Interview with Dr Lewis Owens on The Pentonville Experiment

Your new book, The Pentonville Experiment, is getting some very good feedback. You deal with the issues of addiction and prison in a very sympathetic manner, rather against what we are told is the “public feeling” on these issues. What drew your interest to these dark areas of human existence?

About three years ago, when I was going through a particularly difficult time, I ended up at my local church (prior to that I had attended only on traditional religious celebrations). The Priest came and we spoke. On leaving the church I saw a youngish man sitting on one of the benches in the graveyard. He was drunk. He was also crying. I sat with him and he informed me that the following day he was due in court and likely to be sentenced to a long prison sentence. I tried to console him all I could but I struggled to know what to say. The Priest came and I left the man in his capable hands. I never saw him again and so I can only assume that he was indeed sentenced to a long stretch in prison (I tried to find out but without much luck). Although I didn’t start to write the book until a couple of years later, I believe the seeds were sown in that encounter. Yes, the book is sympathetic because we ALL struggle with issues that cause us anxiety, loneliness, fear, guilt and self-condemnation and I wanted to address these issues as respectfully as I could. So, I put it all in the mix and out came the book!

Lewis Owens
Lewis Owens

From my research it soon became evident that in 1842, the year Pentonville Prison opened and the year in which the novel is set, alcoholism was seen largely as a moral failing or lack of responsibility on the part of the individual. Fortunately, we have moved on and addiction is now seen as an illness which needs daily management and people now have access to a wide range of support services and networks. There is, though, still much work to be done to end the stigma of addiction (which is a growing problem not just to the stereotypical vodka-drinking bench-dweller, but also to an increasing number of doctors, lawyers, politicians, academics and many other professionals – in short, a much wider range of society than the ‘public’ readily admit). I chose alcoholism as the addiction for the novel, which was most appropriate for the period, but a contemporary novel could have quite easily substituted alcohol for cocaine, heroin, weed, spice, prescription drugs, sex, porn, gambling, social media etc. Furthermore,  the cyclical link between crime/addiction remains very apparent today (as it has always been) and that’s why I am donating all proceeds from the sale of the novel to The Forward Trust a wonderful charity who work in many UK prisons to try and break this cycle.

I think it’s easy to gloss over individual problems these days (we can post/tweet a supremely positive, yet inaccurate, side of us so that all seems rosy and impressive) but these ‘dark areas of human existence’ that confront us all can also be strangely therapeutic if addressed and confronted appropriately. Hölderlin’s maxim is a little clichéd but still retains a strong element of truth: “But where danger is, also grows the saving power.” This is, of course, extremely difficult and often very painful but there seems to be a growing awareness and acceptance on social media, for example, for people to reach out and share their problems. I think there is an innate need/urge in humans to ‘confess’ and bare our soul. I don’t mean that in just a religious sense (although obviously that is a strong component of the Catholic tradition and ‘confession’ is quite a pivotal part of the book) but rather to share our emotions, weaknesses, frailties and fears –  our ‘dark areas’  – and by so doing relinquishing the hold these fears may previously have had over us. This is not always easy for many who feel they have not been listened to in the past, and this is where sympathetic ‘public feeling’ can help, as Ephraim Ragland says in the novel: “Sometimes you just feel the need to tell another human being….I don’t think it matters who it is.”

You seem to have dedicated a significant part of your life to helping people in prison and coming out of prison, most recently becoming a mentor. What led you to decide so much of yourself to this cause?

It’s actually only been the last couple of years that I have started engaging with the physical bricks and mortar of prisons (specifically Pentonville and Feltham). However, my interest in ‘prison’ as a psychological concept has been long-standing. I believe we all fear the thought of incarceration, imprisonment, being trapped, stuck, and confined. It grates against our sense of human freedom and dignity. This is why I have one of my characters in the novel feel that, although he has never ‘been inside’ he nevertheless ‘feels he has been in prison all his life.’ I know many adults who have felt the gnawing psychological angst of ‘prison’ growing up as children under domineering parents; at school due to unreasonable expectations; unfulfilling marriages or soul-destroying jobs. This psychological ‘incarceration’ is very different, of course, from the physical imprisonment but there are, I imagine, some similarities, most notably that of fear. That being said, nothing can replace the actual physical incarceration and this is why it’s so important – in fact, vital – that we listen to those who are/have been inside prison. I used to feel that very poignantly when I would visit Pentonville on Sunday mornings to volunteer at the Mass services. Afterwards, I would head back to the station and get on with my fortunate life while the prisoners would head back to their cells. It is an experience that I can never adequately begin to imagine.

