The Barlinnie Story by Robert Jeffrey is an informative and eye-opening read about one of the world's most notorious prisons. Most residents of central Scotland will only briefly and distantly glimpse Barlinnie as they travel through the east end of Glasgow on the M8 motorway. What Robert Jeffrey has done is bring Barlinnie grimly to life. In his introduction he says that "This Barlinnie Story is not a formal or indeed a chronological history of the prison it is an unofficial, sometimes idiosyncratic, attempt to chronicle some of the momentous events in the long and turbulent life of an establishment that is infamous worldwide. And an attempt to let ordinary Glaswegians... get a taste of what life was like down the years for prison officers... as well as for the men who festered there."
Robert Jeffrey succeeds admirably in his stated aims. The subject matter of the Barlinnie Story means that this book could never have been light or bright in tone, but it is highly accessible in approach, and no-one reading it will emerge without a much clearer understanding of the issues faced by those running, and imprisoned in, Barlinnie down the years, or without a much clearer understanding of some of the central issues facing the criminal justice system in Scotland and more widely. The author's approach has been to treat the prison itself primarily as the backdrop to the human stories that have been played out here for nearly 130 years. Yes, he does describe the origins, building and layout of the prison, but for the most part this is a book about people, which is exactly what it ought to be.
The book opens with an account of the riots that took place in Barlinnie in January 1987. The origins, partly within Barlinnie itself and partly in the desire of inmates to throw a bigger and better riot than had previously taken place in two other Scottish prisons, are explored, as are the events themselves and the aftermath. We then move on to look at the culture within the prison; the experiences of individual prisoners; the issues of overcrowding, cell sharing and slopping out. The prison's past then comes into play, and we look at the riot of 21 December 1934; the involvement of Parliament in Barlinnie's story; and the stories of the ten men executed at the prison. Particularly thought provoking is a detailed and balanced account of the controversial twenty year story of the Barlinnie Special Unit, a "prison within a prison" where a (sometimes successful) attempt was made to reform a small number of Scotland's most hardened criminals.