Bailey reveals how black women not only face overt racism by
prison staff but that they encounter problems of coping with a different
culture and language and separation from their families and children who
may be in care or in another poverty ridden country.
As the 2013 Justice Committee Report highlights, the plight of black
women in prison needs to be addressed.
understandably, one category of prisoner not well represented by
autobiography is that of the elderly prisoner and their experiences call
for better conditions to the prison system. What autobiography reveals
about elderly prisoners is from the outside and mainly about the ‘nonce’
the sex offender. ‘Elderly’ is a subjective term. Elaine Crawley and
Richard Sparks explore the prison experiences of men aged 65 and over
who had grown old in prison, had served previous sentences, or were
incarcerated for the first time in later life.
Crawley and Sparks discover elderly prisoners’ dissatisfaction with the
architecture of the prison, designed with young prisoners in mind,
and being expected to act as though still young and fit whereas many
have chronic illnesses.
Some prisons such as HMP Wymott, however, are striving to meet the needs
of those on the Elderly and Disabled Unit.
In a further article, Crawley and Sparks reveal that elderly male
prisoners have a fear of dying in prison, loss of familial contact, and
the loss of a respectable identity.
Those who are to be released fear assault (as is so of sex offenders)
with nothing waiting for them with too little time to start over.
The House of Commons Justice Committee has published a 2013-14 report,
however, on ways of going about addressing the mental and physical needs
of elderly prisoners.
Furthermore, there is a need for autobiography by older women. At the
moment, their experiences are revealed in qualitative surveys such as
Azrini Wahidin’s monograph
which reveals how prison officers do not recognise the needs of older
women (over 50) who may suffer from a variety of illnesses exacerbated
by prison conditions and gynecological problems and breast cancer. There
must be screening programmes for such illnesses. Like elderly male
prisoners women may also find mobility around the prison a problem but
their needs are not identical.
Dissertation, then, has added to existing scholarship by providing a
much closer reading than attempted before of a number of prisoner
autobiographies, placed in the context of autobiography more widely.
Autobiography is significant since prisoners tell a narrative and are
able to voice their experiences and their identity which differs from
what is contained in the traditional legal textbook. These prisoners
express unbelievably harsh prison conditions, countering official
discourses, and how these conditions led both to prisoners challenging
the law (officially and unofficially) and to changes in the law. This is
important since it shows how prison law, which affects very real people,
has not been static but is constantly in flux and that the law does not
just occur out of nowhere. Rebellion can be a positive thing though
there can also be a step backwards. Prisoners should also be protected
by the ECHR. Moreover, there are autobiographies by different types of
prisoner but a lack of such recent texts means that in order to gain a
contemporary picture of prison life for these people and see what
improvements must be made we must turn to qualitative studies which have
already been carried out.
are areas beyond the scope of this Dissertation which are worthy of
further study. For example, prisoner autobiographies in the United
States offer a different picture, including of life on death-row.
Furthermore, this Dissertation has focused on prisoner autobiographies
rather than prison officer autobiographies. Wilson has written about
this other type of autobiography which he argues is unfortunately
Those autobiographies do reveal the violence dished out by officers to
prisoners. Wilson notes, however, that there is a lack of prison
officer’s autobiography discussing open prisons, the therapeutic prison
Grendon, or women’s prisons.
While Wilson attacks prisoner autobiographies as unreliable, there is no
reason to conclude this and what prison officer autobiographies cannot
tell us is what it is like to experience imprisonment and how
this relates to the law, and in this
way this Dissertation is vital.
Loic Wacquant, ‘Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and
mesh’, (2001) Punishment & Society
John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose ed. M.Y. Hughes
Ruth Chigwada-Bailey, Black Women’s Experiences of Criminal
Justice (Waterside Press 1997)