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Fridays Behind Bars

Creative writing in prisons

Illustration by Fran Pulido of a person wearing glasses with lenses that look like written pieces of paper.

There are seven chairs in the circle — six occupied by men convicted of murder and other serious offences, the seventh by me. When I applied for the position of writer in residence at HMP Grendon I had no idea I would be interviewed by a panel of prisoners. The Category-B establishment, situated a few miles outside Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, is the UK’s only therapeutic prison community, providing group therapy and ‘structured community living’ for men convicted of murder, violent crimes and serious sex offences. The regime has been shown to reduce rates of re-offending.

Make no mistake, Grendon is a prison, with all that entails, but it’s one with a difference. The six wings are run by the residents (never ‘inmates’) along with uniformed staff supported by a team of doctors, nurses and psychiatric counsellors. Day-to-day decisions, such as who will be appointed as writer in residence, are made by the chairmen of the wings, hence my attempts to impress this unusual interview panel.

‘Why do you want to do this?’ asks a muscle-bound, track-suited giant, casting a disdainful eye over my corduroy suit. Feeling slightly ill at ease (there are no guards in the room, just me and the six residents), I say something about wanting to ‘give back’ and immediately sense a wave of weariness and cynicism setting in. These men have already interviewed several other applicants; maybe they’ve heard it all before — trite blandishments from a procession of well-meaning ‘do-gooders’. I need to raise my game.

‘I’ve always been interested in prison work,’ I continue, truthfully. ‘And I’ve reached a stage in my career as a screenwriter and novelist when I’m keen to pass on some of the stuff I’ve learned about writing.’ I mention a few of my prime time TV credits – BBC1 murder mysteries, ITV thrillers, US rom-coms – but it’s my brief (miserable) stint writing for Holby City that finally sparks a flicker of interest.

What really captures the attention of the men, however, is when I mention having been in psychotherapy myself, at various stages of my life. ‘I’m not suggesting I’ve had anything like the same kind of life experience as you guys,’ I say, careful to make eye contact with each man in turn, ‘but I do have an understanding of the therapeutic process, something that might serve us all well if I become your writer in residence.’

I can’t be sure it was this candour that persuaded the six wing chairmen I was the right person for the job, but later that day, after an interview with the Governor, I receive an email from Professor David Wilson, Chair of the Friends of Grendon, offering me the position, along with a small stipend funded by the novelist Jane Corry.

In the months that follow, I spend every Friday behind bars, collecting an unwieldy bunch of keys at the gate before letting myself onto C-wing. There’s no supervision and no training, except a leaflet on what to do if taken hostage.
Try not to panic.

I pin up posters advertising my sessions but it’s a slow start and, for the first month, a small group — seven or eight at most.

Tommy (not his real name) is my best customer, affably greeting me with a mug of tea and a barrage of questions about writing TV drama.

‘When I get out I really want to write scripts.’

Along with the rest of the group, Tommy and I discuss three-act structure, dialogue and character arcs. He eagerly tackles all the exercises, chewing on his Biro as he stares out of the barred windows while contemplating what to write. Sometimes, I take in printouts from classic screenplays, assigning roles to members of the group and bringing the movies to life by reading aloud key scenes then analysing why they work. Only once does the macho environment lead to anyone objecting to my ‘casting’: the men are perfectly happy to read any male role, but no one wants to play Thelma and Louise — certainly not Tommy, whose prison swagger marks him down as one of C-wing’s hard men.

He’s always friendly to me, making jokes and probing into my life beyond prison walls, but I’m careful to deflect personal questions. I’ve been warned to be wary of attempts to ‘groom’ me. Some of these men are dangerous sociopaths. It’s not wise to get too close.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is an unspoken rule of working in any prison. You never ask why someone is behind bars, and there’s no necessity for them to reveal the nature of their offence. So, one Friday afternoon, when Tommy asks if I know why he’s in prison, I answer ‘no’, but am nonplussed when he immediately volunteers his surname.

‘But don’t Google me,’ he says, quickly.

‘Why not?’

‘Because I really enjoy these sessions – they’re the highlight of my week – and if you find out what I did you might not want to work with me.’

Driving home, I reflect on Tommy’s words. They sounded almost like a challenge, as if he actively wants me to know what he did to merit being locked up for years.

To Google or not to Google, that is the question.

I Googled.

And I wish I hadn’t.

I’d known, of course, that Tommy and the others had committed serious offences, but it wasn’t my job to judge them. They’d been judged — literally. However, terms like ‘murder’, ‘rape’ and ‘armed robbery’ (not that these were necessarily among Tommy’s crimes) are abstract. It’s possible to distance yourself from the reality of a victim’s trauma when you have no specific information about their ordeal — no names, no faces. But when I Googled Tommy and discovered the harrowing details of his offence, I was stunned. His was a high-profile case, infamous for its barbarism. If I gave you the name of his victim (I won’t, for obvious reasons), you’d recognise it straightaway, and the details of this horrendous crime would flood your mind, just as they did mine when I allowed curiosity to get the better of me.

I didn’t sleep much that night, or the night after. I was supposed to have regular ‘aftercare’ sessions with one of the prison psychologists in order to help process the experience of working with perpetrators of shocking crimes, but these never materialised, so I had to find a way to manage alone. My chief concern: I was so sickened by what Tommy had done, would I be able to face him again? Sit in the same room? Accept a cup of tea? Laugh at his jokes?

The following Friday, I drove to HMP Grendon, still feeling apprehensive. Showing my ID at the gate, I clipped my keys to my belt, walked down the corridor and let myself onto C-Wing. The first face I saw was Tommy’s.

‘Hello, mate. Fancy a cuppa?’

I forced half a smile and accepted his offer. We moved into the recreation room, making small talk. The others started to arrive. Five minutes later, the session began. Tommy sat in his usual chair, by the window. I tried to focus on the rest of the group, opening a discussion on writing about childhood experiences.

‘Let’s have a crack at writing about an object that brings back good memories. Could be a favourite toy, a book, a football, a computer game — anything you like.’ We reminisced for a while, then, one by one, the guys fell silent and began to write. Only one man wasn’t joining in — Tommy. He was staring out of the window, lost in thought. I watched as he put the cap on his Biro and laid it down. This was the first occasion on which he hadn’t participated in one of the exercises.

‘Take your time,’ I said. ‘No hurry.’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t do it.’

‘Any particular reason?’

He met my gaze. ‘I don’t have any good childhood memories.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Not one?’

‘Not one.’

I was on the verge of taking issue with this – surely he must have had some good experiences as a child – but then it hit me: he wasn’t exaggerating. This had been his reality, his life.

Not a single happy childhood memory.

I tried to imagine what he must have endured as a youngster. This man, the perpetrator of a heinous crime, had almost certainly led the kind of life I can scarcely imagine, the stuff of the grimmest misery memoir. Of course, the fact that ‘hurt people hurt people’ doesn’t in any way excuse his appalling crime, but perhaps the lack of a single happy childhood memory, with all that implies, goes some way towards explaining how he had become capable of acting with unimaginable cruelty towards another human being. It certainly helped me see how I could continue working with him, no longer able to view him in the same light I once had – affable Tommy – but never again condemning him totally out of hand.

Simon Booker was a novelist and screenwriter. His crime novels Without Trace and Kill Me Twice are published by Bonnier Zaffre. His romantic comedy, Three’s A Crowd, is published by Simon & Schuster.

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