“Concerts, Deaf Culture and Coffee”   


How do you make your coffee in the morning?  Perhaps this seems like a non-question, with only trivial answers, but humour me for a moment in my introductory digression.  I only relatively recently fell off the non-caffeine wagon, having spent several years ‘dry’ following a period of excessive consumption that I concluded was bad for my overall mental health.  During this time I did sometimes sorely miss a good cup of coffee:  while decaf has its merits, I don’t really count it as the same drink.

Having returned to a state of carefully-controlled caffeination (one or two cups, mornings only except if Listener duties or similar demand communicative consciousness in the small hours), I was a little excited to see basic filter coffee appear on the list of things we can buy.  Of course, in the absurdist tradition of HMP Arbitrary, we have naturally been offered no means by which to brew it.  The Polish, it seems, are apt to make it in the cup and rely on a combination of settlement and filtration through the teeth.  I (in company with others) am not a great fan of this method, and went through several iterations of attempts with J-cloths, paper towels, and even old (and, I would add, clean) boxer shorts, before I came up with a practical and re-usable solution.  But nothing’s ever straightforward in prison.

First, I had to barter for a plastic Ovaltine jar, because I’ve established that when inverted, its slightly conical lid will sit neatly in the top of a mug. Second, I needed to cut the jar in half, across the widest point of its barrelled cross-section.  This necessitated the careful application of a pencil sharpener blade, which is always hazardous to the fingers (how to remove said implement from its mounting is an issue in itself, of course).  Next, I wanted to cut out a disc from the lid, leaving only the conical threaded section, but found the pencil sharpener was too feeble to pierce its thicker plastic.  So I turned to my trusty small bent piece of metal, which I found somewhere about three years ago and decided it could be useful for something and kept it.  Indeed it’s turned out to be just the right shape for so many things – in this case, heating over a lighter and sort of melt-sawing through the lid.  I would add that subsequently, lighters have been banned, which has caused its own problems that I shan’t go into here, for the sake of some semblance of brevity.

Finally, I needed a filter material of some sort.  About a year ago I plucked up the courage to attend the slightly intimidating macho environment of the gym to play badminton, only to be told (Arbitrarily) that I couldn’t wear a T-shirt for this, and must instead wear a vest.  I solved that problem by simply unpicking the T-shirt’s sleeves and just calling it a vest.  Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure at the time why I kept these sleeves, but it turns out that when stretched over the end of the Ovaltine jar and held in place by the threaded part of the lid, the mesh of T-shirt material is just right for filtering coffee.

All of this is of course the quintessence of #FirstWorldPrisonProblems, and I’m under no illusions that any of it really matters.  Indeed, I’m grateful to have the option of good coffee.  I just wanted to give you another small insight into the mundane minutiae of my day-to-day reality.  I hope you’ve found it mildly diverting.

Speaking of diversions, I recently left my job at the Craft workshop to start work as an Education Mentor.  The workshop instructor has moved on to a job with better pay and conditions after (as I understand it) serving a term of over 20 years.  He is much missed, and whilst the two men who’ve been brought in to replace him are nice enough chaps, they don’t have his experience and skills.  The function of the workshop has had to shift towards furniture reconditioning, and although this is a worthwhile enterprise, for me it’s removed most the creativity from it, so I decided to move on.  And it seems I’ve not been the only one – they’re struggling to plug the brain drain, and have developed a bit of an employee turnover problem.  I do hope it settles down eventually.

Meanwhile, over in the Education Dept., I’m doing my Andy Dufresne bit in trying to help teach what’s known as ‘Functional Skills’ English and Maths.  As I’ve noted before, literacy levels in prison can be startlingly low, and these courses are designed by City & Guilds to cover what literacy and numeracy people might need in day-to-day life.  In theory, this goes up to the equivalent of about a grade C at GCSE level, but the range of topics is much smaller than a whole GCSE.  It’s meant to be mostly a tick in a box for a potential employer if someone missed out on getting a pass grade at school (or indeed managed to avoid school entirely).

I haven’t yet completely decided how much I’m enjoying it:  there have been a number of rewarding moments, but they’re interspersed with periods of relative boredom.  It can certainly sometimes stretch my lateral thinking – finding new ways to explain something that to me seems utterly self-evident can be a challenge.  Somewhere between assuming too much and being insultingly patronising there is surely a happy medium, but I have the impression I don’t always find it.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I didn’t get on so well when I tried teaching Secondary School Science ten years ago.

