“The Arbitrarians”

Date of writing: 12/05/2015

Before continuing the story of my early escapades here at HMP Arbitrary, I’d like to take a moment to digress into relating some of the silliness that led me to coin this establishment’s humorous handle.   I have already mentioned a few things such as the telephone time limit, and my grey/black trousers, but these are a mere drop in the iceberg. Continuing on the theme of clothes, you may recall I expressed indignation at being issued with ‘corned beefs’ on arrival. I now have a clear grasp of what we can and can’t wear, and when (and indeed, where).

“Yes,” I was told, “you may certainly wear your own clothes.” Then came the caveats:   “Of course, only at the weekends, or on Friday afternoons.” Well, that doesn’t sound too bad I guess. “Oh, but not in the chapel. Or the library. Or on visits. Or about the grounds and between buildings.”   Right, so, only on the wing then?   “– and in the yard, of course!”   Well, that’s something I suppose.   But can’t I just wear my own jeans instead of these very similar prison-issue ones? “No! That would be mixing prison-issue and non-prison-issue clothes!” Ah, yes, how silly of me – now you mention it I think I recall reading about that in Leviticus somewhere.   “…and you need to tuck that shirt in.”   But (pointing) his isn’t tucked in!   “That’s a T-shirt. Yours has a collar.” Right. “And most importantly, never wear your green trousers in the library.” But they’re prison issue! “Yes, but they’re GREEN!” Sigh.

A few days ago I saw someone come into the library wearing green trousers, and the reaction of the librarian was that of a cat to a vampire.   I don’t think he’ll be doing it again.   Speaking of the library, all books here must be security vetted, and I really am baffled as to what arbitrary criteria they might use. One example: we are allowed to read The Lord of the Rings, but Heaven forfend that we should be corrupted by the malign influence of The Hobbit. I will give a full description of the library at some point, as I promised to one bibliophilic reader in particular – don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten.

I shall now revisit the topic of my DVD player, as touched on in my last post. I was grateful to be reunited with it (along with my other electricals), neatly bedecked with electrical safety testing labels. The first problem I had was an expected one, but nonetheless frustrating.   I purposely bought a player with an HDMI connection, because it’s basically impossible to buy a television without such an interface now, and HMP Different’s televisions were no exception.   The public prisons, however, still reside in the 1990s (and that’s being generous) so all the TVs here are old CRTs with SCART sockets. SCART, incidentally, is the interface of the Devil himself and was evidently designed by a committee of maladroit sadists, but that’s by the by. Anyway, I could buy a cable to connect it up, but it would be pointless. Why? Because we’re not allowed to own any DVDs. Yes, that’s right, we are allowed to have a DVD player, but under no circumstances can we have any DVDs. We can’t even borrow those benign titles they keep in the chapel such as Jesus of Nazareth, or the live performances of Christian rock band Delirious. To use an Americanism I’d usually avoid: go figure.

Much as I might describe my politics as socialist-leaning – I’m all for re-nationalisation of the railways, despair at the creeping privatisation of the NHS (and don’t even ask my opinion on the recent election) my stance on private prisons seems to have become more tolerant. There’s a certain momentum to Her Majesty’s Prison Service, maintained by the Palaeolithic viewpoint of a small ‘old guard’ of officers and bureaucrats that tends to colour the training of the new recruits. There are many good officers here, but there is sometimes a background of bending to The Machine, and a subtle deferring to ‘the way things are done’: sometimes rules is rules, and there’s no questioning them, however arbitrary. Private prison staff seem to have less of this baggage, and from my own experience can be more likely to do what makes sense on a human level. This is certainly not something I expected.

Gradually though, the old guard is being eroded: retiring, losing influence, or being made redundant (albeit in short-sighted attempts at cost-cutting that lead to dangerous staff shortages). Perhaps private prisons are a window on the future of the Black and Whites.   Or maybe all prisons will be privatised eventually. In either case, I’m reassured when I hear old officers saying that things are going to pot just because we’re allowed to wear trainers on visits now. It tells me that by degrees we’re making progress, and the days of the arbitrarians are numbered.




