Rachel McLean

Author of Twisted Realities

On the Wrong Side of the Law

If you’ve read Divide And Rule, you’ll know that it’s set firstly in a prison and then in the mysterious British Values Centre. The first is based on my research of actual prisons and the second based on open prisons combined with other institutions plus a healthy dollop of imagination.

Here are some of the sources I used when researching prisons and other institutions in which the inmates/patients might be less than free to leave.

Prison Visit – the Dana Prison, Shrewsbury

A House Divided originally had quite a few prison scenes. When I wrote Divide And Rule, I decided to move them to that book. And in a later draft, I cut down the prison scenes significantly following feedback from my editor. So much of the thinking about prisons that I did was redundant, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful.

I visited the Dana Prison a couple of years ago and went on a fascinating two hour guided tour. The guides were former prison guards (luckily they were more friendly than Philips, the guard Jennifer encounters).

They started by taking us through the entry process. We entered the prison by the door a new prisoner would use, going through the holding cells and being given a demonstration of the process used for taking possession of an inmate’s belongings and strip-searching them.

One of the guides said he wanted to demonstrate the process with a member of the group – were there any volunteers? Wanting to get the most from my visit, I put my hand up.

He was genuinely shocked. In the two years since the prison had closed and he’d been conducting the tours, he’d never once had a woman volunteer. He proceeded to make plenty of jokes about whether or not he was really going to expect me to strip!

The tour as a whole was a chilling insight into what it would be like to be incarcerated in a cold, unwelcoming Victorian prison building. I took my kids there a few months later as I felt that seeing the inside of a prison was the best possible deterrent they could ever have for getting into trouble with the law. I think it worked – they lecture me even if I break the speed limit.

Birmingham Magistrates’ Court

The magistrates’ court featured towards the end of A House Divided. I wanted to get the feel of the building and the court itself, as well as to ensure I reflected proceedings correctly in the book.

I shuffled into the public gallery feeling very self conscious. The people surrounding me were lawyers and journalists, as well as some family members of the accused. Everyone was well dressed while I was in my usual uniform of jeans and a leather jacket.

I had no idea if I would be reprimanded for taking notes. I figured that I had nothing to lose – if it wasn’t allowed, the worst that could happen was for my notes to be confiscated. But no one said anything and they weren’t.

It amazes me now to write that. I was a member of the public, in the public gallery, observing proceedings as was my right. But I was so intimidated by the gothic architecture, and the formality, and the jargon, that I was nervous just to get my notepad and pen out.

Imagine what it must feel like to be in the dock. I know Jennifer didn’t enjoy it.

Other Sources

I also read about prison life, and found some fascinating books. These are the books I read as part of my research:

  • Prisonomics by Vicky Pryce. Vicky Pryce was the ex-wife of Chris Huhne, a Liberal Democrat politician, who took his speeding points for him. She was sent to an open prison for the crime and wrote candidly about her experiences in this book. It gave me plenty of background for the British Values Centre, which I based partly on an open prison.
  • From the Inside by Ruth Wyner. Ruth was one of two managers of a homeless shelter who were imprisoned for allegedly facilitating the sale of drugs in the shelter. Their conviction was later overturned. Ruth’s account painted the hopelessness of her situation as someone who knew she was innocent, and helped me imagine how my character Rita Gurumurthy might be feeling. But Ruth Wyner was nowhere near as rebellious as Rita!
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I wanted my Britsih Values Centre to have the feel of a mental institution as well as a prison. The staff refer to the inmates as ‘patients’ and they’re told they’re there for cure, not punishment. This book gave me some insight into institutionalisation and its effect on staff and patients alike, particularly when I was building charters such as Bel.

So that’s some of my research for the books. Research is a great part of the writing process – it helps me add depth to my fiction and gives me the chance to learn something new.

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