The exercise yard lies just below my window. Every day I pace around it 12 times before returning to solitary confinement. The King George V park in Bearsden, of course, does not resemble the interior of any jail and the restrictions on my liberty are minor in comparison to those who have been imprisoned down the ages.

Yet the true prisoner can surely offer the 2020 world of lockdown some lessons in how to endure, survive and even emerge stronger on the other side.

There is a necessary caveat to all this, of course. A wise man once told me that just because someone had a leg amputated did not mean that my skint knee would stop hurting. His message was that there were certainly people much worse off but that one had to attend to one’s one pain before properly helping others.

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It would be absurd to put lockdown on a par with imprisonment. It would be obscene to seek any sort of consolation in memories of concentration camps. But in trying to find an understanding of the plight of others one can surely learn the truth about oneself.

There is a lockdown culture that insists self-improvement must be gained during these times. This is the sort of preaching that demands one learns Mandarin Chinese while preparing toddlers for the Oxbridge scholarships, making a fully functional Hadron Collider from stray pieces of Lego and the leftovers of last night’s cottage pie.

All this strenuous preaching concerns a visible, material gain. The lessons from prison literature are more of an inside job. They show how people adapt to change and what it has taught them.

One stroll in the Bearsden exercise yard reminded this scribbler of those who had completed harder yards. There is a wealth of prison literature whether novels or memoir. They give an insight on education, hope, redemption and even a startling spirituality.

Education is a theme of Brendan Behan’s predictably rambunctious Borstal Boy. His innocence does not concern whether he was guilty or otherwise of participating in an IRA plot. Rather, it resonates with the naivety of a boy far from home who is thrust into a dangerous environment of violence and hatred from fellow prisoners and warders.

His consolations are reading and friendship. His softness of heart is never truly made hard. His obsession with the written word is confirmed. His later greatness as a writer is presaged by his experience on remand and in borstal and how he made it witty, chilling, personal yet with universal impact.

There are glimmers, too, of hope. This is the sentiment that sustains many a prisoner though it has to be matched with an acceptance of occasional despair. There is a shining quality of resilience and optimism in Papillon by Henri Charriere. There has been justifiable doubts about the authenticity of a work that seeks to be classed as autobiographical. But there are profound truths in Charriere’s account of his imprisonment on the French penal colony of Devil’s Island.

The sheer indefatigability of Charriere is inspiring and frankly astonishing. He shows that innovation and movement to a better world needs hope as its starting point.

Devil’s Island was also the destination for Alfred Dreyfus, the French captain who was wrongly found guilty of treason in a case that reeked foully of anti-Semitism. Prisoners of Honour by David Levering Lewis is a compelling study of dignity and bravery in the face of unremitting, dreadful injustice. It shows how a human being can withstand calumny and hold onto something essential inside. Dreyfus, of course, was the case that prompted the polemic of Emile Zola’s J’accuse and the best novel of Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy.

Dreyfus and Lewis also had a powerful influence of Erwin James’ Redeemable: a Memoir of Darkness and Hope. In an article in the Guardian, Jones remarks that Dreyfus “offers an inspirational lesson in integrity and courage. Before prison, I lived without both these traits”. He adds: “Dreyfus made me want to be a better person.” James, who was imprisoned for murder, has been released and become a writer.

This redemption, too, is found in the work of Edward Bunker. At 17, he became the youngest inmate of San Quentin after he stabbed a guard at a youth offenders’ institution. He spent a total of 18 years behind bars for a variety of offences. But he learned to write there and became a voracious reader. Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade nods to Bunker’s role in Reservoir Dogs but also argues that his redemption in life came through literature.

His No Beast So Fierce is a powerful, unsettling novel that quivers with much of the author’s resentment and angst at how he lived much of his life. His journey from crime was long and interrupted by offences but Bunker finally found an oasis of calm and some stability through writing and the money earned from it.

If most good prison novels and memoirs encompass despair, hope and redemption, then there are other works that encompass these traits yet exist on a higher plane. There is surely no better and unlikely hymn to the spiritual worth of gratitude than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Ivan has been sentenced to hard labour in a Siberian camp and the story relates the brutality of his day. The ending quietly but powerfully shows the restorative wonder of being thankful.

The spirituality of the Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela is obvious in the reading and in the observation of the statesman’s life after his release from 27 years in prison. His post-jail existence was devoted to tolerance without any hint of revenge. His reaction, forged in the crucible of awful circumstances on Robben Island, in particular, saved him from the debilitating effects of hatred towards his oppressors and helped calm a volatile political situation on his release. Mandela stands, with all his flaws, as an exemplar of how individual change can cause a beneficial ripple and influence wider society.

Perhaps the most potent works are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and the collected writings of Primo Levi. The latter can find no meaning in his experience in a Nazi death camp bar the lottery of survival and the power of routine, mundane evil. His work provokes thought if not understanding, because Levi’s experience transcends such facile comprehension. He does, however, provoke a deep desire for evil to be met early and individually.

Frankl, in contrast, finds a meaning in his experiences in concentration camps. This is controversial in itself. It is further compounded by controversy about Frankl’s role in the camps – was he a collaborator? – and his insistence on the individual having the freedom of choice on how to evaluate his experience. This comes perilously close to blaming the victims for their psychological stress. However, it is therapeutic in its notion of trying to find meaning in every moment. He achieved this amid the worst crime in mankind’s history.

This walker can therefore surely do so in a circuit around the Bearsden exercise yard.

Three for solitary

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A simply constructed short story encompassing Ivan’s day in a Siberian labour camp. It has brutality and humanity. It is a testimony to the capacity of man to find a way to survive and has an overwhelming sense of gratitude made all the more powerful for being expressed in desperate circumstances.

Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade by Edward Bunker

Memoirs of a Renegade is the real deal. Bunker lived the life of crime and did the time: 18 years in all. His story is a tribute to the power of literature and how it can lift one from the abyss. He eventually walked away from crime and into a life peppered with novels and appearances in films.

If This is a Man by Primo Levi 

This unflinching account of his existence in Auschwitz is detailed, stripped of any unnecessary emotion and thus brutally powerful. Levi is saying: “This is how it was. Make of it what you will.” A book that demands reflection.