Book Diary: Break Out! (Trevor James)

BREAK OUT! Trevor James

(finished reading on 25/06/2012)

I bought this book in a cafe near to HMP Dartmoor.  It is about attempted prisoner escapes from Dartmoor, in the time since it opened as a War Prison in 1809.  I was in the cafe because I had just been to visit my cousin at HMP Dartmoor, where he is serving a four-year sentence.

I’ve always been fascinated by prisons, but had never really thought about why, I just was.  However, since visiting my cousin, and also reading this small book, I think I now know – in part – why: it’s the feeling that prisons are worlds within worlds, societies within Society.  They are connected to the ‘out’ but are also wholly separate worlds of their own, existing right alongside wider society, yet mostly unobserved.

It’s easy to forget that prisons and prisoners exist, as mostly they are hidden from sight.  However, like anywhere, prisons are full of people just like any other people; fathers, brothers, mothers and cousins, busy living their lives within.  For example, driving up to HMP Dartmoor, I wasn’t surprised to find it high up on the moor, isolated and sightly desolate, but I was surprised to find it part of the small community of Princetown (the surrounding village, which was mostly built by prisoners in the 19th century).  The people who live there exist side by side with the prisoners, yet most might never have stepped inside Dartmoor’s perimeter wall.

Adding to this sense of Otherness, whilst visiting, certain freedoms (by necessity) had to be left to one side – you had to be searched and had to leave belongings in one place whilst you were herded to another, not at all unlike entering an airport in order to leave one place and arrive in another, and like finding yourself in a new country, once inside this new world and speaking to my cousin, I noticed how his language had changed, he was employing a whole new vocabulary to describe his altered reality.  Finally, alongside my fascination with the inside, concurrently, is most prisoners’ focus on the outside, so that the two worlds are always butting up against each other, but unseen to most of the population.

The book was differently fascinating in illustrating how people variously deal with having their freedom taken from them.  The French prisoners of war, for example, mostly got by by making life within as close to the outside as possible; bribing guards to allow more treats, or leniency and by putting on plays and shows.  By contrast, the American prisoners of war went crazy trying to get out as soon they were placed there, including an extremely ambitious (and almost successful) attempt to escape over two hundred prisoners of war at once, through a network of tunnels painstakingly constructed over a period of years.  Once it became a convict prison, escaping became a more individual pursuit, with some prisoners seizing, unplanned, the opportunity when it was presented, others taking time to build keys from toothbrushes, yet others escaping and being recaptured, only to start all over again with a new plan.  The only common factor in the myriad of escape plans, was that once out, all escapees had to the face the might of Dartmoor itself, and if it’s worlds within worlds that I find interesting, then – as the escape attempts illustrate – it’s Nature that finally will take dominion over all.

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