Book of the week : Unlocking the secrets of life behind bars

16th May 2003 at 01:00

From the Inside: dispatches from a women's prison
By Ruth Wyner
Aurum Press pound;14.99 hbk

Prison, like war, is hell. Everybody knows that. But as with war, every perspective from which a prison experience is told brings new insights.

From the Inside is written by a professional woman, a charity worker, who finds herself in prison. It is her story and the story of a system designed to break spirits and damage souls. That she was not broken or damaged is testament to her resilience.

Ruth Wyner was sentenced to five years in prison under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1999. As director of a homeless hostel in Cambridge, she and co-worker John Brock were found guilty of failing to prevent drug dealing on the premises.

Wyner, a 49-year-old veteran campaigner on homelessness, ran the hostel under a tough anti-drugs policy known to the police, as was its confidentiality pledge to residents. She maintained that she and Brock were unaware of drug-dealing in the hostel.

The case became a cause clbre, the Cambridge Two campaign, numbering among its supporters actor Julie Christie, singer Joan Baez, MPs and trades unions. The publicity surrounding the case, which her appeal barrister, Michael Mansfield, denounced as one that should have never been brought, led to her freedom on bail after 208 days in prison. The appeal judge upheld the guilty verdict, but decided the original sentence had been too harsh.

While Wyner's book is an impassioned plea for prison reform and clarity in the law regarding confidentiality between workers and clients with mental health problems, its strength lies in her description of life in women's prisons and its human costs. A former journalist, she vividly chronicles her Kafkaesque journey from initial sentencing to her eventual release and its aftermath.

Read the full review in this week's TES Friday magazine

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