“How Soon is Now?”


Date of writing: 13/02/2016

Much of my recent writing has been simple reportage of the fairly mundane day-to-day realities of life in this prison.   Taking a step back, I’ve realised that – for the moment at least – there’s very little by way of drama for me to write about. But this is a good thing. Maybe I’ve started to lose touch a little, but it seems there’s a general sense of normality here that those only familiar with dramatic portrayals of prison might find disorienting. I like to believe that many aspects of my life are not so dissimilar from your own;   I’m just working within a slightly strange framework for living.

I’ve come a long way from the intensity of my early days in a local B-cat prison. That was much closer to what you see in medium-budget BBC dramas, but even there it was less threatening than you might imagine. My memories of the first two weeks – which were spent on a general wing housing upwards of two hundred petty and career criminals – are of noise and shouting, rapidly shifting alliances, illicit deals, and an underlying simmering tension. Keeping my head down and my eyes open – and steering clear of any kind of dealing – meant I never had the slightest scuffle. The one time trouble found me, it was sadly down to the actions of a corrupt officer, but that’s another story. In that instance, I was quickly moved wings, and barring my previously documented chessboard contretemps I suffered no further incidents.

Now, I’m among a much more settled population, where to a large degree we’re left to our own devices in an almost ‘free range’ enclosure.   We’re returned to our coops each evening, but during the day I largely roam unaccompanied in the acres of our compound as a trusted prisoner. I’m rarely searched or challenged, and I feel safer that I would in a provincial town centre of an evening. I can’t recall the last time I witnessed an argument with raised voices, let alone saw anyone throw a punch. I hear about the occasional scrap, but if anything that’s far less often than I’d expect among any community of 800 or so men. On my current wing, I even find myself leaving my door unlocked as I wander about well out of sight of it, which is a first.

Once a person has shelter, warmth, food and security, the rest is just living life. I’m now in that mid-sentence time where I’m mostly being ignored by the system, such as it is, and what I have is time. If you’ve read many of my recent posts, you’ll probably have a reasonable idea of how I fill my days. I work in the chapel: I make coffee, I wash cups, I move chairs around, I vacuum and tidy.   I repair things, and sometimes get to play with the soldering iron. Occasionally I’ll take on a small project like re-designing the wiring of the sound desk. I attend a disproportionately high number of religious services, considering that anybody who closely examined my philosophy would conclude I can’t really be called a Christian. I sing, I make music, I have interesting conversations. I sit with and listen to the recently bereaved, the depressed, the lonely, and the suicidal, and it’s strangely uplifting.

What would you do with your time, if each evening you were confined to a small but fairly comfortable room, with no telephone, no internet and a limited selection of television channels? Perhaps belatedly, this is a question I asked myself a few months ago. It’s easy to while away the time fairly aimlessly, watching programmes that are just a the threshold of maintaining interest, reading, tinkering on the guitar, or simply sleeping too much. This year though, now the acute phase of my emotional adjustment has passed, I’ve been trying to use my time more constructively. Since early January, I’ve been spending around an hour each day studying German – a language I’ve dabbled with in the past, and have long wanted to learn more thoroughly. It was always going to be ‘some day’, but now I have quite an opportunity to catch up on some of the half-hearted promises of self-improvement I’ve made myself over the years.

Of course, it’s not always easy to maintain motivation for the grand goals we set ourselves. But I don’t want to waste these years simply whiling away my time looking ahead to my release date, as though I’ll suddenly be able to start ‘living’ when they let me out. Do you have a ‘release date’? I think we all do it to some degree – waiting for a new job, getting married, having ‘enough money’, retirement … it’s an illusion that’s easy to believe;   my situation is just a microcosm.   Yeah, I still waste time, and plenty of it – although a good friend of mine would say that no time is ever wasted.   Nonetheless, to try to nudge myself, I’ve written a sign in large friendly letters and stuck it on the inside of a cupboard door that I open every day. It says ‘If not now, when?’. It’s a question that’s always worth asking.