One of the things that has certainly held my interest is working with a Deaf student who has been improving his English, essentially as a second language (after British Sign Language).  Though I’ve had no formal training in BSL, I’ve now got to a level where I can hold a reasonably fluid conversation with occasional stumbles over a particular concept that might need ‘fingerspelling’.  The wonderful thing about BSL is that even if I don’t know the exact sign for something, I can often get quite complex concepts across using a combination of near-synonymous signs and a kind of mime.  This also leads to a fantastic new world of possibility in visual jokes, which probably wouldn’t be funny in English by the time you’d finished explaining them.  I’m also beginning to get an insight into Deaf culture, which I hadn’t even really known was a distinct thing until perhaps 18 months ago.

It has made me realise that the way we think about things can be strongly influenced by the structure of the language we use to express them.  I don’t claim any new discovery on this front – it just hadn’t really been quite so clear to me before.  Because of the lack of specific linguistic subtlety in BSL – for example, the same sign can be used for ‘why’, ‘reason’, ‘because’, and ‘purpose’, dependent upon facial expression and context – when using English, a Deaf person might come across as abrupt or rude.  In fact this is often better interpreted as directness, or perhaps a kind of habitual ‘cutting to the chase’.  The nature of BSL does tend to invite this, and once you get the hang of it, it can be quite liberating.  I can see now that Deaf people across the country (and to some extent, the world) form as distinct a community culture as, say, Italians with varying levels of English living in a British city.  This is where the capital ‘D’ comes from, to distinguish cultural users of BSL from those who have little or no hearing but still communicate principally or exclusively in English.  This is a potentially controversial topic which I’m sure is discussed elsewhere on the Internet in great depth, so I will leave it at that, at least for the moment.

Something that will have been of little interest to our Deaf community is the pair of concerts we recently held to raise money for the Red Cross Grenfell Tower Relief Fund.  Having taken over the B-wing dining hall for a day, we found the demand for tickets was such that we did it all again two weeks later.  In the end, perhaps 250 people (mostly prisoners) came, and the total raised is looking like it should come close to £1,000.  I’ve been quite impressed by the range of talent we have here, with acts varying from classic ‘60s covers, through home-spun rap to modern pop.  I did a few solo guitar pieces, but having listened back to the recording of my drumming I’ve realised I really need to let go of any illusions I had about being the next Phil Collins.  It was all a lot of fun though.

I forget whether I’ve previously written about being a part of a psychology research group here, whereby a small number of prisoners is consulted by staff from the Psychology Dept. (which is linked to a local university) about how they conduct their research into prisoners’ rehabilitation and reoffending.  This is often fascinating, and also frequently involves cake.  Recently one of the researchers has taken to giving me research papers for proofreading and comment before they’re sent for peer-review, which feels like quite a privilege.  For a while now, I’ve been considering a career in proofreading, copy-editing and technical writing, and so far I’m enjoying the practice.

I shall end this post by sending my best wishes to Larry back at HMP Different, whose birthday is later this month – I hope you’re well, and continuing to make ever more impressive constructions from matchsticks.  My regards also to the keeper of the incunabula, whom I have not forgotten.  And to you who choose not to (or cannot) be in touch, thank you for reading.


May, 2017

There’s a no-man’s land between you and I;
a band of grey, brown tufted through,
bare metres wide and lined in razor heights:
a margin,
where Nature scribbles her faltering pen.

My side, she writes constrained:
a close-controlled, redacted chapter;
for you the land’s bestrewn with reams
cast by her sweeping arm,
where kestrels dive from blue
through wanton arcs of vivid ink
to sink in yellow fields
and rise triumphant.

Yet heedless are the ones who perch
plump and unconcerned,
this side or that,
to murmur greetings that disturb our faith
in the rulings of the clumsy quill of man.

“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.

“A Spring Wedding and Sundry Silliness”


And so it is, that the mornings continue inexorably to lighten, the chiffchaff echoes its insistent call from the hedgerow beyond the fence, the daffodil shamelessly flaunts its luminous bloom, and the change of the seasons is marked by my concession that the UHT milk on my bran flakes – which was formerly kept passably cool on my windowsill – can now at best be described as disagreeably tepid.   And yet, still frequently when I go out, I find myself thinking – with a slight shiver – that I probably should have brought a hat.  This then, must be Spring.

