Five foreign Prison books

During secondary school, I fell out with reading and books in general. I don’t like being told what to do or when to do it; and the whole ‘Now we’ll read this book for this long’ didn’t sit well with 14 year old me. This carried on throughout university, blagging all my essays without reading a chapter through to completion; until I started reading books about prisons. The whole criminal underworld and prison culture has fascinated me for a while (I’ve worked my way through a lifetimes supply of documentaries and gangster films) but it had never really transpired to my bookshelf until recently.

Here are five of my favourites, all true stories and all based abroad.

1)  Marching Powder – Rusty Young: This was the first book I’d gone out of my way and bought for nearly a decade, but I had just booked flights to South America; and with it started to hear the backpackers hyped up whispers about the infamous San Pedro prison. Written by Rusty Young, who posed as Thomas McFadden’s human rights lawyer whilst sneaking out audio tapes after interviewing the convicted drug-smuggler, it takes on a first person viewpoint of Thomas’ time in this unfathomably crazy prison, situated right in the middle of tourist-trap La Paz, Bolivia. Each chapter focuses on a different anecdote, but in chronological order; as Thomas’ goes from easy pickings, to Mormon pastor, to the notorious prison guide. I had finished it within 10 hours of setting off from Heathrow, finishing the final chapter as we landed on the other side of the Atlantic. For anyone heading to La Paz, I thoroughly recommend you go to San Pedro square at noon and find ‘Crazy Dave’*, a New Yorker ex-con who did his time in San Pedro alongside Thomas: he’ll add to Thomas’ stories as well as debunk some of the ‘romanticized’ chapters. This is a free tour (Dave is a recovering cocaine addict), with a Spanish-American rap thrown in for good measure at the end, so we took him to buy his groceries as payment for his time.

*Crazy Dave isn’t allowed within 100metres of the prison, so it’s sometimes easier to look for ‘Californian Alex’ who works with Dave to tell the stories.

2) Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand: This differs from the others in the list as it doesn’t have a criminal undertone to it. Having watched the movie based on Louis Zamperini’s incredible life story, featuring Jack O’Connell (who is turning into one of the best current actors from the UK), and being blown away (I’ve since watched it a further three times), I picked up the novel for £1 in a charity shop, expecting to pass it on afterwards. After each chapter, I was left speechless, more so compared to when the credits rolled on the blockbuster. Reaching a perfect balance between historical context (an extensive list of references and further readings is at the back), narrative and dialogue, in the same way that Ben Stewart does, it was enjoyably readable, as well as deepening my understanding of the roles of Japan and the USA in the WW2 (the British educational system only really focuses on the British side of things). Like My Time On The Rock, there is a seeming lot of focus on the pre-war part of Zamperini’s life (childhood rebel and Olympic posterboy), but this is paled into insignificance when Hillenbrand details each stage of his war: military bombardier, drifting on a lifeboat in the Pacific, and as a prisoner of war in Japan. If I’ve made it seem long-winded.. it is, and it’s a long book, but it is still very readable and I was genuinely inspired by the sheer determination  of Zamperini when faced with almost unlivable situations, time and time again. Watching the film back after reading the book was equally as enjoyable because the director has been as true to the story as cinema allows.

(Shameless plug – My grandad was also a WW2 prisoner of war and has published an autobiography since he crashed his Spitfire, evaded capture for a week and then sat out the war in a Nazi-occupied, Dutch prisoner of war camp. If you’re into that, or know someone who is (it’s always nearly Christmas), you can make an old man’s day and buy a copy here). 

3) Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg – Ben Stewart: I heard about this book after listening to Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces podcast on the drive to Peterborough; it was a double episode simply titled ‘GreenPeace’, with three guests on (one was Ben Stewart, the other two were men who were arrested in the aftermath of a protest against Gazprom’s drilling in the Arctic). Hearing the men’s stories was honestly like a Bond film; and the book was bought shortly afterwards. I recommend the podcast as a ‘teaser’ before reading the book! The book isn’t that well written – I put this down to personal taste, I’m not really into present tense books – but the content was still gripping. The podcast focused a lot on the actual events leading up to arrest, but the book only devoted a few chapters to this; instead putting a detailed third person account of the Arctic Thirty’s time in Russia’s notorious prison system. I particularly enjoyed the convicts ability to create an ‘internet’ out of ropes (the ‘doroga’) through which the Arctic Thirty could communicate with; coupled with just enough Soviet history to digest without having to research it further! I’m amazed it hasn’t been turned into a film yet.

4) Inside Alcatraz: My Time On The Rock – Jim Quillen: Another holiday book, this time en route to Luxembourg, having decided to visit San Francisco, and Alcatraz, later in the year. The author writes a lot about his upbringing and his route into the criminal world; detailing multiple close calls and escapes before finally being sent to the infamous Rock after an armed robbery. Once on the island, the reader learns about the notorious crooks with whom Quillen shared his time with (including con-favourite The Birdman); and several chapters have been dedicated to the recount of the attempted escape of 1946, which led to a full scale military assault of the island (known as the Battle of Alcatraz) and the death of several inmates. There’s also a short passage about each of the 13 other escape attempts, during which six men were killed, 23 were captured (probably serving solitary confinement afterwards as punishment) and a further 5 were presumed drowned. Jim Quillen also writes just as much about his reconciliation and connection with religion in the later years of his life as he did his pre-prison life (albeit slightly less thrilling); which reminded me of Unbroken.I’m looking forward to getting out to Alcatraz, especially the eerie night tour, later on in 2016.

5) Hotel K – The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail –  Kathryn Bonella : I picked this up for 20p after struggling to get into Michael Palin’s Himalayas (my mind is too focused on the Americas to concentrate on someone else’s Asian travelogue), and immediately read the prelude in the same time that it had taken me to read 4 chapters of Palin. Really gripping stuff, just like Marching Powder. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of life behind bars in Bali’s most notorious prison, with each one the’characters’ development deepens. They all seem to have something to do with each other (either working together on a previous job, sharing a cell or being involved in the same escape attempt), and the author has included transcripts of news reports and interviews with convicts, using multiple sources to back up the same story, proving their validity. Like Marching Powder, they have to be seen to be believed – corruption and bribery runs deep through the veins of this prison. The fact that this book is so well written helps turn the pages too.


I’m currently sat by the letterbox awaiting copies of The Encyclopedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos and Drawings from the Gulag, listening to the Carpenters. In 10 weeks, I’ll spend a night in Alcatraz myself; the second of the 5 prisons here that I will have visited. Leave a comment with any other prison books/prison tours you recommend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s