Phone home

 

Everyone has a pin number to put into the key pad of the landing phone.  Before I can actually make a call I need to fill in a form with the numbers I wish to call. This form is then checked by security. So in the first week, I look longingly at the bright blue indestructible metal box of modern 1980’s technology under a half a jaunty umbrella awning. One phone per 20 cells: one per floor.

How many of your friend’s phone numbers can you remember? I ask my wife to collate numbers and write them down post them in. I do not want to waste precious speaking time taking down digits.

I have organised numbers but failed to transfer money from my prison funds to my phone pin account. The prison is not designed for the individual. Pin money transfers are done on a Tuesday so another week before I can make a call. The isolation a prisoner feels is exacerbated at not being able to phone home.

I’m ready check and wipe the handset for grease, crabs or umsk.

Public pay phones? Yes, in that one’s conversation is overheard by the pool players, adjacent cells and of course the Screws who may or may not be listening.

This is not a private call.

In the morning break if someone is on the phone, have a shower instead.

The first time my son was put on the line by Mummy:

“Hello Daddy”

An unexpected shot in the heart. Such was my raw emotion I could not speak.

“My friend, blood shaking my heart”

Choked, as if my throat grabbed, trying to hold back tears in this public forum. Clearly, I have misjudged the strain I’m under.
I took great solace when one of the other Dad’s admitted crying over pictures of his children.

The hardest men cry. I have sobbed too.

A few days in and the conversations become easier but thinking about the kids makes me start to cry. It has reaffirmed my hope to spend more time with them.
80% of relationships have failed after a 5-year prison sentence. Reoffending rates are lower with those in a relationship. Thus, prison is doing more harm than good in destroying the connections with family and the real world.

I make a call today and my son says “Hello” but then their mobile signal cuts out. I cannot use the phone again for a few hours. This is to prevent people hogging the phone. So, if I call someone and it goes on to answerphone that is my call for the day. Time for a shower.

For the first week inside I’m checking my pockets for my mobile phone. It must be 20 years since I was last apart from the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning. A comment on modern marriages and society? I cannot look up any fact, news or weather. The cycle of checking mail, Twitter, Facebook, Guardian app. has been broken. So prison is not all bad.

No phones exist in prisons. This is the government policy on phones and as usual, is divorced from reality. Most days guys wander in showing me their iPhone 5.

“Do I want to look anything up?”

“‘I’m ok thanks”

“Phone your missus”

“I’m ok”

I do not want to be beholden. These contraband phones are found by the Screws and the numbers on them cross referenced with the registered numbers. This is not Sherlock investigation work. So using one of these phones will lead to the end of the line for many.

It’s a worry I do not want to engage.

 

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Away with the birds

Several birds I’m not sure about so back to consult the I-Spy in the library.  It’s empty today as most will be queuing early for canteen, the weekly allocation of treats. My £8 weekly wage is invested in nuts and herbal teas. Protein supplements in saucy cans of fish: tuna, mackerel, sardine and salmon. Salmon in a tin is another in the long list of firsts.

The canteen is a time to repay debts or avoid people. “Double bubble” incredulously exists:

“Give me a bar of choccy today and u can have two back on Friday”

Guys have asked me to ‘lend’ them cans of tuna, reluctantly I refused. I’m no enforcer. Now I keep my tins at the bottom of my closed chest. I’m a canny coward.

Debts not repaid? Welcome to black eye Friday. This is serious. Guys will build up debts, hide in friend’s room, unabale to pay the currancy in cans of tuna and unwilling to face obligations paid out in violence they will walk drunk or drugged into the Screws room  and next day moved to a different jail.

Prison is filling time to break the boredom but so is life. Some choose the gym or education or spice. Most days I’m rushing to get back from gym session, skipping lunch, to make it to Buddhist breathing.

I will do some laps of the prison, a half a mile loop, to cling to nature. I count how many species of bird I spot on each lap.

Doing bird?

A blackbird, orange beak raised in defiance, hops in front of me. It’s a juvenile male….. typical prison cohort.

