INSTALMENT NO. 4

Date of writing : 24/12/13  – around 10.30 pm

Hungry.  First time that’s happened really.  I’m not quite sure why this evening’s different, but I can’t stop thinking about the cheese & onion (or more likely ‘Mature Cheddar and some Awesome Kind of Onion’) Kettle Chips I left in my bottom drawer, next to the fridge.  I could eat the whole bag right now, and preferably wash it down with the best part of a bottle of painfully unsubtle and unnecessarily alcoholic Shiraz.  I thought it’d take less time for these cravings to kick in, so I should probably be grateful it’s taken this long. Maybe it’s because of the relatively light bean chilli and rice I had for tea.  It was tasty but I think I need to get myself some emergency snacks in the next canteen order.  Sadly, that means they won’t arrive for a week and a half.  I miss being able to pop out to the Co-Op.

Anyway, it seems it took only a few hours for my pad mate to be replaced.  So much for a bit of solitude over Christmas.  I came back from the Vigil Mass (quite good – I did a reading, had another mince pie) to find the lower bunk once again occupied.  This time by someone from my home county, by a strange coincidence.  (I’m not a native of this area).  That at least gave us some points in common to talk about.  He seems okay, fairly unobjectionable so far.  I think I’ll call him Kev.  Drinks a lot of tea – out of boredom, he says.  Turns out there’s a use for all those tea bags and packets of whitener I’d been collecting.  So far his taste in TV seems as bland as the others.  Let’s see how early he decides to switch it on in the morning ….

Date of writing : 25/12/2013 – around 11.30am

Happy Christmas.  Well, I was woken this morning by echoing talk of breakfast.  As a treat today we got a cooked breakfast, with bacon, sausage, hash brown, beans and a boiled egg.  As a double bonus, I was one of the first to get to eat it because I had to be in chapel in time for the service.  That seems to have nicely offset my hunger from last night.  I’ve saved the boiled egg for a snack, but I have a feeling it may not end up being the nicest I’ve had.  Still, gift horse and all that.  Now I can hear the sounds of people being let out to get lunch, so I’m anticipating the next meal already. It seems I’m writing a lot about food lately – I guess that’s because it can be one of the more interesting things that happen in a day.  <off to lunch now:)>

13.30-ish  I’d say that was good enough for me!  Surprisingly high quality, and I have that uncomfortably full feeling, required on Christmas Day to know you’ve slightly overdone it … and I haven’t even eaten the mince pie yet.  Had a little doze, then a bit of a wander round the yard while Rod talked at high speed about his designs for a quadrocopter.  Could be a worse Christmas day – although obviously there are plenty of places I’d rather be.  But I try to bear in mind there are also a lot of places I’m glad I’m not. 

Self-pity is an easy trap to fall into when there’s not much else to think about;  to focus on what was, on mistakes of the past, or on negative predictions for the future, can almost be a comfortable default position.  A large amount of energy seems to be expended by inmates in just complaining about the situation in here.  People protest about the food, the staff, about being locked up for too long, and about getting no response to forms they fill in – just about anything you can imagine.  Whilst most of the complaining does have a valid basis, something seldom realised is that it achieves nothing;  repeatedly kicking your cell door isn’t going to resolve staff shortages or get your problem dealt with more quickly.  In fact, this is a clear example of a counter-productive response, as it just irritates others.  But the same is true of simply complaining – it winds you up, spreads negative emotion, and again, gets you nowhere.

But please don’t think I’m claiming to be some kind of silent, long-suffering saint.  I’ve done my fair share of grumbling, and sometimes I can certainly slip into self-pity.  The important thing for me is to be aware of self-pitying thoughts when they arise, and to recognise unproductive complaining when I start to do it.  That way at least I have a chance to avoid wallowing in, or amplifying, the negative.  But trying not to do something is actually quite difficult if you have nothing else to do in its stead.  So what’s the alternative?  I’ve found gratitude is the antidote to self-pity, and cultivating acceptance helps to avoid the desire to complain.

