Robert Jeffrey (2009) The Barlinnie Story.

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I don’t know why people keep giving me books about prisons, gulags and death camps (often the same place) and say things like ‘you’ll like this’. Perhaps it’s because, to nick a quote from the Paul Ferris trial, I’m not fully ‘compos mental’. I’ve had a few drinks sitting in the company of murderers and had pals like Terry Ross who I went to school with and were in and out of prison. A kind of detox from normal society in which he came out fitter and faster.  Total institutions do interest me because that’s where all the bad things happen, but it’s not necessarily regarded as a bad thing, an ethos of indifference that radiates outwards and also inwards. The Sunday Mail, for example, has a front-page headline ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, a lifer in Low Moss. The subtext is look how easy these murderers and scum get it in jail.  Low Moss isn’t Barlinnie. Bar-L or Barlinnie is the Big House. But the narrative was the same for Jimmy Boyle et al and the Special Unit. Prison as lifestyle choices. Them and Us. Fling away the key. And anything that happens inside is too good for them.

Robert Jefferey is a former journalist with a number of books skewed towards Glasgow and its people. The Barliinnie Timeline is impressive. From 1897 when a plot of land was bought for £9750 outside Glasgow and 1882 when A Hall was commissioned. Victorian planners were criticised for spending too much public money and thinking big, but never thought big enough. Cells designed for one prisoner routinely held two or more. Overcrowding from 1897 to the work ending on E Hall in 2007, and when the Timeline ends in 2007 has been, and continues to be, a nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century problem that doesn’t go away. And it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that sloping out was abolished when prisoner began to receive compensation for such practices – ‘lock away a couple of prisoners in a tiny cell for ten hours or so with no access to toilets, hand washing, clean towels or disinfectant and let them defecate and urinate in front of each other’ –  but note these prisoner’s cases went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. It’s doubtful with Brexit that this would be the case now and prisoners would still be sloping out and it would be regarded as too expensive to change things. And anyway throw away the key. They deserve it. Politicians looking to amend Britain’s commitment to the idea of universal human rights comes into the same category of it doesn’t affect us. Policy creep can work in different ways outside prisons as the Grenfell disaster shows.

Voices such as George Wilson a lay preacher that regularly visited the Barlinnie Special Unit are rarely heard and even less likely to be listened to, drowned out by tabloid bile.

What I discovered was that there were powerful people who wanted him [Jimmy Boyle] to fail in order to prove their own theories that the likes of Jimmy Boyle wouldn’t change.

In other words people like us deserve what we get, so people like them can say I told you so. Every programme about Welfare in the title sells the same message. Look at them smoking and drinking. They are other and we pay for them. Give them less. Jail the scum. Propaganda coming from the top from David Cameron and George Osborne which shaped public policy and witch hunts of the poor and working class and below them those that break the law. That shame is ours, not theirs.

The Barlinnie Story is our story but a mixed bag. Duplication not only the narratives of old lags, but of whole pages inserted randomly between pages 50 and 88 and then the same pages appearing out of sequence later is unprofessional and better books than this have been pulped for less. And on page 90, in the chapter entitled ‘Dog Boxes, Chamber Pots and Compensation’ leads with: ‘ ‘sensational’ the natural way to describe the various attacks on staff, rooftop riots and assorted exercise yard rumbles down the year,s ‘[sic] is a slightly turgid way of leading into the practice of sloping out. But really, ‘year,s’? This is a stupid mistake and makes me think Jeffrey has not read his own copy and then the question arises, why should we?

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