I first went to prison eight years ago. Not, I hasten to add, because I’d done anything wrong. I like to think of myself as quite a good girl with my only major offence being that I once parked on a double yellow line (and got caught).
No. I went to prison because my first marriage had ended and – in the same week – my regular weekly column for a woman’s magazine was terminated because the editor left. I was in dire need of regular weekly income so I applied for a job as writer in residence of a high security male prison which was advertised in a national newspaper.
Of course I didn’t want it. The idea of going into a prison was utterly terrifying. I ‘d seen The Green Mile. So I knew – or thought I did – what going Inside was like. My fears were born out when I arrived at the prison. On the left was a rather beautiful house which turned out to be the admin building. On the right was a high wall with a large nasty coil of barbed wire and several forbidding notices outside. I was to work in the latter.
Luckily, I messed up the interview almost as soon as I started when the governor – a kindly man who turned out to be a poet on the side – asked what I would do if I was running a writing session and a prison officer told us to leave the room. ‘I’d tell the men to finish half-way through a written sentence so that when they came back, it would be easier to pick it up again,’ I chirped. It’s actually quite a good useful writing tip but I could tell from everyone’s faces I had said the wrong thing.
‘And by that time,’ said the governor gently, ‘most of the prison might have escaped.’
Ah. I hadn’t thought of that one. From then on, I relaxed, knowing that I’d blown it. So when they rang that night to offer me the job, I was horrified. I rang a cousin who was helping me out with practical things during the divorce. ‘Go for it,’ he said. ‘What a challenge!’
Then I rang my sister. ‘You’re mad,’ she said. ‘You’re in a difficult emotional state at the moment. Why do you want to work in a depressing environment like that?’
That decided it. I accepted.
On the first day, I was given the keys to the prison. I had to wear them on my belt at all times and be sure to hand them in at the end of the day or I would be sacked on the spot. If they got stuck in a door (which did actually happen later on), I had to stay still until someone came to rescue me. One had to be particularly careful going through double doors because there was only an inch or so between them and there were always those few seconds when both doors were open and the men on the other side could, in theory, rush through.
They never did.
I also learned, rather to my horror, that I would not be running my writing groups with any officers present. There weren’t enough staff. It would be just me and the men. Sometimes it would be me and just one man for one-to-one feedback. In practice, this was not as scary as it sounded. My writing workshops were voluntary. I was not part of the education curriculum. In fact, prisoners had to get permission from their wings to attend. (This is a very democratically-run prison with therapy in the morning and an extremely low re-offending rate, partly as a result.) Nearly all the men I came across wanted to write rather than cause trouble.
However, I did have one very intelligent man who wanted individual help. On the surface, he looked like the kind of chap you’d invite to a diner party. But there was something about him which froze me to my very soul. I later looked up his name on Google and felt pretty sick. But I carried on with our sessions and nothing happened.
One day, there wasn’t a room available for our workshops. The men – most of whom were rapists, murderers or GBH offenders - suggested I went upstairs to their communal lounge near their pads (bedrooms). I pointed out that this wasn’t allowed. ‘Why don’t you ask the signing-in officer,’ one suggested. I did, confident in the knowledge that he would say no. He said yes.
I then had a choice. I could go with the men and, if something happened, everyone would blame me for taking a risk. (I could just see the headlines about ‘naïve blonde going upstairs’). Or I could refuse and then lose the trust of these men with whom I had been working for a year. I chose the first. We had a very rewarding peaceful writing session.
On other occasions, however I was variously spat at by a prisoner; shouted at by someone because I’d lost his work (I found it the next day); and sexually intimidated by another (the rest of the men in the group told him to leave in not such quite polite terms).
One experience which will always stay with me, was talking to a man who had learned crime at his mother’s knee. For him, robbery was a natural career progression.
I helped him write his life story which won a major national prize. This improved his self-confidence and behaviour (the whole reason for having a writer in residence) and will, with luck, help him make that transition back into society in a few years’ time.
I worked in the prison for two days a week for three years. But then I got married again and moved many miles away. I ran a couple of workshops in other prisons but they weren’t like ‘my’ prison. My heart wasn’t in it. At the same time, my novels which had until then been in the romance genre, began getting darker and darker. I kept thinking about the young women lawyers whom I used to see going into prison to visit offenders and so I began writing My Husband’s Wife which then got accepted by Penguin and became a Sunday Times best-seller. I have written three more since then, the latest of which is called I Looked Away and comes out this summer. A few months ago, MHW was optioned as a television series. I knew that my old prison hadn’t been able to afford another writer after I left, thanks to budget cuts so I decided to use the option advance to fund someone for one day a week over a year. I couldn’t afford any more than that. But it felt like the right thing to do.
I did, however, ask if I could be involved in the selection process which took place earlier this year This was much harder than I’d thought. We advertised on social media and were deluged with applicants. Some of them I knew personally as they were fellow writers. The governor asked me to draw up a short list but it was too hard. So I gave him twenty names and asked him to whittle it down.
Then came the tough part. I went back into my old prison to be part of the interview panel.
I hadn’t realised how daunted I would feel about going through those gates again. It was almost like doing it for the first time. Like me, the candidates were also interviewed by the prisoners themselves. I didn’t know any of them. ‘My’ men had moved on to other prisons. But their successors reminded me of how I’d felt when I first came face to face with an offender. Contrary to popular belief, prisoners aren’t all beefy with tattoos. Many look like a neighbour or a grandfather or a dad on the school run. But some do fit the stereotype. And part of the test for someone who works in a prison is to see if they can handle it.
We were then given debriefing sessions by the prisoners on what they thought of the applicants. And then we interviewed the latter about what they thought they could bring to the role. After that, the panel had to reach agreement on who to pick. Obviously I can’t go into personal detail. But I can tell you that by the end of the day, I was utterly drained. Perhaps it was because of the emotional trauma of going back into a prison environment. Maybe it was being close to offenders again. Or perhaps it was because I identified with the mixed emotions of the applicants.
I also looked back at my former self and wondered, to be honest, how I had done it. Yet at the same time, I am so glad I did. It is, hand on heart, the most rewarding job I have ever done. Many of my men told me that if I hadn’t encouraged them to write, they might have ‘clocked’ someone instead. Officers also reported that behaviour had improved. For my part, the job had helped me step out of a sheltered middle-class life and into a very real world.
I am now trying to get funding for another prison, near London, where I have been running some free workshops. If My Husband’s Wife gets to the screen, I have made a promise to myself that I will use that money to continue my support. Meanwhile, if anyone knows of a philanthropist, please get in touch! Writing is a great healer both for the reader and author. Let’s help to spread the word.