INSTALMENT 16 – “Corned Beef and Helicopters”

Date of writing : 10/02/2014

Ah, the joy of making the first marks on the first sheet of a new paper pad.  Small pleasures to be savoured.  Like the combination of peanut butter and ginger nut biscuits, which I just discovered works surprisingly well; or crunching on instant noodles without ‘cooking’ them, and just eating the MSG-liciuos powder from the little sachet; or the quiet glug-glug sound from a newly-opened port bottle as the first glass is poured.  (Probably won’t be hearing that for a while.)  But I’ve got my noodles.

Not having a default companion any more, I’ve found myself wandering the landings and branching out into new circles.  Several times now I’ve found my path crossing with Scott, the one responsible for adjusting Ahmed’s nose.  I wouldn’t exactly list him as a friend, but he’s certainly an interesting character.  He’s only just come off ‘Basic’ regime (no TV, very limited time out of the cell) after the Ahmed incident.  Last week – while he was still locked up most of the time – he started to kick off (literally – his door took a beating) demanding his half hour in the fresh air for the day.  Now, despite his behavioural volatilities, he is generally respected by the staff.  They know where they stand with him, as it’s all out in the open; he’s not exactly unpredictable.  So they gave the call for exercise, and let him out.

I noticed him outside from my cell window, having missed the call, and headed out, joined on the way by Simon, a relatively recent arrival who’s been having a hard time.  Once outside, I was slightly startled to find there were two people in the exercise yard, the second being Ahmed … That’s right, they’d locked him alone in the yard with the guy who’d thrown him a good punch just a couple of weeks before.  A fantastic example of joined-up thinking and information-sharing between the officers.  Thankfully, Scott’s attention span is too short to bear a grudge; he’d got the punch out of his system, and pretty much stopped thinking about it after that.  So Simon and I joined him in circuits of the yard, while Ahmed meandered aimlessly as usual, cheerfully ignored by Scott.

Scott likes to talk, and thankfully most of it is entertaining.  He’s had a chequered prison history, in and out of jails not only around the UK, but also in another relatively close European country.  One of his stories was about how he’d managed to evade justice there, ultimately by climbing out of the window of a bail hostel, taking some unconventional modes of transport to the airport, and flying back on his brother’s passport (his own having been confiscated).  The charges in that case were apparently not serious enough to pursue extradition, but he eventually got notice that he was barred form the country for five years on the threat of immediate imprisonment should he return.

The last prison he was in was a Cat. C, but he managed to get himself upgraded to a B by a bungled escape attempt involving a sports match and a friend on the outside throwing some bolt croppers over the fence.  He’s been caught with eight mobile phones in the last year, and at one point with a remote-controlled helicopter in his cell.  Apparently this is how one of the phones had been brought in … Of course, I only have his word for all of this, but it certainly makes for entertaining listening the way he tells it.  I’ve only put a selection of his tales here – he has many more, and I’ve not heard him repeat very much yet.

A few people here know I write a blog, and ‘Dick’ keeps asking if I’ve written about him yet.  (He chose his own alias … I think it’s supposed to be amusing.)  I sometimes hang around in his cell on the 3’s, as we get along pretty well.  Depending on how a number of things pan out, I could end up sharing a cell with him for a while.  I’ve resolved to stop trying to play pool against him though, as it’s getting embarrassing.  He spent most of Sunday at the table in a ‘winner stays on’ session, and towards the end he was actively trying to lose, but somehow still winning.  He’s on a relatively short sentence – out in August I think – but his cell mate, Marley, is a lifer.  His story is a tragic one whether he’s guilty or not, although to give details would risk identifying him.  I’ve met more prisoners here claiming a miscarriage of justice than otherwise, but in his case I can’t understand how the jury failed to see a reasonable doubt – unless there’s something big he’s not telling me.  He’s going to appeal.

My more recent wanderings got me talking to Gordon, the first openly gay man I’ve met in prison.  He’s the learning support assistant for numeracy and literacy, which is probably why I haven’t been given the job yet.  He’s also a pagan, and claims to be a spirit medium, which is …interesting.  I’ve found out his cell is something of a social hub, and that has also introduced me to another couple of openly gay men on the wing.  I have to say it can be entertaining in there, if camply predictable at times.  Anyone who knows me will be familiar with my tendency to pick up nearby objects and idly fiddle with them.  It took me quite a few moments of absent-mindedly leafing through a magazine I found on the side, before the proliferation of pictures of muscular men in tight pants drew my attention to its intended audience.  My raised eyebrows of realisation were the source of some humour.

There are many others I could introduce you to here, such as White Tyson, or Piotr the Pole, but I think that’s enough new names for one entry.  With the churn of persons in this prison, I never know who’s going to suddenly disappear, or what new faces there’ll be tomorrow.  We call the new ones ‘corned beefs’ because of the colour and mottling of the tracksuits handed out on arrival.  Some people stay only weeks, some have been here years.  It’s hard to say who’ll be firm friends in years to come, and who I will only remember by the aliases I give them here.  However, meeting them all is certainly an education.

