Eric Brown tells us about his time in prison, where he went to talk to inmates about all things writing and SF...
The jail, H.M.P. Bullwood, was approached through a tiny hamlet of thatched cottages like something from a fairytale, and then, at the end of the lane, there appeared a concrete monstrosity surrounded by tall barbed wire-topped metal fences. That was the first line of security. We were shown through a locked door in the fence - we had to display our passports to get through - and then led by a guard across a yard to the main building. Another set of locked doors, which led into a large chamber the far end of which was barred, and looked into a courtyard. Here they checked our passports again, searched our bags; we had to leave mobile phones there. Also, we could not take the following into the prison: yeast, chewing gum, knives, explosives (and other things I've forgotten). After the guards assured themselves that we were carrying none of the above, we were let through into the courtyard where we were met by the librarian, and taken across the yard to another wing; another set of locked doors, into the educational building. Up some stairs, into another locked area, a corridor which led to the classrooms, and the library, which was a pleasant area of books, videos, posters, a big rug that was a map of the world.
The irony is, despite all the security, Bullwood Hall isn't a high risk
prison; there are no grade A offenders; they're all foreign nationals in for mainly immigration - fraud or forgery of papers - offences.
I had about ten minutes to compose myself and set up the books I'd brought, then take a final look through my notes. I must admit that at this point, before the inmates were led in, I wondered how I was going to get through the next two hours. My heart was thumping, my mouth dry, palms sweaty. I took deep breaths, paced up and down, and drank plenty of water. Then the inmates were led in in threes and fours, and I chatted to them as they took their seats and the fear evaporated. I began the talk with a funny story, and got a laugh, and the rest was relatively plain sailing. I could see that more than half of the audience of twenty were really interested (the other half sat at the back and snoozed) and my fear that I'd run out of material was unfounded; I actually had more to talk about that the allotted time allowed.
The first hour went very well, and then the second lot came in and I had to repeat the entire performance, adapting it where I thought it could be improved. By this time I was confident, and the fear had gone, which was just as well as the second lot were pretty unresponsive; didn't laugh at the joke, looked bored, didn't have many questions - in fact one guy, a surly looking bruiser of a Pole in his fifties, got up and walk out towards the end. But I went on and it finished okay. The librarian was delighted with the whole talk, and I was delighted to have got it over with; and not a little proud of having overcome the fear. Tea with the librarian and a guard, who filled me in on the regime of the jail - all the inmates are minor offenders who are in there for a few months before being returned to their countries of origin. They were well provided for: they could work for pocket money, with which they bought their food; or receive education, again for which they were paid pocket money. I found many of them polite, often charming, and some of them were incredibly brought and articulate. (There was one man, a massive African with tribal striations on his cheeks and eyes the size of golf balls, who stared at me for the entirety of the second session, which was disconcerting.) And many of them - mainly Africans - came up and thanked me at the end.
But the relief of walking out of jail after my sentence!
Three hours later I stepped through the door of the cottage, glad to have got it over with. All in all, a fascinating experience, though one I wouldn't want to do again in a hurry.