The French novelist, playwright and poet, Jean Genet was what my late sainted father would have called “a thoroughly bad lot”. As a young adult, he seems to have spent more time in prison than out of it, and his provocative homosexuality scandalised France at a time when such activities were meant to be carried out behind closed doors. His 1944 novel Our Lady of The Flowers was written while Genet was yet again under lock and key, but such was its quality that the author attracted powerful admirers such as Sartre, Cocteau and Picasso. Genet was released and, while he never became the Gallic version of a National Treasure, he never went back to prison.
Closer to home, the seventeenth century political and religious rebel, John Bunyan, completed much of his epic Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress while festering in Bedford prison for his Non-Conformist views and antipathy towards The Church of England.
Roy Harper would not claim literary kinship with Cervantes, Wilde and Genet, yet he shares the unique kinship of living a life behind bars. He also writes, and after an exercise in smuggling manuscripts out of prison that merits a novel all by itself, his first book – Shank (Tool’s Law 1) – was published in May 2016. Let Henry Roi, of Crimewave Press, take up the story.
Roy Harper has been isolated for the safety of society. Bank robberies, high speed chases and gun battles with law enforcement are crimes most teenagers watch on television, but for Roy it was simply a way of life. He began stealing cars, running from cops in high speed chases, at fourteen; robbing banks and engaging police in deadly gun battles – in multiple states – at seventeen. “Maximum Security” are just words to him, no matter what state sentenced him to prison, or how many times, he escaped from them all. Even Parchman Farm’s notorious Supermax, Unit 32. His insanely daring escapes were highly publicized by national media, causing a public outcry that still echoes today.
The extreme transgressions against the United States Government – its law enforcement, correctional institutions and citizens in numerous states – culminated into four life sentences… with a few more decades added on for good measure. The Habitual Offender Act (popularly known as The Three Strikes Law) made the life sentences mandatory, and signaled the end of any chance of Roy being paroled as a free man.
Roy Harper (right) never murdered anyone, and the worst that ever befell those he encountered while on the run was to be shocked, and then accosted and harassed by reporters looking to sell the news as entertainment. Raised in Tempe, Arizona, Roy enjoyed exploring the desert and playing at gun fighting, and was fascinated by outlaw cowboys, the most infamous being Public Enemy No.1, John Dillinger.
Roy’s elementary school principal believed in, and was heavy handed in, corporal punishment. Roy didn’t share that belief. So, he was expelled when he was in the fourth grade. Soon after, he discovered that gun fighting was no longer “playing”.
By the time his teenage years were turning a boy into a man, Roy Harper’s misdeeds had ranged from stealing toucans from the Phoenix Zoo at eight years old, stealing cars by the time he was ten, escaping juvenile detention facilities at twelve, and sneaking out of his parents house at night to steal, run from the police, and lurk in the dark shadows fearful of the Boogeyman his mother warned him about. It was a moment of self realisation when it dawned on Harper that he probably WAS The Boogeyman.
You can get hold of a copy of Shank by following the link.
Learn more from the website of Crimewave Press
In part 2 of Books Behind Bars there will be an interview with Roy Harper,
a closer look at Shank, and an update on Harper’s current status.
Below is the notorious Parchman Farm,
and a blues written and played by Bukka White.