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Tony Levy 

The Autobiography of Tony Levy 

Reviews by the Famous and well Known

Autobiographies of serving, or former, prisoners are a staple of the “true crime” genre and can trace their origins back to the picaresque novels of the 18th century; the exemplary confessions contained within the Newgate Calendar; and even execution broadsheet pamphlets which were distributed on “hanging days”. Some recent contributions to the genre – which is now so well established as to have a number of sub-genres to differentiate, for example, “straights” accounts of prison from those of the “cons” - would include Ruth Wyner’s (2003) From the Inside, Noel Smith’s (2004) A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun , Erwin James’s (2005) A Life Inside and Smith’s (2008) most recent work about his time at HMP Grendon called A Rusty Gun: Facing Up to A Life of Crime.
This obvious market for books describing prison conditions by former prisoners has not been replicated by Prison Officers offering us their views on prison life. In common with an historic academic neglect of prison staff more generally, there is a comparative dearth of prison officials who have put pen to paper and that small number who have done so have tended to be of a senior rank. For example Professor Andrew Coyle (1994) wrote about his time as a Governor in Scotland and England in The Prisons We Deserve; the former Director General of the Prison Service Derek Lewis (1997) described his period of office in Hidden Agendas: Politics, Law and Disorder; and so too the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Ramsbotham (2003) gave us his view about prisons in Prisongate: The Shocking State of Britain’s Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change. Interestingly, despite the unique access and authority of their authors, these two latter books suffered from the same process of official denial that prisoner autobiographies routinely experience. Nonetheless, Coyle, Lewis and Ramsbotham all had something powerful to say about the management of our jails and how that management was often shaped by the broader political process.
While this is of interest, neither Coyle, Lewis nor Ramsbotham could tell us very much about what it means to be a Prison Officer, patrolling the landings on a day-to-day basis and how the nature of imprisonment might be shaped by small, seemingly banal decisions, routines and relationships between the basic grade Officer and the prisoner. This is a serious omission, for as Liebling and Price have put it, Prison Officers play a “peacekeeping” function in our jails which they feel has allowed them to become the “human face of the Prison Service”. As such “the role of the prison officer is arguably the most important in the prison,” (Leibling and Price, 2001: 191). Indeed there has of late been a growing academic interest in Prison Officers (Leibling and Price, 2001; Crawley and Crawley, 2008), which has uncovered a working culture that sees itself “as part of an unvalued, unappreciated occupational group. Their understanding is that they are regarded by the public as unintelligent, insensitive and sometimes brutal, and that their work is perceived as entailing no more than the containment of society’s deviants and misfits,” (Crawley and Crawley, 2008: 134).
What would appear to have been missing from all of this are accounts provided by Prison Officers themselves who, in comparison to their charges, have been loathe to put pen to paper. But of late, and for no apparent reason – just like busses – along came Jim Dawkins (2005) The Loose Screw, Robert Douglas (2007) At Her Majesty’s Pleasure and “Ronnie Thompson” (2008), Screwed: The Truth About life as Prison Officer. Taken as a group, these three autobiographies (the latter of which was written under a pseudonym by – at the time – a serving Prison Officer), cumulatively cover the period 1962-2007, with Douglas describing his work at HMPs Winson Green and Durham, Dawkins at HMPs Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Belmarsh, and “Thompson” (who has since left the Prison Service to pursue a writing career) at a prison he names “HMP Romwell”, but which is in reality HMP Pentonville.
Each of these books had a specific audience. “Thompson” was clearly writing for a “lads’ mag” readership, with his stories of clubbing, drinking and pervasive acts of random violence. Indeed his book opens by name-checking a number of bands, such as Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs, and he is at pains throughout to point out that he is a “normal bloke, with normal values,” (Thompson, 2008: 13). Dawkins, on the other hand uses his book almost as a confessional and ends his Introduction with the observation that writing a book was “not bad for a ‘drunken, tattooed, penniless wanker’, eh dad?!!” So too his autobiography has a Foreword written by the serving prisoner Charles Bronson. Bronson also appears on the front cover, neatly subverting the tradition of the genre of prisoner autobiographies to have such a Foreword written by an academic or senior criminal justice official. Unsurprisingly, Dawkins’s book can also be read as a polemic to have Bronson released from jail. Finally, Douglas – the most polished of the three writers - uses his time as a Prison Officer to bring the trilogy of his life history up to date. As such At Her Majesty’s Pleasure is the third of Douglas’s books which trace his life from growing up in Glasgow after the Second World War in Night Song of the Last Tram: A Glasgow Childhood, and its sequel detailing his time in National Service called Somewhere to Lay My Head. This trilogy can be read within the tradition of “misery memoirs”.
Now we have Tony Levy’s A Turnkey or Not? concerning his “25 years as a Prison Officer in Her Majesty’s Prisons”, which started at HMP Pentonville in 1983, and ended with Levy taking early retirement while working as a Principal Officer at HMP Grendon in 2008. Along the way, he encounters Bronson at the Special Unit at HMP Woodhill – a post, I should acknowledge, that Levy acquired as a result of my having promoted him (I appear on page 151). However, his autobiography has not been written to “bore” the reader with details about prisoners and there is, for example, no mention of “Razor” Smith who overlapped with Levy at HMP Grendon. Nor does he dwell on any violent encounters experienced during his career, but has instead put pen to paper “to share with the reader the more personal experiences I’ve had in the hope that they will entertain, rather than describe incidents that have probably been portrayed more dramatically and in greater detail by more accomplished authors,” (Levy, 2011: 206).
This is remarkably honest and refreshing, and neatly subverts in particular Thompson, who wants to portray Prison Officer culture as one long round of beatings and violence, drugs, sex offenders and celebrity cons. But what is it in particular that Levy wants to share with the reader? How does he make sense of a career spent locking others up? Perhaps the clue is in the question posed as the title of his book. Levy does not want to be thought of as someone who simply contained other people, but instead as someone who had personal values and work skills which could be used to set an example to others. Ultimately he became disillusioned with the Prison Service through his belief that - because of political interference and financial cuts – “there was no longer any substance to what we were doing, and no one really seemed to care what we were achieving or if we were reaching our goals,” (Levy, 2011: 216). In this respect his autobiography would confirm a number of academic findings which suggest that Prison Officers feel unappreciated.
However, there are many problems with the book. In particular, for all Levy’s criticisms of recent financial cutbacks and how this has created disillusionment among staff, he suggests that his best years in the service were at HMP Pentoville in the early 1980s, and before “Fresh Start”. Yet, the very “personal experiences” that Levy wants to share with his readers about those days are almost all concerned with “Spanish practices”, and being an “overtime bandit”. These “Spanish practices” included, for example, being one of three Officers charged with producing a prisoner at Dover Magistrate’s Court, with two of the Officers dropping off the prisoner and then taking the ferry to France for the rest of the day on a “booze cruise”; staff feigning injury so as to be able to go on holiday on full pay; and, uncovering other staff who drank in the Officer’s club from ten in the morning and then slept it off in handily placed portacabins while they should have been on duty, (Levy, 2011: 46 and 51-52). No doubt this all helped to keep staff morale high, but it weakens Levy’s questioning of staff cuts and greater financial scrutiny.
Liz Stanley maintains that the stories recounted in autobiographies are “always in fact a gloss which, effectively, provides a theoretical account, composed of selections in and out and emphases which derive from and demonstrate the validity of a particular viewpoint,” (Stanley, 1993: 49). Levy’s viewpoint is that he was not a “turnkey” – that he had something to offer that was positive and worthwhile. He would have made this case much more persuasively if he had reflected more deeply on his time at HMP Pentonville.
* References:
J Bennett, B Crewe, and A Wahidin (2008) Understanding Prison Staff, Cullompton: Willan Publishing
Elaine Crawley and Peter Crawley (2008), “Understanding Prison Officers: Culture, Cohesion and Conflict,” in J Bennett, B Crewe, and A Wahidin Understanding Prison Staff, Cullompton: Willan Publishing, pps.134-152
Jim Dawkins (2005), The Loose Screw, Clacton on Sea: Apex Publishing
Robert Douglas (2007), At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, London: Hodder & Stoughton
Erwin James (2005), A Life Inside
Alison Leibling and David Price (2001), The Prison Officer, Leyhill: PSJ
Derek Lewis (1997), Hidden Agendas: Politics, Law and Disorder, London: Hamish Hamilton
Steve Morgan (1999), “Prison Lives: Critical Issues in Reading Prisoner Autobiography,” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 38 No. 3, pps.328-340
David Ramsbotham (2003), Prisongate: The Shocking State of Britain’s Prisons and the Need for Visionary Change, London: The Free Press
Noel Smith (2004), A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Noel Smith (2008), A Rusty Gun: Facing Up to A Life of Crime, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Liz Stanley (1993), “On Auto/Biography in Sociology,” Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 1, pps.41-52
Ronnie Thompson (2008), Screwed: The Truth About Life as a Prison Officer, London: Headline Review
R Wyner (2003), From the Inside, London: Aurum Press