‘HMP Arbitrary’

Date of writing: 30/04/2015

After a minimal rub-down search, I began on the familiar conveyor-belt/roundabout of Reception. I was slightly taken aback to be immediately issued with ‘corned beef’ prison-issue clothes and instructed to change into them. Having been exclusively in my own clothes for nine months, I’d all but forgotten the distinctive smell of industrial prison laundry. I expect I’ll complain more about this later. Anyway, my surprisingly large accumulation of gubbins was laboriously unpacked and inspected (although in many cases quite cursorily) before being much less neatly re-packed into different bags.

Any black clothes were taken into ‘stored property’, and this included a pair of trousers that to me were very clearly grey.   Having pointed this out I was told that they were indeed black and I therefore couldn’t have them. I gently begged to differ, but it was a token effort as I could see that these were officers that would never accept the possibility of losing face by changing their minds and agreeing with me. All of this is of course entirely aside from the absurdity of the rule – if the security of the prison relies on us not wearing black trousers, then I think they probably need to look into reviewing it.

Anything electrical was put to one side, and I was told I’d get it back after it had been ‘PAT tested’ (to use a familiar tautology). My electricals currently comprise one DAB radio/CD player and speakers, one set of hair clippers, one two-way socket adaptor cube, and one DVD player. I shall come back to that last item in my next post, for reasons both frustrating and amusing. I should add that I also had a small kettle, but this was put into storage on the grounds that kettles are provided. I asked when I would see my as yet untested electricals again, knowing how slowly the wheels of public prisons tend to turn, and was told ‘it shouldn’t take long’.   By way of calibration I asked whether in this prison that meant hours, days, weeks, months, or years and was reassured that it should only be a few days (I was subsequently grateful to find this had been an accurate assessment).

There were numerous pieces of paper to read and/or sign, forms to fill in, and various interviews to be had with people including a portly African nurse. As usual, I was asked so many times whether I had any drug or alcohol problems, or if I was having any thoughts of harming myself, that I began to consider either as possible options to block out the incessant questioning. Eventually, all administration was apparently done, and I loaded my bags precariously onto the sort of chunky-pneumatic-wheeled cart you might find at a garden centre. As I cautiously wobbled this the short distance from the Reception building to the Induction block along a few pavements and concrete ramps, I was sure I heard my name being called, and saw a hand that might have been waving, protruding between the bars of a window. My concentration at that point though was focussed on preventing an avalanche of CDs and muesli while counterbalancing my guitar box, so I decided to ignore it for the moment.

Passing through a pleasantly planted quadrangle, I brought my cart through the doors of the block to be confronted by a queue of people with plates, evidently awaiting their tea. After a little tricky manoeuvring I came to my new accommodation: a reasonably-sized cell that was to be shared with Boris (a name of his own choosing), a chap exactly ten days my junior with a mop of blonde hair (hence the nickname) and a friendly demeanour. Having brought my stuff in, the first thing I did was to apologise for its volume. As a relative veteran (sadly on a recent recall to prison), he’s seen it all before and didn’t appear to mind. He seemed a pretty good draw for cellmate number ten. This impression was only reinforced when I later discovered that he sings in the chapel choir. After I’d managed to vaguely squirrel most of my things away, we spent much of that evening with my guitar out, going through my repertoire of hymns and liturgical music with an occasional detour into the more general and/or amusingly inappropriate. In summary, we got on pretty well.

