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.