Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Martina Cole at HMYOI Deerbolt

Apart from illegal items, there are also prohibited items, which are not allowed into the prison. These include:

Items which may aid an escape, e.g. wire or abrasive materials.

‘It must be easy putting on events in a prison. Captive audience and all that.’
I’ve heard that a lot over the years. The other common assumption is that prisoners are so bored they’ll lap up any author who’s sent their way. They are bored but they want to work, go to classes, the gym, phone their families, take a shower, and eat. The prison regime is inflexible and you have to fit into it.

Famous? Not so famous? Authors are generally only well known to readers. Lots of prisoners are not readers. Your average literary festival author won’t warrant a second row of chairs in the prison library. What you need is someone who is famous outside the book-world, and/or has a fabulous backstory of his or her own. Generally I don’t take recommendations from publishers; ideally I ask people whom I’ve already seen at events, or who come with personal recommendations.

Mobile phones Laptops (unless authorised by the Security Manager)

library at HMP Thameside

library at HMP Thameside

Where? Most times it’s the prison library but they vary hugely in size. Some can hold 60, others you’re struggling for double figures. Two of the best prison events I’ve ever done were held in gyms: Martina Cole in HMP New Hall (women’s prison), and Erwin James at HMP Grendon. I worried a lot about these. Gyms don’t have great acoustics, we had no mics and both authors are softly spoken. In the end it didn’t matter. The gyms were crammed, which stopped the echoes, and both speakers had such resonance with their audience that people literally held their breath to hear. No coughs, no shuffles, just a warm expectation. At the end of Martina’s event there was a standing ovation. Literally. Honestly, I’ve never seen that for an author. Sure people will clap, will clap hard, even cheer, but to have the entire audience rise to its feet was amazing.

Chewing gum Glue / Blue tack Aerosols Metal Cutleries
Tin openers Any tools including scissors and nail files
Pornographic materials.

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Erwin James at HMP Grendon

Prison is an intense environment, everything is stripped bare and laid open so people working/living there create ways of building distance and covering themselves. It’s the place where you realize that the nice middleclass thriller writer, whose books the prisoners love, can’t in the flesh fill the space. HMP Grendon is unusual as nobody is told who the speaker will be until they arrive at the gym. Prisoners apply to go six weeks before, and then need to be vetted. I think they now trust there will be a good speaker waiting for them. The audience’s response took even Erwin by surprise. “Prisoners lowering their defences, opening up to each other, sharing with each other, encouraging each other. You don’t normally get that in prison, where prisoners are actually lifting each other up, usually they’re pushing each other down.”

Pirate CDs/ CD rewrites and DVDs. Any Pyrotechnics

Make sure as many people in the prison know about your event. Get the governor there which means less chance of a last minute cancellation. Even a Martina Cole event will be cancelled if there is a shutdown.

Sometimes you take a chance with a writer because you think they can make a connection: Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, and The Wonder Box. I figured an event would work but only if Roman could make people have a discussion rather than just sit and listen. And that’s what he did. More importantly he listened, and when leaving the event one prisoner said, ‘That’s the first intelligent conversation I’ve had in the two years I’ve been here.’

Pen knives
PDA’s with mobile facilities
Data sticks
Bluetooth ear pieces.
Perfume/Aftershave with the exception of ATAR which is permitted to Muslim prisoners and Staff.

Robert Muchamore is easily the most popular author amongst the juveniles (15-17 year olds). At the event his fans sat in the front row and the first question was: ‘How come you know so much about drugs?’

There is a different etiquette at prison events, for instance no pretence that money isn’t part of the writing deal. Writers are often asked how much they earn.

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

Andy McNab at HMP Pentonville

I’ve loved events with a wide variety of writers: Scroobius Pip, Dreda Say Mitchell, Bali Rai, Kimberley Chambers, and Noel Smith. All were prepared to open up beyond what they had written in their books

‘I didn’t think an author would be like that. She wasn’t that different from us. It makes you think you have choices:’ Teenage prisoner at HMYOI Feltham, after visit from Dreda Say Mitchell

At the Andy McNab event at HMP Pentonville the questions were not just about his life but his views on the politics of the Middle East.

A phone call asking if I could organise a prison event for Russell Brand took me by surprise. He wants to do a prison? I could imagine the sneers from some prison mangers. Do me a favour. What would the Daily Mail make of this? More likely they would leave me waiting for weeks with no answer until Brand had got bored and moved onto something else. I wanted him in a prison. I was no fan but I knew he would pull people into reading, into thinking and talking. I was lucky that Neil Barclay works in the library at HMP Thameside and within 20 minutes it was agreed Brand would visit. Neil has gone onto have a whole procession of authors and celebrities visit with more signed photos on his wall than most West End agencies.

Brand was late but for once the regime was going to bend. Never has it been so easy to get into a prison. I walked with Brand as he swayed limply across courtyards, down corridors, giving autographs on autopilot with a smile that barely held. “I don’t really know why the fuck I’m here,” he whispered to me as we entered the library. At this point I was worried he wouldn’t step up for the audience and I was going to be standing in front of 100 prisoners and staff in painful silence. The multi faith centre is rammed. We’ve let Khalid the library orderly do the introductions, and the prisoners are shouting him down, jeering and whistling in what I hope is mainly good humour.

Brand and I go in and sit down at the front. We have one mic between us. I start the interview but when Brand takes hold of the mic he is transformed.
It’s not quite Johnny Cash at San Quentin but he is electrifying. The first question comes from a prisoner who sees a dead relative in his mirror. The room quietens. Brand answers the man with hope, condolence and respect then, with perfect timing, moves onto the next question. From the moment he picked up the mic until the last question the audience are with him, and the only problem is getting back out through the autograph-hunting mob. It takes several burly guards to hold back the crush and usher us out. The whole prison feels truly alive. For one moment all the armour has dropped, and something is shared. We get to the exit and Brand is sulking because his phone is in the locker and his manager, who has the key, is still inside the prison.

A year later I’m with Martina Cole at HMP Pentonville. One of the prisoners waves and I go over. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Luke, who had been at the Brand event at Thameside. He grins in appreciation. ‘Yeah. He came in a celebrity and left a legend.’

Cameras (unless authorised by the Security Manager for specific events)

This list is not exhaustive and the searching officer has the power to confiscate any items that may present any threat to security