INSTALMENT 15– “Workshop!” and “Goodbye Paul”

Date of writing : Wednesday, 05/02/2014 – “Workshop”

On Monday afternoon I was rudely awakened from my lunchtime nap by an officer calling me to go to the workshop.  As a remand prisoner, I’m not obliged to do any form of work, so I was slight taken aback.  Once I’d come round a bit, and he’d moved on to annoy the occupants of the next cell, I resolved to take no notice and proceeded to read my book (Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Shadow – quite hard to put down).  But then he came back!  I explained I was on remand and therefore didn’t have to work, but he seemed affronted by this and told me he’d have to put me down for ‘nil pay’, as though this news would surprise and/or distress me.  I said ‘erm…okay?’, and he still looked unhappy, but went away.

So I started to think about it a bit, and decided perhaps I should give it a go anyway.  There’s not much excitement around, and perhaps there’s more to the world of textiles than I might imagine.  So yesterday I heeded the call to labour and wended my way along to the workshop with two dozen others.  I did, however, take my book as I’d been told there might be little to do on our arrival there.

The textiles workshop is where the ill-fitting prison clothes are made, and I think they even get shipped to other prisons from here.  I’m not completely sure why, as I’ve seen T-shirts, trousers and towels bearing labels from across the country, yet I know that all those things are made here too.  Perhaps they just get mixed around with the flow of prisoners wearing them when they transfer between jails.  The mix does seem a little too homogeneous for that though.  Anyway, this week, we have mostly been making T-shirts.  Of course, I don’t know how to make T-shirts yet, so I was given some scraps and left to get the hang of the overlocking machine. Overlocking is fun.  First I made squares, then I made triangles.  Then I made a mobile phone case, an amusingly-shaped pocket, a pyramid, a teeny chef’s hat for a mouse, and a fortune cookie.  I decided that meant I’d probably got the hang of it, so moved on to some actual work.  DF was sitting at a machine nearby, and he showed me how to do what he’d been doing, which was working on T-shirt sleeves.

As you can probably imagine, the system is a production line of sorts, with each person having a small task to perform repeatedly, with pieces passed down the chain until there’s a complete T-shirt.  My job was to overlock the seams underneath the arms of the T-shirts.  I became quite good at it towards the end, and did maybe 150 in a couple of hours once I was up to speed.  This may sound boring, but once I got into the rhythm it became quite pleasant really.  I could sort of drift into a zone and let my mind wander in an almost meditative way.

Aside from the work itself, the environment of the workshop can also be entertaining.  The two staff supervising us really don’t seem particularly concerned by how fast people go, or even whether they’re working at all, so far as I can tell.  This gives ample opportunity for the childish playground culture of the under-occupied to flourish; somebody hid someone else’s mug, and the latter huffed around while others laughed until he eventually got it back.  Streams of insults were traded over the noise of the machines, until they finally reached the threshold of staff intervention (which took the form of further insults).  Some individuals just sulked and refused to do any work or wandered around with a broom pretending to be busy.  In other words, as I’ve said about so much else inside, it was a lot like being at school.

Perhaps you’re outraged that prisoners can actually be paid for such antics.  Maybe it sounds like wasting taxpayers’ money.  Well, maybe.  But somehow, the T-shirts get made, and the boxes get shipped.  At least prisoners are given the opportunity to keep occupied in a productive way, rather than watching Bargain Hunt.  And anyway, when we’re paid significantly less than £1 per shift, I’d probably say they’re getting value for money …

Date of writing : 07/02/2014 – “Goodbye Paul”

I hadn’t realised how comfortable I’d become with my cell-sharing situation.  Complacency is an unhelpful state of mind in prison, because just when you get used to something, one of the slow-moving cogs will slip and shake everything up.  It’s almost as though periodically we need to be reminded of our powerlessness and lack of real control.

This morning started much like any other; Paul ignored the 0815 call to labour and opted for going to the library instead, and I went along too.  I had some books to take back, and some printouts to collect (of PSOs and PSIs – I’ll write about them another time).  Thankfully, library visits are a lot more reliable on this wing, even if they don’t happen every time they’re supposed to.  Anyway not long after we got back, one of the more helpful officers – ‘Mr Butcher’ – came and called ‘Chicken!’ – (that’s the surname I just made up for Paul on the basis that I know it’ll wind him up, and his wife might read this) – ‘Chicken! We’ve been looking for you – pack your stuff, you’re getting shipped out.’  Within half an hour, Paul was off the wing and on his way to a Cat. C Prison.

Paul was my sixth cell-mate, and the one I’d been with longest.  We’d got into a rhythm; we had a routine.  I knew what to expect day-to-day, we knew what wound each other up, and tried to do it only to the extent it remained humorous.  We could argue constructively about the relative merits of films, share amusing anecdotes, and sometimes confectionery.  His wife even wrote to me a few days ago.  In short, I’d say we had become friends – more than just for the sake of convenience, or in passing acquaintance, but in a promising-to-take-me-out-for-a-curry-and-suggesting-I-might-stay-at-his-house-for-a-while-if-I-was-stuck-when-I-got-out, kind of way.  And suddenly we went from planning tonight’s TV to shaking hands and saying goodbye in the space of half an hour.  I’ve abruptly lost someone I’d come to take for granted as part of the background of this place, and I didn’t properly notice the space he was filling until it was empty.

