Pentonville: Making those prison walls come down
19 November, 2021 — By Nicci Gerrard
‘Stories have a power that can sometimes feel miraculous’. Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg
IF you walk a couple of hundred feet up the road I live on, past the Victorian houses with well-tended front gardens and geraniums in window-boxes, past the pub, the café selling flat whites and sourdough bread, the little park where dogs play, the primary school, the pleasant squares, you come to a huge prison.
Its high wall are topped with barbed wire.
Dr Crippen was hanged in Pentonville Prison and buried in one of its unmarked graves, as was the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement.
Oscar Wilde worked the treadmill here before being transferred to Reading Gaol.
I often see windowless vans driving in or out of the gates, and sometimes there are helicopters hovering above it like giant chirring insects.
But the windows are small and barred and I can’t see in. I’ve never glimpsed the people who are incarcerated, or heard their voices.
We go on with our comfortable lives.
My husband Sean and I (who together make up the psychological thriller writer Nicci French) do many literary events through the year: festivals, signings, interviews.
The ones that have been the most painfully vivid and richly rewarding are those we have done in prisons, both with male and female inmates.
Just the experience of spending a few hours inside a prison is a revelation. You leave the outside world with a terrifying abruptness; keys jangle; door after door shuts behind you.
Briefly you are among the forgotten people, the ones who are so low down the pecking order that nobody seems to care if they live two-to-a-tiny-cell-built-for-one, if they are locked in 23 hours a day, if they are self-harming, or harming each other, or if the prison system seems to be almost entirely for people who are poor.
Usually we do our events in the library – where, as one librarian explained, inmates can order any book they want, aside from true crime that has been committed by one of their fellow prisoners, or maps of the area.
The people who have come to sit in a circle and discuss one of our thrillers have been friendly, curious, sometimes shy or reticent, sometimes anxious and insecure, often hungry for conversation and human contact.
One of the most gratuitously cruel acts of the government in recent years was Chris Grayling’s (now overturned) ban on sending books to prison inmates.
Many of those in prison can barely read; often they have dyslexia or other learning difficulties (and of course this can be one of the reasons they ended up there in the first place). Many are lonely, sad, angry, ill, acutely depressed.
But stories have a power that can sometimes feel miraculous. They break down the barriers between self and other; they encourage identification and empathy. They give unfettered liberty to the confined soul.
A book can take you to any place, any time, no matter how thick the iron bars at the window.
The doors swing open; the walls fall down.
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