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.

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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.”

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.

Soup of the day

Servery: noun. Canteen station where food is dispensed (factory, school etc)

Serve: verb 2. attend to customers in a shop etc. To aid help or assist.

Despite the above definitions, servery is not the appropriate term for our lunch and evening meal locations. It fails because:

1, Our station cannot be said to be related to food.

2, The inmates only help aid or assist by accident.

The evening meal is a luxury term too. Prisoners are treated like children, not only because they behave like them at times, but it’s easier for staffing rotas if we have our final meal of the day at 4.45pm.

When I say the staff there are two Screws to take a roll call and to check we are issued rations. This is actually dispensed by fellow inmates whose raison d’être is to pilfer extra chicken legs, bin bags full of crisps and take doughnuts all back to their room. They take plenty but take no shit from anyone for their trouble.

The silver service has been downgraded to a stainless steel service.  The tray contains congealed grease and other debris best not to inspect too closely. Crawling bugs are not uncommon. Prior to prison, I had only seen cockroaches in Australia now I can identify American, German, Brown Banded and Oriental species.   I am on first name terms with many. The cockroaches normally join us all in the food queue and are more punctual and intelligent than some inmates.

Marigold gloves grab chips and drop them:

a, On your plate and arm,

b, near your plate but mainly on your arm,

c, back onto the greasy tray used to display the food.

Most times the food is dropped on a, b, and c.

A confetti of chips from minds that are deep fried.

A brief aside is needed here on the quality of incarceration crockery. Stoneware, earthenware, or porcelain does not exist in prison. The bone idle can’t be trusted with bone china. A request for Delft, Denby, Clarence Cliff or Wedgwood would be met with a glazed stare. Crystal meth is easier to obtain than Waterford crystal.  HMP service have taken the sizes of side plates, saucers, bread plates, dinner plates, platters, gravy boats, egg cups, milk jugs, mugs, cups, goblets, flutes, tumblers, shots and pint glasses and provided a standard one plate, one bowl, one cup issue.

All in a bright blue plastic.

Most plates have a permanent patina of turmeric on a frayed, scored surface.

Cutlery is white plastic. Strong enough to stab someone in the eye while retaining the strength to snap when chopping garlic.

One of the kitchen help, Big Dave, is a different dish. It’s difficult to discern which feature of his face one is drawn to first. Perhaps his right ear, mainly because this has been restitched backward onto his head- by himself.

If you feel this exaggerates I’m prepared to concede that his ear was reconnected by a medical professional but it has been reattached upside down. I’m reserving the option that the actual origin of the lobe may be nonhuman, possibly porcine, credibly crocodilian and at an outside avian.

We can agree on odd.

This is not his most surprising facial nuance. For running from that luminary lug is a slight blemish.  Actually a scar. The sort of scar one gets from head butting a machete. Twice. A raised lumpy tram track crosses both lips giving Big Dave a pout many would pay good money for and indeed many have paid good money to get away from. The slash wounds compete with bulging veins which give texture to the tattoos that adorn his neck and all disappear under a sports vest. Yes, really a vest. The like of which has not been seen since 1978 on Venice beach but Arnie had the arms for it and Big Dave is missing a large portion of his left bicep. This was ripped off either by a dog or a motorcycle. I have heard both versions direct from Big Dave and did not feel it was my place to question inconsistencies. Maybe, it really was a Doberman driving a Harley.

Either way, his left arm is fucked.

Big Dave performs an old trick. He does it well and it involves a special bowl which he pulls out every month for new select individuals.

The more observant may have little difficulty in picking Big Dave out in a Police line up, indeed many have, yet, it would be remiss of me not to mention another subtly of his complexion. His left eye socket appears to contain a miniature golf ball, a pitted clotted wax sphere which is actually a perfectly functioning eyeball in all faculties except those relating to sight. No iris or pupil darkens this orb.

Those who have dared to ask for an explanation are told a tale of the only battle he has ever lost, a fight with forceps at birth. I still have my concerns for the welfare of the obstetrician.

