“Regime Change”


Date of writing : 12/04/2014

There is unrest.  The regime has changed.  Not as in what happened in Iraq – although there are those who would be pleased to see the Governor on the scaffold – but as in a change of daily routine.  A notice was posted with the somewhat oxymoronic title ‘Long-term Temporary Arrangements’, citing staff shortages and the odd and ambiguous phrase ‘deployment problems’.  Management speak.  Of course all this could possibly mean is less time out of our cells, and more time on ‘bang-up’.  A cursory inspection of the schedule confirms this unfortunate first impression.

The most obvious change is that evening lock-up has moved forward an hour, from quarter past six to quarter past five.  Aside from this, there are now also two mornings and one afternoon of complete lock-down for those not in work or education.  There are numerous other shufflings to irritate and confuse, but most are minor in comparison to the evening lock-up change.  An hour may not sound a great deal, but it was probably the most important hour of (relative) liberty in the day.

Many here are in full-time work, or at least otherwise meaningfully occupied during the majority of the day. This means out at 08:00, back about 11:15, lunch around 11:45, lock-up 12:15 to 13:45 (good time for a nap, if so inclined), straight off to work again, back 16:15, dinner about 16:45, and lock-up for the night at 17:15.  Assuming everything goes according to plan (which is far from common), this leaves two half-hour gaps for pretty much everything else: showers, cell-cleaning, socialising, and importantly, phone calls.  Aside from the fact that these windows are short and frequently curtailed, many people in the real world are not at home during the day.  There’s not much point trying to call someone with a 9-5 job at a quarter past four.  By removing the post-dinner hour they have removed our chance to use the phones at what used to be their peak time of popularity.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with paragraph 6.10 of PSI 49/20112.  No?  Well, surely you know about the PSO/PSI system detailing the rights and responsibilities of inmates and the institutions housing them?  No?  Well, I suppose that’s hardly surprising as they’re apparently kept in a basement at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory marked ‘Beware of the Leopard’.  In the last few months I’ve been doing what I can to gather the more useful of these documents.  This involves leafing through an out-of-date and frequently inaccurate paper index listing only their titles, and sometimes not mentioning which have been cancelled and replaced by others. I then need to note which it is I think I’m looking for, and try to be nice enough to an overworked but thankfully tolerant librarian that she’ll consider printing them for me.  Perhaps two weeks later, I’ll get a copy that may or may not be what I was looking for, and occasionally bears no relation whatsoever to the document I requested.  Current thickness of the pile is 1¾ inches.  I have read them all, and have a steady stream of people borrowing them or asking which chapter and verse to quote in their complaints.

Back to the point.  The aforementioned paragraph states ‘The time available for using the phones must not normally be less than two hours each day’.  Being in italics, this is a mandatory requirement.  If I were being generous, I could say that the periods 11:15 to 12:15 and 16:15 to 17:15 added up to that.  However, as these windows are often squeezed, and there are also two meals to be consumed in this time, I’d say this is not really meeting the requirement in anything but the most cursory of ways, even on a good day.  Not that anybody here is very specific about demanding their statutory entitlements when they climb onto the netting between floors and refuse to go back into their cells.  They’re mostly just miffed they’ve lost an hour, and that things are generally sliding into disarray due to a lack of staff.

There have been several sit-outs in the last week, with people occupying the netting, damaging CCTV, or otherwise being large-scale disobedient.  There was a hostage situation on D Wing involving two inmates, although they couldn’t agree on which of them was the captor and which the captive.  While passing E Wing on Thursday I saw one guy being carried away by four officers during a protest that had already been going on for several hours.  Sadly, when anything significant like this happens, we tend to get locked down as our wing staff are drafted in to deal with it.  The question of course is – what would happen if several wings decided to do it at once?

We’ve made local news a number of times, with officers urging a re-think on staffing levels, and warning of dire consequences if things continue to escalate.  In a way, I’m hoping things get worse – an opinion openly shared by some officers here – so that the Government takes notice and brings staffing back up to a manageable level.  As it stands, basic procedures are not being followed, applications are going unanswered, systems are breaking down, and getting anything done is an uphill struggle against a lack of available staff time, and apathy and low morale in the ranks. Mistakes are being made, and important things are being messed up, including inmates’ medication and treatments.

