“On the Road Again”

Date of writing: 19/04/2015

The principle that everything changes, and nothing is permanent, is central to Buddhist teaching. In daily life we tend to forget this fact – for it is indeed a fact – until something significant happens to remind us. Whenever we settle into a routine or a comfortable situation, change is usually not far around the corner. For the most part we are powerless to control the world around us and the people in it, much as we would like to believe otherwise. Life in prison presents an amplified microcosm of life outside, and as such it likes to give frequent reminders of our powerlessness.

A little over two weeks ago, I found that I had suddenly been re-categorised from a Category B prisoner to a Category C prisoner.   Ostensibly, this is a Good Thing, because it means I am ‘progressing’: somebody, somewhere believes I’ve been well enough behaved to be manageable in conditions of lower security. Category C is one step away from open conditions (i.e. Category D), and in theory it should mean a greater degree of freedom. In practice of course, it means the thing that most people complain about, and the thing that most complaints have as their root: change.   A Category C prisoner cannot stay in a Category B prison for very long without good reason, however comfortable he may have become.

On Tuesday evening, just as I was on my way off the wing to go to a Quaker meeting, I was taken aside by a no-nonsense Scotswoman (with whom I’d had previous conversations on the topic of moving prisons) and told that I was to be moving Very Imminently. We are never officially told exactly when we’ll be going, so as to minimise the potential opportunity for someone to organise a raid on the bus during transit. However, I took the extreme emphasis she had placed on her words at face value, and once I had returned from chapel I spent the evening organising my possessions and packing them as best I could. Sure enough, at a quarter to midnight – fifteen minutes after the telephones had been disabled for the night – I was passed an envelope through the gap around my door, which told me I’d be off in the morning.

The note also specified that my possessions should fit into three bags, plus any legal paperwork and one outsized item. I’m grateful it didn’t specify the size of the bags. I had a few extra-large heavy-duty clear plastic dustbin sacks set aside for just this purpose, knowing that a move was coming. As it was things barely fitted, and by cheerful encouragement of the staff, I was able to severely stretch the definition of what counted as legal paperwork (Note to self: must archive and hand out some correspondence … the bursting lever-arch file, ring binder, and box of miscellaneous letters accumulated over the last sixteen months is not sustainable). I also maximised the potential of my guitar box (the outsized item) and packed many things around the guitar inside it.

In the departure lounge, I met with half a dozen others also on the way out, not all of who were entirely grateful to be going.   I quickly established that there were three destinations on the list today, and an equal number of buses to distribute us accordingly. My own destination was to be unique and I would have one bus all to myself. This does however make little difference when one is confined to a phonebox-sized compartment within it, on a hard plastic seat with no seatbelt of any kind. I imagine they work on the principle that in the event of a crash we wouldn’t have enough space to pick up much speed, and thus wouldn’t suffer too severely from the ensuing rapid deceleration on hitting the wall. In any case, I still had more legroom than on a Ryanair Flight.

Sarah (the bibliophilic anthropoid) took the time to come down and say goodbye while I was awaiting my egress, for which I was grateful.   The excuse of asking what I’d done with the slightly excessive number of books I had on loan was probably part pretext for a farewell, and part genuine concern for the welfare of the potentially purloined publications. In any case, I shall miss our daily interactions and occasional shared sense of greater empathy with inanimate objects than people. I shall also miss my co-workers A, B and C, and their own social quirks. I hope that A continues to find outlets for his clarinet playing, and perhaps may also find a new badminton partner. I am optimistic that B and C will eventually be deemed safe to release back into society, whether they like it or not … c’mon guys, there’s a world out there and I believe you can be something in it. I also hope that between the four of them they can figure out how to maintain my magical spreadsheets, with or without the help of my carefully written and helpfully illustrated instructions.

As ever, there was much waiting to be done, but eventually I was allowed onto the bus, having warily watched them load my possessions (I once lost luggage at Barcelona checking it between flights on the way to a conference and I now trust nobody to carry out any similar operation unobserved). Remembering my motion sickness on the last trip, I avoided consuming my (somewhat meagre) lunch ration too early. I have developed strategies to minimise the nausea: only looking at things in the far distance, closing my eyes if the far distance is obscured, and careful breathing exercises are all a help. Also, not reading at all while moving. Last time it was a stolen chaplaincy book, this time I had my own copy of Quaker Faith and Practice, which I was freely given for my impending trip, only the night before. But it remained firmly closed unless we were stationary.

I got to see a number of things for the first time – the concrete wall from the outside, the prison car park – and I also got a good look at the surrounding countryside, including the nearby hill with its scattering of sheep. During the relatively short journey – a little over an hour – I saw many things I’d not seen for over nine months; horses, wide open fields, young lambs with their mothers; cows, fences less than fifteen feet high, road signs, wind turbines, Tesco, old oak trees, houses and free people going about their business as usual. This time I was not troubled by these things – rather, they made me smile with the pleasure of seeing them, and knowing they would again be mine in freedom at a date not yet imminent, but nonetheless within reach.

Then, a familiar sight; I had passed this place some months before my incarceration, on a rail replacement bus (surely nobody’s favourite thing), and I expected it would be somewhere I would become familiar with in time, and sure enough here I am. No concrete wall, just two concentric perimeter fences separating it from the surrounding countryside. Cat. C prisons tend to look less oppressive, but I forget how other people can perceive the razor wire. I used to find it intimidating myself, but I realise now that in a practical sense it means very little, unattractive though it may be. So I sat watching the torn remains of an ensnared black plastic bag flutter in the breeze as we waited for the bus to be let into the vehicle lock.

Then, first glimpses of familiar uniforms. Public prisons get called ‘black and whites’ largely because of the staff livery, but from my perspective also for the unsubtle application of seemingly arbitrary rules. Form the start I could feel this difference as I entered Reception. It’s something difficult to define exactly, but the muted militarism of the one-stripe/two-stripe/three-stripe epaulets of rank seems symbolic of ‘their’ separation from ‘us. This is something that was pleasantly absent in the G4S staff of HMP Different. First impressions can of course be deceptive, but it was thus with a slight feeling of apprehension that I began my stay at HMP Arbitrary.