I didn’t want to publish The Truth About Prison myself, I may as well admit that straight away. I thought it was a book agents and publishers would snap up. It’s topical, it’s revealing, it’s shocking and humorous at times, it’s important and, though I say it myself, it’s bloody fascinating.
If you’re interested in prisons and what happens inside them, then this is the book for you. It brings stories from inside young offenders institutes, local prisons and high security prisons, from male and female prisons, from the views of prisoners and prison officers, as well as others. If you want to know what education is offered inside prisons, hear stories from inside classrooms, and find out why prisoners are paid more for sweeping floors than achieving qualifications, then this is the book for you. If you want to know how effective the Psychology Departments and their offending related courses are, and understand how much power Psychology holds over prisoners, their categorization and release dates, then this is the book for you. If you’re interested in knowing the effect of privatisation on prisons and the Probation Service, then yes, you’ve guessed it; this is still the book for you.
And there’s plenty more too: drugs, violence and gangs; prisoners taking control of whole wings; terrorists converting others to their cause; sex between inmates and with officers; leaving prison after five, ten, fifteen years inside and having to get on with your life under the supervision of Probation and inside their hostels; looking back now and wondering whether prison changed you for the better; and the heart-breaking stories of family members left outside when their loved ones are locked up, and their experiences of how they managed to cope or not, and visiting inside.
I traveled around England and Wales for a year and a half, recording stories of all those involved. I did this quietly because I’d signed the Official Secrets Act whilst working in a high security prison and I was worried I’d be in massive trouble for revealing the truth. That’s what high security prisons do to you; they make you paranoid and feel like you’re under investigation yourself, even if you’ve done no wrong. The professionals are anonymous, because they need to be. If you tell the truth about prison, and certain things that happen inside them, then you face being disciplined or sacked. Most prisoners didn’t care about anonymity, except for the man sentenced to fourteen years for child sex offences – he understandably did – but they accepted the anonymous names given to them.
And so I approached agents. Here it is I told them; the most complete book on prison ever written. Within a few hours, one of them got back to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ wrote Andrew Lownie. ‘Who else in publishing have you approached and what was the response?’ He suggested I write a more detailed proposal. Amongst other things he wanted to know:
The five most recent competing and comparable books, giving author, title, publisher and date of publication, together with a note on how the books relate to the author’s own book but also how mine is unique.
One page on specialist marketing outlets
½ page synopsis per section/chapter – about ten pages
He wanted the final wordcount no more than eighty thousand words, and more importantly, he suggested the book be completely restructured, so that, instead of monologues one after the other, the book addressed topics in chapter format. I was unsure about this last bit of advice and engaged in e-mail conversations about it, but then I googled Andrew Lownie again, and found he was the top selling agent in the world for each of the last four years. And so I did what he wanted, and realised he was correct. I took a week off work, immersed myself in the whole manuscript and cut the text down from eighty to sixty thousand, so I could build it back up again with incoming interviewees. I cut apart monologues on the computer, printed them out and then cut them out on paper, before laying them out all over the living room floor to arrange the order.
And every so often, I failed to contain a little tremble inside – the world’s best agent! This could be the book that finally broke me upwards into the next level, where writers can concentrate on writing instead of working part time/full time to pay the bills and put food on the table; the fabled promised land, that only the very few reach. Kicked Out was written whilst I worked full time in an emergency access homeless hostel, fitting into a shift rota, doing sleep-ins and twenty-four hour shifts, and often dealing with crisis. Andalucía and St Cuthbert’s Final Journey were written on the dining room table, whilst I worked as a teacher in prisons. A loft conversion helped with the yet to be released novel Black Streams. But then I sent the new manuscript to Andrew, and he pontificated for a while, before replying, “many thanks for this. I found it very interesting but I fear it’s not going to be sufficiently commercial for my list. Sorry but good luck with your approaches elsewhere.” I was gutted. Almost there, and then back to the bottom of the slush pile again. I sent to a few other publishers and agents and received responses such as “incredibly interesting but due to our existing commitments, this is not a project we would be able to handle at the moment.”
This is writing. This is life. You encounter hurdles, you navigate over them and keep on going. And so I decided to publish it myself, as I did with Andalucía and St Cuthbert’s Final Journey. The publishing world is a slow moving dinosaur. It can take months or years to get a publisher once you’ve secured an agent, if you’re lucky enough to get an agent in the first place. Statistics show that top agencies take on board one or two new writers a year and receive at least three hundred manuscripts every month, and most publishers only accept manuscripts from agents so you’re forced to go down that route. And then, if you sign a contact with a publisher, it often takes a year for your book to come out, because there’s plenty of others stacked up before yours. And so I published it myself, because I know what I’m doing, and I can get the book out quickly. Prisons are topical, we know that, there’s always something happening that makes the headlines. Get it finished and get it out there.
But I had to prove to myself that others would find this book as fascinating as I do. And so I sent a copy of the manuscript to Erwin James, probably the best person to make such an assessment. Erwin was convicted of murder in 1984, and it was in prison that he found he had a talent for writing. He won awards and started writing a weekly article for The Guardian. He was released in 2004 and still writes for The Guardian, and his books about prison are beautifully written and considered classics. He absolutely loved the book and wrote me the following quote:
“Different to any other book on prison. Compelling and quite breath-taking in its scope of insights, giving a voice to the only people that really know” – Erwin James
And so here I am again; publishing myself, with a wonderful quote from a wonderful writer. And I say it again; if you want to know anything about prisons, whether they work and what really goes on inside them, then this is the book for you.