This time last week I was in prison – My visit to HMP Thameside’s book club

Eighteen months ago, when my debut novel, The Sister, was No.1 in the charts, I was invited along to HMP Thameside to meet their book club. Immediately, The Fear hit and I quickly declined. Not because of the environment, but because I had a massive phobia of public speaking. Those who read my blog know that after turning down numerous talks, I was asked to speak at the Althorp Literary Festival last year and eager to attend, I had a course of hypnotherapy to help me overcome The Fear (you can read about that here). I’ve since spoken at, and enjoyed, several events so when HMP Thameside’s librarian, Neil Barclay, got back in touch and asked if I’d reconsider, grateful of a second chance, I said yes.

I had never been in a prison before and my expectations were very much centred around what I’d seen on TV, rowdy tattooed men in orange boiler suits, and as I queued up to be booked in I started to wonder, for the first time, what I’d let myself in for. It was a surprise I had to be fingerprinted before I was granted entry, and not by ink and paper but by a scanner. (‘Mum, did you think it would be like an 80’s cop show?’ my son asked when I told him that later. Umm, yes.) My photo was taken, my ID checked and then I was given a visitor’s pass. After storing my possessions in a locker I was directed to the next room. Here, I was met by an officer who asked me to remove my boots so they could be scanned. As she snapped on blue latex gloves I felt a flicker of unease but the search was soon over and another officer arrived to escort me to the library.

One of my first observations was how many doors there were. Each one needing to be unlocked and immediately locked behind us. Listening to the slam, the twisting of the key, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I knew I would be there for months, or even years and anxiety bubbled.

In the library I was greeted by the prisoners who participate in the book club and the creative writing class and it struck me, as my eyes swept around the room, at the different clothes (not an orange boiler suit in sight) the different ages, races, that these were just people and my anxiety dissipated.

We talked about my books, about writing, but more importantly, we chatted about mental health. I relayed my story of how finding myself with a disability in my 30’s lost me my mobility, my job, my home and caused me to develop clinical depression. I shared how I was at rock bottom, thinking my life was over, my best days behind me. My fears that no-one would employ me, love me. But eventually I picked myself up and overcome depression through mindfulness and forged a new life. A new career. Although, they didn’t tell me why they were in prison, and nor did I want to know, they shared how they felt. How they coped.

Time flew by and after signing some books the men were escorted back to their cells. I ate a delicious lunch at the staff bistro, cooked and served by the prisoners. Later, I had a tour of the prison. I experienced what it was like in both a single and double cell and chatted to the men who lived there. It was heart breaking to visit a room full of toys and books where the men could record themselves reading a story to send to their children and that really reiterated that their sentence isn’t theirs to bear alone.

It’s now been a week now since my visit. A week in which the people I met are still very much on my mind. A week in which I am still trying to process how I feel. Despite my expectations, the images I had built up in my mind, ultimately these men were people, like you and I. Some were anxious, bewildered, depressed and frustrated. All were respectful and polite. There were repeat offenders, that was inevitable but I also met men who wanted an education, the chance of a better life. Hope. There are no victimless crimes but could any one of us take a wrong turn? Although I’ve never broken the law I’ve made bad choices, rash decisions. Mistakes.

I’ve offered to go back and run a workshop on mindfulness. As well as helping with depression and anxiety, imagine if learning to live in the moment, pausing to think rather than having a knee jerk reaction, could stop just one person reoffending? Mindfulness is all about choice. I chose to visit the prison, and I was free to leave at the end of the day, but sometimes I think – what if I wasn’t. It’s a sobering thought.

I was presented with a gorgeous bouquet, a ‘Wish You Were Here’ mug, and a thank you card.

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26 thoughts on “This time last week I was in prison – My visit to HMP Thameside’s book club

  1. I remember you mentioning that original invitation, and I’m glad you took it on in the end. Prisons can be very intimidating (I remember all those doors and locks so clearly, even though it’s at least 15 years since I was last in one), and soulless. But that’s when you look at the buildings. The people are very much real, the officers (who do an incredible job, by the way) as much as the prisoners. It sounds like it was a very positive experience for you.

  2. Wow sounds really interesting. I never thought of them having a book club but I did realise they didn’t wear orange boiler suits, although I’ve been to a jail in the US and they do there.
    I suffer from anxiety and would be interested in knowing more about mindfulness. Can you point me in the right direction as to where to start looking into it?

  3. Reblogged this on Ideas.Become.Words and commented:
    An amazing insight from an author. In fact, my favourite author of all my 2017 reads. Louise Jensen has published three titles and every one of them left me wanting more. Here in her blog about a visit to a prison to help others, I’m strangely proud of this talented stranger who is less so now I’m one of her biggest fans (ok, stop right there – you now sound like a stalker 🤣🙈)

    Read The Sister, The Gift and The Surrogate… is you enjoy thrillers

  4. Overcoming fear(s). And not the “little” ones. Congrats on that. No easy task. For some of us (see me waving frantically? lol), at times a daily challenge. I agree. Mindfulness is an effective tool in attaining that state in which you can stand back and see fear for what it is. A beginning, eh? 🙂
    Awesome that you were invited to speak. I’ve never attended a book club meeting before. I can imagine though, your visit was very inspiring. As one who is trying to learn to write well, I imagine you no doubt gave those men some excellent tips. I listened to the audio clip of The Sister at an Amazon link. Oh, yeah. You left me wanting to know what’s up? What was in that pink envelope!

  5. Hi Louise,
    I’ve just visited the book club to talk about my novel and like you, I found it an incredible experience. I enjoyed it so much, I’ve signed up to do another book club visit in a different prison. Neil directed me to your website to read this post. He does a fantastic job at Thameside. I’m so glad he invited me there.
    All the best,
    Sara x

  6. So interesting and moving. I wonder if book groups and writing groups are able to exist in all prisons. With such shortages of staff we hear of prisoners being in their cells most of the time it can’t be easy.

Constructive criticism appreciated

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