Most officers and inmates agree that something has to give.  I just hope whatever it is happens fairly soon, rather than things continuing in gradual decline until someone finally decides too many things/people have slipped through the cracks.  Meanwhile I’ll continue my war of attrition on its many fronts.  Maybe I’ll eventually get those CDs I ordered – via the correct, and fairly long-winded, ordering process – but that Reception decided I could not have because ‘they came through the post’ … as opposed to via carrier pigeon, I suppose.  Maybe the Wing Governor will eventually let me order a guitar, as he said he would two weeks ago.  Maybe someone will ultimately accept I’m correct in my assertion that the Local Facilities List contravenes the mandatory provisions of PSI 30/2013 in 28 places.  Until then, I suppose at least it keeps me busy.







“Darwinners and Losers”

Date of writing : 23/03/2014

Well.  Having recently rambled about open-mindedness and not needing to agree or disagree with people’s conceptions of God, Tuesday evening’s religious meeting presented me with a slight challenge.  It’s normally fairly benign as these things go – it’s a meeting just for our wing, and we have visitors from outside churches and laity giving talks or leading discussion on Bible passages.  This is usually preceded and sometimes interspersed with some singing accompanied by guitar.  Think ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, with the occasional ‘Our God is a Great Big God’ (always makes me chuckle, that one).  I like the chance to sing, if I’m honest.

The most unfortunate thing we usually have to contend with on these occasions is the minor distraction of Hazardous Henry and his harmonica.  HH has been in prison for the best part of 30 years, and is what you might call ‘an institutional man’.  Probably in his early 60s, he is a ‘born again’ Christian – with all the enthusiastic conviction that entails – having repented for his past crimes (which must surely have been significant for him to be held for so long), and seen the light of Jesus.  He’s a portly, waddling, oddball of a character, who is actually quite likeable and entertaining at times.  I’ve borrowed his guitar on a few occasions, although it’s sadly impregnated with the general ammoniacal redolence that permeates his cell.  Inexplicably, the man himself never seems to be particularly malodorous, but I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who’s actually chosen to enter his lodgings voluntarily.  Merely passing when the door is ajar is enough to deter most.

Henry’s guitar playing is pretty solid in terms of rhythm, and he can freestyle lyrics around a theme to much genuine amusement.  Chords though, and tunes, and indeed notes, are not his forte.  When he walks to the front on a Tuesday evening, clutching his harmonica, the smile on the face of the visiting guitarist could politely be described as tolerant, or more honestly, as rictus.  As I’ve said, his rhythm is good, but the notes he plays bear almost no relation whatsoever to the song in question.  I’m pretty sure the harmonica (he only has one) is usually not even in the right key, but he certainly plays it with enthusiasm – indeed, sometimes with such feeling that he can’t help but hold one hand high in the air, fingers outstretched.  I’m told that this ‘raising of the antenna’ helps get better reception.

Anyway, I digress.  This week, once the singing had stopped, and Hazardous Henry’s harmonica hilarity had halted, the guitarist got up and asked us to name some mythical creatures and stories.  A few things were suggested:  dragons, Beowulf, the Loch Ness monster, Harry Potter . . . these and others he wrote on a whiteboard.  ‘Where is this going?’ I wondered, with a mounting sense of unease.  Doing nothing to alleviate this, he then proceeded with a clumsy segue-way onto the topic of dinosaurs.  ‘Scientists say that people and dinosaurs didn’t exist together, but the Bible tells us all God’s creatures were created on the same day’ . . . That’s right, we had a genuine creationist on our hands.

He went on to talk about how radiocarbon dating was unreliable, and how someone had found a T-Rex skeleton that was only a few thousand years old, according to some scientific paper that had been published.  His reference for all of this?  A well-thumbed book, entitled ‘The Dinosaur Mystery : Solved!’ (gotta love the exclamation mark).  I felt that I had been patient enough in letting him have his say.  However I’m afraid that, tolerant and respectful as I am of the sincerely held beliefs of others, I couldn’t let this preaching of unmitigated b*llocks go unchallenged.  No, the Earth is not 10,000 years old, and yes, evolution is real and demonstrable.  Throughout his presentation I resisted the urge to mumble ‘citation needed’ after each extraordinary claim, and waited for a lull.