The Pentonville Experiment by Lewis Owens
Detail from the book cover

I am privileged to be a Trustee of the Autism Research Trust at Cambridge University (Autism and the CJS is a big topic!). Recently, the autistic community have established an #ActuallyAutistic hash-tag on Twitter to express their (very correct) belief that developments in autism research and legislation should have a very strong input from the autistic community itself. I feel this is a useful parallel for prison reform, where those who have actually served time (or are still serving time) are consulted and seen as an integral part of any reform and legislation. Those with first-hand experience must not be isolated from the agenda. I can’t think of an appropriate hash-tag that parallels the excellent #ActuallyAutistic one: #ProperPrisoner…?! I am sure someone can think of a better one! In all seriousness, there are basic rights that still need addressing in many prisons: clean cells; proximity to family and accessibility to regularly scheduled visits; adequate and competent legal representation. The more that individuals who have experienced prison from the inside can pass on this experience, the better things will become. It cannot just be an academic exercise; it’s too serious for that. Lives are being lost on a regular basis through suicide and murder.

I have also become more interested in prison chaplaincy and the role it plays. I am not ordained in any way at all but it does strike me that we need prison chaplains more than ever. It appears from the outside that prison officers and staff are over-worked, under-staffed, poorly-paid and understandably of relatively low morale. I have nothing but the utmost respect for prison officers and governors in what are phenomenally difficult situations. Chaplains can play an important bridge between inmates and staff, regardless of faith. One of the characters in the book, Harry Flynn, possibly sums up the feelings of many when he repeatedly requests the presence of a chaplain in his cell: “…as though he just wanted to know that another human voice was interested in what he had to say.”

Earlier this year I visited Halden Prison in Norway, where the chaplaincy conducts an internal retreat for long-term prisoners by following the 30-day ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of Ignatius of Loyola. The results seem to be very positive, with the aim being one of ‘rehabilitation’ rather than ‘punishment.’ Norway has one of the lowest re-offending rates in the word (conversely the UK has one of the highest) and while I would not in any way claim that reading Ignatius will solve our prison problems (!), it’s an interesting initiative. Next week sees the start of Prison Week, a week of Christian prayer and reflection. But prayer on its own is not enough. However, there are signs that UK prisons, under increasingly excellent governors and governance, are appreciating that a culture of ‘punishment’ will not work and, to be frank, has never worked. The recent decision to train prison officers to become key workers managing of 5 or 6 inmates is certainly a step in the right direction, as it is also for people struggling with addiction.

With the current interest in drugs in prison, such as the so-called “spice epidemic”, why did you decide to use a historical approach to investigate these topics?

First and foremost The Pentonville Experiment is a work of fiction. That being said, I have indeed set it specifically in 1842 and drawn on historical sources surrounding the opening of the prison. I have always enjoyed taking an historical approach to ideas and trying to imbue them with contemporary significance (I did this also with my play on Shostakovich, set in 1958, with the current political relation to Russia and also my play on Mayakovsky/Isaiah Berlin et al, set in 1966, with regard to what constitutes murder/reasonable defence. I wrote this play during the Oscar Pistorius trial). Setting a work historically enables us to take a step back and see how things have progressed over the interim years. I was very honoured to attend the 175 year celebration of Pentonville at St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this year and I guess one of the questions I am seeking to ask in the novel is: How much has really changed in those 175 years, not just at Pentonville but in prison in general? Indeed, only yesterday I received a very kind endorsement for the book from Jonathan Aitken, who has travelled a well-documented journey from politics to prison and now to Pentonville as a chaplain: “As a current chaplain at HMP Pentonville I was captivated by the book’s 19th century themes of addiction, alcoholism, hopelessness and the pressures for prison reform – still all too topical in the 21st century.” Maybe things have not changed that much after all.

Looking through many of the documents and first-hand reports from the early Pentonville Chaplains and Management Committee, it was clear that the influence of alcohol was a strong common denominator in many of the crimes committed at that time. I document some of these in the book as well as some of the desired character traits of a prison officer at the time Pentonville opened. Today, it may well be the ‘spice epidemic’ although I don’t know enough about that to comment, except to say with all kinds of mind-altering drugs there is often an inner desire to ‘escape.’ Alcohol remains our ‘socially acceptable’ drug today, resulting in thousands of deaths and crimes per year, and it made historical sense to use focus on that rather than anything else.

