CRIMINAL: How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All

CRIMINAL: How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All

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By Angela Kirwin

A compelling journey inside the broken English prison system by a former social care worker.

“The first thing you notice about prison is the smell: stale smoke and sweat and sometimes incense and sometimes weed and crackpipes. It smells of hundreds of years of sadness and desperation and anger and hurt and depression and anxiety. It smells of defeat. It smells of grown men who gave up caring about themselves long ago, if they ever did.” 

Every year, we spend billions of pounds on a system that fundamentally doesn't work.

For over a decade, former social care worker Angela Kirwin worked in some of Britain's most notorious prisons. Now she wants to tell the stories of the men she met, because she believes that prison is failing everyone, damaging the most vulnerable people in our societies, creating habitual criminals, leaving us all less safe and contributing to a society that is immeasurably less humane.

Rather than a separate world full of people that aren't like us, prison is where the most damaged and vulnerable people in our society end up and we all need to urgently care about that, so we can change it. Because the state of our prisons is criminal.

Angela uses individual prisoners’ stories as case studies to expand on the reasons why prison is failing all of us, especially those who are the most vulnerable in our society and who disproportionately fill our prisons. Taking in issues of race, economic deprivation, mental health and homelessness, this is an agenda-setting book, which reframes our understanding of prison and explains why we all need to care about it.

A viscerally powerful and intellectually rigorous examination of what prison is supposed to be for and what happens in real life, CRIMINAL is a journey inside prison like no other.


Angela Kirwin grew up in Manchester and qualified with an MSc in social work. For over ten years in the social care sector, she worked with hundreds of people with criminal convictions both inside prison and out in the community. Her work on substance misuse and mental health was praised in Her Majesty's Prison Inspections and she went on to secure a Research Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to investigate the criminal justice systems of America and Norway. She has lectured at the University of Bristol on the topics of substance misuse, mental health, homelessness and trauma-informed care. She left the prison estate in 2016. Angela Kirwin is available for interview and to write pieces.


Praise for CRIMINAL by Angela Kirwin

‘A brilliant, heartfelt, deeply moving and utterly enraging account of life inside Britain’s failing prisons system. The chasm between the political rhetoric of ‘Prison Works’ and the reality of a system shredded by austerity is growing ever wider and this book from someone who has worked on the frontline should act as a wake-up call for radical change. We are wasting billions on perpetuating failure, making rehabilitation harder than ever, destroying lives and contributing to crime rather than bringing it down’ Alastair Campbell

‘A funny, heart-breaking and utterly authentic journey inside prison. Everyone needs to read this book’ Dr Amanda Brown, author of The Prison Doctor

‘Compelling, urgent and devastating. CRIMINAL tells the stories from within our prisons that many - not least those in power - would rather went untold. How we treat the vulnerable, the broken and the irredeemable defines our humanity. Angela Kirwin’s heartbreaking, beautifully rendered true-life tales forensically expose uncomfortable truths about how we order our society, how we relate to each other, and what we must change. A triumph.’

The Secret Barrister

‘A breath-taking account of the UK's crumbling prison system. Kirwin’s wealth of experience matches insight, moral clarity, compassion and the ability to find humour and hope in even the darkest of corners. Deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as The Secret Barrister as an unflinching breakdown of how our criminal justice system is failing society. Every politician and decision-maker involved in our prisons should be placed on 23-hour lockdown and made to read this book.’ Nick Pettigrew, author of Anti-Social 

‘Fascinating and necessary, Criminal is a deeply humane look at an often inhumane system'

Sarah Langford, author of In Your Defence

‘Moving, informative, and terrifically readable, Angela Kirwin powerfully puts the case for a fundamental rethink of our failing approach to crime and punishment.’

Andrea Coomber QC (Hon.), Chief Executive, The Howard League for Penal Reform

‘A vibrant, authentic and shocking personal account that blends heart-breaking stories with heart-stopping stats. There is no ignoring this book. Every member of society should read it because a failing prison system fails us all’ Janice Hallett, author of The Twyford Code

‘Compassionate and transformative. Unlike any portrayal of prison I've ever encountered. One of those books that if it gets into the right hands will genuinely make a difference’

Evie Wyld, author of The Bass Rock

‘A beautiful book - honest, necessary, humane, funny and howlingly furious. The UK justice system is beyond broken and within that system, our prisons magnify everything that is cruel, expensively pointless, unjust and wilfully destructive in what passes for public policy. Kirwin describes the UK's squalid mass incarceration obsession with aching clarity, revealing it for what it is - a mechanism that produces suicide and reoffending, broken minds, broken communities and broken lives. Our prisons are criminal indeed’ AL Kennedy

‘This highly engaging and accessible book - combining both revealing memoir of working in criminal justice and insightful commentary on it - deserves to be very widely read. It brings vividly to life what decades of research have also demonstrated: Criminalisation, as we practice it, does more harm than good, delivering or exacerbating injustice rather than justice. As Criminal makes abundantly clear, it's time for a radical change of approach’

Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow

‘This is an astonishingly powerful and authentic portrait of today’s fatally flawed prison system. Angela Kirwin writes compellingly and researches meticulously. She weaves together her eyewitness narrative and her reforming zeal into a compelling story which should shake our national conscience’

Jonathan Aitken

'Criminal reveals the painful truth of a justice system in disarray, a prison estate not fit for purpose and its damaged population within its walls. Skilfully written and a credible read’

Faith Spear, The Criminal Justice Blog

‘Criminal brings readers a well-grounded and well-written insight into what is really happening behind the walls of our prisons. The state of the prisons in England and Wales is worsening by the day. Her first-hand account is a clarion call for the public at large to insist on better approaches to crime and punishment’