I made my points as gently and amiably as I could: I had a wish neither to upset nor ridicule him.  But with many impressionable and trusting minds present, I felt the need to counterbalance, so people could see that this views shouldn’t just be taken as ‘gospel truth’, so to speak.   I talked of the strata of the fossil record, of dendrochronology, radioactive half-life, and the coelacanth.  He waffled vaguely about there being no proven examples of ‘vertical evolution’, missing links, and that we can’t go muddying the Truth Of Genesis by interpretations.  I countered by discussing the literal interpretation of Leviticus, and asking what he might do if he found that the Lord had sent mildew on his house, whether he ate shellfish, and if he had plans to sell any of his offspring into slavery.

In short, it became a lively – and thankfully friendly – debate, mostly between the two of us.  I did in the end declare my interest as a physicist, and someone who has spent significant time working at an institution dedicated in one way or another to the study of the natural world, and hence, evolution.  After a time, there were signs of unrest amongst the others. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘my arguments are not falling on deaf ears.’  But, it seems the objections were much simpler than that: half the audience had no idea what ether of us was talking about.

Those present had come expecting to hear and discuss the Gospel, yet instead they were baffled by an almost academic discussion about the Christian creation myth.  It was Hazardous Henry himself who cut in with something along the lines of ‘This is all very well, but what’s it got to do with Jesus?’  This seemed to summarise the mood of the room.  Thankfully, the objections weren’t directed at me, but rather the source of the unusual topic.  I was quite pleased at how HH had managed to succinctly cut to what was really the heart of my own objection: things like creationist dogma can really detract from the positive message they should be trying to promote.  It’s the sort of thing that allows people to dismiss organised religion as the realm of crackpots.  Some sides of the Church really don’t do its public image any favours. 

“Check Mate”


Date of writing : 18/03/2014

Something I’m beginning to understand is that if anything raises an eyebrow of query in here, then somebody is probably up to something.  When I obtained a fairly nice chess board & men for a packet of digestive biscuits, I confess to the deal appearing a little too good to be true. Especially when I found out later that it had been sold further up the chain for ½ oz of tobacco. I couldn’t work out where the devaluation had occurred; it defied the usual rules of prisonomics. But I had a chess board, and everything seemed fine. So I brushed aside my doubts.

For a week or so, I had the board out on the desk.  DF played a few games with Marley, and a couple of times some people borrowed it too.  Each time, it came back to me, without trouble.  In this period I didn’t actually play a game myself – I hadn’t played since I was a teenager, and various other things kept me distracted from giving it a go. “Time is one thing I do have,” I thought, “I’ll get round to it.”  Then one evening, not long before bang-up, Calvin – one of the wheeler-dealers of the wing – asked if he could borrow it to play with his pad mate that evening, promising a swift return in the morning.  He’d not caused me trouble before, so I obliged.

In the morning I went off to my Business Studies class (beats sewing in the workshop, similar pay) without bumping into Calvin, but thought nothing of it. I tracked him down at lunchtime. I could tell there was going to be a ‘story’ by the look on his face, so I braced myself with a sigh. The tale was that Ken, who had that morning been shipped of to a Cat. C, had had it in his cell (somehow, despite Calvin’s claimed reason for borrowing), and had taken it with him when he went. Hmm . . . big wavy red flags appearing here.  Something was clearly going on that I wasn’t party to: none of this added up.

However, my investment was minimal.  I decided I couldn’t be bothered to work out who was scamming whom, and I thought I’d cut my losses and walk away.  Noting, of course, that Calvin should not be given credit in future.  So there it stood, for a few days.