Ok, perhaps I am being over-sentimental, and the pain of much larger abrupt losses is very much still there for me, but the suddenness does seem to have hit me a bit.  Perhaps part of that is because it got me wondering if it’s a microcosm for some of the other relationships in my past.  It’s a cliché that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’, but I think we all suffer from it to one degree or another.  I don’t often give instructions here, but just consider who you have in your life right now;  partner, flat-mate, friend – take a moment to notice the shape of the hole they fill in your life.  Now imagine that space without them in it.  Now go and do something nice for them, like bring them a cup of tea, or send them a text message. Don’t tell them why, just do something. Enjoy it.

But … as usual I’ve drifted off the subject again.  With Paul gone, I was suddenly given a practical problem.  An empty bunk doesn’t stay that way very long, and if past experience is anything to go by, it would likely be a matter of hours.  So, what to do … risk the roll of the dice and maybe end up with another Ahmed?  Or do I choose another person who is probably okay and fairly harmless but I don’t really know that much about?  I didn’t have much time, and I never have been very good at making decisions under pressure – I don’t enjoy it.  So, I chose the second option; I’d talked to DF a bit recently and I knew that would jump at the chance to leave Ahmed’s cell. I suggested he could move in, and so he has become my seventh cell-mate.

Dave the Wing Insider tells me the rumours surrounding DF’s nickname aren’t true, but I think the name has probably stuck for the purposes of this journal.  So far he seems fairly harmless, but I can’t help feeling that if I end up objecting to anything about him it will be my own fault for making an active decision.  However, I should probably let go of that, because a passive acceptance of the cell-mate lottery would surely have been just as much of a decision.  Yet somehow it feels different.  Brains are weird.

There’s a good chance I’ll cross paths with Paul again.  Once I’m convicted and sentenced, I’m likely to go to the same place, and he’s likely to still be there.  Geoff (of The Haircut) was shipped with him on the same bus, so I might see him again too.  I’m told it’s a good place to be, so I hope it’s a positive move for them.  Meantime, according to PSI 49/2011 Para. 2.24, correspondence between prisoners is generally allowed subject to the approval of both Governors.  How and indeed whether, this rule is applied remains to be seen.

INSTALMENT 14 – “ Pen Pondering”

Date of writing : 02/02/2014

I’ve probably written more words by hand in the last couple of months than I did in all of the ten years before that.  It’s just not what we do any more – ‘the written word’ has become ‘the typed word’, and people – myself included – groan at the thought of writing more than a Post-it note of text.  Perhaps this is as it should be; progress makes communication quicker and less of a chore; we can fire off an email the length of this paragraph and it can be received and read sooner than I would even have finished writing it by hand.  We take for granted the ever-growing array of methods to choose from; we text, we Facebook, we Tweet, and we Skype. Writer’s cramp is replaced by RSI and enlarged texting thumbs, or nimble Swyping fingers.

There are things I’ve discovered in the process of writing by hand.  I used to believe that the level of ink in the industry-standard ‘BIC medium’ was essentially static.  To witness a biro actually running out seemed to me to be something of legend.  The standard life-cycle of a disposable pen is this:  The shining new object is purchased, or more often taken from a box in the stationery cupboard (a place of the hole-punch and lever-arch file, of DL envelopes too numerous to count, a place filled with the promise of peeling back the paper on a brand-new packet of Blu-Tack; a place where dreams are made), and then used to tick some boxes on a form and possibly sign a name.  It is then placed on a desk, or perhaps in one of those things with different-length tubes, or if it’s very lucky, perhaps in a drawer.

What happens next is part of the mysteries of the Universe.  Like precision tweezers in an undergraduate laboratory, the humble pen has a ‘high vapour pressure’: given a little time it will evaporate.  That one on the desk?  Dave from IT needed it to make a note of your computer’s service tag, then wandered away with it.  The one you put in the tubey-thing?  Sarah from Accounts asked to borrow it when she was talking to Mike on the desk opposite (what even is his job, anyway?) and she forgot where she got it from and left it on his desk.  He took it to the photocopier and managed to leave it there while distracted by Sally from Reception.  The one in the drawer? Perhaps you might use it to fill out some more forms, but one day, you’ll forget to put it back.

With such a nomadic life, the BIC takes a battering.  They are passed from Paula to Pat, they fall from pockets, get down the back of desks, or are cast to the carpet tiles by Edna the over-enthusiastic cleaning lady and crushed beneath the castors of swivel chairs.  They are angrily discarded by Phil from Marketing after they leave their spreading stain on the pocket of his white shirt just before that presentation, they are chewed to oblivion by ‘nervous Nigel’ who works on the 3rd floor, or – perhaps saddest of all – they lie forgotten in that drawer, until their micron-tolerance finely-machined rolling parts become so dried that they will never again leave an unreadable squiggle next to a Royal Mail barcode for a package nobody’s quite sure who ordered.

