“A Meandering Miscellany”

Date of writing: 14/10/2015

To no great surprise, it would appear once again that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. No sooner had I gone to press with my previous post, I discovered that the smoking ban will now be delayed until probably the second half of next year. Reasons cited include the need to ‘ensure adequate provision of cessation services’;   a ‘phased roll-out’ is now being considered. Cowards, if you ask me, but then people don’t tend to ask me as they often know the answers I’d likely give.   Although having said that, I have been invited to participate in research about research. That is to say, kind of meta-research on how research is carried out in the prison and the way it’s perceived by prisoners. Often, when I’m asked to look over something and pass comment, I get complaints of excessive attention to fine detail; it’s something I’m working on moderating, dependent on context. This might be good practice.

It would seem that I’ve started this post as a meandering miscellany, so I shall continue In that vein by passing on the pleasing and slightly surprising news that I got an A* in my iGCSE English Literature. I wasn’t too hopeful after all the disruption of moving prisons and the very short notice I was given for the exam itself, but apparently I managed to pull some plausible responses out of the hat in spite of circumstances. My study of Kafka continues to provide useful insights into the occasionally troubling psychologocracy of this place. On that note, I recently received a memo from the psychology department to the effect that they don’t think there’s any point in them attempting to rehabilitate me, because my risk of re-offending is predicted to be very low.   I have been assessed in various ways, and the several measures of my likelihood of re-offending in the two years after my release average out at around 6%. When compared to an overall recidivism rate among prison populations as a whole that’s near 50%, I can see they clearly have bigger problems than me.   This does of course once again raise the question of why I must continue to sit on the naughty step for the next few years if they don’t think they can teach me any lessons.

Moving on, I’ve finally started training to be a prison Listener, having tried to get involved with this since I first arrived in HMP Anonymous. Most prisons have a Listener scheme, and the Listeners are essentially Samaritans volunteers with more prison-specific training. They play a key role in supporting prisoners in distress and helping to reduce rates of suicide (which are thankfully already low in this particularly institution). Every cell has a call button, and much of the time if it’s pressed during the night it will be to call for a Listener. People know that if they tell something to a Listener then it won’t go any further, even if they talk about suicide. (This is in contrast to conversations with any member of staff, which could lead to someone being put on a watch and woken up every ten minutes to prove they’re still alive. Personally, I’d imagine such sleep deprivation would make things much worse.)   I spent several years doing telephone-based listening for ‘Nightline’ while at university, but it’s quite different to be face-to-face with someone in a small space. The training – provided by local Samaritans volunteers – is so far proving to be informative and at times entertaining.

Part of the reason that new volunteers are being trained now is down to a dearth of Listeners in particular areas of the prison, as people have been released or moved on. It turns out that my wing was not one of the problem areas, and as a result I’ve been abruptly re-situated in one of the A blocks. I now find myself removed from the dilapidated environs of B wing and pleasantly placed in the far north-western corner of the campus, in a building that’s probably only around ten years old.

Each of the eight A blocks (including the induction block) is paired with a mirror-sibling, and arranged to form a pleasant shared courtyard with grass and miscellaneous planting. I’m now on the ground floor, facing onto our courtyard, looking roughly east. There are perhaps two-dozen species of flowers, plants and shrubs I can see from my window. This morning I ate my breakfast while watching a flock of goldfinches just a few feet from my window, as they expertly picked the seeds from something I know only as a ‘hedgehog plant’.

My room – and this is the first I’ve had that feels worthy of being called a room – is probably the largest I’ve had so far.   Its footprint is 2½ x 4 metres (or 8’4” x 13’2” if you’re metrically challenged), but quite a bit of this is taken up by my very own bathroom. Now, I realise that this is the kind of detail that could invoke the ire of the “it’s a bleedin’ ‘oliday camp!” brigade, but believe me, this is no standard feature of the UK prison accommodation. I feel daily grateful to be one of a small minority in such a position.   In any case, it’s not technically a bathroom, as it only has a shower: I’ve not had a bath in over two years. It’s difficult to explain what a difference it makes to be able to shut a door between my bed and my toilet. There’s also something subtly humanising about having standard Armitage Shanks porcelain fittings rather than ugly stainless steel. The (aerated!) taps also actually stay on for a while after you press them down, which is nice.

I’ve never understood why all prison mirrors seem to be installed at a height that would be perfect for oompa loompas but only allows me a view of my nipples. Perhaps there is an assumption that criminals all come from some kind of physically stunted underclass. Or maybe the government constructs prisons using a slave race of genetically engineered homunculi to save on labour costs (low overheads, to steal a joke from Being John Malkovitch). Thankfully, on my travels I’ve managed to obtain a spare Perspex mirror, which moves cells with me and can be removably fixed at an appropriate height using matchsticks and PVA glue.

Anyway, to summarise, I’m now living in something approximating to a basic three-star B & B, so I’ve little to complain about on that front … aside from the fact that I can’t leave my room for 14 hours of the day. Comfortable as I am, the day-to-day limitation of my life choices continues; a gilded cage is still a cage.   In any case, I could at any moment be moved with little warning or reason to a much worse position in this or indeed any prison in the country. So for now, I’m making the most of it, and I hope I get to enjoy it for a while.

A fringe benefit of my new location is that I now have a reasonable commute to work, which takes me past some small trees and various flowerbeds, including at the moment two spectacularly flowering yuccas.   My previous commute was barely a minute along a short corridor to the chapel. Now I can enjoy taking the October air of a morning, and watch the progress of the seasons. I can see many trees in the fields beyond the fences, and watch the kestrels hover and dive on their unsuspecting prey.

Speaking of the chapel, I’ve been tasked with writing and directing the Christmas play. This is generally a ten-minute skit that’s supposed to be humorous but have some kind of message. I’m mostly managing to walk the line of respectful irreverence, but apparently I still need to convince the Catholic deacon that my Pythonesque portrayal of Mary doesn’t go too far. I understand this is largely because the Bishop might be coming to see it. I’m planning to end on a barbershop quartet song to the tune of ‘Mister Sandman’, which summarises the story. So far this seems to be going down well.

By coincidence, three quarters of our quartet (including me) is now living in the same block, which is nice. Our voices seem to work well together (I’m mostly bass), and in conjunction with the Multimedia department we’ve had some good times recording a number of Taizé songs for use in future services. I wish I could share these with you, but alas it’s quite difficult to get approval for recordings to leave the prison. I am however grateful that I continue to have access to entertaining musical outlets.

I’m not sure how to round off such a wandering post, so I shall simply finish with a lame joke … How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb must really want to change …

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