At the end of each day I make a list of all the things that have happened that day for which I should be grateful.  They don’t have to be big things – in fact, most of the things that seem to matter in any given day are small things.  Today, I woke up to a cooked breakfast, in a place where my material needs are met (if sometimes slowly) and my health is looked after, and the worst thing I had to face was a little boredom.  I spoke on the phone with my parents, and with a good friend who has continued to support me.  I had a decent lunch followed by a little nap and a walk in the afternoon sun (albeit in circles).  I’m now half-watching a fairly bland string of soaps whilst occasionally exchanging comments with a generally unobjectionable chap, and thinking I might have a cup of herbal tea.  When I put it like that, it really doesn’t sound so bad does it?  The truth is, the daily reality is just that – not so bad – and every day, I only have to live through that one day.

Of course, that’s not to say I can simply ignore the massive issues of the wider picture.  This is where the acceptance comes in.  Every day, at least twice, I make sure to remind myself of the Serenity Prayer.  It’s an old one, based on an even older and longer-winded text, and it can sound a little trite I guess, but it does have substance.  It goes like this:  “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference”.

In here, there is very little I can change, particularly about things that have happened in my past, nor about the ongoing legal process, or my eventual sentence.   I can work on myself, to try to deal with the wrongdoing that got me here, and to do what I can to make amends to those people I have hurt.  As for the multitude of things I can’t change, I have two choices;  either to freak out with anger, resentment, denial and fear, or try to find serenity in acceptance. 

Again, please don’t imagine that I see myself as some kind of Buddha on my bunk.  Part of the reason I’m writing this is to remind myself of the truth of it, and to put my aims down as words on paper.   I’m realistically going for progress rather than perfection.  Yoda said “Do, or Not: there is no Try” (I really am pulling from all the philosophies here!) and I think I know, sort of, what that means.  When I become aware that I’m slipping – as inevitably I will – into unhelpful thought patterns or behaviours, I must simply take the right action to get back on track.  Looked at in that way, to “Try” starts to sound like an excuse for half-measures.

Well, I’m very aware that I’m now starting to sound a bit like a self-help book, so it may be a good time to round this off.  (Michael Jackson is on the TV going through rehearsals for an epic concert series that was tragically never to be, and it’s getting towards the time to retire to my bunk.)  As I’ve said, there are many worse ways I can imagine having spent a Christmas Day – even if there are better ways too.  I need to keep grounded in being thankful for the things that I have. 

Date of writing : 26/12/2013 – about 14.30

“Shoulda put the Glock down, now they got me on lockdown” – in the immortal words of Cypress Hill  … something seems to have gone down on the wing, and nobody will tell us what.  All we know is there was quite a bit of noise and commotion as people were being let out in phases to get lunch, and suddenly the alarm was going and there was a call for “ALL AWAY!”  – cue an unusually large number of POs shutting doors and a lot of serious faces.  We were eventually let out, only a handful at a time, to find about a dozen POs between our cells and the servery, all looking very severe.   I asked one of my vague acquaintances on the servery what had happened, and he said he was sworn to secrecy ‘while this big guy [a PO] is standing next to me’.  Finally, it now sounds as though we’ll be let out again, so maybe I’ll find out what the problem was …

… sounds like an over-reaction – bit of a fight between two guys, some blood on the stairs, took 15 POs to sort out for some reason.  We’ve just been let out for exercise, which turned out to be marginally more fun than usual.  Saw the guy with an old black eye (just starting to fade) with a nice bit of laceration on the other cheek held together with butterfly stitches.  I gather it was his blood on the stairs.  Don’t know how the other one came off, but I guess he’s probably on The Block.  Anyway, someone sneaked a ball out to the yard – well, I say it was a ball, but it was actually a surprisingly dense bundle of socks.  We’re not meant to take anything out, even tobacco, or anything to cover the head.  Of course, like all the other rules, this one is ignored.  (I even smelled the obvious scent of weed-smoking out there today.  The POs must notice too, but I think sometimes it’s more trouble to them than it’s worth.)  At first, someone just dropped the ball to see what would happen.  In the swirl of the anticyclone, someone decided to give it a tentative kick.  When no reaction was observed, the kicks became less tentative until it turned into a general kick-around.  It seems they don’t really mind so long as things are kept in good humour.  It doesn’t sound like much, I’m sure, but it did cause quite a lot of laughter – the tentative and mildly illicit nature of the fun making it that much better.  However, still having no shoelaces I couldn’t really do a lot of kicking.