In short, the infant mortality rate of a disposable pen is something worthy of the intervention of Sir Bob Geldof.  They have so much ink to give, yet they never even have the chance.

The life of a pen in captivity, however, is quite different.  I’ve recently seen the ink go down by as much as half a centimetre in a session of writing.  I’ve had so far to purchase four pens  – not because I lost or broke any, but because they began to fail through normal use.  I’ve still not managed to make one completely run out though.  Sadly, in prolonging their longevity I seem to have also exposed them to diseases of old age … when about two-thirds of the ink has gone, they start to become scratchy and have fade-outs, sometimes needing a good scribble to get going again.   Perhaps this is some kind of pen-dementia.

Anyway, I feel I’ve digressed a bit.  All poor attempts at observational comedy aside, I was going to tell you what I have discovered in the process of writing by hand.  Well, aside from the pen revelations, I’ve realised that it forces me to slow down.  When I put pen to paper, I feel somehow I should be writing something of note.  I’m not saying everything I write is now deeply insightful and filled with gravitas, but because it’s an effort to actually get it down, I try not to start until I’ve at least thought things through a bit.  Because editing is a faff, I want to get the text as close to right first time as I can.  This is probably a Good Thing.

Having a blank sheet of paper physically in front of me also helps me to be reflective.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in a situation when you’re immersed in it 24 hours a day.  I’ve written significantly less in the last couple of weeks, and of course a lot of that is down to just not having much to say.  But I think it’s also a sign of a slight loss of perspective.  Naturally it’s important for me to adapt and adjust to prison life, but that doesn’t mean I have to forget that the world is much bigger than this wing, and ‘go native’, which is something that’s often seen in the world of ‘reality TV’.

I have to confess I’m no fan of reality TV – particularly the recent epidemic of ‘celebrity’ variants where people you may or may not have heard of learn how to do a variety of new sports fairly badly, and sometimes get slightly injured.  However, I did watch the first couple of series of Big Brother.  This was back when there was at least a hint of innocence still attached to the format – before it turned into the bizarre freak show it seems to have become.  Well over a decade of declining popularity and increasingly desperate attempts to keep it interesting, culminating in its summary execution by Channel 4 and painful resuscitation by Channel 5, have left it looking like the shambling reanimated corpse of a long-dead puppy that’s irritatingly desperate for your attention.  In other words, something to avoid [like the length of that last sentence! Ed.] – but I’m beginning to ramble again…

I watched the Big Brother inmates quickly lose perspective and become embroiled in minor arguments about who left their towel on the floor or who said what about whom.  I looked on smugly superior in the belief that I’d be doing far better in their place, because I’d remember it wasn’t the real world.  However, my detached observations of prison life lasted maybe a month, and then I began to catch myself sometimes joining in with the complainers and the whiners. I had promised myself I’d remain a neutral observer of wing politics, but now I find I have allies and adversaries (although thankfully not too many of the latter, as yet).  The slow creep of institutionalisation gradually works its way in.

But here I am, writing still, and hoping that my longhand reflections can shine a torch on the things I want to avoid.  I do still have perspective most of the time, and putting myself in the mental place of a journalist working under cover in the prison system seems a good way to keep that up.  I’ve already twice been accused of being some kind of plant – perhaps I’m overdoing it.  So long as I don’t become delusional and get too caught up in that reality … well, do let me know if you see that happening.

John Smith, BBC News, HMP Anonymous.

INSTALMENT 13 – “Insider Trading”

Date of writing : 28/01/2014

It would be nice if we were told about visits in advance.  Because I’m on remand, people can simply book appointments without my intervention (so long as I’ve added them to the ‘approved’ list), so I don’t always know if someone’s coming to see me.  This is usually a pleasant surprise as most visitors generally book for the afternoon, and I’ll find out they’re coming when I see the visits list on the notice board in the morning (provided I remember to check).  Official visitors, however, have the unfortunate habit of booking morning slots.

I was woken this morning at about twenty past eight – having gone to bed a bit late after watching a film – by the loud friendly voice of an officer saying:  ‘[SURNAME]! – Why aren’t you up and ready for your visit?!’.  I had just enough time to get myself basically dressed before rushing out.  So it was with too little sleep, no breakfast, and slightly fuzzy teeth, that I faced a psychiatrist …

Apparently, this is part of the preparation of pre-sentencing reports.  Now, I always imagined psychiatrists were persons who are supposed to make you feel better somehow.  Unless this one was some kind of exception I was sadly mistaken.  Like most ‘normal people’, I try to make polite conversation when presented with a new acquaintance.  ‘Dr Handel’, however, didn’t even acknowledge my attempts with so much as a disinterested grunt.  He was abrupt, irritable, and kept interrupting before I’d finished answering his questions.  I sometimes felt he was deliberately attempting to upset me. He probably was.  I left feeling I’d been interrogated by an impatient autistic sociopath.  Needless to say, this was an imperfect start to my day.