Believe it or not, I went to a wedding last week.  There are currently three Chapel Orderlies: a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim.  This fine example of religious harmony – which is of course crying out for a punchline – is something I suspect is rare outside the unavoidably inter-faith context of a prison, but here it seems to be working rather well.  None of them, however, has yet quite got to grips with our various sound gear, and so I was temporarily seconded back to give them a hand for a morning down in the visits hall.

The couple in question have, as I understand it, been together for more than three decades, at least two of which the groom has spent behind bars.  They nonetheless have several adult children, and at least one toddling grandchild, who was among the dozen or so guests who came from outside in full formal attire, along with registrars and a photographer.  I have to say that in many respects it felt exactly like any other register office wedding – aside of course from the two uniformed officers lurking discreetly at the back of the room.  Parts of the service were quite moving – the chaplain had come prepared with tissues, which she distributed to grateful relatives – and even my own eyes weren’t completely dry, despite not having met the couple before the day.  There was sadly no alcohol for a toast, but the cake was delicious.

There’s always a degree of dark humour in prison, and perhaps we can take this too far sometimes – but I think it helps us all get through.  In any case, I couldn’t help but chuckle when the Muslim orderly turned to me during the service and, indicating his shiny black shoes, said “Last time I wore these I got a life sentence.”  His own laughter was perhaps a little too loud to be completely convincing.  Of course, it would be the Catholic who then, nodding towards the groom, chimed in with”…and now he’s volunteering himself for a second one.”  A time-worn sentiment I know, but it somehow has an added resonance in such a context.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that at the end of their wedding day, she will have gone back out into the world under the razor wire and through the gates, and he will have gone back to his cell, and slept alone.

Meanwhile, life in the rest of the prison goes on.  Finally, after much dithering, we have been allowed to wear our own clothes, most of the time.  Naturally though, this being HMP Arbitrary, they couldn’t make it simple.  Each person must make a choice, and if they choose to wear their own clothes they must relinquish all that is prison-issue, and they cannot revert.  But … there are odd exceptions … we must keep our green trousers, which must be worn in all workshops – but still never – ever – in the library.  We must also still never mix our own and the prison’s clothes.  Once it was pointed out that this would make all workshops potentially shirt-free zones, they had to hastily back-track and say we could keep prison T-shirts.  This was of course after many people had already surrendered them.  The tangles over ifs and buts continue to rumble a little, but the dust of the slightly bungled implementation is mostly settling, and on the whole it has made life slightly easier and a little more comfortable.

Since the smoking ban, tobacco has become a very valuable commodity, and increasingly rare (though if you know the right people and are prepared to pay the absurd prices, it can be found).  The latest craze, however, is smoking a (probably highly toxic) mixture of peppermint tea and the scrapings from nicotine patches, rolled up in Gideon Bible pages.  If I hear of people doing this, I’ve been trying to encourage them to at least start at the back, because, let’s face it, the Book of Revelation probably makes about as much sense in the smoking as it does in the reading.  Punishments for those caught smoking any kind of substance can be quite harsh, so in all it’s probably best to stick to the e-cigarettes, which are still permitted and freely available.  But there are those who just seem intent on finding new and innovative ways to destroy their lungs.

As I write, I am sat in the tea room of the Craft workshop, unable to finish the pine tables I’ve designed due to the required wood not yet having arrived.  I mention this as it’s a good illustration of the unintended and counter-productive consequences of target-based performance measures.  Every prison is expected to produce a variety of statistics, one of which relates to the proportion of prisoners engaged in so-called ‘purposeful activity’.  Despite my being unable to do anything of constructive value this afternoon, I’m required to remain in the workshop so that the statistics will show another body apparently being purposefully active.  This has been the case for several days now, and my requests to attend the library, gym, or indeed anywhere else instead have been (predictably) declined, because these don’t count in the stats.  So the need to show as many bums on seats as possible frequently has the effect of preventing people actually doing anything useful.  It’s something worth considering the next time you see an announcement of some target proudly met.  On the plus side, I have been able to get a lot of reading done.  Does that count as purposeful activity?





