Reflections about Doing Time

It might be reasonable to ask what led me to write a fictional account about a women’s prison — especially given the fact that, when I started writing the novel, it had been 29 years since I last worked in a women’s prison! 

The author writing Doing Time at a favourite hideaway in France.

Why not a novel based on experiences between 1979 and the present? 

The answer is simple: The years have done little or nothing to erase the memories of what was, for me, one of the most profound learning experiences of my life.  Life within a prison environment —especially for the inmates, but also for the staff—is life within a ‘pressure cooker.’ 

The inmates are cut off from all of their natural support: friends and family, of course, but they are also cut off from easy access to lawyers and others on the outside from whom they derive support—and hope.  Life’s issues, which on the outside might seem trivial, take on a different magnitude inside: tempers flare, nerves fray, shit happens. 

The novel is, in some ways, a tribute to both the inmates and staff who inhabit these grey worlds.

The grey worlds of relationships

Another reason I wrote Doing Time was to highlight the way abuse pervades families throughout generations and can affect the choices a woman (or man) makes in terms of significant relationships.   All too often ‘escape’ is simply moving from one abusive relationship to another.  Domestic violence is as big an issue in England as it is in America. 

Certainly the vast majority of women I knew in prison had come from an abusive family or relationship.  If one takes into account the various forms of abuse: sexual, physical, emotional abuse and neglect, and then adds alcohol and drug misuse, then this would cover the background of the majority of inmates with whom I came into contact over the years.  This is not to excuse their crimes, but it does help to explain their life choices.

The world of the novel

What of the characters in the novel?  No one, female or male, is a true representation of a real person.  They are all composites of many different individuals and products of my imagination.  And the principle character, Annabel Lee (“Frumpy”)?  For me, she is the everywoman behind bars. 

While it would be true to say that she is more naïve than some, whiter than the majority of women I knew in prison, and perhaps of a more advanced education (although there are more professional types behind bars than most people are aware!)—I wanted a character to whom I could relate in my own background, which had both rural and urban elements. 

What Annabel Lee has in common with most of the women I knew in prison is that she had bad luck with the men in her life: from blood relations to chosen partner. 

Justice at a price

The book description on the back cover of the novel says that Annabel Lee was “wrongly convicted” of a crime.  (Although some readers dispute this!)  At least the case for her conviction is dubious—and this was the case of so many women with whom I worked. I had access to their files and thus was aware of the police and court reports.  Even in the case of certain ‘homicides,’ I felt that the verdict should have been ‘self-defence.’  Regular beatings, gang rapes at the hands of a husband’s drunk ‘friends,’ etc. — and all in the days before there were shelters for battered women and before domestic violence could not only be talked about openly, but taken seriously by the legal system. 

It didn’t take too many months within the prison system before I realized that the gender cards were too often stacked against women—especially if they were poor and black.  The police, judiciary, attorneys, etc. were generally male and white.  In such a system, justice literally comes at a price. 

But before it starts to sound as though I would throw open the prison gates and release everyone, remember that the novel describes some nasty pieces of work as well.  There are many inmates—of both sexes—that I would never want to see in free society again.

Darkness and hope

I have heard from some readers how ‘dark’ they found much of the novel.  All I can say is that domestic violence and sexual abuse are very dark realities.  The irony is that—for those with no experience of abuse or prison—if I had gone more deeply into the details of many women’s experiences, it would either have beggared belief or it would simply have seemed sensationalist.  I wanted to avoid those extremes.

However, the book is not without hope!  The hope is found within the incremental changes depicted in Annabel Lee’s life.  Like everyone else behind bars she has a choice: In keeping with the inmate proverb, with which I started the book—“You can simply serve time or make time serve you”—the vast majority of inmates fell firmly into one of those two camps. 

For a great number—however just their sentence—it was time spent in anger or resentment.  For an equal number, prison became a time and place for profound soul-searching and change.  Rather that resentfully blaming others—parents, spouses, partners, police, lawyers, judges, etc.—they began the long, painful journey of true self-discovery and accountability for their lives, choices and actions. 

I can’t count the number of times that I heard an inmate—male or female—say to me, that, previous to coming to prison, they had been “living too fast;” life had seemed out of control.  For perhaps most of the inmates, life before prison was what happened around them and to them. 

As a rabbi friend once put it to me, it was a case of “my life is determined, but everybody else has free will.”  That’s as true for everyone in free society as it is those behind bars.  For those willing to undertake the journey of self-discovery, a great part of that journey was discovering that they had a will, a volition—the conscious ability to make choices and decisions.  For those who were truly guilty of crimes—and not all were—this was the indispensable first step towards wholeness.

Life after women’s prison

The Cincinnati Workhouse

The years following my work in the women’s prison first of all saw me serving in an ‘open prison’ for men who had spent at least a decade behind bars.  This unit was designed to help them adjust to the free world around them, which had changed drastically since they entered prison.  For those who dismiss the reality of ‘institutionalization’, consider for yourself how much the world has changed politically, socially and economically since 2000. 

Now imagine trying to make the leap from the year 2000 to 2010—but with no direct experience of those changes.  It’s almost impossible to imagine, but it’s the reality that long-timers behind bars have to deal with when it comes time for parole.

It is a difficult and stressful time of transition—and many cannot make it.  Our choices in life are not always as ‘free’ as we might like to think.  Socialization—good and bad—helps shape who we are and what we do.  Like it or not, prison is a society in itself—albeit a sub-society of the larger social framework.

In 1979 I became the Director of Adult Chaplaincy for the two jails in Cincinnati, Ohio: The Cincinnati Workhouse and the Hamilton County Jail.  The former housed both women and men, and the latter was exclusively for men.  Together they held nearly 1500 inmates. 

Both jails were outdates and over-crowded when I came to work in them.  (And both have since been replaced in 1985 by the new Hamilton County Jail.)  The Workhouse had opened in 1869 and, in the men’s section, housed nearly 3 times as many inmates as it was built to hold.  At one point, the cells (32 sq. feet) held three grown men.  The cells had no electricity or running water.  The men had buckets for their bodily functions.  Needless to say, it was a place of tension. 

The Hamilton Country Jail at that time was in the top two floors of the County Court building.  It, too, was packed to the gills.  The new jail was under construction when I left chaplaincy work and moved into parish ministry.

Why Prison Chaplaincy?

Interestingly, I received my theological justification for working in prison several years before I even considered becoming a minister—much less a prison chaplain.  It came to me through a novel I read as an undergraduate, a book by the late South African novelist Alan Paton: Too Late the Phalarope

The novel is set in 1950s South Africa and develops principally around an Afrikaner family ruled by a patriarchal father; and specifically revolves around Pieter, his son.  Pieter is a prominent man in his community and a police lieutenant.  Without going into all the complexities of the story let it suffice to say that Pieter, a married man, has a relationship with another woman. 

This might have been bad enough in itself, but was made worse by the fact that he had broken the Apartheid laws — the “Immorality Act of 1927”: he had slept with a black woman.  In short, he was found out and utterly destroyed by his community, and ostracized by his family. 

What struck me as a 20-year old, and went on to underpin my philosophy of prison chaplaincy, comes from the scene of Pieter’s arrest, when his supervisor, the police captain, said this:  “An offender must be punished, I don’t argue about that.  But to punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offences….If a man takes upon himself God’s right to punish, then he must also take upon himself God’s promise to restore.”* 

  • pp. 264-5, Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope, Scribner’s (1953).
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