“Shipped!”

Date of writing : 10/07/2014
Well, I’m writing this on a sensibly sized desk, listening to the wonderfully epic 1978 album ‘Cyclone’ by Tangerine Dream, here in my new pad at HMP Different. I had some idea I might be shipped here this week – albeit only through rumours I’d had to investigate for myself – but was still slightly surprised when I was woken at 8 am on Tuesday and told I had an hour to get my things together – partly because people often only get half an hour. Although I’d had the foresight to partially de-clutter over the weekend, I still found myself with two large and heavy sacks as well as a guitar. Having come in with little more than the clothes I stood up in, it’s amazing to see how things build up. Once I’d been through reception to collect stored property (Yay! CDs!), I’d gained a third bag containing some clothes (which I’d had handed in while on remand), a suit, and a pair of black shoes. Altogether, two people could carry all this a short distance, but wouldn’t want to go far. We had one trolley between five of us, so getting where we needed to be was troublesome – particularly as some had far more than me.

As usual, everything was slow, and there was a lot of waiting around, but that gave me a chance to talk with the others, and exchange “Well, I’ve heard that…” stories about our destination. In our group was Danny, the ‘Wing Insider’ whom I met on my first day on the wing. He’s been in for 17 years now, and has seen most of it before. We’re very different, but over the last few months I think we’ve come to a mutual grudging respect whereby neither of us really wants to admit he actually quite likes the other in spite of our differences; Ringo is someone I’ve talked to quite a bit before – being as he was a part of the interesting predominantly gay subculture of the wing – and I was pleased to know he’d be here too; twenty-something Mahmood is one of the ever-complaining kind. Within less than 24 hours here he’d already irritated the staff enough to be known and noted for all the wrong reasons. I remember him mostly for the time I watched him beating someone’s head against a Perspex window boldly emblazoned with the slogan ‘Zero Tolerance to Violence’ (an attack for which he subsequently gained himself an extra six months.) The fifth of our party was the extremely elderly gentleman whom Mahmood has decided to call ‘Father Ted’ (although I suspect he was actually thinking of Father Jack, but I thought it wise to refrain from pointing this out).

This diverse band was duly loaded into the van, along with our small mountain of possessions. I noted gratefully as I mounted the steps that my guitar had apparently called shotgun, and was riding safely up front. I’d have been happier if they’d put the seatbelt on it though. I should probably confess at this point to socially engineering the theft of a Chaplaincy-stamped book. Often, the best way to hide things is in plain sight, even to the extent of actually drawing attention to them. So, after carrying it in my hand through three pat-downs, a drugs dog, and a metal detector, I’m now the apparent owner of said book. I shall probably post it back when I’ve finished with it, as Sister Martha obtained it for me personally and was very keen for me to read it, so I don’t feel too bad. So far it’s made interesting reading – not that I got to read much of it in the van, as I was too busy trying to hold down the thin, white bread sandwiches that had kindly been provided.

Motion sickness has long been a problem for me, and there’s a lay-by in Cumbria that may to this day still possess a Harrods bag of my childhood vomit. It’s mostly only a problem when I can’t see the road ahead, but sadly they wouldn’t let me join my guitar on the front seat for some reason. I struggled a bit until the motorway, and then alternated between enjoying the side view (of fields, trees, and power stations), and closing my eyes while breathing steadily to get through the cold sweats and tingling arms without losing my lunch. The last few miles on winding country roads were the worst, and we arrived in what I consider to be the nick of time. The journey proper probably took around an hour, not including a fairly long wait in the van at the end (Mahmood started his complaining before we’d even got inside by banging on the walls and shouting). I was the last one off, and was greeted at the small and unassuming door of ‘Arrivals’ by a fairly friendly group of G4S staff, this being a privately run establishment. A similarly friendly black Labrador gave me the once-over, deciding on balance that I was probably okay (for the short contact with him, I’ve found a disproportionate number of his hairs on my stuff), and I was ushered into a holding box with the others.

A second van was gradually unloaded of its six passengers, this one having come from significantly further afield. The small box became quickly crowded, but soon enough we were taken out one volunteer at a time. The nominal leader of the second crew decided it was fair that our lot should go first as we’d got in first, which I thought was jolly pleasant of him. As it turns out, I’m not quite sure why they put us in the box at all because when I came out I found those who’d gone before me just wandering about or sitting on the conveniently located sofas. I was fairly well searched, answered various questions about my basic details, and then joined the others. The whole Arrivals area had a sort of provisional feel to it – like some back-corridor maintenance section of an office building, with bare ventilation ducts on the ceiling, and various power control boxes and the like scattered about. There was also a kettle and a fridge, and we were directed to make ourselves at home while we waiting for … whatever it was we were waiting for.

An earnest Scotsman – who for the sake of national stereotyping I’ll call Jock – took us through some induction forms and answered various questions that were asked. Jock is a so-called Red Band inmate, also known as a Trustee. As these names suggest, he wears a red band (on his arm) containing a special ID card, and is considered to be trustworthy. The Red Band allows him to be in most areas of the prison if he has a good enough reason, and Red Band workers are left relatively unsupervised in a number of places. This includes the gardens that surround most of the octopus-like spread of the wings (where they cut the grass or tend to the shrubs and flower beds), and the kitchen gardens, where there are a number of polytunnels and some casual-looking chickens. Red Band is a status to which I aspire. All in good time.

Suddenly, there was food. This took me aback on several counts. First, it was hot, which is rare for food on reception. Secondly, it contained several identifiable vegetables. Thirdly, it also contained significant pieces of red meat (we eventually decided it was ovine not bovine) that were well cooked and didn’t have the consistency of shoe leather. Fourthly, it tasted quite good – enough to tip me over to the side of actively enjoying it. “If this is the shape of things to come” thought I, “then things could be looking up.” There was even the opportunity for seconds, and blueberry muffins for dessert.

I had earlier colluded with Ringo that we should indicate (when we had the opportunity) that we would like to share a cell. Here, 75% of inmates are in single cells, but new arrivals tend to start in doubles before being moved to singles as they become available. But it transpired that the available spaces were dotted around the wings, with no doubles unoccupied. So we were scattered to the wings – sadly without our belongings as yet – and I was the only one of the eleven arrivals to come to F wing. Here I was introduced to my new bunk buddy, the white-bristle-moustachioed Colin, of around sixty. There are far worse people I could be bunked with I have to admit. He’s inoffensive and considerate, and enjoys a good (/bad) pun. But I do find myself missing Harry, whom I’d just got to know pretty well and we had quite a lot in common.

It’s strange how quickly some things become normal, like suddenly being required to share a confined space (including a toilet) with a stranger for the next twelve hours without prior introduction, knowing only that they’re a convicted criminal. I used to say I’d struggle to go back to house-sharing as I did in my student days, but I’m genuinely unbothered now as I sit writing not four feet from Colin’s loudly snoring form. I’m finding a patience and tolerance I didn’t think I had – and not the gritted-teeth sort either. Having said that, I do look forward to getting a single cell: I’ve not had a night to myself since December.

I’ll be writing more once I’ve got a better measure of the place, but I think this is long enough for one post…..

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