Scattered Mumbles


The pale and swelling chestnut shells,
their spines not yet staunch in purpose,
cast August in hanging shades of Autumn
while the air is yet to hang redolent
with the smoulder of gardeners’ rakings.

So too, February brings the scattered mumbles
of wood pigeons, as they clear their throats
in slow recall of how a Spring is made
not just from light and eager growth,
but with steady promise of what’s yet to come.

“A Brexit Christmas and the Vompocalypse”


I’m out next year. Feels slightly strange writing that, but it’s a milestone of sorts. People tend to count these little things on their progress towards release – that is, if they know when they’re getting out. Some have had to become accustomed to living one year to the next, never sure what they’re aiming towards. I was talking to someone a few weeks ago, in casual conversation about where we’d lived in the past – amongst other things – and I mentioned the town where I used to own a house. He became a little animated, saying, “Ah, yeah, I know [town name] – I done my murder there!”, and proceeded to explain which road it was on, checking I was familiar with the landmarks along the way – as though he were giving directions to a favourite pub.

While any murder is of course a tragedy, it’s often the way of such prison conversations to take as darkly humorous tone. But then I saw his expression subtly change, and his eyes assumed a faraway look as he added “…Course, that was 27 years ago…”. Somehow that brought the reality home. I don’t think you’d know a murderer if you met one – I’ve met dozens, and I still can’t pick ‘em out. It’s a strange world I live in.

Now, I seem to remember writing something last January about looking at 2016 with a cautiously optimistic eye. Looking back, in terms of the global political situation my optimism appears to have been, well, optimistic. Personally speaking however, all things considered, it could have been a lot worse. Practical achievements include mastering the basics of British Sign Language, significantly improving my understanding of German, and learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube in around 90 seconds. The latter is of course utterly useless and around thirty years too late to be cool, but a fun thing to boast nonetheless. My enforced monasticism also continues to give me the opportunity to develop my long-neglected creative side – something I’ve come to realise is probably vital for my future functioning as a semi-normal human being.

On that note, the Christmas play turned out surprisingly well. Aside from a minor interrogation by a deputy governor about who’d vetted the script because some of it was a little close to the line (that’s a win from my perspective), and having to personally apologise to one of the Evangelical chaplains for my “grossly offensive” portrayal of a Jewish stereotype (he clearly missed the heavy dose of irony), I ended up receiving an embarrassment of compliments. The No.1 Governer gave us an unprecedented standing ovation – largely, it would seem, due to her sympathy with what she took as the play’s overtly anti-Brexit message. It wasn’t my intention, but I suppose my political bias must’ve seeped in just a tad. I hope it’s been possible to attach a PDF of the script too this post, so you can judge for yourself if you like… brexit143

My fourth prison Christmas was pleasantly uneventful. The food wasn’t too bad, and the roast potatoes were almost believable. A dozen or so of us clubbed together for a buffet in the afternoon (I made some peanut brittle – quite tricky in a microwave), and I can’t decide if I’m ashamed or proud to say that watching Frozen moved me to shed a tear or two. I used my small annual ration of real butter for a late breakfast of kippers on toast on Boxing Day. Lovely.

It’s strange how tastes evolve; I was thinking to myself the other day that I must’ve forgotten how terrible UHT milk is. Time was, I couldn’t bear it, even in tea. Now it seems I’m happy to drink it neat; I even almost like it – I’m practically French. I wonder whether I’ll end up objecting to the taste of real milk. I do hope not.

All digressions aside, 2017 is shaping up reasonably well so far. I’ve started spending my mornings learning about double-entry bookkeeping and Sage accounting (which is surprisingly more fascinating than it sounds), and it looks like I’ll soon have half a dozen more City & Guilds certificates to add to my collection. I begin to believe I could comfortably manage the finances of a small business, which may well come in handy when I get out. In the afternoons I’ve moved on to making picture frames in the Craft shop, from a big block of beech downwards, which is rather pleasing. Sometimes I’ll spend a few hours being interrogated by Psychologists, who still aren’t really sure what (if anything) they want to do with me; the process is interesting though.

