“The Chamber of Insanity”


One of the (many) frustrating things about prison life is the limited control I have over exactly where I’m living.  The accommodation in this prison covers almost the full gamut of possibilities, from reasonably-sized rooms with en-suite shower and windows that actually open, down to the human equivalent of a rabbit hutch a mere 5½ feet wide and a little longer than a bed.  The latter unfortunately necessitates sleeping with your head only inches from a toilet and having a sink double-up as a desk by means of a covering board.  Having temporarily relinquished my right to self-determination, I’m unfortunately at the whim of the machine, and could at any moment be told to move anywhere.  This in theory extends to a movement to any prison anywhere in the country, with the only required justification being the slightly Orwellian phrase “for operational reasons”.

Thankfully, however, those in charge of such decisions are – especially after recent inmate uprisings – well aware of the concept of governance by mutual consent, so in practice we do tend to have some say.  The degree of influence a person has will, it seems, mostly depend on how much of a pain-in-the-arse he’s made himself in the past.  This is one of many reasons it’s best to try to avoid biting the hand that feeds you.

Having been in the same room for nearly 18 months – by far the longest I’ve stayed in one place – it was with a little trepidation that I received the news I’d likely be ‘asked’ to move upstairs in a few days; much as the rooms on this block are all basically the same in terms of layout (barring left-right reflection), there are always differences – for example in state of repair, temperature, and cleanliness (I’ll get back to this one).  Neighbours are also a consideration – they can be friendly, noisy, complainy, helpful, needy, or indeed genuinely insane.  I’ve mostly been lucky, but you never can tell.  So, there’s always apprehension at a potentially adverse change – although I suppose it’s not so much the fear of the unknown, as the fear of the loss of the known. There’s a comfort in the familiar, however uncomfortable it may be in truth.  As it was, I was quite content with my lodgings, so just didn’t really much fancy moving, but… ho-hum.

Now, the previous occupant of my proposed new room was well-known for not quite being the full shilling.  Nice enough chap, but had a tendency to rave-dance to a soundtrack only he could hear, and rant aggressively at passing helicopters – I get the impression he took a lot of pills in the ’90s.  It turns out he also wasn’t that great at looking after himself or his surroundings.  I remember this room under the tenancy of its previous occupant, and it was immaculate.  In the space of only a few months, however, it somehow deteriorated to one of the worst states I’ve seen at HMP Arbitrary.  With hindsight, he probably should have been having help from one of the volunteer Social Care Advocates before it got anywhere near as bad, but it was a little late for that.  I’ll spare the full details, but I still don’t understand how he got dried food splats on the underside of a bottom drawer, or managed to make the outside of the windows worse than the inside.  I did however take encouragement form the fact that it didn’t actually smell too bad.

One of my new neighbours wanted to help out, and has the added bonus of literally being an Obsessive Compulsive cleaner; if he notices a mark on his floor he’ll stay up until the small hours to make sure everything has been done to remove it.  I understand this is actually quite debilitating, but he likes to put it to good use if he can.  So the two of us donned gloves, broke out the bleach, and spent about three hours of the morning scrubbing every surface back to its native hue.  This included parts of the ceiling.  It was actually quite rewarding, and once we were done, I was feeling much more comfortable as I moved my things in.  And then it started.

At first, I thought it was a passing aircraft, or perhaps the tractor from the Gardens Dept. trundling past, but it did not fade.  Indeed, it gradually built, until the sound was comparable to the engine of an articulated lorry idling a few inches from my window:  a deep, rumbling bass note, overlaid with a moderate rattle like there was a loose panel in the door of the driver’s cab.  With my door closed, it resonated around the space in such a way that I wasn’t sure whether I was hearing it or feeling it.  I became perturbed.

Some experimentation led me to pinpoint the source of the rumble: it appeared to emanate from the centre of my ceiling.  The vibration was quite palpable, and resting a hand next to the light fitting the movement seemed to have an amplitude that was a significant fraction of a millimetre.  Pushing hard on the ceiling had the effect of temporarily stopping the loose-panel part of the noise, but somehow this seemed to make the remaining rumble all the more ominous.  It was like that tense part of a horror film where you just know something terrible is about to happen because all you can hear (aside from the ragged breathing of the ill-fated protagonist) is a low, droning note from a double bass.  Suffice it to say that this was not an ideal accompaniment to restful sleep.