David Wilson, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Former Prison Governor


THERE’S been a rising trend in recent years for notorious ex-cons to publish their gruesome memoirs, writes Henry Croft.

Across the country, those who have done ‘bird’ have been gripping readers with yarns of racketeering and drug-running among other crimes.

But now, thanks to an Eaton Bray man, these dastardly tales will be joined on the shelves by a book about life on the other side of the prison bars.

Family man Tony Levy, 60, of Wallace Mews, has published A Turnkey or Not?, a warts ‘n’ all account of his tumultuous career as a prison officer.

His work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service, which spanned a quarter-century, began, with vigour, at high-security HMP Pentonville in 1983 and ended, on a disenchanted note, at therapy-based HMP Grendon in 2008.

Yet, despite a changing environment which saw budgetary matters override human concerns, Tony says he remained unflinchingly faithful to his convictions

Said Tony: “I would never be a yes man and toe the party line.

“I am a man who cared, and even though my heart was sucked out of my job, I never lost my dignity or respect. Most importantly, I would never allow myself to be reduced to just a turnkey.”

Despite Tony’s fair share of volatile encounters, the book is not just a blow-by-blow account of peril and disillusionment.

Like prison officer Mr McKay in the TV show Porridge, the devoted warden told the LBO he experienced a similar batch of pranks and memorable characters.

He recounts one incident where he told his slippery governor, in front of a crowded pub, she was comparable to the tyrant Saddam Hussein.

He added: “Needless to say for the rest of my time at the prison she never spoke to me again!”

After leaving his job, Tony, who has two step-daughters and four grandchildren, took time to collect himself in sunny Spain, later returning to Eaton Bray when the economy went pear-shaped.

The warden-turned-author is hoping the book, which is his first stab at writing, will prove a breakaway success.

He said: “It was so exciting to get the book published. It’s almost surreal to see it in print.

“My friends and family are so pleased and they’ve been so supportive.

“I’ve been tracked down by colleagues – even those I haven’t had contact with for 20 years – who have read the book.”

Added Tony: “It’s all been a bit overwhelming!”

A Turnkey Or Not? is available from Amazon priced £7.49.

Leighton Buzzard Observer

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