Does he know he’s in jail?

Today, the field is free from herring gulls. This is rare but the only logical explanation is the sacks of unused bread Trey has been throwing out on the grass must have killed most of the surrounding bird and wild life. The purple dots on the bleached white crusts have made them toast. What is clear is that most cannot walk right after consuming prison bread.

Flight must be an impossibility.

Round the bend, an adolescent Herring gull: a brute loner, brown wings, speckled chest hooked beak; plenty of those in the gym. I reflect on his nose and realise we are on the same diet.

Most laps I spot 8. If the heron is stood on the far field 9.

No golden eagles. This is not a place for anything to soar.

The robin is in the same patch of hedge on every loop.  So many are teritorial here.  Wood pidgeons slowly wave their tail feathers from the tree they have seen it all before. Jackdaws a clattering party could easily be around the pool table but today on the fence.

A solitary magpie (one is enough for joy) and buzzard on the post must be a lifer.

Sadly, binoculars are not prison issue so it’s either a song or mistle thrush in the tree.

The ducks are constant and most numerous. Mallards: male, female and that white one; might be a hybrid with domestic duck. My birdman status has a long way to go if I can’t even get my ducks in a row. The real Alcatraz resident, Robert Stroud did the last 54 years of his life in prison; 42 in solitary. He should really be known as the Birdman of Leavenworth as he was not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz. Who would think that Hollywood would get reality wrong? Please don’t tell me Prisonbreak isn’t real.

I have been reading up on black headed gulls. They lose their black cap in winter. So now they have white head but retain a dark fleck above their eye.

Maybe gulls don’t pay their debts either.

It’s a no barrier

This prison is a category D.  There is no barbed wire, no netting, no bars. This prison is really like motorway services in terms of scale. We live in a Travelodge type building and they still serve 1970’s motorway food. Tonight’s meal, for example, was a withered baked potato with a  paltry pasty: pale pink puke paste to pass for sausage meat.

I passed.

The main prison gate is a plastic NCP type car barrier. This is the only separation from the everyday world. The heady hedonistic delight of seeing cars on a real road, containing real people, doing real things. The normal world still exists beyond this limp pole that could easily be leaped and indeed is.

Every week someone absconds.

A failed piss test, a flailing relationship, a bad phone call and the young lads are off.

Every week. They are caught every time.

None have the imagination not to stay with their Mum and are carted back to closed conditions. Heavy gates, brick walls, heavy hearts.

Dale has moved in opposite me and tells of when he was last here aged 18, 20 years ago. The sight of traffic was too much and he just escaped over the back field confident that the cows would not grass. He turned and the chap behind him had ran too. No plan. No tunnel or a vaulting horse. They walked across fields, along the motorway until they arrived at the real service station. Dressed in prison issue red jumpers no markings just wearing their own slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A reverse charge phone call to Dad who incredulously picks them up and facilitates their two month sabbatical before the Police knock on and he is returned. Dale is older and wiser now. Older to know not to run but not wiser to have avoided prison for the second time.

A visits session is finishing. The screw points the chaps to walk right out of the visits hall and not passed the traffic gate as is the normal route back to the rooms. There is a group of 5 or so children, toddlers, all smaller than the horizontal plastic pole.  The bar being bounced as the kids reach their hands above their head and hang off this flimsy tube, a chorus shouting:

Daddy, Daddy, Daddy

Daddy has been forced to walk away from them. A whim of the Screw that leaves the barrier barrage baying. I walk a lap of the prison which takes 10 minutes. Daddy has still been prevented from one more precious wave goodbye. The children are still expectant. Some are stood inside the barrier. It is a prison break in.

Alas, Daddy cannot attend. The list of Daddy let down’s grows.

A custodian command of capricious cruelty.

Spice of life

Drugs are around me every day. This morning I’m in the shower room: 4 cubicles in a line. Think Glastonbury but without the sophistication, I’m wearing flip-flops to save my toes from the dimps and debris on the floor.

