‘HMP Arbitrary’

Date of writing: 30/04/2015

After a minimal rub-down search, I began on the familiar conveyor-belt/roundabout of Reception. I was slightly taken aback to be immediately issued with ‘corned beef’ prison-issue clothes and instructed to change into them. Having been exclusively in my own clothes for nine months, I’d all but forgotten the distinctive smell of industrial prison laundry. I expect I’ll complain more about this later. Anyway, my surprisingly large accumulation of gubbins was laboriously unpacked and inspected (although in many cases quite cursorily) before being much less neatly re-packed into different bags.

Any black clothes were taken into ‘stored property’, and this included a pair of trousers that to me were very clearly grey.   Having pointed this out I was told that they were indeed black and I therefore couldn’t have them. I gently begged to differ, but it was a token effort as I could see that these were officers that would never accept the possibility of losing face by changing their minds and agreeing with me. All of this is of course entirely aside from the absurdity of the rule – if the security of the prison relies on us not wearing black trousers, then I think they probably need to look into reviewing it.

Anything electrical was put to one side, and I was told I’d get it back after it had been ‘PAT tested’ (to use a familiar tautology). My electricals currently comprise one DAB radio/CD player and speakers, one set of hair clippers, one two-way socket adaptor cube, and one DVD player. I shall come back to that last item in my next post, for reasons both frustrating and amusing. I should add that I also had a small kettle, but this was put into storage on the grounds that kettles are provided. I asked when I would see my as yet untested electricals again, knowing how slowly the wheels of public prisons tend to turn, and was told ‘it shouldn’t take long’.   By way of calibration I asked whether in this prison that meant hours, days, weeks, months, or years and was reassured that it should only be a few days (I was subsequently grateful to find this had been an accurate assessment).

There were numerous pieces of paper to read and/or sign, forms to fill in, and various interviews to be had with people including a portly African nurse. As usual, I was asked so many times whether I had any drug or alcohol problems, or if I was having any thoughts of harming myself, that I began to consider either as possible options to block out the incessant questioning. Eventually, all administration was apparently done, and I loaded my bags precariously onto the sort of chunky-pneumatic-wheeled cart you might find at a garden centre. As I cautiously wobbled this the short distance from the Reception building to the Induction block along a few pavements and concrete ramps, I was sure I heard my name being called, and saw a hand that might have been waving, protruding between the bars of a window. My concentration at that point though was focussed on preventing an avalanche of CDs and muesli while counterbalancing my guitar box, so I decided to ignore it for the moment.

Passing through a pleasantly planted quadrangle, I brought my cart through the doors of the block to be confronted by a queue of people with plates, evidently awaiting their tea. After a little tricky manoeuvring I came to my new accommodation: a reasonably-sized cell that was to be shared with Boris (a name of his own choosing), a chap exactly ten days my junior with a mop of blonde hair (hence the nickname) and a friendly demeanour. Having brought my stuff in, the first thing I did was to apologise for its volume. As a relative veteran (sadly on a recent recall to prison), he’s seen it all before and didn’t appear to mind. He seemed a pretty good draw for cellmate number ten. This impression was only reinforced when I later discovered that he sings in the chapel choir. After I’d managed to vaguely squirrel most of my things away, we spent much of that evening with my guitar out, going through my repertoire of hymns and liturgical music with an occasional detour into the more general and/or amusingly inappropriate. In summary, we got on pretty well.

The following morning brought the first of many ‘induction sessions’, giving me information on everything from the gym, chapel, and library, to an unnecessarily long-winded description of fire safety procedures from someone who enjoyed his job significantly more than did his captive audience. These miscellaneous minor excursions allowed me to get a bit of a feel for the place. A number of things struck me, both good and bad. The induction block – and indeed all of the several blocks comprising ’A wing’ – is relatively modern, and probably not much more than ten years old. In a deviation from the familiarity of a large, open wing with two or more ‘landings’ (i.e. floors) and cells opening onto a single and (at least in terms of volume) often cathedral-like space, these blocks have much more in common with a youth hostel. Accommodation is arranged in a few corridors over two floors, with various rooms of utility dotted about, such as showers, a kitchen/servery, a games room (with pool and darts – yes, pointy things appear to be allowed here) and a central office.

The similarity to more voluntary accommodation continues with the way we can move about. Being of a lower security category, movement is in general much freer here. Once we have been unlocked at around eight in the morning, we are not normally locked in again at any point until quarter past six in the evening. With a few technical restrictions, during this time we can move relatively unhindered from place to place, without needing to be escorted by an officer.   For example, the library is open most days and we can walk there (which takes several minutes) accompanied only by a small slip of paper that nobody ever really looks at properly. On leaving any of the A blocks one simply has to deposit one’s door key at the hatch on the way past so that they know when people are out: again, quite hotel-like.

The showers are fully screened and pleasantly powerful, but most importantly, of stable temperature: there are no sudden fluctuations from scorching to freezing and vice-versa, which is a welcome change. Telephones, however, are less good.   There are no phones in the cells, so it’s back to standing at the old payphone-style contraptions in the corridors.   On top of this, calls are restricted to ten minutes in length. However, there is no restriction on time between calls, so a half-hour conversation simply has to happen in three sections with two pauses for redialling.   This is mildly irritating, renders the restriction almost irrelevant, and frankly seems just arbitrary. As will probably become clear in my next post, this is only one of many items of arbitrarity that have led me to name the place as I have.

