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Author Carlo Gebler's inside stories of prison life may be fiction, but shed fresh light on an inmate's lot

For almost 25 years, Carlo Gebler worked as a teacher and writer-in-residence in the Maze and Maghaberry Prisons. As his brilliant book of short stories, The Wing Orderly's Tales, is published, he gives a fascinating insight into the inmates he worked with - and why some people end up committing crimes.

Published 27/04/2016

Carlo Gebler in Enniskillen
Carlo Gebler in Enniskillen
A wing in H-Block No 4 at the Maze/Long Kesh Prison near Lisburn
An entrance
The aerial view
Justice Minister David Ford and Carlo Gebler, then writer-in-residence at Maghaberry Prison, view artwork by prisoners
The cover of Carlo's new book
A cell in Maghaberry Prison
The young Carlo Gebler

Sometime in 1991 I was asked if I was interested in going into HMP Maze (Long Kesh to republicans) and working with prisoners on their writing. It would have to be even-handed. I'd have to see loyalists and republicans.

Yes, please, I said.

An incredibly complicated vetting process followed. Two RUC inspectors twice interviewed me at home. I also had to supply an incredible amount of background information on my family, going back to my great-grandparents. Obviously, what was being sought were signs of Fenianism. If the family were bad eggs in times past, then the likelihood was I, too, would be troublesome. Violence runs in the blood here in Ireland - or at least that's what they would have us believe. I had a small blemish: I had one great-uncle who was an IRA Captain in the early 1920s, but happily at the same time another great-uncle was a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. So I was cool, really.

The whole process culminated with a telephone vetting experience of incomparable weirdness. A man from the Northern Ireland Office rang me and I had to answer his questions. As it happened, he rang while my wife was in labour. She was having our third child and she had opted for a home birth. I didn't feel I could say to the guy from the NIO who was cross questioning me: "Excuse me, could you call back when my wife's had her baby?" I just didn't think he'd believe me. How credible an excuse is that - "My wife's dilated 10 centimetres, sorry I can't talk."

I politely answered his fantastically complicated genealogical questions while my wife did her thing in another room. The conversation continued and the good news, after 45 minutes, was that I was in, in jail. And the good news went on. A little later, after I'd put down the phone, out came the baby and it was a baby boy, my son Finn.

Now that I was in, I had to be got ready. There was a charismatic man in charge of Probation at the Maze (Probation, incidentally, was known as Welfare). This man was called Brian Rodgers. He had a lot to do with the business of getting artists into the jail and involving prisoners in creative work under their guidance. Brian took me out to lunch a couple of times. He was a lovely conversationalist. He told me about the prisoners, what he expected of me, and so forth. I had to write a couple of things, outlining what I was going to do. It was all very low key.

It was only later that I grasped that what Brian was really about was finding out what I was really like. He didn't want any muck-ups. If I blew it, his project would be set back horribly.

I know it's hard to remember pre-ceasefire, but in those days, before the paramilitaries so kindly agreed to stop killing us, the Maze was a high security jail. The authorities didn't really want anyone wandering around in there. Anyhow, Brian decided I was kosher. I turned up for my first day. My first port of call was a loyalist block. The inmates had rioted the weekend before and set the block on fire. For some reason I had to go in through a turnstile at the side rather than through the front grille. Had it melted? I can't remember.

Once inside I found myself in a blackened wing with charred cell doors. There were no officers (although this is not to say officers did not go on to the wings at the Maze. They did, there just weren't any at that moment). My greeter, a loyalist lifer, sniffed the air as he led me down towards the kitchen-cum-dining room (I would be holding my class in the band room - where loyalist paraphernalia was stored - behind the kitchen).

"Had a bit of a barbecue the other night," he said, lightly. "But of course so and so" - and here he mentioned a famous prisoner - "he would throw too much petrol on and it got a bit out of hand."

I went through the kitchen and into the band room. It was filled with drums and banners emblazoned with paintings of King Billy. Four writers who were prisoners, or do I mean prisoners who were writers, joined me. I read them Pale Anna by Heinrich Boll and then got them to read me their work in turn. And that was that. I had started. I was off. I was a prison teacher.

I did six years in the Maze. It was an education. I learnt a great deal.