A historical perspective allows us to see how human behaviour seems to follow patterns that we seem to replicate irrespective of how enlightened a particular historical moment is – I’m thinking in particular of how humans seem to gain self-understanding by creating the opposite, the “other” whose values are opposite to “ours”. No matter how cognisant we are of this trend, it seems not to go away as much as to transfer onto new subjects. Certainly prisoners and addicts are those who are most labelled as the Other, the great threats to all that’s decent and good. Yet your book provides an almost hopeful answer. Is it right to suggest your hope is transferred onto the individual “other” to adjust and reform rather than on society to become more understanding or accepting?

Ideally we need both and, as mentioned above, there are quiet yet encouraging signs that the ‘us and them’ dichotomy is slowly being dissolved and common characteristics and traits among all echelons of society are being acknowledged. It is human nature to split individuals and groups into an ‘other’ that can be confronted, attacked and ultimately dominated but that can be a very fractious approach, particularly in prison. Gang culture remains rife, ranging from allegiance to anything from tattoos to football teams and prison officers have an immensely difficult job. I write this in the wake of the news that Prison officers in England and Wales are to be given synthetic pepper spray in order to deal with disorder. It is indeed crucial that prison officers assert authority and are able to protect themselves and I can understand the MoJ’s reasons for implementing this. But I do fear for the consequences unless there is mutual respect on all sides. Violence is rarely one-sided and it is very easy to pin the blame solely on prisoner unrest. The use of PAVA spray is open to abuse, as with all instruments of restraint and suppression. I feel it’s also important to remember that many inmates inhabit the fears, vulnerabilities and weaknesses shared by us all (often masked by the ‘toughness’ of gang affiliation). By projecting and inflating the idea of a ‘negative other’ that needs to be ‘punished’ we run the risk of perpetuating the cycle of repression and aggression. I try to explore some of these issues in the character of the ‘tough’ Henry Percivale.

In the book, Rev Carlisle is attracted to the panoptic design of Pentonville, where inmates are viewed purely as an ‘other’ and staff are able to view them constantly from one vantage point. Hence they have to behave on the assumption that they are being watched all the time. He tries unsuccessfully (almost unconsciously) to follow that design with his congregation. A confrontation with the ‘other’ can lead to all sorts of religious, political and psychological turmoil if not respected, as Carlisle finds to his cost. 175 years ago it was the panoptic prison; today we have CCTV watching our every move. My clients now don’t call me, they ‘facetime’ me; when I read an email, the sender can see exactly when I did so: there is still a profound feeling of being ‘watched’, observed, as Carlisle feels when he enters his Church.

Therefore, placing an addict in prison without the means for them to rehabilitate or explore their criminal motivations is often a futile exercise. They need support (medical, psychological, spiritual) and the self-worth that comes through education (I am continually amazed when I read the stories of prisoners who have educated themselves in prison and left with considerably more hope and opportunities than when they entered. This education ranges from practical, vocation courses to drama workshops and literary reading groups. The work of The Prisoners’ Education Trust, among many others, is extremely important in this area). I hope to be able to contribute a little to this in my role as a mentor at HMP/YOI Feltham.

The underlying story of the book seems to be about how support is so important for people looking to get out of a cycle of addiction – with the obvious example you lead toward being Alcoholics Anonymous. What does it say about understanding addiction that those who seem best able to support addicts are those who’ve experienced it themselves?

Yes, support is crucial but it must start from within. No-one can force an addict to change (any more than the early Pentonville chaplains could coerce the new inmates into believing the Gospel) but we can all be there at his/her side (literally and figuratively) to support them. This is what I try to develop with the character of Tom Morris, who develops his own internal awareness, even carving his own image into his cell wall (Alice is brought to awareness by the maternal Clara, wife of Carlisle). I allude to Alcoholics Anonymous for a few reasons, not because I feel it is the only or best way for addicts to receive that support. I know of many other excellent support groups and approaches, and many outstanding individuals who are recovering (or have recovered) without the help of AA. AA does, though, seem to remain the main recourse for people struggling with alcohol (and often still the first referral from both the medical profession and clergy).

My interest, however, and in keeping with the book, was in the historical development of AA and particularly the ideology of its founder Bill Wilson. The use of ‘God’ in the 12 Steps of AA has also interested me (my first degree many moons ago was in Theology and Philosophy) and I was particularly intrigued by the correspondence between Wilson and a Jesuit Priest, Fr Ed Dowling, where similarities between the AA programme and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius were discussed (along with Wilson’s flirtation with Catholicism). Of course, Wilson expands the term ‘God’ or ‘Higher Power’ to mean essentially anything that the individual wishes, as long as it directs us away from our selfish ego (the source, according to AA, of our addictive drives and defects of character). It is a God ‘of our own understanding’ which has appealed to many non/anti religious AA members. I have found this idea fascinating more from a psychological point of view and explored it to a small extent in the book (particularly in the characters of Alice and Tom, for whom the traditional theological appellations of ‘Father’, ‘Master’ etc. elicit painful recollections). This was also evident in my visit to Norway when ‘God’ was often identified simply as ‘Love’ or even the tall, strong pine trees that served as a natural border to the prison.

