“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?





“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 …


“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 …

“Up in Smoke”

Date of writing: 28/09/2015

One of the things that might strike a member of the public on entering a prison wing for the first time is something that they may have imagined to be a thing of the past: the lingering miasma of tobacco smoke. Since the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces some eight years ago, to see someone light up indoors seems to me anachronistic and faintly repellent, yet an exception was made for prisoners. Officially, a prisoner may now only smoke in his cell with the door closed, and no non-smoker will be made to share a cell with someone who smokes.   However, in practice the closed-door rule seems to be very lightly enforced. Often an inmate can be seen lighting up in his doorway, or even wandering across the landings and through the corridors with a skinny roll-up cupped surreptitiously in a tar-stained hand. Even when the rule is obeyed, a cell door is far from airtight.

Recent statistics indicate that 80% of the UK prison population is addicted to nicotine. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that at the weekends in HMP Anonymous, the smoke from a hundred bored prisoners clouded the full four-storey height of the wing, to be picked out in the shafts of sunlight coming through the roof vents. It would even cling stubbornly to my ill-fitting prison tracksuit, bringing to mind my student days of bar work and ashtray-emptying, but without the small compensation of good beer and traditional jazz. Here at HMP Arbitrary, the corridor-based accommodation thankfully limits my exposure to a fraction of that, but the problem remains, nonetheless.

One of the things most people seem to know about prison is that tobacco is used as currency. Debts are made and paid in half-ounces of ‘burn’, and though trading is officially forbidden, the weekly canteen delivery is followed by a flurry of exchanges and paybacks. Prescription medications are routinely swapped for pouches of Amber Leaf, and there are even unscrupulous payday loan entrepreneurs who prey on the addictions of the poor and vulnerable for their own tobacco profit. With an ounce (or, more accurately, 25 grams) of good tobacco currently retailing for £8.73, and average wages here being £10.60 a week (yes, you read that right), those who smoke can afford little else.

I’ve recently managed to get myself entangled in something called the Decency Committee – a working group tasked with ensuring fairness in the running of the prison by getting prisoners and senior staff together to talk about a wide range of issues. I’ve yet to discover if this will be just another talking shop or whether anything useful will actually get done, but that’s by the by. For now, I’m grateful to be in the privileged position of occasionally having the ear of a deputy governor, several three-stripe officers, and various heads of department. I’m still not quite sure why this led me to be sat in a monthly staff briefing when normally I’d have been locked in my cell for the afternoon like the rest of the prison; I felt I had somehow sneaked unnoticed into the school staff room, or that I’d unexpectedly got into that middle bit where the ghosts live in Pac Man. Anyway, among the presentation slides was a confirmation that as of the 1st January 2016, this prison will become entirely smoke-free. All prisons must apparently follow this lead at some point next year, but our governor likes to blaze a trail.

Rumours have circulated for some time, but with prison rumours being less reliable than the hurricane predictions of Michael Fish, I was sceptical. But there it was in black and white. (Well, blue and slightly paler blue, but you get the point.) There are those who predict riots, and ill informed rants about ‘human rights’ abound, but I have so far been surprised at how muted the reaction has otherwise been. I suspect there’s a degree of denial going on, and still more rumours are circulating that it will be postponed. In any case, it’s only a matter of time – whatever some might believe. In my opinion, it can’t come too soon.

One of the major benefits I can see of smoke-free prisons is that they present a fantastic way to give thousands of people a chance to quit a damaging addiction in a way that makes relapse very difficult – albeit only for a set period of time. While some may shout that it’s somehow a violation of their rights, this is frankly an absurd idea. An alcoholic who comes to prison will not be supplied with booze – he will be medically managed to dry out. Heroin addicts are not handed syringes and Ziploc bags of their chosen poison, but rather given carefully controlled substitutes that are reduced and eventually removed altogether. Why should any prisoner be allowed to indulge in a drug that not only harms them but is also unpleasant and potentially damaging to others?   Especially when the privatised canteen suppliers such as DHL and Aramark are profiting from this gradual self-harm of a frequently poor and disenfranchised section of society.

Regardless of the ban, it seems that the nicotine profits are set to continue, as tobacco supplies are gradually replaced by disposable e-cigarettes. So-called ‘vaping’ leaves me in two minds, because while the health harms seem to be reduced to near zero and the atmospheric issue is near enough eliminated, the potential for addiction remains. Having had the opportunity to examine and indeed try one of these devices – purely in the name of research, of course – I’ve found that they are quite a marvel of engineering and microelectronics. Nonetheless, I envisage a future where the provision of an addictive recreational drug for purchase by prisoners might seem a strange anomaly. But then, what of caffeine?   In its propylene-glycol-infused incarnation is nicotine really any worse than coffee? Maybe I could use this as an angle to argue at the next Decency Committee meeting that I should be allowed a weekly ration of Talisker …