It is before this cyclops that Mad Steve enters, equally as big but infinitely crazier. Mad Steve is unaware he has been selected by Big Dave but Mad Steve is unaware of most things going on around him. This is a man who just last week was audibly arguing with a baked potato that was sat atop the corridor payphone. A conversation which while one-sided raged for an hour, for it was a large spud with evil eyes, and was only terminated when Mad Steve’s adversary, feeling uncomfortable in its skin fell to the floor.

Both were mashed that night.

Mad Steve greets all with a cheery but abusive grunt of, inter alia,

“Youfuckincuntknob”

‘All’ being fellow convicts, male or female screws, deputy Governors or the Number 1 Governor. I have no doubt if the Pope or a child stepped in front of Mad Steve they would be a

“Cuntycuntknob”

One slurred throaty word said with extra spittle.

He softened last week when a lady governor passed and he wished her

“A pleasant good morning”

then paused just long enough for incredulity to spread across her face before adding

“knobknobknobknob” and normality resumed.

This same lady governor passed on the upper landing yesterday and Mad Steve stood behind three newbies advising confidentially,

“Don’t look up but that is the boss. She runs the place. Don’t get on the wrong side of her. Fucking dragon, mate.”

Meerkat newbies gaze north, get eye contact with her the exact second after Mad Steve has shouted

“Oi Scruffy tits”

Mad Steve has the classic physique of prisoners, bulky biceps, and boobs but small boy’s legs. A stab wound to his lower back has left him with one leg that feels no cold and another that feels no heat. He shared with me, unprompted, an extra detail that after his knife attack, which was thoroughly prompted, that

“Me knob never worked for two years after….”

I declined to press him on details in this area.

His sticky legs flick awkwardly, maybe due to his central nervous system remembering the blade or maybe due to carrying the weight of his over-developed torso. He shakes too, venting ire is not something one can do with a steady hand or heart.

So, Mad Steve enters stumbling through the door, kicking the frame for good measure,

“that’ll learn ya cuntknobcunt”

Big Dave’s bowl was special for it had the addition of a small hole neatly drilled in the base. We need not be further detained with how Big Dave had access to specialized drilling equipment but under this man’s bed was everything one could want. Even the back of his wardrobe held hidden delights: a stockpile of Turkish delight, a lamp-post,  a lion and a witch? This is no fairy tale. The reality was a simple alcohol still, which in its own way was far more capable of transporting one to distant kingdoms and don’t get me started on his supply of snowy sleigh rides with a wicked Queen. Suffice to say, Wednesday nights were fun.

Big Dave’s gritty and cracked finger easily plugs the hole. The motorbike oil  (yes really) under his nail is cleansed by the soup. A soup which is described on the board as cream AND tomato, except the recipe has not been troubled by either cream or tomato. This description does not change. Ever. So its soup of the year. The types of soup do change.  I try and discern what ingredients but the closest descriptions I can offer are red, yellow and green. We have a traffic light of soups, certainly, it can stop traffic.

Mad Steve accepts the soon to be leaky vessel with a nod and a

“Wankercuntlips”

The first fall of soup soaks into Mad Steve’s grey Boss tracksuit bottoms. As he step stumbles the splatter continues to the floor. This red streak is easily spotted by the Screw at the end of the line.

“Steve, you’re spilling your soup”

“Fuckyoucuntring”

The trail goes cold. Several hours later I see drips on the stairs, on walls. Footprints of soup walk both ways down the corridor. All remain untouched for several days.

Some time later I spot the holy bowl outside, under Mad Steve’s window. The ideal place to jettison tableware when one can’t be arsed to do the dishes or if the dishes have done you.

Simply, the wrong attitude in prison can be very draining.

The writing is on the wall.

Aaron, the prison Chaplin, organises a steady stream of Christian do-gooders to come into the prison. Tuesday nights: they come in to sing and preach but mainly preach. Tonight, an all female a cappella group; culled from a local church. So far, they have kept themselves hidden in the vestry. Maybe they are afraid to converse with actual criminals. Maybe they are just afraid. Prisons are scary places.

