By Nathalie Olah
There are approximately 85,000 people detained in Britain’s prisons and over 10 million detained worldwide. For many of these people, books provide the only way in to discussions held in the outside world. What’s more, the relationship between prison life and writing is a long and complex one: from the ‘Battle of Reading Gaol’ to Damien Echols’ Life After Death, prison life has been the subject of countless works of literature throughout history.
Which is why English PEN held a night of spoken word featuring writers whose work engages with prisoners to discuss the revolutionary power of the book. Among them was award winning British novelist Alex Wheatle, who was sentenced to a term in prison after the Brixton riots. His novels include Brixton Rock, East of Acre Lane and his latest, Brenton Brown,(published by Arcadia). Alongside him was Jake Arnott – author of the bestselling The Devil’s Paintbrush and The House of Rumour (published by Sceptre), who also edited PEN’s prison pamphlet in 2012 – as well as stand-up poet Kate Fox who has worked with detainees in prisons in the North of England.
The Rich Mix’s poet in residence, Shane Solanki, opened proceedings in the venue’s main theatre accompanied on the keyboard by Arthur Lea.
After reading an extract from his novel The Long Firm detailing a scene in which a criminal sociologist delivers a lecture inside a prison, Jake Arnott described the escapism offered by prison libraries. The two most popular books rented by inmates being The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. “Two astonishing works of state craft and strategy” explained Arnott, “stories of how the really big crimes are done.” Before quoting Bob Dylan’s line from ‘Sweetheart Like You’: “Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you king.” In his experience, prisoners are usually attracted to stories of empowerment and liberation.
Then came Alex Wheatle, who was imprisoned after his involvement in the Brixton Riots. He wrote through his experience to become a successful author and delivered an impassioned speech about that Friday night and Saturday morning in 1981, when the country’s recession finally reached a head. The subjugation of young people in South London by fire engines, the parties in Brockwell park, dodging police squads and eventually being captured; experiences that became the inspiration for his best selling novel East of Acre Lane. It was in prison that Wheatle discovered his love of reading, which he pursued straight after his release. “Reading makes you realise that you can at least contribute to society,” he said, describing his first visit to a local library on his first day of freedom when, not understanding the protocol, he tried to make off with piles of books without asking.
Then between delivering some of her widely celebrated poetry, Kate Fox shared with the audience her experiences of working in prisons and her belief that many prisoners across Britain still suffer from undiagnosed mental illness. How can a country that is cutting its social care funding hope to reduce the number of prisoners and integrate people back into society following their release?
While the evening ended without either of these questions being answered definitively, it raised several key points. That problems in Britain’s prison service still exist and that writing, reading and sharing books can offer some relief and opportunity for expression to the thousands of people embroiled in its system.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter at @NROlah