Date of writing: 31/05/2015

There are three ‘wings’ here, but to call them such is to stretch the concept somewhat. Each is more of a loose collection of buildings, or in the case of B wing, a sprawling tangle of decaying 1960s brickwork and concrete extended by numerous ‘temporary’ structures that cling leech-like to the asbestos-ridden host.   In addition to being home to something like 230 inmates, this warren of long, narrow corridors and occasional unexpectedly large spaces also houses the library, chapel, healthcare and psychology departments, visits hall, and countless workshops of one kind or another. At certain times of day, the mass flow of people along corridors only wide enough for a single file in each direction reminds me distinctly of my secondary school.

My latest accommodation is here on one of eleven corridors distributed seemingly at random. My first-floor suite is not the largest I’ve had, and I find myself sharing it with a cellmate who conversely is the largest I’ve had. Dave is twice my age, probably more than twice my gastric girth, and I understand perhaps only one-quarter of the words he says.   His heavy Yorkshire accent is compounded by a tendency to run words together (that may be related to his own poor hearing) and I usually need to interpolate using context and gesture to extract the key content. Often it seems a general “mmm” – with variable tone inflection – is enough to convince him of comprehension and engagement, but nonetheless I wonder if he tires of my requests for him to repeat himself. There is much punctuational profanity, and the content often includes reference to immigrants on benefits or politically incorrect terms for people of colours other than his own. All of this aside, he has on occasion said things that have been surprisingly insightful, and I try not to prejudge the perspicacity of his proclamations.

Now, I previously noted Colin’s snoring, and it’s something I really don’t mind in a cellmate for some reason. He also occasionally spoke in his sleep, once saying quite clearly “I know you don’t have the graph” before lapsing back into his ursine respirational rumblings. I’ve established that if Dave is asleep, he will always be snoring. This, as I’ve said, is fine: it can be quite a useful indicator that it’s probably safe to turn off the television. In addition though he frequently suffers from what I’ve decided should be called ‘hypnocoprolalia’. He swears a lot when he’s awake, but during sleep most of his recognisable words are offensive. It can be quite startling to be woken by a sudden shout of “Fookin’ basst’d!” or “Ooh, y’ boogger!”, although my irritation often turns to giggles of amusement as he continues in a similar vein. Even when I can’t make out the words, his tone is argumentative. Evidently he has some bones to pick with his dream sprites.

Dave is unfortunately one of those people who have the television on constantly, regardless of whether or not he wants to watch anything. If he pops out for a bit, I’ll turn it off, and when he returns he quite often spends some minutes sitting looking slightly lost before realising what’s different, and then turns it back on again. Sadly, his poor hearing means that the volume is also usually much higher than I’d like. He often falls asleep sitting in front of the TV and is almost impossible to wake – I genuinely wondered if he’d died once when he stopped snoring. I recently bought a universal remote control (which, contrary to its name, sadly doesn’t allow me to control the whole universe), and I take his semi-narcoleptic episodes as an opportunity to subtly reduce the volume for a little respite. It is usually some time before he decides it’s too quiet after he wakes up. I’m grateful that he’s straightforward enough that I know he would have told me if he’d noticed this habit, and was irritated by it.

He’s considerate in the ways he knows how – boiling the kettle for me (whether I want a hot drink or not), shouting the time at me in the morning if he thinks I need to get up, so I’m not late (whether I have anywhere to be or not), or getting me to take my headphones off so he can remind me that a film is starting (whether I’ve indicated any interest in seeing it or not). His intentions, at least, are good. I do think though that more than a few months in close quarters with him might be a struggle. Thankfully, I understand it shouldn’t be all that long before I once again get a cell to myself. The single cells on this wing are known as the ‘rabbit hutches’, because they aren’t exactly palatial, even by prison standards. Nonetheless, a small space to myself will be better than a slightly larger space shared with a large Yorkshireman. In the meantime, I’m bumbling along safe in the knowledge that there are far worse cellmates I could have … (see: Ahmed)…



“Mesh Monkeys and a Move”

Date of writing : 16/06/2014

Meanwhile, low-level unrest continues around the prison.  A month or so ago, it even reached our wing proper, with half a dozen refusing to go back to their cells one Tuesday evening.  Having climbed onto the mesh (which is at first floor level), they found themselves not quite sure what to do next.  Speaking to one of them afterwards he admitted feeling a bit of a lemon once he was up there.  It seems there was no one thing that drove them to it, but rather a collection of small niggles that was different for each of them.  For half of them, their hearts weren’t fully in it, and they came down after an hour.  The remainder clung on though.  The officers opened all the outside vents – it was a cool night, and the protesters were unprepared in T-shirts – and sat on the landing at net level, comfortable with a big box of drinks and snacks which they consumed in full view.