On the plus side, I just traded some sugar and whitener (which I get free) and half a packet of digestive biscuits for a whole bag of chocolate éclairs.  I won’t get them until Friday, but I’m learning delayed gratification – unlike the recipient.  I normally don’t give credit, but ‘Ferret’ is usually as good as his word, despite external appearances.  I’m actually in debt myself to Paul to the tune of two chocolate bars, a packet of sesame-coated caramel peanuts and a whole packet of digestives.  I might not mention my trade included his advance … it begins to look like a complex burial of the original debt after a while, and we know what that did for the Banks a few years ago.  Paul recently had someone default on a whole packet of gingernuts, and he hasn’t been quite the same since. Someone still owes him two tins of sardines too.

It is strange how the most arbitrary scarcity of certain goods can bring them to be coveted.  Sometimes it can feel like  the Victoria era, with the tangerine being worthy of its place in a Christmas stocking.  Three weeks ago a banana was worth three milks, but following an apparent oversight at the servery, the market was flooded and the price crashed to a single milk.  The day after that you couldn’t even give them away.  The cereal packs we’re given each evening seem to come in gluts of one kind or another.  A packet of Frosties is always worth at least two, but more often three, packs of Cornflakes.  Coco-Pops were until recently a rare commodity, but I’ve seen a few in circulation of late.  Weetabix* continue(s) to be a low-value stock for reasons I can’t fathom – I quite like it (them).  [*see Footnote]

Some things we just cannot get.  Either because they count as contraband, or because there’s just not an easy route to get hold of them.  One of the most frustrating of these is scissors – because they can be used as a stabbing weapon, they are just not allowed.  We can, however, have razors – indeed, they are given to us freely.  So what do you think happens?  In the absence of scissors, people break up the razors to use for cutting things.  This means that a large fraction of the cells on the wing probably contain a bare razor blade, which makes me a little uneasy.  This is of course the law of unintended consequences.

Another problem is the fact that there seems to be no way to obtain string.  I can see no sensible reason for this, except perhaps for those on suicide watch.  What happens – again, an unintended consequence – is that people take their bed sheets (or shirts, or pretty much any other textile), and cut them into narrow strips, using of course their convenient razors.  Pretty much every cell key seems to be attached to such a lanyard, as do many prisoners’ ID cards.  Shoelaces – outside their normal habitat of shoes – for me at least began to take on an almost mythological quality.  Since I finally got mine back, the two half-laces I’d been given as an interim solution were re-purposed as lanyards, being too precious an asset simply to discard.

Today I overheard someone offering an eighth of an ounce of tobacco for an interesting transparent-plastic mug.  I’m not surprised, as I can’t fathom how it got in here at all.  Last week someone was offering me a plastic plate for four milks – first plate I’d seen in six weeks.   As we normally eat from trays, I was at first slightly excited by the prospect of using an actual plate.  Then I realised … IT’S JUST A PLATE … and I was getting way too into this.  Besides, four milks?  Do me a lemon.

[*Footnote:    I’ve never been sure whether to treat ‘Weetabix’ as singular or plural.  I always imagined it was some kind of contraction of ‘wheat biscuits’ or similar, with the ‘x’ making it a kind of psuedo-plural.  But then I’d have to extend that to the point of referring to a single ‘Weetabic’, which just sounds odd.  Generally, I reluctantly come down on the side of the singular, but always with a residual sense of disquiet.]

INSTALMENT 12 – “Ahmed’s Nose”

Date of writing : 22/01/2014

Six weeks then.  I was told to expect an adjournment of 1-3 weeks, but it turns out to be six.  Well, as I said before, there are some advantages to remaining ‘innocent’ for longer – more spendable money, more visits, no obligation to work in the textiles workshop … I should be thankful for these benefits, even though I’m left in sentencing limbo.  Ho hum.

Someone punched Ahmed in the face yesterday – the first violence I’ve encountered on this wing.  I’ve heard varying accounts of what led up to this, none of which has so far turned out to be true.  I have to say I’m not surprised, as I can imagine myriad things that he might do to which people could take exception.  Regardless of the cause, it was certainly a hefty punch; his nose was noticeably swollen on one side, and looked like it might have been slightly broken.  There was a lot of blood, both on his clothes and on the floor.  It was quite a scene.

Now, I’m not so much troubled by the violence as I am by what happened afterwards.  His cell (and on the opposite side of the landing, my cell) is at the far end of the wing, perhaps 60 metres from the ‘business end’ – the entrance, servery, office, and showers etc.  I’ve previously noted occasions when I couldn’t see any officers keeping an eye on things despite everyone being out.  It happens this was one of those occasions.  Nobody saw, nobody heard, nobody came.

