I’ve been talking to Ross Greenwood again, and picking up more unusual and unexpected tips on what life is like inside a prison. This is a distillation of the things he’s said, and it makes for interesting and in places uncomfortable reading. But if you want to portray a life inside, working in one or two of these points may help bring a new level of realism to your story.
- New inmates often arrive hungry. Having been in court all day and then stuck in transport van, they haven’t had the appetite or opportunity to eat. Newspapers make out that all prisoners are hardened brutes who sneered at the system, but all except the insane fear the courts. Hunger isn’t a concern until the verdict is in.
- Some new inmates will arrive in the clothes they were arrested in on the Friday night, even though it was then Monday.
- New inmates may be afraid to shower, having watched too many prison movies. So you’d give them a faded stiff towel and a bar of plain soap, and tell them to use the sink.
- A significant proportion of prisoners (of both genders) have mental health problems. Many were victims before they were villains.
- Prisons are not holiday camps, but they could be more spartan. However, locking people up with nothing to do and no TV when they already have mental health illnesses is inhumane. If they’re struggling with life before jail, that is not going to help.
- Most murders are clear cut. The perpetrator normally knows the victim. Often, it was their partner.
- Most of those accused of murder plead guilty when put in front of the Crown judge, but it is rare for them to be sentenced on the spot. They usually have to return to court to be sentenced; often about two weeks later.
- Those two weeks will be spent in jail and the reaction of the prisoners to the wait is fascinating, the weight could be seen falling off them. The nights are long as they wait for the axe to fall. People age years.
- Hygiene is not high on inmate priorities. Brushing teeth is not, for many, a regular occurrence. Toothache affects a significant portion of prisoners. The stench of their breath is indescribable. See point 3, some don’t shower for their entire stay.
- Gob watch (Ross’ term not an official one). When prisoners are on medications, these have to be passed out and someone has to check that they are taken, but prisoners are adept at hiding pills for a later buzz, suicide attempt or to sell, so an officer has to check their mouths. It’s easier to hide pill in teeth with holes, see point 8, so they have to be checked, try not to imagine the stench.
One other thing that Ross did add was this:
The Coronavirus has given us a glimpse into that world. It feels surreal, unnatural, claustrophobic, stressful and boring, and we’re only under house arrest. All our plans have gone to pot. We don’t know if we’ll have a job when all this is over. How will we pay the mortgage? We’ll miss weddings and funerals. Will life be the same afterwards? Could we lose hope?
This is a point on which I total agree with him, see my blog “New Year, Old Lockdown.”
Why not take a look at Ross’s Amazon Page for more information on him and his fabulous books. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ross-Greenwood/e/B019JRK0AY/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1
Or follow his page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RossGreenwoodAuthor/
I hope these general pointers help others with their writing, and want to say a big thank you to Ross for being so open and honest with all he’s had to say on the topic.
I first met Ross Greenwood shortly after Locked Up was published – but out long enough for Ross to have read it. Having been a prison officer, he pointed out that I got one thing wrong in the book, I’ll tell you what at the end of the article. But in the meantime, here are some tips from the author with the direct prison experience, of what not to get wrong.
Ten popular misconceptions for fiction writers.
- Prison is a combination of The Shawshank Redemption and Porridge. Really?
- Prison is cool. No. Brad Pitt is cool. Prison is shit. It’s bad breath and everyone you hated at school x 1000 locked up in the same place.
- You’ll get raped in prison. Erm, nope. Trust me, the chances of this happening are virtually zero. Despite this, many men will not have a single shower the entire time they are inside. Even if that is years.
- Prisons are cool. True. In the winter they are freezing, and you won’t have suitable attire. In the summer, they are boiling. And what do you think a place that holds 1000 men in the middle of August is going to be like when the windows don’t open? If you earn £8 a week for dismantling washing machines you aren’t going to spend it on Right Guard.
- Your cell mate is going to be an axe murderer. Consecutive prison ministers may have been seemingly intent on ruining the system, but even they can see the logic in not padding anyone up with Charles Bronson. How’s your new pad mate, Charles? Quiet. Unsurprisingly, the same applies to arsonists.
- Prisons are fun. Wrong, prisons are boredom and toothache. They are tension and despair. They are small narrow rooms without your family, friends, fridges, futures or freedom. They contain only fear. Chances are, it will break you.
- If you’ve done something dodgy, you can get away with saying you’re inside for fraud. Prisoners aren’t stupid. If you say that, they’ll think you’re a pervert or worse. It won’t matter if you aren’t. Otherwise they’ll ring their mums, and they’ll put your name into Google.
- Prisoners are at the gyms all day long. Wrong! They get an hour to work out, three times a week. All prisoners have time to focus on is their top half to get big guns. That’s right. They all look ridiculous.
- Prisoners have to sit a parole board to get out. No, only lifers do. Everyone else gets out at exactly the half way point of their sentence, or two-thirds now with violent crimes. Even if they’ve refused to do a day’s work or change their underpants for their entire sentence, they will still leave on their Automatic Release Date.
- Violence is cool. There are many dangerous men in prison, who believe violence is their right. They bully and fight. When the adrenalin drops and they are bent double and marched to the block, humiliated by a strip search, and left for days on end with only their thoughts for company, they cry like babies.
So which one did I get wrong? Actually it was none of the above, so it’s kind of a number 11. I said that all the prisoners claim to be innocent men, apparently the opposite is true, they often try to big up their conviction, but as number 7 says, it’s not that hard to find out the truth.
More information on the reality of prison life from Ross will be featured on this blog next month.
Still, prison is one area of life I’m glad that I don’t know enough about and happy for men like Ross to do the incredibly hard work that they do in there.
Thank you, Ross.
If you’d like to know more about Ross, check out his wonderful books, the DI Barton series is now available on Audible, the first is The Snow Killer.