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


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 you have ever seen… 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 here, 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.

I  consider the high walls around me big, rough hewn, limestone , (that last saw sunlight on their tops in 1827 when all this belonged to the King), The blocks 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 like me. 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 unsued and used.

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 maybe 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 againt the walls. They have seen it all before.

Maybe, this is a Rapunzel style rescue escape attempt.

Turn and repeat.

Inadvertantly, 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.

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.