Then, in 1997, I was telephoned by an Australian gentleman, Mike Moloney, who was the founder and the director of the charity the Prison Arts Foundation. He asked if I would like to go in to HMP Maghaberry - like HMP Maze a high security Category A prison, but unlike the Maze it was for 'ordinary decent criminals' rather than paramilitaries - to teach creative writing.

He added that if I did I would be rather grandly styled 'writer-in-residence' rather than 'creative writing tutor (part-time)' as I had been at the Maze.

You bet, I said.

I started in HMP Maghaberry on April 1, 1997, and stayed one day less than 18 years; I left on March 31, 2015. Some reading the last line might think, ah, he served a sentence, and yes it was a long time, but a sentence, as in a punishment, it was not. On the contrary, those almost 18 years were a time when, I assert, I learnt more than at any other time in my life, and although what I learnt was awful in the full and proper sense of the word, I am grateful that I learnt what I did. Prison, you could say, really was my university.

The commonplace view is that crime of all kinds is committed by the morally delinquent and this deficiency of theirs amounts to a complete explanation for the offence committed, whatever it is. And what flows from this, of course, is the absolute and unshakeable conviction, which is so widely supported in our society, that punishment and punishment alone is the only proper response to any criminal act. Lock the scumbags up and throw away the keys - that, so many of us believe, is the proper way to deal with criminals.

Well yes, okay, whatever floats your boat: unfortunately, what you discover if you spend any time in a prison, and furthermore, if you take the time to listen to those that you meet on the wings, what you discover is that moral delinquency or some sort of character deficiency is not the reason people commit crimes: the reasons are much more complicated as well as much more obvious, and include (and this list is not exhaustive) failed attachments in childhood, family dysfunction, poverty, woeful schooling, illiteracy, alcohol, ill health (both physical and psychological) and bad, bad luck.

Nobody who goes to jail was born bad, was born a criminal, and nobody who goes to jail is merely the sum of their offences. Everyone who ends up in jail arrives there as a consequence of a catalogue or sequence of catastrophes, and everyone who ends up in jail is capable - if treated properly and humanely - of becoming a person who can lead a productive and meaningful life.

After I left Maghaberry I put together a book of short stories called The Wing Orderly's Tales. The book consists of 12 interconnected stories (it's a bit like Olive Kitteridge in that respect) all of which are narrated by Chalky, an orderly who cleans the ablutions and buffs the landings in a fictional prison, HMP Loanend, and gathers stories about his fellow inmates which he likes to retell. My little book, which is, I emphasise, fiction (it is all made up) reflects some of what I learnt in Maghaberry, especially about the complex relationship between the psyches of those who are in prison and the institution they find themselves in. This prisoner/prison inter-relationship is important, because the place affects the person massively and when we, as a society, consider imprisonment and its functions, we would do well not to forget this.

We also should not forget that when we have prisoners in our care (and power) in our prisons, it is our choice whether to help them or not.

The stories in The Wing Orderly's Tales are very much in the style of Rudyard Kipling's early Indian stories Plain Tales From The Hills: like his great tales, mine are brusque and bleak (though, of course, I ain't saying they're on a par with Kipling's). Readers might assume on the strength of these stories (which are only about crime and punishment) that I have a rather compromised view of the human race and that though I might say I believe in the capacity of every human to grow, I am not inclined to record it happening. No, it's true, my stories don't record much change, but change is possible: I know it is and I can testify to that.

Do you remember how this article started - my going in to the Maze and my sitting down in the recreation room in a loyalist wing and reading a story to four prisoners in the early 1990s?

On Sunday, April 24, in Belfast, I was approached by an athletic man who asked if I remembered him.

I didn't. He explained who he was.

He was one of those four men and his reason for approaching me, he said, was to thank me (and the author Jennifer Johnston, who was working in tandem in the Maze with me) for putting him on the road (via writing and education, conversation and human contact) that led away from the H-Blocks and paramilitarism and so forth, and out to the fulfilling and fulfilled life he leads in the community today.

  • The Wing Orderly's Tales by Carlo Gebler is published by New Island Press, £7.99, and is available from all good bookshops

Belfast Telegraph

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