Secrets of life behind bars explored with wit and honesty

Novelist and playwright Carlo Gebler spent almost 20 years as writer in residence at Maghaberry prison. He tells JOANNE SAVAGE about his most recent work of fiction which offers a fascinating glimpse into the reality of life behind bars

Author Carlo Gebler has worked in prisons helping inmates with their writing skills
Author Carlo Gebler has worked in prisons helping inmates with their writing skills

Our anti-hero notes the travails of fellow inmates, describing how prison is an agonising waiting game alternated with viciousness, gossip, a place where each man lives without the veneer of respectability. Pretence has been stripped away; men are observed under the shadow of judgement, exposed by their worst deeds. Most painfully, as the author himself observes, prison is where one is forced into a painful relationship with oneself: nothing like hours alone in a cell with only memory and imagination to force you to examine the darkest reaches of your psyche.

Carlo Gebler is uniquely placed to tell stories located inside prison walls because he has for many years worked as a creative writing tutor with offenders, first at the Maze and then as writer in residence at Maghabbery Prison from 1997 until 2015.

“A prison is most unique,” he affirms. “There is an important distinction between a prison and the outside world and it grows ever more important. We live in a world which is full of iPhones and constant connectivity. There is nothing like this within the walls of a prison. Here little happens unless it is written down. If you want anything or order something from the tuck shop or need to communicate with your solicitor the bulk of all of this must be written in ink - this is largely a more important a way of recording things than picking up the phone. This is a culture where the written and the spoken word has primacy because you do not have all the different kinds of technological communication that you have outside.”

Gebler worked with prisoners on everything from writing letters and essays to poetry and novel-writing.

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The idea for his new book came after he was asked to contribute a short story to a collection put together by Roddy Doyle dealing with different aspect of the human rights act. Gebler wrote on the idea that everyone has the right to an education - something he passionately believes in.

He soon realised that the character of Chalky he had so deftly conjured, the prison orderly going about his business, was an engaging voice, worth exploring in more detail.

“I thought Chalky, this beady, garrulous orderly was in a unique position to observe interesting dealings inside his prison and that it could certainly work as an extended piece.

“Prison is a place where narrative has primacy. People must entertain each other with stories and the ability to put together an account of what has happened is very much valued. You can go to the gym, you can watch TV in prison, but nothing really supersedes the importance of human interaction. When you are in prison human interaction has incredible value.”

Chalky is an engaging narrator, telling us about the crimes of fellow inmates including Basher Quinn, who beat an old woman to death during a burglary; Yogi Bear, a loyalist paramilitary who cut the fingers off his daughter’s boyfriend; and Engine, a Sri Lankan and former ship engineer who realises he must adopt a hard man persona to survive.

Chalky tells us about these men while reminding us of their humanity, making clear that even the very worst of us, even these flawed men guilty of such crimes, are never wholly lost to the darkness - human beings they remain, and as such even the worst retain characteristics of worth, good points visible still amongst the bad. What a thing is a man - always a complex mix of light and dark, capable of great wrongs and yet always retaining the capacity for a revolution in behaviour.

Gebler is adamant that one of the primary things he came to realise working in prisons is the futility of judging others.

“You must leave that out entirely. You start talking to people and you understand that no matter the offence they have committed, no man or woman is the sum of his or her offences, they are always more than that. You realise that nobody gets up one day and thinks ‘I am going to be a criminal’. You find that complicated circumstances produce individuals who go on to commit crimes.

“The popular and very problematic position is that there are simply evil people and they are not like the rest of us. That is how we protect ourselves and feel better about ourselves. But no person is completely defined by the evil act they have committed.”

Gebler very much contextualises criminal behaviour as a by-product of a lack of love or abuse during one’s formative years.

“Poverty, alcohol, the way you were or were not loved by your mother has a huge effect on adult behaviour. The fundamental building block of human personality, what creates resilience, is attachment. Your relationship with your mother is one of the most essential things that will determine whether or not you will go on to lead a productive and meaningful life. Look at the statistics of those who have been in care - if you are in care because your family situation has collapsed - you are far more likely to end up in prison.”

Gebler is also aware that his new book will appeal to the voyeur in so many of us - prison is one of those places still closed to the ever-invasive media, a mystery in a society that has turned surveillance into mass entertainment via Big Brother and a host of other reality shows.

“Prison is a world most people do not know about. It’s hidden away from you. You have comedies like Porridge. But most versions of prison we see in our culture do not engage with the reality. Prison is a place full of very unhappy people who for a variety of reasons have done very bad things.

Prison is clearly full of very damaged people who are expected to be rehabilitated simply through incarceration - and this rarely works.

From his own experience of working with inmates and as Chalky makes clear in telling his story, this idea of locking people away and throwing the key away to boot is no way to re-educate people who are in desperate need of guidance on how to lead changed lives; many will also need therapy in overcoming past abuse; as statistics have shown time and again, education is one of the key ways to reduce recidivism among offenders.

As Chalky is aware, locking people up with no attempt at rehabilitation leads to more crime. This is the problem with the penal system. These stories display how the justice system interacts with criminals in order to make a bad situation worse. “The whole idea of locking people up and throwing away the key only encourages recidivism. By improving prison conditions we can help inmates back into society so that they can learn to lead productive lives.” Gebler shows that incarceration rather than rehabilitation remains the state’s priority - a situation that must change.

The Wing Orderly’s Tales, New Island Books, priced £7.99.