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February 2004
Writer going to jail
Stephen Leather
Stephen Leather
Apparently, second to John Grisham, Stephen Leather's books are the most popular in British prisons.
SEE ALSO

About the Prison Service
Crimes and criminals
Features index

WEB LINKS
HM Prisons
Stephen Leather
Prison life
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FACTS

There are around 154 prisons in the UK

Each prisoner costs around £23,000 per year

There are around 71,000 prisoners in the UK

Prisons provide nets to 60% of all football clubs

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Audience research

As Stephen Leather's latest novel, Hard Landing, is set in a prison, he was testing his material on possibly the toughest audience of all. As part of a national tour of HM's establishments, Stephen gave a reading from his new book at Durham prison.

This is not a first for writing and books: there's a great deal of interest in reading and creative writing in Britain's prisons and the outside world occasionally gets a glimpse of the inside.

The gates to Durham prison
Would you choose to go here? (The gates to Durham prison.)

Writers and theatre groups occasionally hold workshops in prisons. BBC Radio 4's monthly show, Book Club, broadcast its programme about Tony Parsons' book, Man and Boy, from Coldingley Prison. Readers of The Guardian newspaper might have read Erwin James' column written from behind bars. And, even though some have questioned if he fits into the category of creative writing, let's not forget one of our more infamous prison writers of late, Jeffrey Archer.

However, given that most writers find the cushier option of touring bookshops fairly gruelling, Stephen's choice of tour venues was interesting.

As part of the research for Hard Landing he spent a day inside Belmarsh Prison in South London. Whilst there, he discovered that his books were very popular in the prison library.

What Stephen discovered at Durham Prison
» Durham's a high security prison, accommodating category A and B male prisoners.
» It is also a category A and long term training prison for women.
» It serves as a local prison for the courts in the area.
» It has an operational capacity of 730.
» The regime includes full time and part time education.
» It has a Close Supervision Centre, which holds a small number of prisoners who are among the most difficult and disruptive in the prison system.
The graphic on the cover of Stephen's latest book.
Hard-hitting stuff: the graphic on the cover of Stephen's latest book.

What's the plot?

Top undercover cop Dan Shepherd is sent to HMP Shelton, a category ‘A’ prison, to get close to Gerald Carpenter, one of the UK’s most notorious drug dealers.

He has contacts across South America and the Far East and he’s running his business from the inside.

With his case about to come to court, Carpenter is killing off agents, threatening witnesses and destroying evidence.

Carpenter wants his freedom and he’s prepared to pay any price to achieve it. Shepherd’s task is to find out who he’s using and to shut down his lines of communication.

Using the alias 'Bob Macdonald', Shepherd knows he's putting his life and his family's life at risk in the process ...

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Educational value

Apart from the fact that writers visiting prisons can be entertaining and stimulating, there is also the serious issue of literacy amongst inmates.

A large number of the people making up Britain's prison population are illiterate. Some people have argued that this, combined with other factors, has led to many prisoners being inside in the first place.

This is debatable, but being illiterate is certainly a barrier to many inmates finding work and leading a stable, law-abiding life on release.

If you would like to find out more about literacy in prisons, contact the Prison Service or you might be interested in the work of The Shannon Trust, which has pioneered a literacy mentoring programme in prisons.

The Shannon Trust
PO Box 236
Oxford OX2 6XU
Tel: 0845 458 2641

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