Written on : 28/12/2013 (afternoon)

Well, that was eventful.  It seems that much as I might have tried to keep my head down, I didn’t quite manage to stay below the parapet.  After an ‘incident’, which was mildly terrifying, I’ve been moved to a different wing for my own safety.  This was only after a relatively sleepless night, but I guess I can’t really complain because they kept me safe. 

So far, I think I like this wing, it’s much smaller – only three floors of about 30 cells (I’m guessing roughly 130-150 inmates, hard to say as I’m not sure of the fraction of single cells).  This means that when we’re unlocked, it’s the whole wing out at once.  Even better, there are chairs and tables dotted about, and I had the luxury of eating away from my cell at a table for the first time since I arrived.  I’ve been put in a cell with a chap of mixed origin, apparently partly West Indies and partly somewhere in Africa.  I’ll call him Ahmed.  He’s got the top bunk, which makes a change I suppose.  This wing is more modern (less than 10 years old I think) and if I’m not mistaken, I’ve a feeling the cells are very marginally larger.  I don’t want to measure it in case I’m wrong.  Main thing is that it feels bigger.  Ahmed seems fairly quiet, although I’ve a suspicion we may have different ideas about what temperature is ideal.  He seems a little ‘nesh’ whereas I’d almost always prefer to be too cold but have a good flow of air.  We’ll see how that works out.

We’re locked up after lunch right now, but I’m told this is unusual, and is due to the perennial staff shortages.  Apparently, the usual routine is to be unlocked for the majority of the day, which would certainly be an improvement from the previous wing.  As with most promises here, however, I’m taking it with a pinch of salt until it materialises.  I do feel generally better-off here – people seem to be looking out for each other more.  I was only out and about for perhaps an hour, but in that time maybe half a dozen people noticed and talked to me, including the Wing Insider – a kind of representative whose job appears to be to welcome new people and generally keep an eye on things from the inmates’ side.  I think all wings are supposed to have one, but this is the first time I’ve managed to identify him.  The PO who showed me to my cell was also unusually reassuring.  In all, I’m optimistic.

I’m on the ground floor, and I certainly can’t see as far from my window as I could before.  However, I can see something green, which is nice.  I’m looking out onto a bank of grass which rises at about a 45 degree angle to a height of around 12 or 15 feet from my floor level (after an approx. 8ft strip of concrete).  Beyond this is what I’m assuming is the original prison wall;  that is to say, we’re outside the rather forbidding brick structure which encompasses the original grounds.  I find that somehow comforting, even if in practical terms it means very little.  We have several fences around us instead, the outermost of which appears absurdly tall, reaching apparently close to the peaks of the rooftops beyond.  The exercise yard here is a more interesting shape, and beyond the fences there are poplars and some other trees difficult to recognise from a distance without their leaves…. (Number One:  The Larch).  One difference I’ve noticed is that I’ve heard and seen a few birds here already.  The call of a crow is a welcome reminder of countryside and a mental break from the monotony of razor wire and bare walls.

<later>  Well, we were out for much of the afternoon it seems, so that’s good.  Also got an hour or so of walking round the yard, which was only very vaguely watched over by a lone PO who was thoroughly engrossed in a book.  I’ve already spoken to more people here in one afternoon than I got to know in two weeks on the previous wing.  I can say that this place has the full cross-section of criminal society.  There’s a full range of ages – right up to the guy with ‘Back To The Future’-style hair and the most absurdly magnifying milk-bottle-bottom round spectacles I’ve ever seen, or the chap with an outsize cell featuring built-in shower and electrically adjustable bed (he walks with crutches and help).  At the other end of the scale there’s a ferret of a lad who can’t be much past 18;  he has a mouth he apparently can’t control and hints of a temper to go with it. 

People are on this wing for all sorts of reasons;  in many cases I think it’s simply that they have a huge metaphorical target painted on them that bullies just can’t resist.  I would say that I feel I might be able to fit in somewhere here, though it does seem that what we all have in common is that we don’t fit in with the bulk of the prison population for whatever reason.  There are certain assumptions made about those on this wing by those elsewhere, and we mostly avoid asking about each other’s offences, which is probably for the best.  But this bunch of misfits looks like a goldmine of interesting characters, many of whom probably have a lot to give. 

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