Drugs are around me every day.  This morning I’m in the shower room: 4 flimsy plastic cubicles in a line. Think Glastonbury but without the sophistication, I’m wearing flip-flops to save my toes from the dimps and debris on the floor.

I’m alone. I strip, hang my pants on the hook,  pull back the shower curtain and yelp with surprise.  Yelp is not a good sound for a man to make in prison. Come to think about it, it is not a good sound for a man to ever make.

A young con is, Polonius-like, behind the curtain:

A wretched, rash intruding fool’

No water running to alert me, just stood silent. I quickly choose another cubicle and wonder whether the following definitions have any bearing on his actions:

Definition: Cheeked

To hold money, contraband between one’s buttocks. See Plugged.

Usage: “I was on a Rotl today,  had a shit and forget I had cheeked £40. Must’ave flushed it down bog ”

Definition: Plugged

To hold money, contraband, or a mobile phone in one’s anus. This can be forcibly removed by fellow prisoners or less frequently Screws. See cheeked.

He was lucky I do not carry a rapier to the shower.

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”

I had never heard of Spice prior to going to prison. Prisoners were drug tested for Marijuana so when an alternative arrives, spice, that did not show up on drug tests it was popular.  ‘Alternative’ is misleading, for with any new product the consequences are poorly understood. Spice is a different drug; no mellowness, it just brings a banging heart and debt.

Drug barons will abuse the addicted for a smoke:

eat this dimp butty for a drag,

a punch in the face for a drag,

and worse.

A man on my wing, Willo, has been popping into my room, to play chess and chat. I suspect he wants something. Last week he was not with it at roll call, told a tale of picking up a dodgy ciggy off the floor and has had all his priveledges taken away from him. No canteen, no visits.

Ex-marine, which I only believe when he shows me photos. He tells me he is related to Louis MacNeice and produces poems about the death of comrades as proof. Not as convincing as photographs but believable. He is a nice fellow with drug issues that led to burglary, a 5 year conviction but an improvement of his opening gambits with his piece development through the exploitation of open files and centre control.

Some days he can play chess.

Some days he literally can’t make a move.

For example, last month I walk past his room as a crowd of four are looking in and laughing. Willo is on the floor curled up rocking. Maybe this is a good day.

I see him less and less over the next two weeks.

I stand next to him in the dinner queue:

‘I’m worried about you”

“I can look after myself”

I want to push the discussion further but I’m a coward and fear connection with a man who is a trained killer. The sum of my formal training relates to Excel spreadsheets from 1996.

The next time I see him, again in the dinner hall, I’m sat eating. Willo is ladling some beans from the servery onto his plastic plate or is trying to.

5 minutes pass while he is still trying to scoop beans. He cannot hold his plate level. He cannot really hold the spoon but he holds everyone’s attention and attracts derision.

He is shipped out the next day. As is usual this information filters out slowly.

A case like Willo happens every week.

The paranoia swirling mists of gossip point fingers on who told what and to who but the Screws are not stupid nobody had to spill the beans.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety its connection” Johann Hari

http://chasingthescream.com

Conversation with a bank robber

I did several laps of the prison today with a young chap who has a penchant for trying to break into banks and remove cash. The key word here is trying. He is no cat burglar. The fantasy biopic of his life will not feature Cary Grant.

Modern bank robberies attack cash points. Take note: fill them with gas, light fuse and step back. Some don’t step back far enough and count their pennies in heaven.

So, I’m technically talking to a bank Burglar, not a Robber as he did not use threats of violence or menace.  Indeed no one was present at the bank to be robbed.

My young friend is on his second prison term again for busting a bank. Men are 22 times as likely to be imprisoned than women. The Office for national statistics gives a figure in 2016 of the prison population being rounded, 82 000 men and 4 000 women. The majority of men are 20-30. Or to put it another way more 11-year-old boys are cautioned in the U.K. each year than 45-year-olds.

So to summarise that: men are stupid, young men really stupid.

My young friend fits that trend but he’s not stupid. He has done stupid things. He has a £100 000 proceeds of crime payment still left to pay. It will be still left to pay for the rest of his life.

