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.



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.

Victorian Jail?

The UK has 150 jails with roughly a quarter old stock. HMP Shepton Mallet dated from 1625, Dartmoor 1809, Lincoln 1872, Pentonville 1842,  Wandsworth 1851, Walton 1855, Strangeways 1868, Walton 1855. Prisoners are hidden from view and forgotten. Likewise, there is a landscape of prisons that only the convicted know to navigate.

“I was sentenced in Dover so went to Elmly. They say, you never get off the island, transferred to Stanford Hill to Swaleside. I done 18 months there before being transferred near my family”  Tales of Sheppy island, Kent.

“Armly, Altcourse, then Walton” Lists of places I had never heard of, now become the path of lives. Some navigate by pubs, or Garmin, or stars but many see the UK as a series of moves from one barred window to another. Alehouse, Courthouse, jailhouse.

What is it like walking into prison for the first time?  Walking into history. This in Ronnie Barker’s Porridge prison so let’s call it that: HMP Slade, a Victorian city centre hulk. HMP Slade is an old Victorian jail it could be Liverpool’s finest Walton or Manchester’s majestic Strangeways. All are dumps.

The incredible hulk

I should be thankful I’m on dry land. England loved to house prisoners at sea. The ‘goto’ convict of the British imagination, Abel Magwich, was on the run in 1812, in ‘Great Expectations’, from a ship moored on the Thames. Actually, ships at that time were on the nearby River Medway, so Dickens used artistic licence to move ship but the conditions he described were accurate: shackles and misery. The English had treated the American war of independence as a practice ground for killing people on hulks and perfected it during the Napoleonic wars. Clearly, the French and the proto-Americans were keen to exaggerate the numbers for propaganda but measured historical review puts mortality rates at around 10%.

A prison ship was used to transport prisoners to colonies. A non-seaworthy vessel is a hulk. A rotting ship with rotting residents, typhus outbreaks and riots. The first prison ship was privately owned, Tayloe, engaged by the home Office in 1775. This country is no stranger to privatising prisons indeed until the 19th Century all prisons were run privately for profit. As many as 30 hulks in service during the 1800’s. They were phased out as the Victorian prison building program began. Given the English love to detain the upstart colonists, HMS Argenta was purchased following the 1920 Bloody Sunday uprising and used to house Irish Republicans until it was scrapped in 1925.

HMS Maidstone, in Northern Ireland, was used in the 1970s to house suspected Nationalist Paramilitaries. Gerry Adams lived there in 1972. I doubt he called it home

So, when prison policy planning is out at sea the hulk returns. HMP Weare was used as a prison ship between 1997 and 2006 in Portland Harbour, Dorset.  It was towed across the Atlantic in 2007 for our American Cousins to incarcerate their own.

We taught them well.

Carol Vorderman and I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in…..

I have decided to attend church each week as an act of faith but a faith not connected to a God. A different church group comes in each week. This morning it is Pastor Bobby and 3 middle aged women with odd straightened hair and or wigs. James Brown and his backing singers are reborn in front of us, though any sex machine has long since left this building.

17 chaps out of 387 have made it to the 10 am Sunday service. Which is a good turn out. Many parish churches would love that percentage to attend. Prior to prison, I would have said they would not have wanted 17 criminals to attend, now I realise the nonjudgemental approach of Christians. Forgiveness is the heart of their faith or desperation giving the rise of Richard Dawkins.

One of the Pastorettes has a Mr. T fetish going on, wearing a lot of gold bangles. I get the chance to study these in some details as they are waved above her head and in my face of the next hour or so. I can see one of the bracelets is a golden handcuff. This is a dedication to one’s audience.

They launch into a reggae version of “O come all ye faithful.” The weight of the Lord must be pressing hard on the congregation as no one is standing. The lady at the front with Darth Vader boots and matching hair asks:

“Can you not feel me today? Stand up and praise the Lord.”

Many sink lower. Pastor Bobby dances and sings for all of us. The prison chaplain would normally stand but today he is on drums so he can only cajole confined behind a plastic screen.

The happy, happy, happy singing does not catch on which is a shame as this is the best Carribean riff of “Away in a manger” that I, or anyone, has ever heard.