The A wing environs are quite pleasant, being planted with many interesting flowers, shrubs, and even small trees. The ‘exercise yard’ nestled between the induction block and its sibling opposite is mostly grass and flowerbeds, with a concrete path around the edge. There is a young ornamental cherry tree of about five feet in height – currently in full and fairly spectacular bloom – at the centre of a wide planted circle of clumps of interesting grasses. With the wooden benches dotted around, I could almost be convinced it was a hall of residence in some modern campus university – but for the windows being split into the usual array of vertical strips, none wide enough to get a head through.

The morning after I arrived, it was on this exercise yard that I solved the mystery of the disembodied waving hand and its accompanying half-heard call of recognition. Harry, cellmate number eight (and my last in HMP Anonymous), greeted me with an enthusiastic hug – something understandably unusual between prison inmates. I would say I was glad to see him, and indeed I was in my own selfish way, but at the same time I couldn’t help the feeling of sadness at him being here at all. From what he’d previously said, I’d hoped he would have been acquitted and long gone, but alas not.   He told me of several others I would know that are here, including Gordon, who you may recall conducted the tasteful Pagan funeral for Edward Woodlouse last summer.

By strange coincidence, that same day another familiar face arrived on the wing. Elliot is in his early twenties, sports an unruly mass of white-man’s dreadlocks, and although he’s experimented with rather more psychoactive substances than is probably advisable, he has a keen intelligence that is always looking for an outlet and so makes for an interesting conversationalist. He tells me he’s gained me a reader: hello to you, and thank you for listening. I’ll do what I can to keep an eye on him, as I know he needs it sometimes.

Over the subsequent week I had the chance to meet up with half a dozen familiar faces, as well as making the acquaintance of more others than I care to count. I passed several evenings with Boris and the extremely tired Scrabble set belonging to the wing. I was distressed to be beaten by him every time, but on one of those occasions I at least had the excuse that I was too busy colouring in the severely faded letters with a fine marker to pay proper attention. After nine nights of mixed amusements of such like, I had begun to settle a little and started to feel comfortable. Which of course means that I was about to be suddenly uprooted and shifted to B wing …. …







Date of writing : 13/06/2014

I promised you news of Edward Woodlouse, and I’m sure he’d be pleased to gain such fame – had he any grasp of the concept, and had he not already shuffled his many small legs off this mortal coil.  I shall tell you his short story nevertheless.  We met one day in the yard, where he was wandering around looking a little lost and was in danger of being trampled underfoot.  Recalling a woodlouse I had befriended as a child (who acquired the name Bert, for reasons I won’t go into), I thought we might keep each other company in the quiet evenings of the wing.  So I gathered some soil and decaying vegetable matter from the edges of the yard, and brought him in.  Gordon gave me a transparent salad box for his house, into which I melted some air-holes and built what I hoped was a comfortably damp home for him.  I sat this on a shelf, and kept an eye on him, bemoistening his home periodically.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not completely sure what a woodlouse is supposed to actually ‘do’ on a day-to-day basis.  I’d noticed Edward was mostly just hiding in his damp pile whenever I looked, and I wondered if there was perhaps some aspect of his environment he might be lacking.  So I took to the library.  Being a small library, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find a dearth of books on woodlouse husbandry.  I’m not sure what number this is in The Dewey Decimal System, and knowing the generally overburdened disposition of the librarian, I thought it better not to ask.  So I approached the multi-volume, multi-purpose World Book encyclopaedia.  The entry on woodlice was sadly short – bringing to mind the entry for Earth in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – but it at least told me that woodlice are nocturnal by habit.  Discovering this, I have to say, made me feel a little guilty, knowing how often I’d extracted him from his daytime repose for my own entertainment.  After a little thought though, I decided that lower crustaceans probably don’t actually sleep as such, and that I was excessively anthropormorphising.  The brief encyclopaedia entry also suggested I was along the right lines with my supply of dampness and decaying organic matter, so reassured, I continued as I had been.  We had some good conversations.

Alas, it was only a few short weeks before one day I found Edward unresponsive in his mulch.  He looked peaceful though, curled as he was into a small ball.  Gordon suggested we should give him a proper burial, and it seemed only right.  Torn as I was in judging what denomination Edward may have been, I concluded that had he been religious he probably would have been a Pagan of some description, (but as it never came up in our discourse, I didn’t know).  Gordon agreed to perform the ceremony, and so it was that a small group of those that had known him in life came to a small patch of accumulated soil and grit at the edge of the yard.  We dug him a tiny grave with a lolly-stick.  Gordon cast a circle with a matchstick wand, and acknowledging the deities of the four compass points, we committed his worldly remains to continue the circle of life, while his multi-legged immortal soul went off to join the great crustaceous isopod collective in the sky.  I’m not sure how long woodlice generally live, but I can’t help but wonder whether poor husbandry may have brought about his early demise.  I’ll probably never know.