Book Review: Hard Time by Shaun Attwood

The shadow of Sheriff Joe Arpaio hangs heavy over this book. As head of the Maricopa County jail system in Arizona he has instituted programmes in which prisoners are fed ‘expired’ meat; are triple-bunked to house 800 in a facility originally meant for 360; and he boasts that it costs less to feed the inmates than the prison dogs. It was in this jail that Englishman Shaun Attwood lived for two years.

Attwood moved to America from Widnes in the early 1990s, and became a successful stock broker who organised raves and dealt Ecstasy as a sideline. A large sideline. By the time he was arrested, Attwood had stopped dealing drugs, and was trying to rebuild his life with a new girlfriend. In Hard Time, he tells of his two years on remand inside Maricopa County Towers Jail, and the things he saw.

What he describes is truly awful. There is a cockroach infestation so bad Attwood has to mummify himself in a sheet when he wants to sleep. The jail’s toothpaste is contaminated with a solvent found in antifreeze. Attwood has to unblock an overflowing toilet with his hand, in a cell without running water with which to wash it afterwards. It’s a cocktail of racial and homophobic violence, in which a single mis-step can lead to being ‘smashed’.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the men and women in this prison have not been convicted of any crime. In the eyes of the law they are still innocent, and yet they are forced into a system of casual brutality, which is recorded in faithful detail in Hard Time.

Attwood is a welcoming narrator, with a fast-paced, easy style. Although stylistically pedestrian at times, the things he describes are so fascinating and horrible that it is difficult to look away. Certain images will linger, such as Attwood on the phone to a girlfriend who is telling him about how she carries around “your sweaty T-shirt and Floppy [the Bear]” as a child molester is stomped into a coma behind him.

Despite the bizarre and frightening events, one cannot help but warm to Attwood, who took the opportunity of being in jail to read a lot, and to change the way in which he lived his life. His love for his fiancee and real shame at the trouble he caused his family shine through, and the violent and touching often nestle close to one another. Not many books can boast the line: “I’m going to have to mix the anti-fungal cream into my sweat… You drive me wild with your amazing beauty.”

Attwood strolls with year 10 students at Wolverley CE Secondary School, Kidderminster. Photo credit: The Shuttle

A minor criticism would be that, as the book progresses, larger chunks of it are taken directly from Attwood’s letters at the time, and repeat things he has already told us, or refer to things he has not. The end also seems sudden, without any real appraisal of his experience or hints as to what is to happen to him once he is moved from jail to prison after sentencing.

However, that aside, it is a moving account of institutional savagery, and a penal system that has become more of an industry, with inmates being exploited for profit, and kept inside for as long as possible to maximise that profit. Although Attwood is admirably measured in his response, everything he records is a blistering indictment on the system created by “the worst sheriff in America” and raises questions about how we deal with our own prisoners. This is a good read, and a valuable book.

£9.99 Mainstream Publishing

Shaun Attwood will be reading from his book ‘Hard Time’ in Stoke Newington on 23 August.  Click for Details

About Remi Makinde

Hackney Hive founder, publisher and contributor. Hackneyite and all round Girl Friday, who couldn't wait to leave Hackney and London behind her. After hitching her wagon in California, Texas, New Orleans for 18 years, and with a brief spell in Mexico, the prodigal daughter returned home. The big smoke is home for the moment, but she desperately yearns wide open spaces.

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4 Responses to "Book Review: Hard Time by Shaun Attwood"

  1. Odette  08/08/2010 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for this review, just ordered the book and looking forward to a good read. What an inspiring and interesting story by Shaun Attwood.

    Hackney Hive I love the way your site is shaping up as I have been following from the beginning.

    Reply
  2. Eric  03/09/2010 at 11:59 am

    While I commend Shaun Attwood on the changes he has made to his life, I don’t see how writing this book can be described as anything other than an opportunist, looking to cash in on his criminal activity. I also do not see what he intends to do about Arpaio, since he (Attwood) lives in England and is not allowed into the USA.

    It’s not like he was locked up in a SE Asian or South American prison. He was in the USA, it can’t be that bad.

    Reply
  3. shaunattwood  04/09/2010 at 10:34 am

    Eric,

    If you check my blog out, you’ll see I continue to expose the Maricopa County jail and Arizona Department of Corrections conditions to a mostly US audience, by posting the letters and stories from people still incarcerated. It’s my hope that the book will outrage more Americans and contribute to the conditions for the prisoners getting improved.

    http://jonsjailjournal.blogspot.com/

    Reply
  4. Eric  15/09/2010 at 4:33 pm

    You are flogging a dead horse. Do you think people in America care? From what I read most of them are behind the Sheriff, and would even vote for him to run the country. Your blog is there for people who are fascinated by prison life stories and read it for its voyeuristic value. I also notice that you moderate all your comments and will not approve a comment that does not agree with you, so what’s the point.

    Admit that you are only trying to create a high profile career and lifestyle for yourself and not pretend you are some crusader for prison rights.

    Reply

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