Our Reading List - prison books

Our Reading List - prison books

More and more of us are turning to books to help fill our time, so we thought we'd bring you some of our top recommendations within the different areas of the Fine Cell Work sphere. 

To kick us off, books which centre around prison. Our Founding Director, Katy, has worked for FCW since we began back in 1997 and was awarded an OBE for her services to the rehabilitation of prisoners back in 2018. Needless to say over the years she has read many, many books on the criminal justice system and prisons - so here are some of her top tips for your reading list.

"The books about prison which have always moved me most are filled with prisoners’ voices, or are by prisoners. There is an absolute ocean of writing by people who have discovered or honed their gifts on the inside. What else to do when locked in a cell? The boredom of bang-up can be an incubator of dreams.

My favourite writings range from the high-toned and philosophical, often by writers imprisoned for political reasons – Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man - to spill-it-all memoirs by ex-cons who discovered education and reinvented themselves inside - Razor Smith (A Rusty Gun), Erwin James (A Life Inside) and Mark Johnson (Wasted).

Oscar Wilde’s strange and beautiful work De Profundis was written as a letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. He would write pages every evening which were then taken away from him. The man who had said of prisoners ten years earlier while on a tour of a Nebraskan penitentiary, “They were all mean looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face,” now wrote with humility and appreciation of “the poor.” The book is soul-baring and poetic. “For us,” he wrote, “there is only one season, the season of sorrow.”

But my favourite prison books are filled with the raw eloquence of real people talking about their actual lives. The great oral historian Tony Parker’s books are revealing records of individual prisoners views and stories, in their own voices. In fact, “The Unknown Citizen” was republished in 2013 as a “Faber Find.” It’s a slim and heart-breaking volume about the life of a petty criminal no-one could save. Then there’s “The Frying-Pan: A Prison and its Prisoners,” which is comprised of the transcripts from thirty riveting interviews with prisoners, officers, volunteers and a prison psychiatrist.

The best prison memoir I know is “The Invisible Crying Tree” which was a sleeper hit in the late 1990s. It is the correspondence between a prison visitor and a life-serving prisoner, Tom Shannon, an uneducated man with the most extraordinary gift of eloquence. Here is Tom describing the life of prisoners:

“Many of us fall into a gray pit of darkness Some sink, some climb out. The climbing out is extremely difficult. Some of us are helpless, stumbling clowns, loaded with regret and remorse. The weight is tremendous…There’s an awful shame and no forgetting in murder.”

More recent books are by prison teacher Mim Skinner; “Lessons from a  Womens Prison”. The characters are so funny and alive. “The Secret Barrister” – also available on Audible – is just what it says on the tin. It is the sardonic observations and reflections of a CJS ‘insider,’ a young barrister who keeps his identity a secret as he blows the lid off the criminal justice system’s pretensions to competence. And finally, "A Bit of A Stretch" by Chris Atkins - a documentary filmmaker who served two and a half years at HMP Wandsworth, and kept a diary thoughout this period. A fascinating insight in the processes, hurdles and glimpses of hope that occur behind prison walls."

1 comment

  • Kathryn Beetham on

    The book The Unknown Citizen was written about my great Uncle, Chris Bowtell.

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