Shannon Trust Reviews Part 2
"Invisible Women" by Angela Devlin
A Book Review by Alain English
Angela Devlin has published an enormity of work on the prison system including "Prison Patter: A Dictionary of Prison Words and Slang" and "Cellmates/Soulmates: Stories of Prison Relationships". Whilst taking time to look at both sides of the fence (prisoner and prison officer), her empathy is quite clearly with the former. This is her only sole effort, as the other books are worked on with other authors. I would recommend looking at her other books, though, as based on the evidence of this book she demonstrates a great deal of insight and writing skill that gives a powerful picture of life in women's prisons.
This book is in some ways dated as it was written back in the 1990s, but I still think it is relevant as it highlights many problems that female prisons still face. Using a balance of anecdotal information and thoroughly sourced academic research (she has endnotes for every chapter), she looks at every aspect of the prison system and the effects it has on the women prisoners.
It is clear that women's needs are far more complicated than men's and this is recognised as being a problem in a system designed solely to meet male needs, as one unnamed source describes:
"There's a lot of women running the home inside prison. All men care about is their baccy, their meals and whether they're top dog in the prison. But the women are still running the home and I've seen women in here [an open prison] write shopping lists every week to give to their fellas when they come so they get the right food and things for their kids." P.54
Chapter Six contains a fascinating and complex dissection of the relationships between prisoners and their keepers. Most intrigiuing is the point-of-view of the male prison officers whose attitudes to their female charges are conflicted - caught between preserving the women's privacy and being thorough in doing their jobs.
I was disturbed by the poor mental health training Devlin describes that takes no account of the life histories of the people who suffer from such disorders and she stresses a need for change in the mentality of prison officers and better training in this area. Other areas covered include the disgusting infestation of drugs into the prison system and the various methods the prisoners use to traffick them without detection. Equally disturbing is the lack of education and preparation prisoners receive for returning to the outside world.
Throughout the whole book, Devlin succeeds in giving the reader a deeper, broader picture of female prisoners outside the selective stereotypes depicted the mainstream media. The prisoners come across as very real human beings. I think it is worth looking at and reading about as the news stories in the press suggest that many of these same issues are still pertinent today and it is depressing, twelve years after the book was written, that so little appears to have changed for the better.
"Children Who Break the Law or Everybody Does It" by Sarah Curtis
A Book Review by Alain English
Written in the early years of the Blair Premiership, Curtis seeks to penetrate and expose the realities behind the myths of young criminals.
She does this by examining the cases of different children under 18 who are found to have broken the law. She uncovers a number of common factors that have caused these children to turn to crime - inadequate parenting, poverty, the temptations of drink or drugs, and a government system that is ill-equipped to support them. Chris covers these cases with empathy and insight.
Using care when talking to her interviewees and allowing their experiences to speak for themselves. Curtis does not dwell excessively on the details of their crimes and proves to be a strong opponent on what she calls a defeatist fallacy inherent in some people who believe that the problems can't be solved.
Countering this, she proposes and looks at various solutions, including more in-depth personal and social education for young people as well as the introduction of life skills into the education system. The overall purpose of her proposals is to develop awareness in young people of others and the real consequences of their actions. She also looks at community projects that would help develop awareness across society.
Sarah argues her case with vigour and demonstrates a lot of insight and her pressing case for a new mentality on the part of the Government and the general public about youth crime is one that needs to be heard.
It would be interesting to talk to her now and read her views on how much or how little has changed since she first wrote the book.
"Screwed - The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer" by Ronnie Thompson
A Book Review by Alain English
Having read a great deal about life as a prisoner, it is engaging to read about life on the other side of the door - life as a prison officer. Ronnie Thompson, an ex-Prison Officer who was in the Service ten years, gives it to us straight.
Ronnie doesn't mess around, either in his job, or the way he writes about it. Throwing around slang and expletives, Ronnie describes his journey through the poor state of Britain's prison system - constant understaffing, lax recruitment practices and corrupt or ineffective staff.
It moves at a quick pace and Ronnie appears to be a solid, hardworking individual who enjoys his job and likes having a drink at the end of a hard day's work. He admits he's no angel, but he tries to be a decent screw playing the game with the cons, staying in charge and allowing no-one to manipulate him. Even so, he is shown to be at the mercy of bent screws and governors who frequently try to do him over to further their own agendas.
Some of this is very intense and gruesome stuff and can be very hard-going. Ronnie himself seems at times to have a vendetta against the service for which he worked. But this is still compelling stuff, though. Throughout the whole book you feel like you are walking in Ronnie's shoes. Few of us will really know what it's like to be a prison officer, but this book proves to the next best thing.