Jimmy Boyle - A Sense of Freedom (1977)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
This is one of the most important books ever published about crime and punishment in Britain. A Sense of Freedom is the autobiographical account of how a boy from the Gorbals grew up in the gang culture of the 60s to become 'Scotland's Most Violent Man', of how, when convicted of murder, the prison system tried every tactic fair and foul to break him and of how, eventually, through his art and rehabilitation and thanks to the courage and vision of some officers and politicians, he helped prove the case for prison reform. There have been many fictional versions of gangland Glasgow, but this is the real thing. Boyle's description of how he took the first steps to becoming the hardman of the streets, is riveting and disturbing.
The timing of the story is important. In 1967, Jimmy Boyle was the first high profile figure to be convicted of murder after the death penalty was abolished. Scottish prisons suddenly had to deal with people sentenced to life imprisonment; young men who felt that they had nothing to lose, some of whom resolved to take on the system. There followed five years of extreme confrontation with riots, vicious assaults, prolonged solitary confinement, dirty protests, punishment cells, cages and brutality on all sides.
In the end, the system realised it couldn't cope and the Special Unit - an experimental prison inside a prison at Barlinnie - was the result. Boyle's account of when he arrives at the unit and is trusted with a pair of scissors is mesmerising and a moment which transformed his life completely. Sadly, the public, the media and too many politicians still have not got the message that prison generally does not work. They should read this book.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.