13 August 2016

It’s 7am and I am pulling up in the staff car park. In front of me is a high concrete wall fringed on the top with barbed wire.

Last week, I was writing my weekly column for Woman magazine. Right now, it’s the first day of my new job as writer in residence for a high security male prison. Two days a week for three years.

How fast life can change.

When my marriage ended after twenty-seven years, I found myself in need of more regular work. A neighbour pointed out a job advert in a national newspaper for a writer to run therapeutic workshops for prisoners. And now here I am….

I walk up to the door in the middle of the huge walls. There’s a bell. I press it. It’s opened by a burly officer. A woman. I’m directed to a glass screen where I give my name and ‘purpose.'

My bags are searched. My laptop, umbrella and part of my packed lunch are confiscated. Laptops aren’t allowed in prison unless you have special permission because prisoners might use them to send emails. Umbrellas could be used as weapons. And the fork in my lunch box for my tuna salad could be used to stab someone in the eye.

Then I’m frisked. I am wearing trousers because common sense tells me that if someone attacked me, I might have more time to defend myself than if I was wearing a skirt.

Two keys are slid under the glass partition. One is a key to the main doors inside the prison. The other is the key to the staff lounge. I have to sign for them. The responsibility is so daunting that my fingers shake as I attach them to the leather belt around my waist. There’s also a whistle. This is my only defence if things go wrong. When I run my workshops there will be no officers present.

We’re at the gate of D wing now.  A man is hovering as I lock the doors behind me. He is lanky with tattoos down his arm. ‘Are you the writing lady?’ he says. ‘Gotta write a letter for my missus. Can you help?’

My Husband's Wife

This was a place where emotions were challenged. I found myself grieving for someone who had destroyed someone else’s family.

Over the next three years, I come across situations and people who are so extraordinary that they defy belief. There was the company director who turned to robbery because he ‘got bored’. There was the middle-aged university graduate who - according to rumour - was in for serial killings. There was a man in his forties who had been in and out of care all his life and had been illiterate until a prison officer had taught him to read and write. (What a wonderful thing to do!). There was the solicitor who helped a youth to write down his poetry because he too was illiterate

One day I came in to find a hushed air in the prison. An inmate had killed another. Both apparently, were in for murder in the first place. This was a place where emotions were challenged. I found myself grieving for someone who had destroyed someone else’s family.

During my second year, I was asked to spend the night in the prison by the governor as part of a charity fundraising drive to pay for my post. It was difficult to say ‘no’ even though I wasn’t keen. I had dinner with the men and was then led to a cell which was electronically locked until 7am. If I needed the loo, there was a bowl beneath the bed. I hung on. As I couldn’t sleep, I wrote for most of the night, feeling claustrophobic and panicky. When I went home, I sat in the bath for hours to wash away the grime in my head. (I have used this experience in my next novel Blood Sisters.)

Feelings run high in prison. When I first started, I was told that men either discovered the gym or God. So I asked my students to write down prayers or sayings which helped them through the day. I also got staff to contribute, including the governor. The result was The Book of Uncommon Prayer. It would be wonderful if it could be published.

I do miss prison but I don’t want to go back even though it continues to haunt me. I am now a co-life story judge for the Koestler Awards, which are given to men and women in prison for art and writing. I have just finished judging this year’s awards which will be announced in August. There will be an exhibition in the South Bank from September onwards which is being curated by ex-offenders. Definitely worth a visit.

It’s hard for a writer not to write about a situation like this but I didn’t want a straight-forward crime book. I wanted to explore family relations and push them to the limits - both emotionally and legally. I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away the plot. But I couldn’t have written My Husband’s Wife without my three years inside - or without getting married again to my wonderful warm, funny man who totally understands when I disappear up to my study for hours.

Happy reading.

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