Writers Behind Bars

We all wonder where authors get their ideas from. Some have used their experiences behind bars as inspiration for their works, while others wrote to occupy their time.

Check out these 10 writers who spent time in prison for a variety of different crimes.

1. Miguel de Cervantes

Author of Don Quixote, Miguel served time in prison three times! First, as a captive of the Ottoman army for five years. Then he was jailed twice more in 1557 and 1602 due to financial difficulties.

Though his novel Don Quixote wasn’t written in prison, the idea could certainly have started there…


2. Jean Genet

Imprisoned in the 1940s for a list of infractions including theft, vagabondage, and forging documents, Jean began work on Our Lady of the Flowers. He wrote it first on the brown paper that the prisoners were given to manufacture paper bags, but one of the guards found the project and destroyed it! Rather than be put off, Jean merely started all over again.


3. Sir Thomas Malory

Le Morte d’Arthur was reputably written by Sir Thomas Malory, and based on the records, he was originally a gentleman and Member of Parliament who turned gangster. Jailed on more than one occasion for robbery, rape and kidnapping, Malory managed to escape twice, including by swimming across a moat! He wrote the famous tales of Le Morte d’Arthur whilst awaiting trial between 1468 and 1470.


4. Daniel Defoe

The famous author of Robinson Crusoe was notorious in his own days too, for being a political pamphleteer. Arrested and given a large fine as a result, he was imprisoned twice more during his lifetime for his political writings. Daniel Defoe unfortunately never benefited from the success of his writing, dogged by debts for the rest of his life.


5. Oscar Wilde

Celebrated for his works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde filed a criminal libel suit against his lover’s father, who then accused him of homosexuality. Wilde withdrew the case after the accusation but was then arrested, convicted of gross indecency and imprisoned for two years. During this time, Wilde wrote the letter ‘De Profundis’.


6. Marco Polo

Marco Polo’s travels to the far east in the 13th century are famously portrayed in novels and, more recently, on Netflix. But not many people know he was actually arrested in Genoa on his way back home. He was imprisoned for four years and told his stories to his fellow inmate, Rustichello de Pisa, who would go on to turn the tales into a book.


7. Anne Perry

The popular mystery novelist Anne Perry’s real name is Juliet Hulme, and at 15 she assisted in the murder of her best friend’s mother. She spent five years in prison in New Zealand for her crime and then moved to the UK. She released her first novel in 1979 and has been writing ever since.

8. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky was arrested in 1849 for reading and circulating banned political essays in Soviet-era Russia. Sentenced to death by firing squad, his sentence was changed literally last minute by the Tsar. He spent eight years chained in prison, considered to be one of the most dangerous of inmates. Following his release, he went on to write his classic novels including Crime and Punishment. His semi-autobiographical novel, The House of the Dead, was also written as a result of internment in a Serbian labour camp.


9. Dashiell Hammet

Author of The Maltese Falcon and many other crime novels, Dashiell Hammett was imprisoned in the 1950s for contempt of court. He was part of a group called the Civil Rights Congress, which was named a communist front group. Hammet refused to provide the government with the names of people associated with the group and served six months in prison as a result.


10. Chester Himes

Best known for writing If He Hollers Let Him Go and Cotton Comes to Harlem, Himes was sentenced to 20-25 years, but served seven and a half, for armed robbery. He wrote short stories whilst in prison, earning the respect of the inmates and prison guards there. Once released, he went on to have a successful writing career.