If you ask people who’ve just left prison about their experiences of being inside, their responses are fascinating and often quite frightening. If you ask professionals – such as prison officers, governors, probation officers, psychologists and teachers – to talk truthfully about their work within prisons and the criminal justice system, and you guarantee them anonymity, their responses are also fascinating, but highly revealing too. And when you read these stories together, you notice threads and themes that not only tell stories of personal redemption and endurance, of fear and violence, but of an insular environment that hides many of its challenges and secrets from the public. Professionals are not allowed to speak to the press and would be disciplined or sacked for doing so. There are valid reasons for this and the tax-paying public should know the truth.
Newspapers, computers and televisions bring us statistics and stories on an almost weekly basis: prisoners off their heads on drink and drugs; self-harm and suicide rates rising to a record high; an understaffed and underfunded prison service; a specialist team of counter-terrorism experts aimed at tackling extremism; mindless violence captured on contraband mobile phones; inmates taking over whole wings during riots.
How has government policy impacted upon all those affected?
Are criminals leaving as better people, less likely to commit crime?
What’s the difference between high security, local and young offender prisons?
Hundreds of terrorists have been imprisoned in the past decade -what impact does this have upon the prison population?
Are psychologists, probation officers and teachers helping rehabilitate vulnerable and volatile criminals or simply ticking boxes?
What is the effect on mothers, daughters and other family members when their loved ones are incarcerated?
Do prisons actually work?
And what kind of future are we heading towards?
I’ve travelled throughout England and Wales: from the South coast to Northumberland; from the mountains of Wales to an exposed beach by a raging North Sea. Participants were met in a place of their own choosing, whether that be their own home, a cafe or a particular walk they wished to do. My intention was to facilitate the right climate for particpants to feel able to speak honestly. Reassurance was always given that this book was not about crime, but rather, the impact of prison. Having worked in numerous prisons for more than eight years, teaching creative writing, facilitating other creative projects and running prison magazines, I knew there was a need for this book. It’s important to note, however, that my own opinions are not involved here. Yes, all questions are directive to some extent, but I did not direct interviewees towards any pre-determined assumptions or opinions, and the editing process has been ethical and truthfully represents each person. I’ve been stood up by a number of ex-prisoners, the most frustrating being a four-hour drive, confirmed the night before, to meet someone who wasn’t in and then hung up on me. I guess this goes with the territory. Professionals agreed to meet and then changed their minds, either through ill-health or fear of being outed. I understand and respect these decisions. Yes, there are numerous books about prison already, but they are written from a single point of view. The Truth About Prison allows many to tell their stories, with the understanding that truth is relative and individual, and that opposing truths can both be valid. A book like this truly reveals what prisons are like for those that live and work in them.
Richard W Hardwick
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