“Chicks, Chips and Comforts”

Date of writing : 28/08/2014

The collared doves have hatched, and are growing spectacularly fast. There are at least two chicks I can see, but it’s possible there are more. Big Sam was moved to a different wing a few days ago, after one too many people pushed his buttons. Since then, I’ve been putting some of my bread out, and Larry even bought some budgie seed for them.   A few days ago I saw no fewer than six buzzards circling high above the prison. Thankfully they haven’t come close enough to even register any interest in the baby collared doves yet.   I think the razor wire would present a significant hazard to any would-be predators anyway. Other recent sightings include a kestrel, and sparrows nesting in the shelter of the top of a light fitting on the wall of D wing.

Things I haven’t mentioned yet about this place – here, everyone wears their own clothes. That certainly helps me to feel a little more human. I’m glad I was forewarned to have things handed in whilst I was on remand, otherwise I’d have been rather short of options. A while ago one man on this wing resorted to a naked protest at not being given enough clothes, nor having the means to buy his own. Having only one set, he couldn’t get them washed without taking them off. He was in his cell for three days, and appeared if necessary wrapped only in a towel, but he wasn’t allowed out unless properly dressed.   Thankfully, he’s now been given enough to wear.

We’re given our own duvets, pillows, and bed linen too.   This may not sound like a big thing, but it certainly beats the scrappy sheets and blankets with plasticky pillow we had at the other place. All of this means we need to think about such pleasantly mundane things as doing our own washing. We can choose to hand it to the laundry orderly on our allocated day, but I much prefer to do it myself at the weekend. The industrial washers and driers are most efficient, and one of the first things I managed to wash was the remote control for my stereo. I have to say, it’s now spotless, but unfortunately less than functional.

We also have the joy here of eating from plates while sat at tables. Admittedly the plates are plastic, but they’re much more dignified than compartmentalised trays. The food continues to be pretty good. Lunch is usually a baguette with something like ham, cheese, or options such as tuna mayonnaise or bacon, lettuce and tomato. This comes with soup, which is usually a major contributor the vegetable intake and often quite tasty. I mostly choose to receive with this an item of fruit (orange, satsuma, apple, pear or banana), but sweet or crisp options are available. The evening meal is something hot, with recent offerings including sausage casserole and mash, beef lasagne and potato wedges, vegetable curry with rice, and the Friday night fish and chips. Each of these comes with identifiable vegetables (either as an integral part or an addition), and again the option of fruit or something sweet.   One of the best meals of the week (in my opinion) is Sunday brunch. This varies a little from week to week, but a typical example would include perhaps five items from the following: bacon, sausages, hash browns, fried bread, black pudding, baked beans, tinned tomatoes and fried or boiled eggs. Cholesterrific!

I’ve found I’ve needed to resort to noodles much less frequently, as I’m well fed in the day. Indeed, if I didn’t make at least some effort to pick the healthier menu options, it would be entirely possible to let myself go somewhat. The trick lies in picking the coming week’s menu only when already full. We can’t change our minds on the day, and when I find myself presented with the vegan curry or nut roast – when I can smell the chips and see the toad-in-the-hole – I know it’s all part of the wider plan my saner self had several days ago, and that it’s probably for the best … although admittedly that doesn’t stop me going back to my cell and eating Nutella-style spread from a fork. Thankfully, as yet I remain within my healthy BMI range.

We’ve just been issued with new (but fairly small and certainly cheap) LCD televisions of a design I’m sure is unique to prisons, having an entirely transparent case and a power lead that’s only one foot long.   We still have only 9 channels available – as mandated by Herr Grayling – but there are those who have managed to construct antennae to obtain the full gamut of Freeview stations – or so I hear.   Cabling has recently been put into the cells to facilitate the installation of telephones at some future time, although they will still operate at absurd cost and not receive incoming calls. However, thankfully, phone calls here are not time-limited. Other technology includes a couple of fingerprint-activated terminals on each wing that are used for menu selection, ‘canteen’ (i.e. shopping) ordering, booking visits, and many other useful things. Still no Internet though, and emailaprisoner.com messages seem to take several days to arrive at people’s cells, for no plausible reason I can discern.

Now, having listed all these mostly positive things, I can almost hear an army of pitchfork-wielding Daily Mail readers starting to rant about how we’re living in luxury, and that we should be getting none of it. Yes, conditions here could be described – in general – as ‘comfortable’. Perhaps a better word might be ‘civilised’. Back in January I wrote (albeit somewhat naively) a little about the purpose of prison. Insofar as its purpose is punishment – and I reiterate that I don’t think this should be the focus – we are here as a punishment, and we are not here to be punished. Withdrawal of a person’s liberty is in and of itself a very significant punishment: for as long as I’m here, my life is not my own. Without wanting to sound patronising, I think it’s hard for someone truly to grasp the reality of this without having felt it.

It’s not just the reality of being confined to a 7’ x 12’ space for 16-19 hours a day – as I’ve described before, I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve adapted to it. What matters more is not being able to choose what I do, where I go, or whom I see on a day-to-day basis. There is so much that I want to do that I simply can’t. I can’t choose where I live, pursue a career, or start a relationship. I can’t just go for a stroll, drive a car, or pop round to see a friend. I can’t cook for myself (or others), go to the shops, or even shower with any real sense of privacy. Most of the things I can do have to be planned and approved in advance, and many things I’m only allowed in small doses, such as hugs from friends, for example.   I could go on.

Point is, if someone is to be deprived of their liberty as a punishment, they should at least be allowed as far as possible to retain their dignity and maintain their sanity.   To do otherwise – far from ‘giving criminals what they deserve’ – would be to do a disservice to society and further damage those in need of rehabilitation. So when I say things are comfortable, this should be weighed against the backdrop I describe. If I read another article using the phrase ‘holiday camp’ in relation to UK prisons, I may well scream. Perhaps I should just avoid reading the copies of The Sun that are left lying about the wing which seem, distressingly, to be the major source of ‘news’ for a large number of inmates.

Anyway, I’ve digressed again. In relative terms, I mostly have praise for this place. I still struggle slightly with calling officers by their first names whilst they continue to refer to us by surname without title (although one female officer did, slightly startlingly, call me ‘babes’ the other day). But I’ve yet to see any of them sat reading a book instead of doing something productive, which is an improvement. They’re usually helpful, and almost all treat us as human beings – one came to see me specially a few days ago to talk about the fact that he’d recently taken up the bass guitar. As prisons go, I wouldn’t mind staying in this one for a bit. I do wish they’d let us buy Marmite though.