Frankie Owens is an author and ex-prisoner with over 30 convictions. Last week, he visited Nottingham University as part of his 10,000 mile ‘Walk for Forgiveness’ tour. Impact caught up with Frankie after his presentation for an exclusive interview:
“The emotional trauma, hatred and loathing he has for the act that he has committed is so severe, that the Gulag’s punishment doesn’t get anywhere near the emotional sentence he’s feeling.” Ex-con Frankie Owens is talking about Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – although he may as well be describing his own life.
Frankie suffers from hypomania, a form of bipolar disorder. Almost two years ago his behaviour became so out of control he embarked on a four month crime spree resulting in over 30 individual arrests. By February 2011 he was a convicted felon doing time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
These unique experiences in prison inspired him to write the Koestler award-winning The Little Book of Prison, a how-to guide that raises plenty of questions about the state of the prison system in the UK. One of the aims of Frankie’s book is to deconstruct the false image that prison is an easy ride for criminals. He says that most inmates end up having horrific experiences but, for whatever reason, walk out the other side claiming it was painless. In fact, last month, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling famously compared prisons to holiday camps and called for more severe forms of punishment. (In a bizarre twist, Frankie’s dad actually ran holiday camps in the North of England. He quipped, “There aren’t any dancing girls in prisons!”)
Emotional life in prison can be something of a contradiction, says Frankie. “When you’re emotionally aware you can determine what is right and what is wrong, and you appreciate the feelings of the victim”, which encourages rehabilitation. However, displaying feelings within the prison wing is a sign of weakness and pretty much guarantees you will become a target for other inmates. Frankie advises prisoners ‘switch’ between a creative inner life and maintaining a strong emotionless front in public. But not everyone can strike the right balance. “The ones that bang on the doors and make all the noise are the ones that can’t handle it the most – but they seem the scariest.”
The Little Book of Prison proved to be Frankie’s emotional outlet. Scribbled down using pencils sharpened with blunt prison-razors, he poured out his everyday thoughts and anxieties, as well as offering advice to first-time convicts.
Few other forms of personal expression are available in British prisons. Inside Time, a magazine and website written by and for convicts, encourages prisoners to share their experiences. The Writers in Prison Network – founded in 1992 by the Arts Council of England and the Home Office – pioneers creative writing in the prison system and has received support from Whitbread Book Award-winning author Mark Haddon among others.
Despite the success of these organisations, their budgets are being threatened by government cutbacks. Frankie advocates “ring-fenced funding” – however in the middle of a double-dip recession, and with Grayling as Justice Secretary, this seems highly unlikely.
In his book, Frankie estimates that one in five ex-prisoners are liable to reoffend. Noel ‘Razor’ Smith used to be one of these career criminals. For almost 50 years Noel drifted in and out of prison on a variety of charges including armed robbery, earning a reputation as the archetypal prison tough guy.
However after the random death of his son (Noel was not allowed compassionate leave to attend the funeral), he realised he “wasn’t going to get [out] by rioting”. The convicted bank-robber eventually left the prison system after transferring to the minimum security HM Prison Grendon, which encourages inmates to participate in controlled therapy sessions and undergo a constant process of self-assessment. Noel is now a successful author and writes for publications such as The Guardian and The Big Issue and is living proof that the system works.
HM Grendon holds the lowest reoffending rate of any institution in the country, but is also one of the most expensive. Currently, the facility is facing major cuts and recidivism rates are slowly rising. Chris Grayling MP aims to achieve a “rehabilitation revolution”, but intends to do this by ramping up sentences and slashing budgets. Frankie Owen’s proposal for a more structured rehabilitation system is perhaps a little idealistic in a recession – but his words can’t help but remind us of the countless other former prisoners that are without a voice.
Frankie Owen’s The Little Book of Prison is out now.