Before I ‘went to prison’, so to speak, I’d heard all kinds of things about love behind bars. According to various newspaper reports, prison officers were frequently jumping in and out of bed with criminals. Lonely women would correspond with Death Row inmates and – at the other extreme – prison could completely change a man or woman’s sexual preferences.
But all these myths were completely de-bunked when I took a job as a writer in residence of a high security prison. The truth, as I discovered, was that love did indeed flourish. But it was the love between the man behind bars and the woman (or women) he had left behind.
Time and time again, while helping men write life stories, novels or poems, I heard heart-rending tales of regret. Not, ironically, towards the victims. But towards wives, mothers and children who were suffering because their husbands and fathers were Inside.
You might well question my use of the word ‘heart-rending’. After all, criminals are usually Inside for a reason (although there are apparently a number of prisoners who are actually innocent). Surely separation from the family is, quite rightly, part of the punishment?
True. But that doesn’t help the families themselves who might not have done anything wrong. I say ‘might not’ because, during my time as writer in res, I came across at least one man whose wife knew exactly what he’d been up to – but kept mum. It made me wonder what I would do in that situation. I’d like to think I’d do the right thing. But love can make you do some daft things.
Intriguingly, I met one man who was Inside for a crime of passion. According to his version, – which he was happy to relate to anyone who would listen – he came home one day and found the missus in bed with another man. He clunked him one and, as a result, was taken to court by his rival. The French would no doubt have applauded him instead of handing out a sentence.
Indeed, when I started my job, a psychologist friend warned me to erect boundaries. “It might be easy,” he said, “to get too close.”
What? Fall for a prisoner? What a ridiculous idea. Yet when I started forging working relationships with ‘my men’ as I came to see them, I began to understand why members of the prison staff might indeed fall under the spell of a convicted man. The intense environment of a prison makes the rest of the world unreal. It’s also easy to forget that the men you are working with, have done something wrong. Instead, you’re concentrating on a mutual love of writing – something which tends to flourish in prisons as a way of releasing emotions.
You’ll be glad to know that I didn’t fall for anyone. But I was aware that some men in my group would come down for my writing sessions, smelling of freshly-applied after-shave….
After three years of working in the prison, I felt it was time for a change. But it was hard to get it out of my head. The result is ‘Guilty’, my first social crime novel. It’s about Simon, a solicitor who goes to prison for a driving offence – along with the voice of his victim. Joanna acts as a funny, witty commentator. At first, she berates him for her death but then she walks with him through the prison (in his head), pointing out areas where he needs to be careful. The novel is also written from the point of view of Simon’s new wife Claire, who begins to wonder how well she knew her husband. And there’s the voice of Simon’s stepson who hopes to get his parents back together while Simon is Inside. Meanwhile, Simon himself begins to have feelings for the artist in residence. In essence, it’s a complex love story that happens to have prison as its stage.
I will continue writing my romantic novels under the name of Janey Fraser. But, thanks to my ‘stretch’, I’ve discovered another voice too. In fact, my crime won’t stop here. My publishers have given me a three book deal. The next two books are called ‘The Witness’ and ‘’The Victim’.
I hope you enjoy them. They will open the doors to a different world – just as my self-imposed sentence did to me.
GUILTY BY JANE BIDDER IS PUBLISHED by ACCENT ON MARCH 6. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Guilty-Jane-Bidder/dp/1909624160
Thank you so much, Jane, for sharing this fascinating insight. I look forward to reading Guilty. It’s right up my street. Many congratulations on the release.