One of the best parts of writing a novel is the opportunities afforded by the research. It’s great to be able to try new experiences, meet interesting people and visit places that you wouldn’t normally consider, all is the name of writing a book (especially if you are super nosey like me!).
In the story I’m currently writing, my character has a spell in prison and I find it quite hard to write a scene when I haven’t actually visited a location and got a real ‘feel’ for the place. It’s not always possible, I did receive a lot of knock backs on my requests for this one. But, finally, last week I was taken on a tour of a local prison.
The prison was a Category B, closed institution. I was told to arrive with photo ID and no mobile phone as they are prohibited in the facility.
As soon as you enter the building reception, you are in no doubt you are entering a prison. I was given a locker and asked to put any personal belongings in it, before I entered two locked doors and was guided through to the offices. But it was when I entered the first wing that I really felt a sense of being enclosed. The wings pretty much looked like the images you see on television – everything is metal: the cell doors, the landings, the staircases. A tinny sound fills the air as people move around.
Every door is followed by a rigid metal gate, both of which have to be locked before you move into the next area. The wings are surrounded by concrete exercise areas for the prisoners. The sound of keys jangling on long chains is commonplace.
Staff in the education wing were extremely enthusiastic about the courses they offered; the library reported an impressive 50% attendance which they are currently working hard to increase (and stocked books in a plethora of different languages); the segregation area, to be expected, was bare and stark. Cells were basic, mostly bunk beds, a toilet and a storage area – some of the prisoners who worked had earned enough to rent a television for their cell. The hospital wing was more a collection of ‘hospital’ cells, tended by nurses.
I was struck by the strong sense of regime. Inmates are woken at 8am and expected to be breakfasted and in education or work by 8.30. They return to their blocks for lunch. Outdoor exercise is scheduled along with recreation time and evening lock up. Not surprising really, this is a punishment facility, after all. They have all the usual problems associated with prison life including the challenge of drug rehabilitation and perennial re-offenders.
My interest doesn’t really lie with perennial offenders or rehabilitation (although these are both very interesting areas to explore), but more so the effect on everyday folk, like you or I, and how we would feel if we suddenly found ourselves behind bars. The working title for my new book is The Lies Within and the sound of metal clanging as doors closed, keys jangling, doors locking and unlocking, and the experiences of prisoners and officers I chatted to certainly gave me a great insight.
I must admit, whether it’s an ounce of claustrophobia or the sound of all that metal, the air did feel fresher and sweeter on my walk back to my car!
This has been one of the most difficult research trips to arrange and I would like to extend my thanks to Dennis for giving up his time to take me around and give me a glimpse into life behind bars, and the officers and prisoners who shared their experiences.