Predictions of chaos following the smoking ban have proved almost entirely unfounded, with little more than passive-aggressive mumblings of complaint. There was some profiteering, with grossly inflated prices being charged for individual roll-ups, followed by a few victims being moved around between wings in an attempt to evade their creditors. The Seg was apparently full over Christmas, with some overflow onto the adjacent wing, but more than a month later things seem pretty much back to normal. The wonderful thing is, I’m now able to leave my door open without feeling like I’m living in an ashtray. Most seem to have taken well to e-cigarettes, which – despite their current ubiquity – appear to leave the air mercifully untainted.

One thing that hasn’t been so good this year, at least so far, is the health of the prison population. The first week of January saw an outbreak of a flu-like illness, to which I myself succumbed with bouts of mild hallucination. I can’t complain too much though as the last time I recall having a fever was during the swine flu epidemic of late 2007. These things tend to blow over without too much trouble, but as I write this, the prison is currently in the grip of what can only be described as a Vompocalypse…

The first sign I encountered was a couple of nights ago, on a Listener call, when what had been a fairly normal conversation with a client took a turn for the bilious as he suddenly had to rush to my toilet, and I was reminded once again how grateful I am that it has a closable door. The night-duty officers – who I now know were engaged elsewhere with similar cases – took over an hour to arrive and escort him back to his own room. During this period he was mostly engaged in intermittent bouts of copious vomiting.

Having previously suffered the horror of norovirus, after he left I spent the best part of an hour bleaching pretty much everything while trying not to open my mouth, as I feared I recognised the symptoms. Thankfully, as yet I remain well, which is more than can be said for (at the last count) over 200 others. All but essential services have gone into lockdown, all visits have been cancelled for the next four days, blue vinyl gloves abound, and some officers have taken to wearing Japanese-style facemasks. Anyone with symptoms is being confined to quarters for a minimum of 48 hours, and there’s a rolling programme of deep cleaning. In short, it’s a lot like being on a cruise ship. Let’s hope the captain doesn’t get too close to those islands, and hopefully I’ll see you when we dock …

“An Overdue Update”


There’s been quite a gap in my postings here, and I thank those who’ve been asking after me. By any normal measure I’d be lying if I said it was because I’ve been too busy.   In truth, in my situation there should always be time to write, as my evenings never contain any structured activity beyond 7pm. Admittedly, I’ve had quite a lot of Listener calls recently, often at distinctly unsociable hours, but I’ve still had more nights off than on, so to speak. Partly I’ve told myself I’ve been waiting until I had some interesting things to say, and I never quite reached my own arbitrary threshold for that. The Internet is full of the writings of people who haven’t really got anything to say, so sometimes I feel reluctant to add to that background noise. It’s perhaps a good thing that my day-to-day life seems to contain no more (or less) that’s of interest than that of someone who is not incarcerated. As I think I’ve suggested before, in many ways my life is probably not unlike yours.

All of this got me wondering why it is that people with apparent time on their hands don’t get round to doing things. In my own case, over the last few months I’ve had a continuing series of vaguely creative tasks that I needed/wanted to complete – in some cases by a specific deadline. In such a situation I feel a bit like a computer whose desktop is apparently clear of running applications, and yet seems reluctant even to open Word.   If you listen carefully there’s a faint but somewhat insistent chuntering of the hard drive as it performs background tasks – useful or otherwise – which seem to keep it sort of distracted.

I suspect I’m not alone in this experience. Sometimes it’s not just time I need, but space in subconscious background working memory. In the absence of any ability to upgrade my RAM, it’s often easier for me to get lost in reading (I’ve been grateful to have been sent a few surprise books recently), or doze in front of a BBC wildlife documentary, and let my background tasks do their thing while I remain outwardly unproductive and sedentary.   Perhaps I’m just making excuses for myself …

So, I’ll give you a bit of an update on what I’ve been up to. Firstly, after well over a year working in the Chapel, my tenure officially came to an end at the beginning of August, and I chose to move to the Craft Workshop. In the past, I’ve made many things from wood, and it’s something I’ve found quite satisfying. I sometimes wonder if the new owners of my house – whomever they ended up being – are enjoying my various Danish-oiled creations, or if they’ve ripped them out in favour of Ikea flatpack minimalism. In any case, I feel quite philosophically unattached to these things – I enjoyed the process of creating them, and while they were mine I enjoyed their form and utility. So, while I have the opportunity for essentially free tuition, I decided I’d like to have a go at some more traditional joinery.

