Brit Meets Mobsters, Other Convicts While Serving 'Hard Time'

Shaun Attwood is a Brit who came to America, Arizona specifically, to seek his fortune and ended up getting busted for selling drugs. He spent a couple of years in one of America’s toughest jails—the one run by who else but the self-described toughest sheriff in America, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.

Mobsters, Aryan skinheads, bikers, transvestites and assorted other colorful criminals would soon count among his friends. You probably don't know Shaun unless you have come across his superb blog, Jon's Jail Journal, where he detailed his experiences while on the inside.

The American release of his first and only book, which is based on his time in Arpaio's jail -- Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in America's Toughest Jail -- is set for May on, but you can buy a used British copy now off the site if you want. I wanted to, so I did (I'd been reading his blog for years. One of the highlights is his deep friendship with an elderly, now dying, gangster who was serving life. There were some great stories about this guy, but I think we'll have to wait for the sequel to Hard Time, which only covers Jon's jail time, and not his prison time. It's in prison where he really met the characters, including more Mafiosi.)

True-crime buffs will eat Hard Time up like M&Ms.

Though you probably never heard of Shaun, chances are you know Arpaio from watching a couple of silly TV programs he launched--Smile, Your Under Arrest, or something like that, was the name of one of them, or if you watch Lockup and/or Lockdown, popular prison shows the American public can’t get enough of. Arpaio is best known for cladding inmates in pink boxers, feeding them green bologna and “red death” (he boasts the inmates are fed more cheaply than the police dogs) and opening Tent City when his jailhouses filled to capacity. Tent City is exactly what its name implies: a city of tents in the middle of the desert, where temps rise well over 100 degrees F in summer. A “Vacancy” sign hangs above the dusty mess.

Attwood came here, to the U.S. an educated Englishman seeking his fortune in finance—and he made it, beyond his expectations. Burned out, though, by the effort it took to salt away a million or so, he dropped out of the rat race and entered the Rave scene. Raves—a lifestyle based on loud music and prodigious amounts of ecstasy—requires its participants to still earn cash. When Shaun’s fortune ran out it he turned to dealing, bumping up at one point against Sammy Bull--or Sammy Rat would be a better descriptive--and almost went to war with the cheese-eating former mobster. Sammy's own pending problems are well known: He'd be busted for running a massive ecstasy ring, Graves' Disease set to devour his hair like his decision to turn against John Gotti would annihilate all his respect.

Shaun, arrested for some reason years after retiring from the rave scene and after he had refocused his life on day trading rather than dope peddling—takes us right into the cell. He does what the cameras can’t do -- takes us in the minds of killers and other assorted criminals and discusses politics and such, the juicy info no inmate with self-preservation on his mind would reveal on television. He paints vivid pictures and has a way with words. We feel the anxiety of jail life: dealing with fellow inmates (and strict racial laws that could get you killed), cockroaches, and I already alluded to the food. But Shaun sees the absurdity even in the most anxiety-provoking situations. I especially love the way he deftly portrays life inside the jail (where he is waiting for his trial; superstar Alan Simpson is his lawyer).

“A guard caught Sniper on his bunk with his fingers in his ass." (He says he was raped by his cellies and was checking the damage).

Then there is a Mexican who ran around yelling Spanish because he thought the cop who arrested him was undercover in the pod.

Then there is the white “shot caller” who tried to give up a brawl prematurely, before he suffered too much bodily harm, by attempting to verbally accept defeat and running away. He did this a few times, brawling and then running, conceding defeat. A new shot caller stepped up.

Helped by the novelty of his English accent, a childhood friend named Wild Man, and the exaggerated belief he was some kind of crime lord thanks to a high-profile article written about “English Shaun” and the “Evil Empire” he ran, Shaun overall probably had a slightly easier time than the average-joe inmates.

Attwood keeps a tight rein on his book. Driving the plot engine are: how will his arrest and incarceration impact his relationship with fiancée Claudia; and what will happen to him in terms of his ultimate prison sentence. The prosecutors want to put this guy away for life.

He has sympathy for his fellow inmates, too, some seriously ill, mentally and physically, and this book will shake you up in different ways.

Ironically, Shaun turned out to have strong writing skills, which prison brought out of him, and he managed to produce this book, which many will gobble up in only a few sittings. I hope we see more from Shaun. There at least has to be a sequel: the book ends with his departure from Sheriff Joe’s domain. Now he has to take us inside prison. Shaun – keep writing.