Danny McAllister is the author of On Prisons: A Gaoler’s Tales, a book that explores some of the fascinating stories of men and women who live behind the walls of our prisons. Collected over the 27 years he spent working as a Governor and Director of High Security for prisons in England and Wales, the book is an incredible account of prison life from the 1980s to the present day. We asked him a few questions about how he has found writing his first book and what he hopes readers take away from On Prisons.
1. Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Glasgow and my family moved to Hampshire when I was a teenager. I joined the army and was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. I served with the army in many places around the world and enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I have a degree in Law and another in Psychology. When I left the army, I became a trainee governor in the prison service. I progressed, becoming a prison governor, an area manager responsible for groups of prisons and I was finally appointed to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Board as Director of High Security. In this last role, I was responsible for the direct line management of all high security prisons, for security policy in all prisons, for incident management in all prisons and counter terrorism in all prisons. Then I retired, and now I sleep nights. I am married to Sue, who has recently retired from being Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. We have two children, Daniel, who is a Senior Officer in the prison service and Tess, who is Head of RE in a large Welsh secondary school.
2. Tell us about the genesis of your new book On Prisons. What made you decide to share these incredible stories?
There were two main reasons for writing this book. Firstly, I wanted to clear my mind after thirty years of working in prisons as a governor and senior civil servant. Secondly, the prison service is short of many things but what we’re not short of is ‘experts’, ready to tell us what we’re doing wrong. I felt that, as someone who had actually worked in prisons for thirty years, day on day, I had something to add to this debate. I feel strongly that, if there’s a need for prisons – and there is – then the state must take absolute responsibility for this, our most severe sanction on our citizens. There is no place for incompetence or lax attention to detail but there is also, crucially, no place for private prisons operating for profit in the prison system. I wanted to say this, absolutely clearly.
3. On Prisons is your first book. What have you enjoyed most and what have you found most challenging about the publishing process?
I had no experience of the world of publishing and was pointed towards whitefox by contact with The Writers Practice. Throughout the process, which culminated in the publishing of this book, I have been grateful for and impressed by the professionalism of whitefox. What they said they would do, they did, and they did it when they said they would. I am not, naturally, comfortable with self-publicising and so the period post-publication (marketing, publicity, etc.) hasn’t come easily to me and I probably could have done more. Post-publication of this book, I was approached by BBC West Midlands, as I had governed a prison in that region, and this resulted in an interview, lasting an hour, being broadcast on the station’s lunchtime show. Other than that, my light has stayed mainly under my bushel!
4. Your book is garnering very positive reviews on Amazon. What do you hope readers take away from On Prisons?
First of all, I want people to enjoy reading the book and to find it interesting. Then, I want readers to reflect upon a commonly held belief that those in prison are ‘not like us’. I know, for a fact, that anyone can end up in prison, no matter what their status in life. I also wanted to open the prison gates so that people see the reality of what life is like for those inside, prisoners and prison staff. Prisons are part of the community and it is in the community’s interest to be informed and not just to get this information from the red-top newspapers.
5. What books and writers inspired you when writing?
I love reading and will read almost anything (except Science Fiction!). I particularly like biographies and autobiographies. My favourite authors are legion, from Thomas Hardy to George MacDonald Fraser. I didn’t consciously think of any author when writing On Prisons but I suppose we absorb good writing throughout a life of reading. Since finishing On Prisons, I have had my second book, People of a Village, accepted for publication. Unlike On Prisons, which is wholly factual, this is a work of both fact and fiction about the people who inhabit a small village. It could be any small village, in England, throughout the history of the village. I have just completed my first novel, Interrupted Lives, and I am looking for a publisher for that. So, my three books to date have been one work of non-fiction, one semi-fictional and one wholly fictional. I have taken to the world of writing and plan to continue enjoying it for a long time yet.
You can listen to Danny’s interview for BBC West Midlands on 8th May here.
On Prisons: A Gaoler’s Tales is available now.