Although the drone didn’t continue for the whole night, this somehow made it worse, as the periods of quiet were marred by the nervous anticipation of its inevitable return.  Against such an intrusion my earplugs were useless: the frequency was so low that they appeared to have almost no effect.  I began to consider that perhaps my predecessor wasn’t quite so crazy before he came to live here.  I resolved that my fate would not be the same as his; whatever it took, I would not be spending another night in this chamber of insanity!   I envisioned myself being forcibly dragged back in, screaming lunacies about impending doom, ultimately to be carried off to end my days in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario.  Such were the meanderings of my mind in the small hours.

When morning brought another suspenseful silence, I took my concerns to the officers of the wing – in tones more measured than the above, but still with the insistence of self-preservation.  My suggestion was that I could swap with one of the several Deaf people on the wing, for whom it should present no problem.  Unexpectedly, however, we were suddenly presented with a volunteer in the form of a generally-incomprehensible Geordie dwarf.  Apparently, he’d always wanted to overlook the yard, and was currently in the room opposite the Chamber of Insanity.  After making sure we’d understood his request (I considered calling a professional interpreter), we also made certain he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for.  He was bizarrely unconcerned, and accepted all disclaimers – even after having listened carefully to the Harbinger of Doom present (albeit at some distance) above his head.  So we swapped that very afternoon.

The transition – at least, for me – has been sublime.  I have long coveted the westerly prospects offered by the upper windows on this side, and I’ve not been disappointed.  I shall describe for you my vista.   Between this building and the inner fence is a band of grass, perhaps 10 or 15 metres wide, which is roughly mown on the near and far sides but left with a broad meandering middle that contains all manner of wildflowers, nettles, small saplings, insect hotels, and bird boxes – one of which appears currently to harbour a family of blue tits.  The twin parallel fences – with a sandwich filling of a few metres of coarse gravel – are probably around 18 feet high, but the whole of the inner and the upper half of the outer is made from a mesh which can be seen through quite clearly.  Beyond this is the outside world.

A long, slug-like embankment – apparently flat and grassy on top, and scattered with a variety of young trees and shrubbery – seems to rise gradually from the left before descending to a hedgerow on the right.  Behind the embankment and hedge, not far at all from the fence, snakes a small local road, where I can see the tops of taller vehicles as they pass by.  If I look at a 45 degree angle to the right, there’s a gap in the hedge where I can see the road and some farm buildings beyond.  Quite often, I’ll hear what I imagine is a farmer shooting rabbits with what sounds like a double-barrelled shotgun (the bangs come in pairs).  A few days ago I was slightly startled to see a man on the embankment nonchalantly walking his Staffordshire bull terrier.  If he’d glanced my way I could’ve waved at him.  Perhaps I’ll go and stand there myself one day.

On the far side of the road, beyond more hedges and trees, are acres and yet more acres of open fields, which are currently painted with the brilliant yellow of rapeseed flowers.  My horizon to the left is bounded by the lights and the traffic of the A-road that passes in front of the prison – close enough to count the lorries, but far enough to keep the peace.  To the right, some distant low hills and a few lazy pylons complete the panorama to give a near-uninterrupted view of a sunset sky.  As Spring rolls on, Orion is giving way to Auriga and Gemini – constellations that are much clearer with no lights shining into my window – and I wake each morning to the twitterings of sparrows and finches, and the occasional rasping call of a pheasant in the hedgerow.

As for the rumble, I’ve come to understand that it’s caused by an unbalanced extractor fan in the roof space.  Screws have now been put into the ceiling to curb the worst of the rattle, and the diminutive North easterner seems largely to have accepted the rest.  Maybe I’m just an over-sensitive Southern softie.  In any case, it was a stressful few days, but I think it all turned out rather well in the end.