I was also fascinated by Jung’s brief correspondence with Bill Wilson about alcoholism requiring a spiritual cure, as well as Jung’s own lectures on the Ignatian ‘Spiritual Exercises’ in 1939/40. Jung’s comment to Wilson in 1961 may appeal to those seeking a spiritual component to their recovery: “You see, Alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”I am sympathetic to this approach but I do want to stress though that I am not promoting AA in any way. Every individual is different and for many AA is not the best road. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in recovery and it is essential to remember that.

I think every person I’ve spoken to who is in recovery from addiction has told me that it was a moment within them rather than any treatment that allowed them to turn their lives around. It certainly seems that the Pentonville Experiment you’ve outlined a story of personal redemption. Do you feel that support services are inadequate?

It is traditionally said that one needs to hit ‘rock bottom’ before any kind of recovery can begin, but I don’t think that always necessarily constitutes a specific moment. As in the book, it can be a build up over time to a point when things simply don’t work anymore and your world comes to a halt. Of course, in 1842 there weren’t the support services that are in place now so individuals either had to turn to the church for ‘forgiveness’ or develop their own inner awareness and understanding of their past. Carlisle takes the former path; both Tom and Alice tend to take the latter.

For all of the different movements and campaigns around prison, I’ve not seen any so coherent and dedicated as the religious-based ones. What is it about the religion of your story – Christianity – that places it in such a position?

I think it’s important to stress that The Pentonville Experiment is not a ‘Christian’ book aiming to convert readers! Inevitably, because the main protagonist is a Priest and the story is set largely in a Church, there is a lot of Christian imagery and terminology. I have always had a deep respect for the Christian faith and its call to serve the less fortunate or under-privileged, including those in prison. Many early Christians were of course imprisoned for their faith (as they are still today, lest we forget). But I am also hugely interested in the symbolic and allegorical side of Christianity and I play with that a lot in the book, particularly regarding the central rituals of Baptism and Communion. Carlisle is a deeply pious yet overly rational man, perhaps not sufficiently attuned at first to the inner spiritual relevance of these rituals. If they remain purely external acts then they remain empty to the individual’s needs. Alice’s baptism, for example, is highly unorthodox but sets her on a path of inner redemption.

The book is replete with references to the frailty and vulnerability of human beings, yet in much public discourse what we might call, in the language of the book, “sinners” are held to be quite the opposite. Your point seems to be quite the opposite of the usual dichotomisation of people into binary positions of good and evil. Do you see such a perspective as being out of sync with our apparently vengeful society?

One of my favourite aspects of researching the book was examining the beautifully rich language used in the liturgy of the 1840s. But it’s also very harsh and rather damning! The ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’ are very evident and I still feel that pervades our culture today. Yet, if this emphasis on ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’ is not balanced with the antidote of ‘forgiveness’  and ‘acceptance’ then it’s easy for society to be cruel and judgmental, as we all can be also as individuals. The addict is seen to be ‘always in recovery’; the prisoner is ‘always an ex prisoner’. Neither can ultimately be ‘cured,’ or so it is sometimes claimed: once an addict/prisoner, always an addict/prisoner. I am aware of many individuals with long spells of sobriety who find the AA insistence of ‘always an alcoholic’ psychologically demoralising and unhealthy. It’s very much an individual thing. Remembrance of things past is of course extremely important and instructive, but it’s also equally important to look forward with a sense of hope that the past does not define our future. Just as the addict must be given the support to forge a new life, so must the individual on release from prison, and that means clear access to welfare, accommodation and meaningful employment.

Social media is a wonderful tool but it can also be a hotbed of vengeance. While it is important to utilise the many wonderful support groups etc I am reminded of that scene in the book where Ephraim Ragland unwittingly sets a chain of events in action by sharing his pain with a young apprentice blacksmith. Although he yearns to share his story, not everyone is a suitable guardian of personal confession and society can be as vengeful as the character of Henry Pervicale, who in many ways is within us all.

Ultimately, though, the book is one of hope and ends extremely positively and symbolically. I have no answers at all to the deep and troubling issues of addiction and prison reform. Nevertheless,  I hope that the book may act as a small light to one or two people (myself included) whilst raising money for a truly wonderful charity, much better placed than me, to make a difference to people’s lives.

The Pentonville Experiment by Lewis Owens is available from Amazon. All proceeds to The Forward Trust.