Pastor Bobby is standing at the front pointing to the roof, maybe he has spotted a leak, which is miraculous as his eyes are closed, he then starts repeating “I believe, I believe, I believe” who is he trying to convince? He raises both hands measuring out that Biblical fish God will catch for him or be hailing a taxi, one can’t be sure.

The lack of spontaneity is making the relaxed hair girl become tightly wound. She asks in desperation

“What Christmas songs would you like?”

Various requests from ABBA to the poignant “Wish I was at home for Christmas” fly at the singer

“NO, no, no…….. carols”

“Carol Carpenter” is offered in all sincerity but the boys catch on and add quickly

“Carol Decker”…

“Carol King”

they are stretching it with”Lewis Carrol” but from the back, a clear shout of “I want Carol Vorderman’s number.”

The heckling leads to a kerfuffle, a flutter of hymn sheets before they settle on the religious tome “We wish you a merry Christmas” which she belts out very well, ending with “May God have a blessing for your head in the new year.” I resign myself to have to wait 4 weeks for my blessing but suspect I will have to wait an eternity.

Pastor Bobby has been lying face down in front of the altar for most of the last song. It is a contact lens thing I’m sure. He rises to give a sermon, describing that we should not be labeled by our crimes. Good point. He pictures for us the sign outside the prison ‘HMP Tabley Heath.’ A sign I have not seen, as my sweat box seat was on the other side of the prison van. He assures us it stands for Her Majesty’s Pleasure. He is wrong. We are detained in one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. Some long term sentences can be determined at Her Majesty’s pleasure. These sentences have transferred the belief that the Queen enjoys to lock everyone up, the feelings of the Queen on the matter are private.

Oscar Wilde commented, one old queen on another, that

“If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners then she does not deserve to have any.”

Little has changed since Oscar’s day. Homosexuality is still the last taboo in British jails. The soap is safe to pick up.

Another dent in the veracity of the word of Pastor Bobby comes when he asks us if we have seen his favorite film “The short sharp redemption” while this sounds an ideal reconciliatory pathway I’m not sure it’s the same movie Morgan Freeman movie Pastor Bobby has in mind.

Just when I feel my cliche count for the day has been passed the ladies start up with ‘When the saints go marching in.” They may be follically challenged but they are plainly in the number when it comes to singing. Their version is again the best ever.

I retire to the corner for my free coffee, my raison d’etre and reflect I have only 8 more of these to go. Pastor Bobby comes over and hands me a blank cellophane wrapped Christmas card to post to my family.

Hallelujah. I wonder if my faith will remain strong.

Mean Wing the Merciless

Convinced that the criminal masterminds in the jail are the ducks, spot over 10 film references to our secret and you are doing well

Ducks, but only more Mafio-so.

Top to tail, yin-yang pair: cosa nostrils.

Two eyes sleeping with the fishes,

Two amber jewels in jade scarf face and an eye for an eye life.

Protecting godmother goose,  the pot bellied bully as Consigliere cats counsel, goodfella ducks hoard, feathering their nest,

Living on a wing and a prayer, quack offers cannot be refused.

A soprano machine gun

whack whack” an enemy falls wings clipped.

Swagger seedy existence: concrete boots, horse head beds, cracking eggs, reprisals, wads of waddle, wicked web feats.

Bills mount, ringmaster reigns fall as Agent Orange strikes.

Au revoir.

Bonjour fois gras

The apologetic apothecary​

You are only as happy as you think you are.

Some are born happy, some have happiness bought upon them.

The most fortunate exude happiness like our 21st century Dr. Robert, juvenile, gentle angelic, Jesus of the Rave. Tuned in, dark web dealer, dropping out in deep waters of the mind.

Unwary of his wonderland wares partakes with pleasure,

No toe dipping. Trips headfirst into illusory oceans.

A nose narcotic knows, ecstasy elixirs, opiate apparitions, DMT potions, LSD labyrinths, spice of life. Selling serotonin, drug dreams, brain bombs, real unreal realities, fun and funny fags. Highs in posting psychonauts payloads; blasting them into diamond skies.

But clarity through the clouds a chemical conscience troubled over dispensing deliriums of death.

We all comedown, fallacies finish, smoke and coke off mirrors crack with a bar to the face, out of joint, a £30K hole. Visions cease in seizures.

“I’d not slept for a month before coming away. I wanted to get the partying out of my system” and well-being

Sober, springy survivor beatific beanpole retains Cheshire cat cool calm.