I used to love that square on the Monopoly board, as a kid. It wasn’t until I became a writer of thrillers, then crime novels, and found myself spending more and more time in jails, happily so far as a day visitor rather than as an overnight guest of Her Majesty, that I started to realize what being in prison is really like. The most vivid portrayal of all came from a career burglar I interviewed for nearly two hours in Lewes Prison, when I was researching for Dead Like You. He had 171 previous convictions at the time I met him. He was only 42 but looked 60 – prison ages people a lot. I asked him if he had a dream and he replied “Yeah, I’d like to be married again, live in a nice house, have kids, and a car, but it’s not going to happen.” “Why not?” I asked him. “I got 171 previous for burglary and drug dealing,” he replied. “Who’s going to employ me? Besides, I like it here. Got telly, the electricity’s paid for, it’s warm, the grub’s good, and I got me mates here…”
One of the things I have learned about ladies prisons is that there seems to be a much better relationship between the officers and the prisoners than in male prisons. And, from talking to some of the prisoners, a generally friendly and co-operative attitude between the prisoners.
Last Thursday I gave at talk at Low Newton Prison in Durham. It is a ladies prison, and unlike male prisons which are divided into Categories – A being the highest, D the lowest, female prisons have no categorization. So at Low Newton the prisoners include a wide range, from murderers to comparatively mild offenders. It is always fascinating to talk to the prisoners afterwards, when I find they will often open up to me. One I met, who was quite charming, was like a character straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. And I’m sure one day… she’ll be into the pages of a Peter James novel…..!!!