First-timer Frankie Owens has written the book he wishes he had been given to help him serve his time in jail
Ignorance and naivety often exacerbate the trauma that many people experience when they are sent to prison for the first time. Immediate concerns might range from where to get a stamp for that first letter home, how to make purchases from the "canteen" (the prison shop), information about the visiting days (times/frequency), who to ask for help to use the telephone, or, simply, when may be the safest time to visit the showers.
The earliest days are the most precarious. With any luck you might get "twoed up" (to share a cell) with an old hand who will show you the ropes and keep an eye on you until you find your feet. Otherwise you're on your own. At least you would have been, until Frankie Owens decided to write The Little Book of Prison, a survival guide for those at the mercy of Her Majesty's pleasure for the first time.
"I wrote it to try to make some sense of my own situation," says Owens, 38. "Being sentenced to prison for the first time in my life was a shock, but the reality of prison life was a bigger shock. That first day was just a blur of wondering what was going to happen next. I remember sitting with two other first-time offenders in reception and they were shaking like a leaf."
Owens spent four months in custody on a number of charges including witness intimidation. He was released last August. Brought up in a loving, industrious family (his father ran holiday camps, his mother was a full-time parent), he graduated in hospitality and catering and went on to hold senior positions in the industry. A high achiever, the catalyst for the father of three's downfall was his separation from his wife followed by a seven-month "hyper-manic bender", of drink and drugs. He was drinking 30 units of alcohol a day and snorting five grams of cocaine a week.
The most surprising thing he found inside was the availability of drugs, he says. "That was unbelievable. So many of us were in there because of substance abuse, yet it was probably easier to get hold of in there than it was outside." Owens used his time to get sober.
What did he find the most difficult? "I had a new cell mate who was estranged from his father and wanted to contact him to make up. I encouraged him to write his father a letter, helping him with spelling and punctuation. He was out in a few days and was going to post the letter then. But the next day there was a knock on the cell door and it was the chaplain to tell my cell mate his father had been found dead. When the cell door closed it was just him and me."
How does he think his book will help people? "Well, it's a dos and don'ts guide, which I wish I could have been given when I first went in," he replies. "I hope it helps to make people smile in dark times ? and I hope it helps families and friends that are left behind when a loved one goes to prison."
Does he have one essential piece of advice for anyone about to go to prison? He laughs. "Ride out your bang-up and try and think of it as an opportunity to make your life better."
? The Little Book of Prison: A Beginner's Guide, priced ?8.99, is published by Waterside Press on 20 February