“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.





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