The following morning brought the first of many ‘induction sessions’, giving me information on everything from the gym, chapel, and library, to an unnecessarily long-winded description of fire safety procedures from someone who enjoyed his job significantly more than did his captive audience. These miscellaneous minor excursions allowed me to get a bit of a feel for the place. A number of things struck me, both good and bad. The induction block – and indeed all of the several blocks comprising ’A wing’ – is relatively modern, and probably not much more than ten years old. In a deviation from the familiarity of a large, open wing with two or more ‘landings’ (i.e. floors) and cells opening onto a single and (at least in terms of volume) often cathedral-like space, these blocks have much more in common with a youth hostel. Accommodation is arranged in a few corridors over two floors, with various rooms of utility dotted about, such as showers, a kitchen/servery, a games room (with pool and darts – yes, pointy things appear to be allowed here) and a central office.

The similarity to more voluntary accommodation continues with the way we can move about. Being of a lower security category, movement is in general much freer here. Once we have been unlocked at around eight in the morning, we are not normally locked in again at any point until quarter past six in the evening. With a few technical restrictions, during this time we can move relatively unhindered from place to place, without needing to be escorted by an officer.   For example, the library is open most days and we can walk there (which takes several minutes) accompanied only by a small slip of paper that nobody ever really looks at properly. On leaving any of the A blocks one simply has to deposit one’s door key at the hatch on the way past so that they know when people are out: again, quite hotel-like.

The showers are fully screened and pleasantly powerful, but most importantly, of stable temperature: there are no sudden fluctuations from scorching to freezing and vice-versa, which is a welcome change. Telephones, however, are less good.   There are no phones in the cells, so it’s back to standing at the old payphone-style contraptions in the corridors.   On top of this, calls are restricted to ten minutes in length. However, there is no restriction on time between calls, so a half-hour conversation simply has to happen in three sections with two pauses for redialling.   This is mildly irritating, renders the restriction almost irrelevant, and frankly seems just arbitrary. As will probably become clear in my next post, this is only one of many items of arbitrarity that have led me to name the place as I have.

The A wing environs are quite pleasant, being planted with many interesting flowers, shrubs, and even small trees. The ‘exercise yard’ nestled between the induction block and its sibling opposite is mostly grass and flowerbeds, with a concrete path around the edge. There is a young ornamental cherry tree of about five feet in height – currently in full and fairly spectacular bloom – at the centre of a wide planted circle of clumps of interesting grasses. With the wooden benches dotted around, I could almost be convinced it was a hall of residence in some modern campus university – but for the windows being split into the usual array of vertical strips, none wide enough to get a head through.

The morning after I arrived, it was on this exercise yard that I solved the mystery of the disembodied waving hand and its accompanying half-heard call of recognition. Harry, cellmate number eight (and my last in HMP Anonymous), greeted me with an enthusiastic hug – something understandably unusual between prison inmates. I would say I was glad to see him, and indeed I was in my own selfish way, but at the same time I couldn’t help the feeling of sadness at him being here at all. From what he’d previously said, I’d hoped he would have been acquitted and long gone, but alas not.   He told me of several others I would know that are here, including Gordon, who you may recall conducted the tasteful Pagan funeral for Edward Woodlouse last summer.

By strange coincidence, that same day another familiar face arrived on the wing. Elliot is in his early twenties, sports an unruly mass of white-man’s dreadlocks, and although he’s experimented with rather more psychoactive substances than is probably advisable, he has a keen intelligence that is always looking for an outlet and so makes for an interesting conversationalist. He tells me he’s gained me a reader: hello to you, and thank you for listening. I’ll do what I can to keep an eye on him, as I know he needs it sometimes.

Over the subsequent week I had the chance to meet up with half a dozen familiar faces, as well as making the acquaintance of more others than I care to count. I passed several evenings with Boris and the extremely tired Scrabble set belonging to the wing. I was distressed to be beaten by him every time, but on one of those occasions I at least had the excuse that I was too busy colouring in the severely faded letters with a fine marker to pay proper attention. After nine nights of mixed amusements of such like, I had begun to settle a little and started to feel comfortable. Which of course means that I was about to be suddenly uprooted and shifted to B wing …. …