St Martin's Challenge

The Pentonville Experiment

Recently, I visited Halden Prison in Norway (see my article) which also fed into the research for my first novel. The Pentonville Experiment is a blend of fact and fiction drawing on prison and church archives, including authentic letters and documents from prisoners, staff and clergy. Yet it also raises important contemporary questions about the treatment of crime, alcoholism, mental health and the role of the clergy in the 175th year of the opening of the prison. Click here to purchase the book (as a paperback or in Kindle format).


*All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Forward Trust, a UK charity who help people break the cycle of addiction and crime.*


Synopsis and endorsements


Reverend Edwin Carlisle, vicar of St Martin’s Church, Ruislip, and former minister to St George’s Chapel, Windsor, is requested by the Home Office to mediate between the bitterly conflicting managerial factions within the newly opened ‘model’ prison, Pentonville. In order to assess the efficacy of separate confinement Carlisle decides to run a similar experiment of confinement and religious exposition on three of his most needy, drunken parishioners with the hope of providing them with rehabilitation. The three chosen individuals walk with Carlisle on their own journeys of inner turmoil and addiction.


Is there anything redemptive about solitary confinement? Can a religious outlook on life aid in recovery from addiction? The Pentonville Experiment is an historical novel with a powerful contemporary message. The story is ultimately one of hope, transformation and triumph. It not only delves poignantly into questions of criminality, suffering, addiction and prison reform, still relevant 175 years after the opening of Pentonville, but also anticipates the largely unexamined heritage of Alcoholics Anonymous, believed now to have 2 million members since its inception in 1935.


“Lewis Owens has written a gem of an historical novel. It is meticulously researched, elegantly written and theologically challenging. The colourful characters are portrayed with the skill of a latter-day Dickens. As a current chaplain at HMP Pentonville I was captivated by the book’s 19th century themes of addiction, alcoholism, hopelessness and the pressures for prison reform - still all too topical in the 21st century. The authentic plot races to a thrilling, chilling literary climax. I could not recommend The Pentonville Experiment more strongly." Jonathan Aitken.


“Lewis Owens has written an inspiring and compelling account of the importance of grace, mercy, and understanding that too often eludes the criminal justice system in a range of countries and cultures. His creative imagination enables him to provide us with finely etched characters whose visibility is enhanced by his detailed knowledge of the historical and moral context of his narrative. Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Director of the Mahindra Humanities Centre, Harvard University.


“ ‘The Pentonville Experiment’ by Lewis Owens is a fascinating, intelligently-written and moving historical novel about the complex interweaving of prison, addiction and religion. With all proceeds going to a relevant prison charity, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.” Gyles Brandreth, writer, broadcaster and Honorary President of the Oscar Wilde Society.


“This is a highly compelling, thoughtful and smartly-plotted novel, which builds to a gripping crescendo, while addressing a range of issues including sin, repentance and moral fragility, with both power and nuance.” Dr Ben Crewe, Deputy Director, Prisons Research Centre, University of Cambridge.


“A lovingly researched and evocatively written fiction about the ‘Pentonville experiment’ in which Lewis Owens asks some provocative questions about the role of punishment, the nature of sin and the malign influence of intoxicating drinks!” Dr Yvonne Jewkes, Professor of Criminology, University of Bath.


“An attractively and evocatively written fiction, and an intriguing examination of moral questions around penal policy, punishment and rehabilitation.” John Leman Riley, author and critic.


“A compelling historical novel of one man's vision of morality through reform and rehabilitation rather than punishment and deterrence.” Faith Spear, prison commentator and criminologist.