I say nobody, but specifically I mean no staff.  My cell mate Paul saw Ahmed a few moments after it happened, as he was just heading out to use the phone.  Other inmates saw too, and news quickly spread to the 3’s.  The top floor is where the enhanced, the long-term and many of the wing workers live.  We lower mortals aren’t usually allowed up there.  Some people let this go to their heads, and a few seem to think they somehow run the wing.  Soon enough, Ahmed was ushered back into his cell, nose gushing, as several of the self-appointed came and went.

Some came to clean up: the floor was mopped, and the biohazard cleaner got a special bag to put his bloodied clothes into. Meanwhile, the heavies came in and had a little ‘chat’ with him.  I’m sure it was all very friendly in its tone.  Ahmed, not being the brightest button and a little too trusting, was easily convinced that this ‘doesn’t need to go any further’, and that someone would go and have a word with the perpetrator.  Evidence removed, and victim placated, the loose-knit ‘let’s pretend’ mini-mafia hung around a bit, with a few others coming and going just to make sure, then retreated to the stairs and higher landings to keep an eye on things from a distance.

This was close to the time for evening lock-up, and by now word had spread to pretty much everyone, except the officers.  As they came along the rows of doors to lock us in I looked around and saw an unusually high number of people hanging around on the landing – perhaps thirty or forty.  Almost all of them were looking (but pretending not to) in Ahmed’s direction, to see what he’d say to the officer before he was locked in.  The answer was nothing.  He went behind his door without a word.

Before this, and after the minor bullies had retreated, I had been in to see if he was all right.  I spoke to him with DF, about how it was actually up to him whether he should be talking to the officers about it, and that maybe he should be seeing a nurse about his nose.  I had to be careful about doing this – much as I don’t want Ahmed to be pushed around, or for certain inmates to think they have control, I also don’t want to be seen to be interfering or ‘grassing’.  It’s quite possible for them to make my daily life uncomfortable if they feel the need.  In any case, it seems my attempted intervention was in vain.

As it turns out, the aggressor turned himself in.  I’m told he wants to move to another prison and has been requesting this for some time.  I don’t know if he thought this would help his case at all, or if he was just expecting to get caught and thought turning himself in would be better.  (He had become a minor celebrity among the inmates).  He spent today locked in his cell, and will probably face other consequences.  Although I’m glad he’s being punished, I’m still troubled by the cover-up and manipulation operation that so smoothly and quickly swung into action.  I just hope the majority of the wing who don’t get involved in the problem may have the courage to try to intervene where they can in the future.

INSTALMENT 11 – “Mad-Eye(s) Moody and Miscellaneous Musings”

Date of writing : 21/01/2014

Well, it’s been a few days, I should probably update you on the gossip.  A lot of the time not much happens in here, so I have gaps with little to write about.  One disadvantage of having a cell mate I actually talk to is that I get less time for thinking and writing.  I probably shouldn’t complain, of course.  I’ve been gradually teaching Paul small nuggets of science as they come up in conversation.  Yesterday it was black-body radiation, emission spectra and Doppler shifts.  Don’t know how much is sinking in, but I’m enjoying it at least.

Ahmed’s new cell mate has obtained the nickname ‘DF’, for reasons I really don’t want to explain.  Seems like a reasonably nice guy – I inducted him into the ‘survivors’ club’ so he could perhaps get some tips on coping.  As if sharing a cell with Edward trouser-hands wasn’t enough, I found out that he’d also become the latest victim of Geoff and Kyle.  It seems Geoff laid it on a bit thick this time, actually managing to break his (plastic) coffee cup and had DF running from the cell with only half a haircut.  I gather he was quite traumatised.

Meanwhile, I‘ve been mildly perturbed by someone who sometimes comes and begs me for sugar and whitener.  I call him ‘Moody’, because both of his eyes are like the magical one of ‘Mad-Eye Moody’; always open to a full circle, and swivelling independently of each other, apparently at random.  Needless to say any encounter with him is slightly unsettling.  When he comes into the cell on the scrounge I mostly try to get him out again fairly quickly, but this time he had a story to tell.  Like so many in here, he is eager to protest his innocence – I’ve no idea what he did (or didn’t) but he was very upset about being convicted, and he’s just been given life for it.  So he ranted about his sentence, and how gutted he was, all the while with his eyes swivelling at high speed.  He also has a tendency to get uncomfortably close when conversing – although to be fair, I don’t imagine he has very good depth perception.

So in the end he took his sugar and whitener and left – after I’d made some sympathetic noises to placate him a little. But when he’d gone I started to feel quite sorry for him, and a little guilty; I’ve no way of knowing whether he was wrongly convicted, or if his life sentence is unjust.  What I do know however, is that my own instinctive reaction to him has been less than open-minded.  I like to think of myself as accepting and non-judgemental, but the unsettled reaction I’ve described above falls short of that ideal.  Now if that’s my reaction  – as someone with a degree of consciousness of the fallibility of basic instinct – then I don’t rate his chances in front of a jury of the general public.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the ten members who found him guilty had subconsciously made up their minds within a few minutes of encountering his crazy roaming eyes.  Much as juries are heavily instructed to make decisions based solely on the evidence presented, evidence is rarely seen without the distorting filter of personal feelings.  As I said, I don‘t know anything about his case, but I do regret that it’s likely his chances of a fair trial were probably less than average from the start.