There’s a well-trodden path of learning in Workshop 13, starting with a functionally useless but educational frame comprising mortise-and-tenon, haunched mortise, half lap, and dovetail joints. After this, we must build a small box with dovetailed sides and a hinged lid inlaid with a design of some kind (I chose an ‘impossible triangle’ formed from three different hardwoods). I’m now working on the larger ‘shoeshine’ box, which is a traditional design with a drawer and a removable tray. I’ve been learning the use of quite a range of manual and power tools, including a router, which I’ve decided is on my must-have list once I’m in a position to start building things in the outside world again.

It’s not simply an educational workshop, but takes commissions from departments in this and other prisons, as well as local organisations. At the moment there’s a small production line for exceptionally high quality hardwood benches. For the time and attention to detail each individual part receives, I don’t imagine they could be sold economically if they were produced outside, but when each of the workers is paid only £10.60 per week, the cost of materials becomes the dominant factor. Some people in the workshop are highly skilled, and importantly seem able to work in a mindful way. It can be a peaceful place to work in all aspects except the literal – there’s no real time pressure, and an emphasis on quality over productivity, but I spend most of my day wearing ear-defenders …

In other news, it became clear over the summer that nobody else was going to volunteer to write the Christmas play, so I’ve put together another slightly unorthodox skit, which I might share with you at some point. Rehearsals seem to be going well now, and our new managing Chaplain required only relatively minor edits.   If I had a free hand, the whole thing would be much darker and more surreal, but I accept the need for it to be essentially ‘panto’ in its silliness. I’ve made it clear that it’s somebody else’s turn next year … even though it’ll be my last Christmas in prison (is that a faint light I can see at the end of the tunnel?).

The Listeners celebrated 25 years of service this year, and I’ve been working as a volunteer for over a year now. While the last few weeks have been busy, we’re all braced for a sharp uptick in general stress levels in the next couple of months, because finally it looks like the smoking ban will actually be implemented. I haven’t said much about this lately, as we had a number of false starts and shifted deadlines, but this time it really seems to be happening. As of last week, nobody has been able to buy any tobacco products here, and from 5th December all smoking requisites will become contraband items.

Already members of staff are banned from smoking anywhere on the site, and five of the fourteen blocks have gone smoke-free. People’s purchases were monitored for signs of stockpiling, and fairly harsh standard tariffs have been drawn up for possession offences. Indications from other prisons that have already taken the plunge are that internal adjudications (known as ‘nickings’) are likely to rise three-fold. This is not just from people being found with tobacco, but also because of an increased level of scuffles and general unrest. There are potentially interesting times ahead in the run-up to Christmas.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the ban, but for those who are less keen, in addition to the ‘stick’ of adjudications, the prison appears to be offering at least a little carrot. When tobacco disappeared from our weekly shopping list (known as the ‘canteen’), the range of other available items suddenly increased by more than 50%. I’m now very pleased to be able to easily get hold of peppermint tea, mango chutney, and olives, to name but a few. I have also heard fairly strong rumours that it may not be all that long before we’re allowed to wear our own clothes all the time, which would be quite a step forward for HMP Arbitrary.   I’ll believe it when it’s happened though.

The Psychology Department has recently been subjecting me to a series of interviews and psychometric tests, which has been informative. All along I’ve been told that my risk of re-offending is too low for me to qualify for any rehabilitative programmes, but after I nudged them quite a lot they agreed to assess me. They’re now essentially trying to build a business case to justify funding my course. Conclusions so far include that the results of three different Baron-Cohen screening tests for Autistic Spectrum Disorder indicate that I might be on the spectrum, but a formal diagnosis is ‘not clinically appropriate at this time’. The results of my IQ assessment have been dangerous fodder for my ego, so I keep reminding myself that there are around 15,000,000 people in the world who are cleverer than me and that nobody likes a smart-arse.   I await their final conclusions, and hope that they’ll finally give me the opportunity to formally work through the reasons I ended up here.

Finally, I’ve decided to write very little about either Brexit or Trump. Both have significantly dented my faith in humanity, and it’s all rather troubling.   Two questions though: what would happen if we took the EU poll again having seen some of the difficulties it’s already causing? (I’m not sure, but it would be interesting); and, how on earth can the US have such an absurd system of presidential election whereby one candidate can get significantly more votes, but the other one gets in?  Seriously world, I go to prison for a few years and look at the mess you end up making …