Then one day I went to visit Marley on the 3’s , as sometimes I’m apt, and noted Calvin’s pad mate – let’s call him Hobbes, for the sake of amusement – playing chess. “Now, that’s a fine chess set” thought I, “I used to have one just like that …”.  Yes.  I did. Upon pointing this out to Hobbes, he showed his finest poker face – consisting in his case of flushing bright red – and tried to act all casual about it, like he was as surprised as me. Apparently he’d borrowed it from Bristol Barry (a muscular chap with the brains of a barnacle and the accent of a pirate).  All very well, be that, says I, but I’ll have it back when you’re finished, thank you very much – and you can explain to Bristol Barry whatever scam it is you’ve got going on.  So duly I re-obtained the chess set, and returned it to my cell, tucking it away under my bed and swearing never to lend it out again.

Pleased to have it back, I thought little more of it until later that evening. A little after 5pm I was on the phone – as often I am at that time of day – and I noticed a slight commotion nearby, involving Calvin, Hobbes, and a few others.  Slightly irritated by the noise, I tried to block it with a finger in my ear, and continued my conversation.  But then a chap I didn’t know other than by sight – Badger – who’d been a part of the commotion – came and started trying to talk to me while I was on the phone. I told him to go away, with all the politeness such an interruption demanded: i.e. none.  Phone calls in prison are not something to be messed with as they’re expensive, limited to 15 minutes at a time, and have an enforced gap of 10 minutes between the end of one call and the start of another.

Much irritated, I continued my call.  This was until finally Bristol Barry himself came to annoy me. Using the threat of his not insignificant physical presence to invade my personal space, I felt he deserved a similar level of politeness in being told to sod off and wait until I’d finished my phone call.  He apparently begged to differ about the urgency of his own communication; and put his finger on the phone cradle to end my call.  Now, there are some things that you just don’t do: this is one of them. Like Mr Bridger’s toilet time being invaded by Michael Caine in The Italian Job, it simply isn’t cricket. Resigned to the inevitable confrontation, I contained my rage and wore my best nonplussed Noel Coward face.

Predictably, the barnacle-brained pirate began to demand the chess set, with threats of knuckle to face contact.  Since being inside, I’ve learnt that such approaches can often be diffused by failing to react in either of the usual expected ways.  I’m no bodybuilder, and I’m certainly no fighter. Despite being not far shy of 6 foot tall, few would call my physical presence ‘imposing’.  As such, I’m probably generally put into the box of one who’ll cower or retreat at the first indication that someone has a mind to injure me. The alternative would be to escalate with return threats in kind – a strategy that seldom fails to come to blows.

So, when Neanderthal tactics are countered with relaxed body-language, unthreatening eye contact, and an apparently genuine desire to understand the grievance of the aggressor, he tends to find himself somewhat wrong-footed. I tried to establish what it was that had led him to believe the chess board was his (he’d also bought it, apparently), and I explained how I’d come to believe it was mine, and to whom I had recently lent it.  I listened patiently to his incoherent (and mildly west-country amusing) ramble, giving him the occasional sympathetic minimal encourager, doing my best to maintain open and understanding body language.

During this discussion I noticed Badger go past clutching the chess set in question, having nicked it from my cell.  By this time I was resigned to relinquishing ownership anyway, so wasn’t terribly troubled.  Any possibility of violence having subsided, all that remained was for Bristol Barry to find some way of removing himself from the discussion without losing face or feeling like he was retreating.  I can’t remember exactly what ‘point’ he attempted to make while walking away (so that I had no opportunity to counter it), but it seemed to be enough to make him feel better.

I later found out that Hobbes had been punched by Calvin for letting me get hold of the set.  I still don’t know the exact nature of the scam I’d been caught up in, and I probably don’t want to know. It seemed to involve at least six people though.  Frankly, for the trouble it’s caused, and for the sake of 59p, I feel no desire to see the darn thing again.  The list of people on the wing to whom I’m willing to lend or give credit is a small and sadly diminishing one.  In any case, after this débacle, I’ve also resolved to trade in nothing but consumables in future. Perhaps I’ll buy myself a chess set from Argos.  Or fashion one from stones using a geological hammer.  There are others I can borrow in the meantime. 

But honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by criminals.