Anyway, as for me, my sentencing hearing has been postponed for reasons I won’t go into.  Although this is frustrating both practically, and because it would be good to know what I’m facing so I can start getting used to it – there are also some small benefits.  Something I’ve only recently discovered is that cheques sent to prisons take an age to be credited to your Private Cash account.  I’ve been left in a financial black spot, since the cheque I receive three weeks ago still hasn’t cleared on the prison’s system.  In the interim, I’ve not been able to build up money in my ‘Spends’ account, as there hasn’t been any to transfer from my Private Cash.

Whilst on remand, I believe I am entitled to £47.50 to be transferred each week into the account where I can actually use it.  In prison this is a King’s ransom;  but when I come back from Court convicted, this will drop to only £10, rising I think to £15 after two weeks.  So whilst I am ‘innocent’ my money can build up toward the goal of getting myself a radio/CD player, and ultimately, I hope, a guitar.  I really don’t know when the cheque will eventually clear, but in the meantime I hope the stop-gap Postal Order will have been credited in time for Friday’s Canteen Sheet.

Another benefit of the delay is that I continue to have near enough as many visitors as I want.  I’m averaging about two or three visiting sessions a week at the moment, which is great.  I’m not looking forward to the hassle of Visiting Orders and being restricted to three a month.  Speaking of which, I have a visit this afternoon – for which I’ll be called in a short while.  I’m looking forward to the contact with the outside world of course, but also the chance to eat and drink something different.  It’s probable that I’ll eventually come to associate Rooibos tea with visiting. It didn’t interest me before I came inside, but it now seems like a wonder of flavour compared to what I usually drink (i.e water).  Must remember to pace myself with the chocolate bars this time …

(later) … hmm … well … maybe I’ll pace myself next time.   

 

 

 

INSTALMENT 10 – “Goodbye Ahmed and Hello Shoelaces” and “Crime and Punishment”

Date of writing : Sunday, 12/01/2014

I’ve moved – after two weeks with Ahmed, Paul’s cell mate was suddenly shipped off to a Cat. C prison, and I took the opportunity to hop across the landing.  Not long after I moved, a small group of people came to talk to me as I was pondering the new view from my door.  Two of them, it seems, were also ‘Ahmed survivors’ and they’d come to swap stories.  Apparently I am not alone in my discomfort at some of his habits.  Well, I did my bit, and now another unfortunate soul is sharing with him.  We’ll see how long he lasts – I’m told the record is three weeks.

So now I’ve a North-facing view over the exercise yard, and the poplars and Leylandii beyond.  Despite the Northern exposure it’s actually brighter in here.  The sun never reached my last window due to the steep slope topped with a high wall, and taller building behind.  The state of decoration here is also better, and everything works – including the toilet and the ‘courtesy lock’. I can now stop people stealing the kettle, which is nice.  Most importantly, I’m cohabiting with someone who is more socially ‘normal’.  There will of course always be areas for compromise – such as whether he should be talking at me in the morning when I clearly still want to be asleep – but I’m generally grateful.

I’m also grateful that yesterday – a month to the day since I arrived – I was taken down to Reception to sort through my belongings.  I was very briefly reunited with my phone and Bank cards (they wouldn’t let me keep them), but finally I got my shoelaces back!  My silver Whitby ring sits again in its rightful place on the third finger of my right hand;  I somehow feel a little more complete.  I wasn’t allowed to take three stamps from my wallet because ‘they can be used for currency’.  This is of course irrelevant, as stamps are freely available for purchase from the Canteen Sheet, and I have maybe a dozen already.  The only things I’ve ever seen used as currency are tobacco and UHT milk.  This may have something to do with general literacy levels:  there’s not much demand for stamps from those who struggle to read or write.

Inspired by Geoff and the objects of his destruction, I’ve made some cardboard shelves.  PVA glue is quite versatile – I’m surprised they let us have it considering some of the other idiosyncratic rules.  I used some of the left over cardboard to make a picture board too.  I was very pleased to receive a set of postcards in the mail a few days ago, which included a print of ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, after I mentioned it in a previous post.  These were sent by the same friend as sent the picture of Whitby harbour, who I will call ‘Jane’.  The harbour and ‘Metamorphosis’ are joined on the picture board by ‘The Persistence of Memory’ and a scene from The Peak District, which altogether very much brightens up the cell for me.  The board is also very portable, so when they arbitrarily decide to move me I can easily take it along.

Date of Writing: 15/01/2014   –  “Crime and Punishment”

It’s been quite cold lately, and we’re not given coats.  When going out into the yard for exercise, the best option we have is to wear both prison-issue tracksuit tops simultaneously.  I don’t particularly suffer from the cold, so I’m generally not too bothered if it’s frosty and I’ll almost always take the opportunity to get outside if it’s offered.  The rest of the wing – with a few exceptions – seem however to shun exercise when the temperature is below about 7˚C.  In fact, a couple of days ago Paul and I were the only ones to venture out.  We took the highly rebellious step of walking round the yard clockwise.