The usual half a dozen cons arrive. Two or three more will walk in half way through as they usually do. Two or three will walk out half way through as they usually do. Both approaches usually bemuse me.

I’m sat with Hugo, a dark web drug dealer, and thoroughly nice chap. He used to sample his wares as heartily as he sold them. His downfall was filling his car with petrol from his local garage. During the transaction, he removed a parcel from his coat to find his wallet. This parcel was his only employment that week. All he had to do was get it to a post office. It contained several dozen orders to his customers, mainly MDMA, some Meow Meow, lots of LSD, ketamine, a reasonable quantity of cocaine, and a healthy lump or three of heroin. Hugo had sampled all of the above within that last week. That was a usual week.

He can talk eloquently and knowledgeable on drugs for he has been off them now for a while.

Hugo only sold heroin to businessmen. He defined businessmen as people who could buy enough brown for three months. In one payment obviously. One payment in advance. There were 3 businessmen deliveries in that parcel which sat next to the Esso shop till.

Fortunately, for his customers, the envelopes were not yet addressed. Unfortunately, when Hugo realised his package was no longer in his possession he went back for it and collected a possession with intent to supply class A, B, and C  charge and eventually a sentence of five years and eight months.

All of his late twenties he will be inside. This is distressing.

Can you imagine how his customers feel? That would have been a tough three months.

The six ladies walk in and line up at the front of the church. It is the sign of a shallow individual to judge on physical appearance. All are very ropy. Think Angela Merkel but without the va va room. This is where the Golden Girls are today.

I turn to Hugo and ask,

“How many of the six would you shag?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he replies,

“Two”

I’m as shocked as he is serious. 26 months in prison will lower anyone’s standards but two? Two down market Ann Robinsons. Secretly, I’m impressed with his enthusiasm……. but two? I have a simple rule of never having sex with anything I can’t lift. Clearly, the constant gym is increasing Hugo’s availability pool. Maybe I should hit the gym more?

During the next one-quarter of a second, I check the lineup twice.

The results are as follows:

Firstly:

no, no, no, no, no, and a no.

Secondly:

TEN PINTS AND STILL NO, ABSOLUTELY NO, NOT WITH YOURS NO, DEFINITELY NO, NO MEANS NO NO AND A CLEAR NO.

This could be a lookalike competition for Miss Marple, Queen Victoria, and Ann Widdecombe. In fact, I think one of them is Ann Widdecombe, but not as slim.

I’m struggling for one.

The old dears begin to sing their first carol “Silent Night” and it is beautifully done. This song always manages to bring a tear to my eye. I contemplate that outside, normal people are doing normal things. I’m just getting into it when Hugo leans across and adds,

“Possibly three”

That’s it. I cannot allow this magical scene to be sullied by this boy. So, I join in. The tennis match starts I serve:

“I bet Aaron has fucked all six ”

“…..over the font”

“While the other five watch……”

“…singing carols”

“oh come all ye faithful”

We both smirk in a childish schoolboy deuce delight. A grin that is inappropriate and the ladies know it. We certainly know it. New balls, please.

Maybe Hugo knew the song was going to finish. Maybe he knew the church would fall into utter silence at the moment he delivers his ace,

“Do you know Aaron fucked me six times over that font”

All is calm, all is bright……for the nanosecond that it takes for 6 old ladies to process what has just been said. Perhaps the ladies did not hear. Perhaps the applause covered the full impact but there was something in the horror on their faces that hinted that they did not like what they heard. There is no evidence that prisons act as a deterrent but prisons are a deterrent for pensioners. These ladies are deterred. They plainly will not be back inside. They will not be sleeping in a heavenly peace for some time.

The rest of their songs seemed to drag; for us and them.

I took the view that it would have been worse to leave before they had finished. The ladies took the same view. This was the only concert I did not hang around at the end for conversation.

As I’m quickly leaving the chapel I spot a sign,

“No Swearing. This is the house of God”

I cannot accept that this sign was there before. This is God’s message to me to repent. I’m converted, will obey the writing on the wall, banish blasphemy and expel profanity from my life.

Plainly, it’s a miracle a simple, fucking miracle.