Author Elodie Harper recalls a visit to a prison, conducted as part of her research for her debut novel THE BINDING SONG.

Posted on July 4, 2017 in Guest Author
Tags: book research, research

‘So,’ says the prisoner, his knee jogging up and down as he looks at me across the small plastic table. ‘We’re here’ – he gestures to mark the space between us – ‘and I’m me and you might be my mum, OK? And then we’d talk about stuff.’

Jim* is describing how group therapy sessions work at HMP Grendon. I’ve no idea what he’s doing time for. It didn’t seem polite to ask.

‘I’ve heard about that,’ I say. ‘It’s role play isn’t it?’ I’m conscious we are right at the end of the corridor. Jim had been keen to describe his therapy when I asked about it, and immediately charged off to find somewhere to sit. Some distance behind me a large group of people – prisoners, staff and visitors – are all making small talk. It’s the first hour of an open day, hosted by the inmates – or residents as they’re known here – of F Wing.

‘Do you also do role play from your victim’s point of view?’ I ask.

He looks away. ‘Hmmm,’ he says. It dawns on me his victim may not be alive.

A prison officer walks over, asks if we would like a cup of tea. We get up and re-join the group.

HMP Grendon is an exceptional institution within the prison estate. It’s wholly dedicated to therapy and prisoners across the UK have to apply to join the community here. It couldn’t be more different from HMP Halvergate, the gothic nightmare of a prison which rises out of the Norfolk marshes in The Binding Song. Where Grendon values transparency, Halvergate is deeply secretive, its regime run by fear and enforced by the threat of violence – or worse. But I’m attending F Wing’s open day because my book’s central character, Dr Janet Palmer, is a psychologist who runs group therapy for prisoners, not wholly unlike that at Grendon.

We visit different therapy sessions – art, music, and finally life story when residents talk about their experiences. Childhood abuse and violence are dominant themes. I begin to understand what Linda, a psychiatric nurse, describes as the trauma of what’s happened to you and what you’ve done.

Later I ask how she manages the stress.

‘I listen to people’s lives as if they’re telling me a story,’ she says. ‘That’s how I cope.’ We’re sitting in the wing’s private yard in bright sunshine. As with the rest of the day, it’s not always possible to tell who is staff and who is a resident. An impeccably dressed man in a pressed white shirt heads over and offers a plate of cupcakes.

‘Thank you John,’ Linda says as we both take one. There’s a pause before he wanders off. ‘You were asking earlier,’ she says, ‘about maintaining boundaries between residents and staff. Normally, you wouldn’t accept something offered by a resident. But it’s different today, people are playing host.’

She goes on to explain that sex offenders, like Michael Donovan, Janet’s antagonist in my book, are adept at grooming people and tend to have a much higher IQ than the rest of the prison population. Grooming is always something to be aware of, she says. The small compliments, the offer to hold a door open. They can betray a motive of manipulation. While she speaks, I can see the man in the white shirt handing out cakes on the other side of the tarmac.

When it’s time for the visitors to leave, and we file across the yard to the lodge, the release in tension rises like steam. Even when, for you, the locks are temporary, prison is deeply claustrophobic.

Grendon is not the only prison I drew on for research. In anonymous interviews I heard stranger tales. The prison chaplain convinced one inmate was possessed by the murder victim of another or the serial killer who volunteered their ‘expertise’ to police in a murder enquiry. And always there are the terrifying, hallucinogenic legal highs that have spread through the prison estate, leaving a trail of violence and psychosis in their wake.

Any, or all, of these events could account for the horror at Halvergate, the eye-less woman bringing fury and revenge. Doubly hemmed in, in prison the human mind has the potential to become the most terrifying and claustrophobic space of all.

*All names have been changed.
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