Having enjoyed the change of perspective, we tried it again the following day when other people were there.  By the level of bewildered comments we got, anybody would imagine we’d been loudly proclaiming the truth of the flat-Earth hypothesis!  This may have to be added to the long list of ‘Things That Might Get You Beaten Up In Prison’, which so far seems to include anything that makes you stand out for any reason.  However, as I’ve previously noted, of necessity, the threshold is thankfully a little higher on this wing.

The only apparent exception to my fellow inmates’ aversion to exercise in the cold is when they are given the choice between that and bang-up.  Ironically, I’ll often come back from an empty exercise yard to find most of the wing voluntarily in their cells anyway.  I think even if people don’t really have a reason to leave their cells, the knowledge that they can’t even if they want to, is more of a problem than the practical fact of confinement itself.  Often, the walls that present the most trouble are not physical, but psychological.  I’m starting to understand that this is the way prison is supposed to work.

The tabloid media sometimes portray life inside as being too easy, or ‘like a holiday camp’.  Perhaps you’ve read about plasma screens with Sky, or a Playstation in every cell.  Far be it from me to accuse the free right-wing press of hyperbole, but my experience is far removed from the Butlins adverts that seem currently to be flooding the flickering 14” CRT that takes up a large fraction of the limited desk space in front of me.  Admittedly we have nine channels to choose from, but the vast majority of even the Freeview channels are denied us, for unknown reasons.  I’ve yet to encounter a single Playstation or indeed games console of any kind.

This brings me to the oft-asked question of the purpose of incarceration.  The discussions I’ve encountered mostly boil down to three prongs: punishment, rehabilitation, and deterrence. The particular priority given to each pillar of this triumvirate is usually a good indication of a person’s position on the political spectrum.  The aforementioned tabloid newspapers naturally fall into the ‘lock ‘em up!’ category, heavily emphasizing the punishment aspect, whereas The Guardian, and to a certain extent The Independent, are more likely to come down on the side of re-education and rehabilitation. The third pillar, of deterrence, tends to receive less attention.  Some even argue that in the case of many crimes it’s irrelevant, as they’re either committed without regard for the consequences, or the perpetrators imagine they won’t be caught.  I have to say that prison never crossed my mind until I was faced with it.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t feel that emphasizing the punishment aspect is necessarily productive.  A prison that was Hell on Earth may make some who have been victims of crime (or just those with particularly strong opinions) feel they had ‘got justice’.  However, in the long run, I suspect this would produce individuals filled with anger and resentment, and a twisted desire to lash out at a world that had rejected them.  Naturally, prison is – and should be – some kind of punishment.  But the deprivation of liberty itself should be the limit of the punishment;  I’d like to believe there are few in our society who would advocate routine torture for prisoners.

The fact that a person is being prevented from making basic choices about what they can do on a day-to-day basis is the principle means by which prison can punish.  To further add to this by depriving someone of mental stimulus, or of contact with friends and family on the outside, or of opportunities for meaningful activity, is to stray into the territory of the purely vindictive.  Naturally, a balance must be struck, and this will forever be an area of debate.  As it stands, my basic needs are being met, but there is plenty that I could want for;  if this were actually a holiday camp, asking for my money back would be the least I’d be doing.  They could also expect a strongly-worded General Application (which would no doubt be misplaced or ignored due to staff shortages).

Speaking of staff shortages, we now come to the concept of rehabilitation.  In an ideal world, people would leave prison having taken time to examine their offending behaviour and to address its root causes, preparing themselves for a crime-free life as productive members of the social order.  I’m sure you realise this penal utopia is not currently a reality.  I’ve lost count of the number of those I have encountered here who are ‘on recall’ for repeat offending whilst on license.  I’ve also met many who’ve been in and out for much of their lives – in some cases having spent more years in than out. I would argue that budget cuts, and waiting lists for rehabilitation programmes that are longer than prisoners’ sentences are hardly helping this situation.

Until rehabilitation is made their primary focus, I don’t believe prisons will truly be the servants of society that they claim to be.  Simply warehousing people until their release date achieves very little other than to keep them off the streets for a while.  As an aside, there is a fourth ‘pillar’ I didn’t mention earlier:  public protection – some individuals are held in prison indefinitely to ‘keep the rest of us safe’ from them.  There are thankfully very few of these, and whilst I can accept there are probably a few lost causes, I can’t help thinking that to lock someone up for life is tantamount to admitting defeat in terms of rehabilitation; these are probably the ones with whom we should be trying our hardest.

All of this rambling is probably naïve and idealistic, and I‘m fully aware of the fact it’s almost certainly been said before, and probably more coherently.  The alternative to aiming for an ideal, however, is to bumble along in apathy.  I hope my small voice can at least encourage a little debate, even if progress continues to be slow or indeed negative.  Sadly, the current political climate probably means my views aren’t great for winning votes.  I can see more years of budget cuts and warehousing ahead before anything can start to change.