Turn of the Screw

The men who turn the key of my life are the Prison Officers. White shirts neatly pressed, polished shoes, relics of a military life. Keys on a chain.

Warders ceased to exist officially in 1919. During the 1918 police strike, 70 warders at Wormwood scrubs joined in. They all lost their jobs. The Police and the prison wardens were prohibited then and now from striking or joining a trade union.  Instead, a Prison Officers Representation Board lobbied hard for their interests but failed in most things except to change the name of their members from Warders to Officers.

Nobody told the press of this, most prison stories feature Warders that do this or Warders that do that. Maybe editors enjoy the evil of prisoners being warded off by Warders.

(Today there is a real one day strike on in the prison but this is called a work to rule. The upshot is the gym is closed and many have been locked in their room all day but it is not a strike.)

Prison Officers are only referred to in the main as Screws.

This comes from an old Frech word “escrou” that had two meanings.

The first, a scroll held as a deed or bond, you may have held funds in an escrow account, and on then to a scroll for registration of prisoners by registre d’écrou. 

I prefer the second use of the word which relates to the common screw. Before cells, prisoners were chained to the wall with shackles. The whole key just looked like a modern day bolt. Victorian handcuffs had screw threads too. Screw was common slang and recorded as such by at least 1700s but handcuffs are older than that. So Screws have been Screws for maybe 400 years.

Now that’s clear, I should add that some point the finger to the historic use of thumb screws.

One of my neighbors is shouting loudly. Noise is nothing new here. Today he is shouting

“Screw you Screeeeeeew”

This would not be a problem except he has been repeating that for the last hour. In fairness, he stops regularly and in that silence just bangs on his door.

“Screw you screeeeeew”

I wish the Screws had thumb screws to shut him up.

After an hour he stops shouting. After two hours he stops banging.

Someone has a loose screw.


It’s hanging here mate

Such is the pressure on spaces every broom cupboard and windowless rooms are being crammed with Cons. If they had nooks or crannies they too would be used. One of the cells has an interesting legacy. It’s the hanging cell. Not a description but a cell where people were hung. I have been building up my courage for some time to pop in. The chap in the room seemed nice and I  had exchanged pleasantries over the hot water tap, the source of our cups tea, so I walk up to the fourth floor and pass his door is open, feign surprise, catch his eye and aptly drop in.

I point at the elephant in the room. Well, the ceiling, a large wooden panel directly above his bed.

“I thought people were winding me up about the hanging cell.”

It is in the corner of the wing and slightly larger than mine.

This is closest I have come to have seen anyone hang. Indeed the last public hanging, in Britain was in 1868, when a real Fenian, Micheal Barrett, blew up 12 bystanders in Clerkenwell and was hung in front of a huge crowd outside Newgate prison. Who knew Irish bombers went so far back? Clearly, the Irish, as there is a plaque, that is still venerated today, where Micheal is buried, just outside the old prison wall.

The bed sits where the shit, piss and I’m guessing vomit would have fallen. I point this out.

“That’s not the bad thing mate, it’s the steady stream of sightseers, the Screws even wake me up ov an evening to show people the hatch. 1958 last time used. Guy who murdered a postmaster”

“Some crimes remain constant.”

“Not really they quashed his conviction in 1998”

Capital punishment continued until 1964. The most recent deaths being that year at HMP Walton and HMP Strangeways. In 1965, a private member’s bill by Labour MP Sydney Silverman succeeded in the abolition of the death penalty. Though the technical quirks of being put to death for a fire in a naval dockyard were extinguished in 1972 and implementation of the Human Rights Act in 1998 made piracy with violence, or mutiny or treason all became safer occupations.

More murderers tales are told and how there was an unwritten rule that poisoners should always hang. I wonder if the canteen staff know this.

“This holds the speed record too. From opening the condemned cell door above they ran down corridor, the lad wanted it done quick see ….7 seconds”

For a man who does not like tours, he is in the swing of things. We are now onto ghost stories of the hangman who committed suicide in 1931 and is seen walking the landings. A man in black with a small briefcase. This is said in good spirit but I take it as my cue to leave.

No hangers on.

Plenty of people still die in prison, on average each year 100 are murdered by fellow inmates or restraint procedures by staff, suicides are common. These numbers are rising last year, 2016, over 345 with 119 of these classed as suicide, with hanging the preferred method. A ONS study: 56% of men chose hanging then 18% went for poisoning  and the balance: “other”. Women preferred hanging too: 42%, twice as many poisoned themselves at 35%.  The problem with suicides is getting data for just in prisons.

I’m chatting to a Screw later we touch on this subject he tells me:

“I have found 7 in 9 years and one murder”

and I thought his job was all drinking tea, handing out loo rolls, locking and unlocking doors.

“The procedures to find and locate suicides does not work. No-one on suicide watch has killed themselves.  The pre-suiciders are happy. They have decided their route out and will be cordial before the cut.”

Looking in a wicket window is no view into the mindset of the sad.

There is a line from Oscar Wilde’s “ The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

“drop feet foremost through the floor into an empty space”

It is time to be locked up again, viewing this cell has cost me a shower, or a cup of tea or a phone call. It has cost 37 others a great deal more.

How could Oscar have known the empty space would be replaced by a bed, wardrobe and a reluctant then chatty tour guide?

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.

Y​ou got a visit

A 1980’s community center, or a parish jubilee hall, but with cheap carpets no blinds. Three chairs, facing a single chair over a low coffee table. This could be a bar in a sports club……… that never wins.

Certainly, all who sit in the single seats have lost.

The roller shutter rises on the corner cafe. The black liquid cannot be coffee but it is sold as such, perhaps it’s free and the 50p charge is for the polystyrene cup.  Passable cakes, flapjacks, scones in see through plastic boxes and yellow polysteryene folding boxes of fried food, better to just pass on, but surprisingly popular.

(One inmate on a court visit last week was taken by the Screw to McDonald’s and the con concluded that it was the best food he had had in 4 years. A sad indictment on our canteen culture.)

A Screw collects names and happy children appear at the double swing doors and run to hug Daddy dearly. The difficulty is the coming and the going. Its always dangerous getting in or out of a bath one can slip. These emotional waters of hugging the kids, kissing girlfriends or wives can drown one. The upset is too much for too many.

Many guys can not face a visit.

Some visit halls are more brutal. The shakedown of guests more severe. Some have vowed never to attend again due to the power of a pat down and another blow to separate community and family.

The children are happy with a chocolate bar and a cake. Maybe they are visiting a Daddy who is working away. Maybe they will be told today by other older, wiser but foolish that

your daddy and my daddy are in prison together.

Information that will linger as an act of betrayal for many years.

The leaving starts. Teenage tears,  daughters crying loudly, cons sobbing surreptitiously. No lingering, no looking back from the doors. Don’t go slowly, come back quickly. One two hour visit, every two weeks, is over.

The running and laughter of the departed children fill the silence. This is the saddest prison scene.  As each adjusts back into prison life: pack away feelings and put back on prison head.

Solitary, low men sat on a single chairs.

“Did you have a good visit?”

“Yes mate thanks”

A carrier bag of 4 cakes, 2 cans of coke to last a fortnight.

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.