6 Classic Prison Books that have Withstood the Test of Time

Prison Books

A good deal of the action in the London Large series takes place in prisons. Some of the key scenes in Bloody Liberties occur in Durham's high-security prison in the UK, and a large chunk of the story in American Lockdown is set in the High Desert State Prison in Nevada. But the series' first foray into this world was in Bound by Blood, in which ‘Little’ Ronnie Hawkins is banged up, also in Durham. We figured if we were going to write about prisons we should know something about them. So we did some reading. 

1. Parkhurst Tales

Our dad – not a man much given to literature, but he did like a prison memoir – had about the house twenty years or so ago a copy of Norman Parker’s Parkhurst Tales, Parkhurst being one of Britain’s most notorious 20th-century jails. This is our favourite book of its kind: a tell-all, disturbing, darkly hilarious page-turner about a high-security prison in the ‘bad old days’.

Norman Parker served over 24 years inside, including a life sentence for murder. His description of an infamous ‘shit-bomb’ incident in a wing office is particularly amusing for those who like that kind of thing (e.g. us), but the deeper message of the book is as serious as it gets, concentrating not only on the sense of solidarity among the cons but also on the truly visceral hatred that existed between most prisoners and screws (guards) that was characteristic of his time. Both these features of prison life – the solidarity and the fixed, unyielding hatred – seem to have dissipated since, which we’ll have something to say about later.

Interestingly, Norman Parker embarked on an Open University degree course, while he was still a serving prisoner, and later earned a Master’s degree in criminology (and he was not the only one to have benefited from in-prison education – see the piece below on John McVicar, the convict criminologist).

Parkhurst Tales is a cracking read; it’s exemplary of its kind as a warts-and-all expose, written by a man who managed to break the cycle and, in the end, get some real perspective on things, and who also knew how to stage an escape attempt and spark off a prison riot.

Further Reading: 
Norman Parker, Parkhurst Tales

2. Mad Frank: Memories of a Life of Crime

On the subject of Parkhurst and prison riots, there is much to be gleaned from the books of the legendary Frankie Fraser, particularly Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime (see separate article on ‘Mad’ Frank below), which presents the events of the infamous riot of 1969 of which Fraser was one of the ringleaders. On this occasion, he was forced to take a big dose of his own medicine: after the riot, he was beaten by officers so badly he spent six weeks in the prison hospital. But before that, and of direct family interest to us, comes the scene in which Fraser counsels our uncle Jimmy to stay in his cell before the riot starts, as by then he was a ‘trusted inmate’ nearing the end of his sentence and therefore had much to lose.

Further Reading
‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, Memoirs of a Life of Crime


3. A Sense of Freedom

Talking of old-school hard men, no look at British prison memoirs is complete without Jimmy Boyle’s work. A gangland figure from the Gorbals, Glasgow, Boyle was convicted in 1967 of murder (which he has always denied) and given a life sentence but released after 14 years.

While banged up in the special unit of Barlinnie Prison he turned to art (particularly sculpture) and in 1977 wrote his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom.

The intensity of Boyle’s account of the sheer brutality and degradation through which he lived in various Scottish prisons make this book a true classic of the genre: he holds nothing back in his descriptions of everything from absolutely brutal violence (much of it his own) to spending long periods being kept naked in a special ‘cage’ within a cell and being moved between jails frequently, as no governor (warden) wanted to have to deal with him. After living through these horrors, Jimmy Boyle became - and remains - one of the most dramatic examples in the British record of successful rehabilitation through prison education and has pursued a celebrated career as a sculptor and author.

Further Reading:
Jimmy Boyle, A Sense of Freedom

4. Porridge and Passion

A very different kind of prison memoir, written by a very different kind of man, is Jonathan Aitkin’s Porridge and Passion (‘porridge’ being a British slang term for doing time). Aitkin’s life as a successful politician (he was a Conservative Member of Parliament) took a spectacular nosedive in 1999 when he was handed down an 18-month sentence for perjury (of which he served a shade under 7 months as a custodial sentence). He did not, unsurprisingly, receive much in the way of sympathy from the general public, but the later publication of this memoir put him in a better light than many expected ever to see him in.

This is a compelling and humane memoir derived from his experiences in Belmarsh (a serious Category A prison, with a reputation for having, among other things, a radical Islamist population), and the more easy-going Stanford Hill (Category C).

Of particular interest are Aitkin’s account of how he was able to establish new relationships and lasting friendships with fellow prisoners very different from himself, and his own personal transformation. Where Norman Parker was transformed and redeemed by criminology, and Jimmy Boyle by art, Jonathan Aitkin was turned around by evangelical Christianity. And, it seems, he had to be punished and go to prison for this to happen; being banged up, he admits, was good for him. Since his release, Aitken has studied theology and remains active in prison reform as a regular speaker and commentator on imprisonment and rehabilitation.

Further Reading:
Jonathan Aitkin, Porridge and Passion 


5 and 6: Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer and The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About Our Prison System

Finally, two books written by ex-prison officers offer a still different perspective. Ronnie Thompson’s Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer and Jim Dawkins’ The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About Our Prison System, both published in 2008, offer sobering accounts of the British prison system’s apparent inability to right itself. In short, things are bad – or they were in 2008, and may be even worse in many respects now, as we will see later.

‘Ronnie Thompson’ is the pseudonym used by a former screw who became an author after he left the Prison Service. Thompson seems to regard both his fellow officers and prisoners with equal loathing, so the book does not make for happy reading. But it does present, clearly and damningly, many of the flaws in the British system – perhaps most disturbingly the lack of solidarity, commitment and common purpose among the screws themselves. The consequences of this for the orderliness and tone of prison life are as obvious as they are depressing.

Jim Dawkins’ book tells the story of his experiences as an Army veteran who was shocked and appalled by what he found upon entering the service. Instead of being encouraged to develop good working relations with inmates, Dawkins quickly became disillusioned by the sheer level of dysfunction in the system, including the bullying and victimisation of prisoners by some of his colleagues, and the chronic overcrowding and understaffing that was putting everyone in the prison in danger. Dawkins quit after seven years – which seems a long stretch itself in the chaotic and crisis-ridden conditions he describes.

Further Reading

Ronnie Thompson, Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer

Jim Dawkins, The Loose Screw: The Shocking Truth About our Prison System


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