Medicine And Books

The Prisoners' Handbook 1995

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 17 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1615
  1. Ed Walker

    Ed Mark Leech Oxford University Press, pounds sterling9.99, pp 407 ISBN 0 19 825939 5

    Normally I avoid cliches. But the phrase “Everything you ever wanted to know about…” really can be applied to The Prisoners' Handbook except that the second half should read: “and didn't even know you needed to ask.”

    Mark Leech, the book's editor, has been described in one interview as a self publicist. This was presumably intended pejoratively, but I should think it a useful gift for anyone, particularly a former prisoner, making a living through writing.

    Self publicity is not something, however, that the prison medical service could be accused of. The director of prison health care refused to release the names of any medical officers in the prison service to Mr Leech, and this is reflected by the large number of blank spaces next to “Medical:” in the establishment listings section. The reasons behind this attitude can only be guessed at.

    “Hang ‘em, flog ‘em” types will be disappointed that the handbook is not merely a list of the five-star amenities available to inmates. I was unable to find a single entry under “golf courses.” In any case, these people have probably never had to defecate in the same small room as two complete, and not altogether sympathetic, strangers. Not an experience that can be compensated for by colour television—or a ping-pong table.

    For the intended readership—in other words prisoners and their loved ones—the handbook will, I imagine, become obligatory reading. It covers everything, from what to expect when you first arrive, through listings of visiting arrangements and facilities at every penal establishment in England and Wales, to what benefits and discharge grants are available on release. Other sections include summaries of recent reports by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and a copy of the Prison Act 1952.

    More casual readers will probably approach this book in the same way as they might a travel guide to Venezuela: it's interesting to know what it is like there but they have no real intention of going. The analogy stops there, though. Bits of Venezuela are probably quite nice, and one can choose whether to visit or not.—ED WALKER, staff doctor in accident and emergency, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

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