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No crime here

March 2, 2016 | Posted in: Banned Books, literacy, prison

“Why haven’t you got it?” The female prisoner is genuinely puzzled. A book she’d read in her previous prison’s library isn’t allowed in her present prison. “ But,” she points to her friend, “she wants to read it.” The librarian is helpless. Basically, at this particular prison the governor has decided there will be no true crime titles in the library.

my daddy was a bankrobber
but he never hurt nobody
he just loved to live that way
and he loved to steal your money

50 years after the publication of In Cold Blood the true crime genre remains popular both inside and outside prison. Yes, it has its clichés, any UK top ten will feature at least one Kray-related book, but it is a very broad genre, often sneered at and snubbed in the way crime fiction was in its pulp days. Recently there has been an upsurge of interest with the success of the Serial podcast and Netflix’s Making of a Murderer – neither available to prisoners. We, the public, have always loved a crime narrative from Dick Turpin to the Great Train Robbers, or the Hatton Garden’s Diamond Wheezers. And we’ve generally paid very little heed to the victims. We remember the murderers, the robbers, the violent and their stories even/especially if they end tragically, but their victims rarely get the same acknowledgement.


True crime books are so in demand that librarians often keep the most popular titles behind the counter and get the prisoners to sign for one-week loans. Like many things to do with the prison system there is no obvious logic to why one prison allows true crime and another forbids it. There are reasons for banning particular books. One prison officer told me, “We can’t have books about some of the people we hold in here. The first thing they do when they get here is check if they’re in any of the books.”

Noel ‘Razor’ Smith’s top three true crime books

Often the true crime section is what appeals to the non-reader in prison. It offers a view on the world that resonates with the prisoner, which is one of the things we search for as readers: to find our lives represented. It’s a gratifying and electrifying experience to know you are not alone.

‘It wasn’t until I read autobiographies during my incarceration by two infamous criminals – one of whom turned into a writer and academic, John McVicar and another who became a writer and renowned sculptor, Jimmy Boyle that I then felt it was acceptable to become a student.’ David Honeywell

The writer Erwin James, himself an exlifer, has spoken about the desire to change that most, if not all, prisoners feel, and self-help is the other massively popular section of the prison library.


Does it matter if prisoners spend their sentences reading up on past crimes? Reading books that show crime can be exciting during and between the violence, broken families, and prison sentences. Crime fiction, on the other hand, gives the same excitement and thrills but also comforts. It fills the gaps that pepper true crime narratives where people drift in and out of the story. In crime fiction there is always resolution. Some true crime titles just drift away towards the end, as the writer runs out of things to say, or their life gets boring. Bruce Reynold’s Autobiography of a Thief is brilliant up to the Great Train Robbery but then quickly loses momentum.

The best true crime speaks to more than just that time and place. Governors might protest that there is not enough repentance: the criminals are not humbled, not broken enough, but for their readers that is exactly the point.

One governor I spoke to seemed unhappy about any book that showed the joy/pleasure of crime rather than the suffering that came afterwards. This reminded me of the futile Just Say No anti-heroin campaign. It didn’t work because it was so one-sided. It was books such as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Melvyn Burgess’ Junk that truly hit the mark because they showed the whole heroin-world: the pleasure, the degradation, the subtleties, the lies, and allowed readers to judge for themselves.

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an’ don’t forget to grovel

Bankrobber – The Clash

The Hero of His Own Story

November 23, 2014 | Posted in: Banned Books, literacy, prison, Reading

Banned Books 1


Most people would say reading was good for you but does it matter which books we read? Can’t we just read what we want? To stop us feeling embarrassed reading a book for children, book publishers design a different cover. With ereaders nobody knows what we’re reading, and really nobody cares what forty-something man is reading but it’s different if you’re a child, a young person, or a prisoner.

In prison the authorities worry about young men reading true crime or overtly violent books. The ‘authorities’ can be prison governors, prison librarians, or even charities that work with prisoners and reading. Often there is distaste for what prisoners chose to read. At a recent conference I got into a battle defending prisoners who chose to read Martina Cole (by far the most popular author in UK prisons). “If we’re going to get them to read, let them read the good stuff,” I was told. In this post religious age we still have a belief that some books can transfer a portion of their essence to the reader. This doesn’t give space for the complex ways in which we link and interlink with narratives, for the way stories stay with us, haunt us, trouble us, and challenge our thinking, or disappear with little or no trace of their passing. It views people as passive vessels to be filled with good or bad substances taken from books, films, games etc.


Banned Books Week celebrates books that meet with disapproval or censure in countries across the world. Inspired by this, I offered to run some workshops on free speech at my local secondary school. We would look at books that had been banned throughout the world and see where the limits of free speech appeared to be.

Banned Books 2

The school was very keen (the workshops were free). I was invited to rushed meetings with black coffee and frayed staff who told me, after two meetings, that although they knew I was keen to work with younger students (year 9), they would only be able to offer the sixth form.


I was surprised as I had pointed out at the meetings that the contentious age for what we read slips away after your GCSE. It is quite easy to police books offered to teenagers in school – contentious books don’t get bought. Libraries and schools can ignore what teenagers actually read, and continue to give them lists of dull recommended reading – not all school librarians, but many are restricted by the fear of giving offence.


A decade ago I was working on a public library project with groups of Looked After Children. I would go to a Home and chat about books and reading. At first I was directed to the one boy who was taking GCSEs, and whom they thought would benefit most from my visits. I insisted on talking to all, generally six to eight, young people in the house. It was fun to take books I thought would interest them, or that they had requested, then read bits, or just chat with coffee and biscuits. It was also a way of getting staff to talk about their reading too. One boy in particular would always swoop on the box and search for Buffy graphic novels, particularly ones with the character Angel in. I was told that this boy, “Sam” was basically a good kid who was in danger of being led astray by some of the wilder kids in the house. I was in and out of that house every few weeks for months, getting to know them and the staff, and in all that time Sam never showed any interest in any books but the Angel series. I like vampire books and brought in lots that I thought were good. Proper books that had won awards, not spinoffs from a TV show. Sam ignored them. All that summer the Buffy and Angel graphic novels were the only books he took from me. Fortunately the other young people were keen to try all kinds of books, whatever I put some effort into promoting. It didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes I would arrive and the police would be there, or they would be looking for one of the young people. Other times they would just disappear to the beach but in the main it worked and we found a way of working books and reading into their lives.


Sam would occasionally follow me out into the street where he would watch me kick my aging Yamaha into spluttering life. One time it wasn’t having it and as I tinkered with the bike I asked Sam why he was so keen on Angel and none of the other vampire books I’d brought – I meant, of course, why didn’t he read better books.


Sam thought for a while and then explained to me that Angel, being a vampire with a soul,” is a little bit good, a little bit bad. Sometimes he does bad things.”

It didn’t take a genius to know why these books instead of the ones with more clean cut heroes appealed to this boy but it’s stayed with me as an example of why it’s always the reader, not the book. You can’t predict what meanings the reader will take from particular books. So, hands off.


‘Read as much as you can and find out who’s using you.’ – John Lydon