Horatio Clare (born 1973) is a writer, radio producer and journalist. His books include Truant: Notes from the Slippery Slope and Running for the Hills (both John Murray). A Single Swallow (Chatto & Windus) was published in 2009.
My visit to HMP Warren Hill was organised by English PEN, which put me in touch with Ian Orchard of the Prison Libraries Service. I had excellent contact with Ian before the visit, in which he told me something of what to expect and offered to meet me at Luton, to give me a lift to the prison, and also to take me back to the station afterwards. I immediately felt in kind and competent hands – which was important, given what I had learned about the condition of prisons at a PEN-organised briefing the year before.
The visit to Warren Hill was the second of two encounters with the prison service, the first of which was also organised by PEN’s Readers and Writers programme, as an introduction to the subject. This took the form of a briefing at HMP Wandsworth given by Fay Deadman, a Prison Inspector with a special interest in Young Offenders, and John Podmore, a former governor of Brixton Prison, and a dedicated prison reformer. It was an extraordinary session. Indefinite sentencing, re-offending rates, the paucity of funding for education and retraining, shrinking rehabilitation budgets, miserable conditions and the deadening effects of incarceration were rapidly and dispassionately described by two experts. The amazing thing was that these insiders should be so candid and pessimistic about the conditions prevailing in their sphere. There were several writers in attendance, and not one of us left the session with any illusion about what we would be dealing with, or anything less than a determination to do whatever we could, be it ever so slight, to contribute.
HMP Warren Hill squats on bleak marshland, not far from the English Channel. It reminded me immediately of the opening pages of ‘Great Expectations’: I believe the marshes described are the same. At the beginning of his novel Dickens introduces the notion of Hulks – prison ships moored out at sea. HMP Warren Hill struck me as a Hulk that has been hauled ashore. Though ships and seagulls and an expanse of sea are visible from outside its walls, once inside it, they disappear. Ian Orchard told a story, which I will never forget, of two Young Offenders (YOs, as they are referred to) who once managed to obtain and conceal a ladder during renovation work. They used it to scale the walls. Having escaped, they were so overcome by the isolation of their situation, by the exposure to an empty horizon and a complete absence of anything resembling civilisation, that they went round to the main gate and waited to be let back in. Their reaction seems an extraordinary indictment of the spirit-crushing, world-shrinking effect of juvenile incarceration. Ian said frankly that many of the YOs did not really know where in the country they were.
Entry into the YOs wing of Warren Hill rapidly explains this disorientation. The YOs are housed in a block like a hollow square. Their only natural light comes from occasional sky-lights directly overhead. They live under artificial strip-light. They wear tracksuits, without pockets. They look pallid, they slouch, but otherwise they would be indistinguishable from any other group of teenagers, but for two differences: they are all male, and they are quiet – much quieter than a comparable group of school children. It seems most of their time – when they are not in a class or eating – is spent playing games. Warders commented that with their X-boxes and Playstation 3s the YOs had access to better toys than do the warders’ children. The boys operate a pecking order in which seniority can be measured by acquisition. Since most things that they might want to obtain are banned or restricted, their currency is toiletries. You can tell who is the top man by the number and variety of deodorants he keeps in his cell – all lovingly arranged and displayed. Because of sentencing policy, some of the boys have no release date. This, then, is all of life: under strip light, in one of three or four rooms, playing video games, collecting deodorants.
Ian had organised three sessions for me, each with between 15 and 25 YOs. Ian struck me as an intensely kind man, who is also humblingly modest. He was obviously popular with the YOs, but he chose to take no credit for it, saying that his job as librarian meant he represented a welcome change of routine for the boys, and that they were always pleased to see him because he was not part of their daily furniture. His small library was moderately stocked, with an extensive and popular true-crime section. It is an old saw that prisoners love true-crime, but one cannot help wondering if this enthusiasm is lead as well as reflected by the over-provision of these books, at the expense of other genres. There are a great many novels, biographies, plays and poems in which prisoners, fictional or real, are represented – from Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ to Newby’s ‘Love And War in the Apennines’. It is not difficult to imagine assembling a collection of writing featuring prisoners which would inspire, educate and inform rather than simply amaze and horrify – which tend to be the desired effects of true crime writers.
The sessions were an absolute pleasure. The boys sat quietly and listened with great attention. I had recently been teaching some of the more able and privileged children in the country, at Atlantic College, and it was striking that these prisoners, in so many ways the lowest of the social low, would have fitted in perfectly to any of the English classes that I had given there. The subject of the sessions was my book ‘Truant’ which one or two had read and some had started. I began the sessions by telling its story – the story of my privileged but often delinquent youth, with a focus on the whys and wherefores of drugs – but aimed to move as quickly as possible to questions and discussion. I made the point that but for dumb luck I would have been a former prisoner, and told them, truthfully, that reading and writing have been something like salvations to me. Their questions were politely put and extremely penetrating. Ian had warned me that they would be frank: “How much do you earn?” was invariably one of the openers. We moved on to questions about love – “What happened to that girl?” – and life: “Do you think I could write a book?” “What’s your job like?” “What do you actually do?” “What’s your criminal record for?” “If I offered you some cannabis now, would you take it?” By the end of each session some prisoners announced that they intended to write. One showed me some of his own poems. The boys were touchingly grateful and appreciative. I only wished I had more exciting anecdotes to tell them, and more to offer them than diversion, encouragement and temporary friendship. They seemed, overwhelmingly, as innocent and charming as any group of well-behaved teenagers. It was scarcely credible that they had done ‘terrible things’.
We did two sessions before lunch and one afterwards. We took lunch in a local pub, with Ian and another warder, a young woman whose name I missed. Like Ian, she was as far removed as is imaginable from the hard-faced ‘screw’ of popular perception. It was striking that all the staff, from those operating the gates to those with the bundles of keys supervising the boys comings and goings, seemed warm, kind, humane and dedicated. This, coupled with the boys’ friendly dispositions and the isolation of Warren Hill, combined to create the feeling of a surreal parallelism, a kind of strip-lit after-life, a mundane purgatory in which the boys served time for reputedly appalling (but never described) sins, committed in another world.
The writing and publicising of books has taken me to a few strange places, since I first published in 2006, and brought all sorts of rewards and challenges. Among these, nothing was quite so strange as that visit, and, in a fundamental way, little I have done in connection with writing was so rewarding. I did not give blinding talks. I did not shift many copies or sign anything (though one boy did ask for my autograph – bless him!) and I doubt I made much in the way of a lasting impact. But Ian wrote afterwards to say the boys had really enjoyed the encounter. The warders said that the boys were unusually attentive – no doubt because Truant’s story is not so very far from their own. When my time comes to be judged, I shall not hesitate to point to that visit as something I did that was good. I am extremely grateful to PEN and the Prison Libraries Service for the opportunity, and would be honoured to do something similar again. I would urge any writer to do prison work, and not for the feel-good factor, either. Journalism has taken me all over our society, and into others, but, apart from court reporting, nothing I have seen has been quite so revealing about how Britain works: its lunatic deficiencies in policy, organisation and imagination (what is the point of building prisons if their net effect is to increase the prison population? Why do we not fund and arrange rehabilitation properly?), alongside the wonderful humanity, wisdom and dedication of the people who actually operate our flawed systems: people like Ian Orchard, whose funding, support and status is routinely undermined from above.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/readersandwriters/prisons/horatioclareathmpwarrenhill/