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5 Prison Memoirs

7th Apr 2014

5 Prison Memoirs
Reading and writing are a way of transcending prison experience, so we've picked five very different prison memoirs informed directly by the authors' time spent inside, all of which challenge the living conditions and treatment of women prisoners.

New Department of Justice guidelines came into effect last November stopping prisoners in the UK receiving books from friends and family outside. Guidelines which attracted no notice until the Howard League for Penal Reform recently highlighted their existence.

Some of our favourite writers, including Carol Ann Duffy, are fiercely campaigning to remind Secretary for State and MP Chris Grayling that books are not treats to be given out but instead a humane necessity.

Books are necessary to develop our literacy, confidence, and social development – surely a key part of any effective rehabilitation plan! (This is discussed further by For Books’ Sake fave Bidisha on her blog.)

We think it’s a ridiculously harmful rule that penalises an already vulnerable group within the population. A group who typically have a higher rate of illiteracy and as a result are under represented in the literary world.

If you’re as pissed as we are, you can sign the Change.org petition, tweet your support through the #booksforprionsers hashtag and/or write to your local MP.

We want to share with you five writers who have all spent time behind bars and gone on to write prison memoirs that challenge the penal systems of their respective countries.

Strong voices like theirs are needed if there is ever to be a balanced discussion of the way in which women prisoners are treated.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman, described by some as “the most dangerous woman in America” is the author of Living My Life and My Disillusionment in Russia.

As well as a failed assassination attempt, Goldman was imprisoned several times for “inciting to riot” and illegally distributing information about birth control.

In prison she met the socialist Kate Richards O’Hare, who had also been imprisoned under the Espionage Act and Gabriella Segata Antolini, a fellow anarchist.

Working together to make life better for the other inmates, the three women became known as “The Trinity”. During her lifetime her lectures on prisons, gender politics and women’s rights attracted thousands.

Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur is an African-American activist, and currently exiled political prisoner who was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA). Shakur was accused of several crimes including the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper.

She escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba in political asylum since 1984. In 2013, the FBI announced it had made Shakur the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.

Her autobiography, Assata: An Autobiography, gives her side of the story and covers her experiences of imprisonment in 1973, her multiple trials and growing up in a segregated community before her political activism in the 70’s:

“The guards are forever telling the women to ‘grow up,’ to ‘act like ladies,’ to ‘behave’ and to be ‘good girls.'”

If you're as pissed as we are you can sign the petition, tweet your support through the #booksforprionsers hashtag and write to your local MP.

Vicky Pryce

Vicky Pryce, economist and advisor to business secretary Vince Cable served eight weeks of her eight month prison sentence after taking motoring penalty points on behalf of her ex-husband, former cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

Prisonomics is primarily an economic critique of the prison system informed by Pryce’s experience in Holloway prison and East Sutton Park open prison.

Focussing on statistics and the economic and human cost of keeping women in prison, she uses her own experience to give a wider appraisal of the current state of the UK penal system:

“I would not recommend anyone going to prison, but I think I would have been much less of a complete person if this hadn’t happened. There would have been a whole chunk of something very important that is happening in society that I would not have realised was going on.”

Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist and FGM campaigner.

In 1981 she helped publish a feminist magazine, Confrontation, and was imprisoned for “crimes against the state” for her outspoken view on women’s oppression.

She was held at Qanatir Women’s Prison and this formed the basis for Memoirs from the Women’s Prison which she wrote on a roll of toilet paper with an eyebrow pencil smuggled in by a fellow prisoner.

The memoir describes how prisoners forged an alliance to demand better conditions and to maintain their sanity in the confines of their cramped cell.

Joan Henry

Joan Henry, a former débutante, was sentenced to 12 months for passing fraudulent cheques. She spent eight months in two prisons, Holloway and Askham Grange open women’s prison.

Henry wrote about the brutal treatment received by women in prisons in 1950s and 60’s UK. She believed that the system left women unprepared for life on the outside and that many reoffended in order to return to the routine they knew.

She wrote the semi-autobiographical Who Lie in Gaol, (filmed as The Weak and the Wicked), a sensational best-seller about her experiences in prison:

“Discipline, is not enforced by yelling at women as though they were pigs. I witnessed one woman, goaded beyond endurance by a particularly sadistic officer, empty her slop-pail over her, before being dragged off, screaming and cursing at her tormentor, by six other screws for punishment.”

What do you think of the new Department of Justice guidelines?

Have you recently read any books, fact or fiction, that focus on prison life? 

(Image via “Cage in Decay,” © 2010 Marc Soller)

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