To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no-one in his right mind will believe this today.
English PEN is actively concerned for the well-being of writers who are imprisoned all over the world. The organization campaigns constantly for writers who suffer intimidation and violence and the loss of their liberty.
Everthorpe is a category C training prison which houses young convicted male prisoners. It includes a workshop complex and a gymnasium and currently holds something short of 700 offenders.
The guidelines I was given before my visit included the following:
Do not be worried about awkwardness of dealing with Offenders as it is exactly the same as visiting any group of people: a positive and direct manner and preparation.
Do not refer to the prisoner’s crime or length of sentence.
Do not bring any personal diaries or headed named paper or any sharp objects; your mobile phone will be kept at the Gate and you will be searched on way in.
Do bring a photo ID preferably a passport.
Do not give out any personal details to prisoners.
Do dress conservatively, flat shoes and loose clothes more practical for women.
Do not take anything in or out of prison without permission.
Do make every effort to be sensitive to the prison officers and their responsibilities.
Do be careful about physical contact. A warm handshake is usually acceptable and respectful.
Do listen; a listening ear is important in prison.
Do be yourself. You are dealing with people who can spot a fake in an instant.
On one level the experience was similar to a visit to a small university, my audience was comprised of men of differing ages and ethnicity and, although they were only present because they had expressed an interest, some were obviously keener than others and a minority were certainly more vocal than the rest. Most were there to listen, but others were potential writers’ and hoped to pick up something or other to aid their ambition.
I opened the session with a fairly long extract from my latest novel, Winged with Death. Although I’m a practiced and fairly good reader, I know from past experience that a long passage can put some people to sleep, or at least into near coma. But there was none of that at Everthorpe. The guys were quiet and attentive, and for the most part engaged with the content of the passage. There was no tell-tale shuffling or fidgeting, and when I came to the end of the reading there was an immediate flourish of questions.
Some of the questions were inane; there’s always someone who wants to know where you get your ideas from. But others were probing and intelligent. Someone wanted to discuss the problems associated with a first-person narrator. Another question, which elicited replies from around the room, was interested in what Scott-Fitzgerald meant by his depiction of Gatsby.
We spoke about the nature of criminality and its fascination for those on the outside, and the comments were mostly insightful and thought-through, often perceptive and original.
Although the library was like any other, and from almost any vantage point could have been in a small village or college, the building itself was dire. Stone corridors punctuated by metal double-doors every few yards, each of which had to be unlocked, opened, closed and relocked for each person passing through. A lack of windows, an overall feeling of claustrophobia and a sense of being caged. In every way, in fact, it felt like you would imagine a prison to feel.
I was told that there is a lot of talent in prison which is untapped on both sides of the cells. And I suppose that that was my over-riding experience. It was a privilege to be allowed to share in that for a short time.