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.

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