This is a Writers' Other Jobs post from West Yorkshire-based speculative fiction writer Elizabeth Hopkinson.
I was an Administrative Assistant to the probation officers at Her Majesty's Prison, Leeds (known locally as Armley Gaol). I only took the job because, having walked away from a postgraduate teacher training course on the final placement, I felt I owed it to my parents to get some sort of job and start paying them back. I stayed a year, by which time I was married and didn't have to worry about my parents' housekeeping any more.
Let's get this straight. I worked in an office, mostly filing and answering the telephone - but the office was inside the walls of the prison. I had to pass through prison security several times a day (taking mail, going to the canteen etc). I had to walk past prisoners taking exercise, who would invariably shout ‘slut’ (or some variant) after me. I also had to undergo a week's induction alongside prison officers, which involved a tour of the prison. Yes, padded cells and punishment cells (only entered by four officers with wooden truncheons) are real. And the whole place smells of disinfectant. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act (for real!) and carry keys the size of those ones in Pirates of the Caribbean. I was possibly more scared of the woman I worked with than I was of everything else. She was one scary woman.
Image source: Flickr / emiliano-iko
Prison life is extremely slow-moving and repetitive. Not a lot happens most of the time. I got most of my jobs done by lunchtime and then sat around waiting for the phone to ring. It gave me a lot of time to think about a musical I was writing, but it was frustrating that I couldn't be at home working on it. This was probably the point at which I realised: yes, I really should be in the creative arts, not sitting in an office behind prison walls. Which was why, as soon as I was married, I started looking for a part-time job so I could spend more time creating stuff.
However, I did learn some genuinely useful things (for a writer). I learned of the many creative ways in which prisoners try to escape or hide drugs (thanks to the prison museum). I learned the sad truth that virtually all inmates have a drug addiction, and that some prisoners are so institutionalised that they will smash a window as soon as they get out, in order to be back in prison the next day. I learned that probation officers hate taking calls about abandoned dogs.
There were also some bizarre/entertaining things. Two prison drugs workers having a race on office chairs. The security officer on the gate informing me with fierce intensity that the vacuum cleaner on Teletubbies is called Noo-Noo. And walking every day past the filming location for A Touch of Frost starring Sir David Jason. Two of the probation officers saw him while out jogging and one of them thought he was a tramp.
However, it was not generally a happy place to work. To someone who has never been inside the walls of a prison (especially one that dates from Victorian times and looks like a castle where one might be left to rot) it is hard to describe the oppressive feeling that pervades the place. Prison officers can be tough cookies, often ex-army, and in my time not all of them took kindly to civilians behind the walls. Prisoners committed suicide. One nineteen-year-old dropped suddenly dead. Reading pre-sentence reports acquainted me with every crime the inmates had committed, and the often dire circumstances that had driven them to it. I truly hated having to go there each day, and only an occasional bit of craziness and the ability to take my mind away to creative projects and wedding plans made it bearable.
When I left the job (for another job I wasn't cut out for) I mostly tried to put the traumatic side behind me and remember the zanier moments. Both became weirdly fused together when I came to write a comic short story called A Short History of the Dream Library, about a man who is so addicted to a dream he borrows from a groundbreaking dream library that he keeps it long after the library closes, leading to threats from an obscure government department. Without my experience at the prison, I would never have written about recorded dreams being, ‘devised by prison drugs workers as part of a rehabilitation programme…They generally recorded the dreams of prison administrative staff…after reading a few pre-sentence reports, most probation clerks were liable to drop off anyway. Nor would I have sent my character, Milton, to prison himself, where he discovers an illegal dream trade on the hospital wing, with illegal dreams ‘cunningly contained in a stick deodorant’. In fact, there was a lot of HMP Leeds in that story. (Not in a secret-breaking way; more in a warped-into-a-bizarre-fantasy way). How else, for example, would Milton guess that the dream ‘1001 Nights with Barney the Dinosaur’ was the creation of a Grade 3 governor?
As it turned out, that story was my first big break. In 2005, it won a competition called the James White Award. My prize included publication in Interzone and the chance to receive my trophy at the Hugo Awards, where I sat behind Alan Lee. I also went to the after-party on a special bus, where the party hosts wore cloaks like Ming the Merciless. One of the judges for the award was Jasper Fforde, and I later met him at a literature festival, where he told me in person how much he had enjoyed my story. What a boost!
So, although the prison job was the worst of my life, it did pay off in unexpected ways. And a year later, I became what I’d always wanted to be – a stay-at-home mother with time to write. Hurrah!
Elizabeth Hopkinson is the author of Silver Hands, a historical fantasy based on Grimm’s Handless Maiden, and over 40 short stories, which have appeared in various magazines, webzines and anthologies. She lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire (UK), in a tiny house which is being taken over by books, artworks and random curiosities.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.