So the remaining three sat, laid, stood and occasionally bounced on the mesh, feeling cold and a bit silly.  Stubbornness seemed to be keeping them there.  From my vantage point below them – looking through the gaps round my door and past the flap which had been left ajar – I could see they were actually chatting fairly amicably with the officers, and everyone looked pretty bored.  After a few hours though, the cavalry arrived.  Specialists called in from a nearby town, they carried riot shields and wore helmets and serious expressions.  It didn’t take too long for the mesh moneys to concede defeat.  After a little over four hours in total, they came down without having to be dragged, and for their trouble were handcuffed and carried off to The Block.  All the while they were videoed by one of the specialists for the sake of evidence (should it be needed), and for the avoidance of spurious claims of brutality.

Once again, the prison service is in the news this week, with Chris Grayling defending his growing catalogue of errors as already overcrowded prisons are instructed to somehow accommodate yet more inmates, and officers recently in receipt of significant redundancy packages are re-recruited to tackle massive staffing problems.  Discontent as a result of grayling’s policies continues to grow, yet he shows no sign of changing course.  After decades of progressive reform, the prison system has gone considerably backwards, and if concessions are not make then I can see things heading back to the bad old days of the Strangeways riots.  I don’t like to state a political point too strongly, but in summary, Chris Grayling simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. 

Moving on, DF has been released into the wild once more, having done his (relatively short) time.  This left me with the usual dilemma of whether to get someone I already know in with me – and risk a bad choice that I could blame myself for – or to let the roll of the dice bring me what it will.  I had been considering rescuing the latest of Ahmed’s cellmates, but fate did this for me when he (Ahmed) was abruptly taken away to a secure hospital before DF left.  This had been mooted before, as I’ve mentioned, and I certainly have mixed feelings about it.  Much as I can’t imagine him managing on the outside, I hope he doesn’t just get lost in the system and never get out.  Anyway, I decided to choose. Harry.  After a brief interrogation about his daily routine and TV/radio habits, I concluded he was a good option.

Harry is a little over 60, and is generally quite peaceful.  He doesn’t watch any of the soaps, listens to Radio 4, Radio 3, Classic FM and sometimes Planet Rock, and doesn’t have any particularly bad habits that I’ve noticed.  Although he is a fairly big sports fan – which I’d usually consider a drawback – he’s quite content to watch cycling, football, or cricket with the sound off and Radio 3/4 on, which is absolutely fine by me.  A couple of days ago we were unexpectedly moved up to the 3s landing (the second floor) into a cell at the far end of the wing.  This has its pros and cons.  We were previously on the ground floor where it’s nice and cool, but a bit noisy (cell 1-11, or “all the ones” as I called it when people asked where to find me).  Up here, things are in theory quieter, but the height of summer may present temperature problems.  I’ve decided to call this cell “John” as it’s 3-16.

The biggest plus up here is the view.  We’re on the North side, which is the edge of the prison.  From my bunk, I can see a row of houses perhaps fifty yards away – a nice reminder of the real world – and leaning forward a little reveals a long row of trees at the foot of their gardens.  Standing at the window though, I can see over the yard to a suburban sprawl that at night becomes a constellation of shimmering street lights.  Beyond this, the horizon – probably two or three miles North-West – has a slight hill with a field topped by a row of poplars.  Best of all, I’ve just had the pleasure of watching a beautiful sunset, the first I’ve seen in six months.  I’ll be making the most of these in the next month or so, as I suspect after that they’ll begin disappearing behind F wing.  Perhaps it’s a sign of mental progress that rather than focussing on the poignancy of such transience, I’m appreciating the way that beauty can be emphasised by impermanence.