Aged 17, Lee is inside for a crime he HAS committed.

And it’s not the holiday camp he’s heard about.

Warned to ‘play by the rules’ he has to decide whose rules – the screws or the other cons.

Life in a Young Offenders Institution is about survival.

But the real struggle is inside Lee himself.

Is he destined to be a ‘career con’ or can he choose to change his life?

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Inside From the Inside

Gerard McGrath finds himself experiencing a burgeoning and profoundly disturbing sense of retrospective deja vu, yet commending and recommending the book without reservation.

It is incumbent upon me to preface my review in acknowledging that, given personal experiences, I found it difficult to be objective as readers can expect a person to be in reviewing this book.

The salutary tale told in ‘Inside’ is that of Lee who, aged seventeen is rightly convicted and sentenced to a stint in a Young Offenders Institution. Having served two terms of Borstal back in the sixties, it did not necessitate much deliberation for me to decide to review J A Jarman’s compelling novel.

I admit to a heightened sense of curiosity but nothing vicarious; simply something of a compare and contrast exercise. The more I read of ‘Inside’ the more I experienced an exponentially burgeoning sense of retrospective deja vu swamping me which I found profoundly disturbing, so much that I had to put the book aside and return to it on more than three or four occasions.

Certainly, the highly accomplished vividly descriptive writing did not engender any rose-tinted nostalgia within me. Rather, a farrago of emotions afflicted me with anger and frustration vying with sympathy and empathy: the power of the pen indeed – nicely done JA Jarman.

I was a callow, naïve and equally guilty sixteen year old the first time I was sent to Borstal so felt capable of a certain sense of empathy for Lee before I read the first page of what proved to be a graphic, moving and powerful work of its genre.

Many older prisoners will remember that Borstal training preceded YOIs as a means of exacting retribution and ‘rehabilitating’ young offenders. What such a sentence entailed was dependent upon being allocated to an open or closed institution.

I did time in both categories: Hewell Grange by way of an open Borstal and Dover by way of closed, the latter the Kafkaesque nightmare experience. I digress.

The dilemma Lee faces is one that will be all too familiar to those of any age who can recall their first experience of incarceration and who amongst us can forget it? Lee is compelled to learn and learn quickly the written and unwritten rules of the game, the laws of the jungle he now resides in.

Self-preservation and survival are everything. The diametrically opposed written rules of the establishment and the unwritten rules of the perverse criminal sub-culture of his fellow prisoners are soon assimilated. Lee learns what every seasoned prisoner knows: there are many contradictory lessons too often hard-learned.

Marching anonymously behind two flags simultaneously as so many prisoners do, vaingloriously trying to maintain the approval of staff and fellow prisoners alike requires a Machiavellian-like capacity for subterfuge and disguise any politician or thespian would envy.

Probably prioritising wisely, lee first learns the unwritten rules of his fellow prisoners, identifies the hierarchies and the pecking order; who are the predators and the preyed upon. Astutely he identifies that what are regarded as luxuries from the world outside buy much more favour (do they ever?) with the rival gangs who constantly test his supposed loyalty.

The problems Lee faces are compounded when his mother despairs of and disavows him; advising his girlfriend to do likewise. Lee is under siege emotionally but recognizes he is on the road to perdition and in danger of becoming a career criminal. Will he choose to take responsibility for his life, be proactive in his own cause and bring about a change for the better?

I found ‘Inside’ to be more about the triumph of Lee’s hope and perseverance over adversity than a limited expose of YOIs. Myriad novels and autobiographies have been written about life behind bars.

Most of which are little more than variations on a theme; read one you’ve read them all. ‘Inside’ differs because J A Jarman does not glorify that which is decidedly inglorious. Too many ex-cons who pen autobiographies ad nauseam betray themselves as what they are; legends in their own minds who need to avail themselves of reality checks and sage counselling.

Little perception is required to recognise ‘Inside’ is more than a read-worthy novel. It is a reality check and sage counsel.

Without reservation I commend and recommend it.