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‘In It’ by Jonathan Robinson: a Review

Review by Richard

This is one book that definitely needed to be written. In It is one man’s journey through the prison system and it gives a very clear view of what works and doesn’t work within that system. What works is the opportunity for prisoners to reflect on what brought them into prison. What doesn’t work is just about everything else except security – and even that was imperfect.

Robinson, a trained pilot and flying instructor who robbed his employer to impress his wife with money, struggles from day one with the uncoordinated and, at times, crazy bureaucracy that prevails throughout the system. The core message of the book is that prison simply does not work as a method for civilising the uncivilised and educating the uneducated. But there’s the rub: that is not what the majority of the British population at large want it to be. Most people simply expect the prison service to lock people up and punish them for their crimes, and that is exactly what it does. However, the very high re-offending rate that results from this approach is something that both policy makers and the author himself try to address.

Through his experience and his writing Robinson spends his entire sentence struggling to come to terms with the difference between what he thinks prison ought to be, “a thriving, self-sufficient, enthusiastic [place] whose occupants … put back in what they’ve been given,”  a place run by  “enthusiastic staff who give praise [and] good leadership” thus making it an “Efficient, happy ship,” and what it actually is: a place with “Prisoners prevailing in bed, the odious repulsive food littered around the battleground dining room set-dressed by huge slovenly quantities of unwashed plates making up the scenery.”

The book is structured as a day-by-day diary recorded in as-it-happened notes, and this is both a revealing insight into the everyday life of a prisoner but also the book’s biggest weakness. Although he says in the epilogue that a lot of material has been edited out the book still suffers from being at least fifty percent longer than it needs to be to make the point – just as many prison sentences are. What comes through well is the way in which minor snags and an unresponsive system give rise to unnecessary frustrations and routine basic injustices, such not having clothes that fit or food that is edible. All of his very valid observations could have been made without much of the irrelevant details that fill the book and it would have benefitted hugely form being better edited. Although, as Robinson points out, when you have no control or influence over your life, minor issue take on a huge significance and “These life shattering events are important in prison.”

Although repeatedly remorseful about his crime, Robinson still comes across as expecting the National Offender Management Service to be a super-efficient customer service department whose purpose is to improve his opportunities and those of his fellow inmates. This it clearly is not. But, as he points out, there seems to be no justification for the appalling waste of energy, both human and material, that results from prisoners not working during their time inside and the huge amount of money being wasted on unnecessary heating bills and dozens of other inefficiencies.

Despite the strange use of punctuation and speech marks throughout the book, and the lack of thorough editing, Robinson writes well. His metaphor of prison as a film set and each event as a scene played out by characters who he often names after film stars gives a vivid sense of the personalities involved and brings great humour to a tragic set of circumstances. Highly recommended reading for anyone involved in criminal justice policy.

In It is available to purchase as an eBook from Amazon.

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