Young Robber: I’ll tell me kids when I was young I used to blag banks

His modus operandi seems to be opportunism, booze, and cocaine. Cash points in newsagents or shops: the orphaned lonely cash point.  Smashing a window and waiting. Waiting for alarms, waiting for security to show. Just waiting, getting stoned.

Me: How long do you wait for?

Young Robber: An hour. 2 cans, then dived back in

Me: How much money did you get?

Young Robber: 10 grand.

Me: Each?

Young Robber: No man……. There was 11 of us

(10 coked up young lads who did not have a clue,  or a measured plan,  or any plan just an entry route then a phone call to the young burglar who arrives with cutting equipment and a sober method of cutting the hinges off the cash point machine. That phone call would be all the evidence the police would need to put forward a conspiracy charge. No smoking Stihl saw needs to found to connect him and to convict him to a five year sentence.)

Me: 11? What the hell were they all doing?

Young Robber: Getting pissed, and you know look outs but they usually just scarper when the filth show up.

Me: Not much dough for the risk

Young Robber: Less than a grand but the job before there was only £250

Me: Each?

Young Robber: No between 13 on that job

Me: 13?!……..It’s not a job mate.

It’s a knockout

I have been moved to a new prison for the night: HMP Crowford. The three hour drive in the sweat box is a relief; to savor silence, the respite from the noise of HMP Slade.

Definition: Sweatbox 

Vehicle used to transport priosners. For example, to or from Court or between prisons. Cons are lead handcuffed to a Screw. Then locked in a cubicle smaller than a cheap plastic shower cubicle but a lot stronger. No handcuff or restraints within the verticl coffin plastic molded seat. No seat belt. Small windows. One can talk to the other cons travelling together and watch the real world for a while.

 

An age waiting in the petrol station for the driver to get a sandwich.

Familiar motorway service station signs. I’m going home it will take months but I’m heading home. Before that, my second prison awiats

I arrive. The lawns are immaculate.

“wow its looks really tidy”

“It is out of control mate”

The Screw confides in me.

“The problem is these young kids come into work get lamped up the side of the head by some big fella and figure they can go work in Sainsbury’s for the same money and less aggro. We can’t keep staff. The wings run themselves”

Interesting notion as the Screw unlocks the door entering the wing.

I’m given a sheet no pillow.

“first floor pad 39”

Nice room with shower and I must have a Presidential suite as there is glass in the windows: another prison first for me. I leave my clothes, books, chess set, toiletries all I have with me in two bin bags on the bed and venture outside of my cell and mingle. Young men, boys chat in their doorways. Soon I’m playing pool with a heroin dealer from Leeds.  Ex-squaddie nice chap. He is easily winning each game, not a strategy on my behalf he has had practice being halfway through a 9 year term. Some games go well and I get two attempts to make a pot.  I have realised I will have two transferable skills from prison so I have challenged all my friends to a game of pool and an arm wrestle on my release.

The pool table is next to the balcony looking to the ground floor.

Shouting from the floor below. A large black chap is properly boxing with an Asian chap. They are punching each other around the head. A Screw tries to intervene and receives a slap up the side of his head.  The Screw is a young lad, rat tail attempt at a ponytail and fat belly. I’m no expert on bare knuckle fighting but outside of the Southern States of America men with ponytails rarely win fights. Men with rat tails never win. His training in restraint holds does not feature as he scarpers, tail between legs.

A group of color-coded helpers are trying to pull the two pugilists apart. The Asian fella is losing on points. He is also losing a lot of blood from his nose.

I consider my options on whether this fracas will constitute a riot. The fight is a floor below. My cell door is ten feet away and I’m already planning my escape route to locking myself in there for when the tiles start being thrown from the roof.

The heroin dealer looks up from another pot.

“It’s not serious they ain’t got knives”

The Asian camp manager throws in the towel they retreat to a cell.

The black man runs to the middle of the wing and roars. As this is not enough to assert his masculinity he beats his chest too. A remarkable performance. King Kong would be proud.

