Angela Clarke: Locked in a Prison
Locked in a Prison When the Fire Alarm Goes Off – How Real Life Research Informed Angela Clarke’s first psychological thriller On My Life.
Posted on July 19, 2019 in Behind the Scenes, Guest Author
Tags: Angela Clarke, On My Life, psychological thriller
I was alone with twenty-five prisoners, teaching a Creative Writing class in the library of a male cat B prison, when the fire alarm went off. The jolting wail of an unexpected alarm is always unnerving, doubly so when you hear it inside a high security jail.
I’d been inside when alarms had gone off before. Once on one of the biggest prison wings in Europe, when a fight broke out. Then the alarm had heralded the arrival of a mass of booted feet, as the response unit thundered past on the metal walkways, and I was inelegantly thrust into the apparent safety of a civilian area. But most of the time, sadly, prison alarms signalled someone had tried to hurt themselves. The Prison Reform Trust report there were 49,565 incidents of self-harm in prisons in 2018. An unimaginably high number, that represents the pain and suffering that goes on behind bars in this country.
When I first entered a prison, I had a number of misconceptions about prisoners, probably fed by a life-long love of crime thrillers. The notion of evil crops up a lot in crime mysteries, right from Golden Age classic’s like Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, to the enigmatic evil genius serial killer’s popular since Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector. Read a lot of crime fiction, or watch a lot of crime shows, and you’d be forgiven for thinking prisons must be stuffed full of terrifying killers. Or at least, that’s my excuse. The reality is very different. The Prison Reform Trust report seventy percent of prisoners are serving time for a non-violent offence. And almost half, forty six percent, were sentenced to serve six months or less. Delve deeper into the facts about prisoners, and things look less clear cut than there are good, and there are evil people in the world. Forty two percent of male prisoners have a history of mental health issues. Sixty five percent of female prisoners do. Many people I’ve met inside have had tragic lives, or have made one stupid mistake, or have been failed by an underfunded and understaffed justice system. And yes, some have done awful things that they should be punished for. But more than once, I’ve come away from a class thinking a number of the inmates needed help, rather than incarceration.
But when the alarm sounded in the library that day I felt something new. The genuine fear of being trapped behind bars. Because, this wasn’t a fight kicking off, or someone trying to hurt themselves, this was a fire alarm.
From nursery age up, everyone knows that when a fire alarm sounds you evacuate. You move to a place of safety outside. You get away from the dangerous flames and smoke. But as the alarm rang out, the men in the room with me didn’t react at all. There wasn’t even any uncomfortable shuffling in their seats. I glanced nervously at the barred windows (which only open to 10 centimetres). ‘Shouldn’t we leave?’ One inmate, a young lad who was particularly good at writing comic scripts, was still leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head like he was reclining on a beach rather than in a prison library with an alarm sounding. Without altering his chilled position, he said, ‘Where you gonna go?’ And then, what the men were already resigned to, hit me. I’d been escorted through six locked doors to reach this room. The windows were barred. There was no way out. We were locked, six doors deep, in what could be a burning building. Just last week we’d watched as an inmate, suffering from a mental health episode, managed to set fire to a blanket in the courtyard outside. What if someone had done that again? What if they’d done it inside? And as we stood there, trapped, the fire was taking hold, filling the place with smoke, the flames surging toward us. I’ve always been equal parts fascinated by and frightened by fire, after I visited a neighbour’s gutted kitchen from a chip pan fire as a young child. Was this the moment my phobia was about to become a terrifying reality? Anxiety obviously showed on my face, as the same chilled lad from before added, with a grin that garnered a chuckle from the group; ‘Don’t worry, someone’s probably just smoking Spice in their cell.’ And the alarm stopped.
That sensation of animal fear at being cornered, and being unable to escape stayed with me. The fire alarm was the spark for my story. The ultimate worst case scenario, where you have lost everything, including your own autonomy. The true horror that lurks in prison cells.