OUR HOUSE at HMP Thameside
These last few months, I’ve had many lovely invitations to book festivals and bookshops to meet readers and talk about OUR HOUSE, but one this week stands out as unique – and one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I visited the library book group at HMP Thameside, a remand prison in southeast London that houses 1,300 inmates. The library, led by the dynamic Neil Barclay, has earned serious book industry kudos – its roster of bestselling author events would rival the programme at Waterstones Piccadilly (among my predecessors: Adam Kay, Paula Hawkins, Fiona Barton, Louise Doughty).
I’d never been to a prison before and it was an unsettling prospect. In OUR HOUSE, Bram has a phobia of prisons (carcerophobia), which helps drive his appalling decision-making, and I identify closely with this fear. I imagined a Victorian facility with four men to a cell and grey food and menacing looks following me as I waited for door after door to be unlocked with a big set of keys. In fact, only the door-locking materialised (every single door you pass through; the staff, without exception, have a patient, methodical air about them). The prisoners were engaged, respectful and looked like people I see in my neighbourhood every day. The interviewer, a man with a fraud conviction, asked questions I’ve never had before: ‘Why would she be attracted to someone who looked “cadaverous”? Was that really the right word?’ Answer, from an inmate, not me: ‘It's about perception. He only looks cadaverous to the narrator, not to her.’ They all agreed Bram needed to ‘grow a pair’ and were upset by the passages when he says goodbye to his family.
Later, touring the prison, I was able to visit a cell (so shipshape it reminded me slightly of a Brittany Ferries cabin) and see the intranet system that allows inmates to book gym sessions and other activities. It was all too easy to think it wasn’t so bad - and my jovial tone here probably isn’t helping - but time and again I was reminded of what the central idea of prison is: a loss of liberty. Lockdown for most of the day and all of the night. I asked the prisoners what they missed most about the outside world, besides family, and many said, ‘Just picking up my car keys and driving wherever I like’.
Which was what I did a few hours later, stereo on, back home to my family and a large glass of something I didn’t brew illegally myself.
So, be assured, be very assured: the population of HMP Thameside may have TV and books and author visits, but they are definitely paying for their crimes. I wish them brighter, happier futures when they come back out and see the sky again.
Photo by Neil Barclay, HMP Thameside.