Monday, 7 October 2013

Locked in, Books Out...(or true crime meets crime fiction)

Locked In, Books Out 

I was recently locked behind bars.

Really. I was imprisoned. Not a great scenario for someone who spent most of his adult life engaged in law enforcement, both as a private security contractor, and as a police constable. You’d think it would be my worst nightmare, and to be honest you’d be right, but for one thing which will become apparent.

My reason for being locked up was through a tip off from a fellow Hodder thriller author and friend, which ended with me behind locked gates in the ‘Big House’. Stephen Leather – of Spider Shepherd and Jack Nightingale fame – dropped the tip that I should be incarcerated and before I knew it, I was handing over my worldly belongings at the front gate and being ushered into jail.

Some of you might think that was bad form on my friend’s part, but here’s the rub: I was thankful to Stephen for mentioning my name in the right ear. No, this wasn’t some skeleton in my closet coming back to haunt me; no attempt at paying retribution for a life of hidden misdoings and dodgy dealings.  I had another reason for being there, and went willingly while listening to the finality of rattling keys in locks sealing my exit route. Though his tip-off was sending me to prison, Stephen hadn’t ‘ratted me out’; I had a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

See, here’s what went down.

Stephen Leather was asked if he would visit and speak to inmates at said prison, but was unable to being as he was out of the country. He then recommended me to prison staff, and off I went in his place. Was I nervous? Yes. Having been in a profession that could be seen as anathema to some of these guys, I had to wonder what kind of reception I’d receive. I’d spent the best part of twenty-three years sending criminals to just such places, and did have a niggle in the back of my mind that I just might be throwing myself to the lions.

But there has always been a credo that I held to during my law enforcement career: Don’t be judgemental.

I’ve always been willing to take people as I found them, and to treat them in a manner I’d expect to be treated myself.

The truth is, there are some bad guys in prison. But there are also some good guys who have made bad choices also in prison. I’m not making excuses for them. They did wrong, they should pay the price. But that’s not to say that they should be locked up, the key thrown away, or that they should be treated as subhuman. Some people end up incarcerated through poor decisions, through peer pressure, through desperation, and I always have thought that the saying “there but for the grace of God go I” is never truer. I grew up on a sinkhole council estate, was surrounded by deprivation, and criminality. But that’s only half of the truth. On the same estate there were good, law abiding people, but they were still looked on by outsiders as that lot from …….. (insert the name of your own local rough housing estate here) and some of those otherwise decent people were trawled along with the others. I watched good people fall into criminality, because it was the done thing, and you didn’t belong if you weren’t in line with the others. Some of them fell into crime through peer pressure, as I said, others through fear, others through addictions. Those guys deserve a second chance in my opinion. So I put away my police head, reminded myself not to be judgemental, and went to talk with the inmates with an open mind.

And I have to report, it was one of my favourite ever talks I’ve conducted as a professional writer.

I won’t and can’t go into specifics, but I met with a group of around twenty young men in the prison’s library.  At first I felt a little intimidated as I faced them, and it took a minute or two to break the ice and to get them to communicate with me, but once we’d both engaged the other, there was no stopping us. I was greatly surprised to find that a number of the men had read, and were huge fans, of my Joe Hunter thriller series. In fact, they were knowledgeable and enquiring, and were telling me things I’d forgotten about from some of the earlier books in the series. There was lots of humour, and, yes, lots of respect shown – on both sides.

Outside of prison, some people complain about the holiday camp treatment prisoners enjoy. Well the truth is that for a good part of every day prisoners are actually confined to their locked cells with little to entertain their minds. Caged animals usually do one of two things, they fall into depression or they grow aggressive. Thankfully caged humans have another option. Many prisoners turn to books to fill their time, and like no better than the kind of escapist fiction my Joe Hunter books offer. Some of the men I met, who’d never read a book in their lives, were now voracious in their appetite for books. I was chuffed to hear that my writing was helping these men to concentrate on something other than four bare walls; dwelling on what had placed them there; and perhaps giving them a useful skill for when they were finally released back into the community.

It very quickly became apparent to me that some of these men were highly intelligent, and eloquent, and they weren’t your stereotypical idea of a convict. They were largely good people who’d made a bad decision in life, and possibly what they needed was steering down a different path than the one they’d trod before. Now, I wouldn’t begin to patronize anyone, especially in their current predicament, but what I hope to be was an inspiration to them. I came from a similar background, had a similar upbringing, but what I did was syphon my energies into creativeness rather than criminality.  I’d be misguided in thinking that I changed all of those men’s futures for the good, but it’s my hope that at least one of them will be inspired by my visit and turn their intelligence and eloquence to a different track.  Maybe one day I’ll receive an email from one of them saying how they’d just got their first book published, or that they’d achieved some other endeavour they could never have imagined before, and if it happens I’ll be a very happy man.

At the end of the visit, I was able to walk out of prison, collect my belongings and return to the comfort of my home. Those men couldn’t. They had to return to their cells. But I’m glad to report that they did so clutching books checked out from the library, some of them mine.