‘Who else wants some?”

I smirk at the cliche bravura of this rhetorical question.

But no another chap takes up the boxer bombast challenge, which was serious, and now two heavyweights start slugging it out. I have ringside seats. I’m most impressed with their stamina. No one is ringing a bell.

But I’m shocked. I ask the ex-heroin dealer if this is normal.

“Just a drugs bill”

One grabs the others sweat top and rips it clean off. Bucks Fizz would be impressed. More helpers separate the guys and the fight is over.

A cleaner appears with mop and bucket.

“Rack em up it’s your break”

Droning on…

The exercise yard is nestled in the armpit of the radiating wings of the prison. In the centre sits the gym equipment: pull up bars, dipping bars. Basic metal that can’t be damaged and requires or gets little maintenance.

I start exercising: walking lunges down one side of the triangular yard, 20 paces.

Turn and repeat.

This is every prison yard in every film except with more litter. High wire fences, crenellated loops of barbed wire. A black knotted netting stretches over. An aviary for those who cannot fly.

The holes in the netting are small. Drugs, stuffed in the slit of a slashed tennis ball, thrown over the wall will not get through here but new balls please are delivered this way in many places. So, drugs are taped to 20p coins, heavy enough to throw, small enough to fall through the net squares. The penny has dropped when it comes to efficient delivery of drugs into jails.

Turn and repeat.

Drones are putting the security of prisons into a real spin. Mini helicopters are cheap. Fly to any window. Whatever you want: tobacco, booze, a knife, a new phone or just a pizza. Everything has an inflated price and the best pound for pound is the new drug Spice. Amazon will get there but today HMP are soaring above the others when it comes to a drone home delivery service.

Big, rough hewn, limestone blocks, (that last saw sunlight on their tops in 1827 when all this belonged to the King), frame small barred windows most with no glass. The netting stops at King George’s floor: the 4th, that leaves just one floor, ten windows, to receive the late night hum of a drone and the clatter when it hits the stonework and falls onto the netting below.

Turn and repeat.

These 30 minutes are my only fresh air in 24 hours. Most do not want to waste this time working out and so sit on a concrete step smoking. A smaller group of ten or so pace the yard chatting, walking the perimeter in a circuit. That YouTube mad Russian bear from the circus would be right at home here.

Two Screws are outside the fencing watching the yard. Cameras watch us all.

Turn and repeat.

Under the windows is the detritus from last night. Seemingly, everyone in the prison has collected a month’s supply of rubbish to throw out of the window.  This happens every night. Every step I look down on the shite swathe rain of: tea bags, crisp packets, empty tubes of toothpaste, ciggy dimps, milk cartons, ripped Bible pages, torn clothes, cereal packets, newspapers, one lone shoe, toilet rolls used and unused. I have not seen any condoms and worry whether thsi is a good or bad thing. Several cons are sifting through all this for a cig stump, a tea bag or for something to do.

I decide to see if I can keep lunging the entire time. I’m doing fine but now I have to stop and admire the view, for, from a 3rd floor window, a green knotted sheet is being lowered. I try not to stare, no one else is, but I fail. A green knotted sheet stretches 3 stories. The Screws are parallel to the sheets so conceivably can’t see it. They have seen it all before.

Maybe, this is a Rapunzel style rescue escape attempt.

Turn and repeat.

I end up below the sheet. It’s stuck on a first-floor window ledge and a loop is descending. I can’t help look up. Two tattoo tear faced chaps shout instructions for a waggle of the bed linen rope. The Screws must have heard but their ‘Give-a-shit-o-meter’ remains unmoved and they continue chatting. 3 sheets to the wind?

The guilty looking pair tie an empty milk carton to the end of the sheets. In it, they have put a small parcel from their sock top. The carton is being pulled back up.

Turn and repeat.

“That’s it gents”

We are called back in. All have received the exercise or stimulation they need for the day.

When people ask what is prison life like?

Easy  “Turn and repeat.”