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.


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,


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:


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

Sister Joyce

Fidget fingers on the back row. An unassuming black lady hidden in a warm coat, a scarf swathes her neck, bow, and ribbon on a Christmas pudding felt hat. Aaron introduces Sister Joyce. She stands slowly and creeps to the front. Trembling hands. Her back to the audience. She cannot hold the microphone, crunched arthritic hands. Aaron has prepared for this and her mic stand awaits. Aaron points and reassures

“I’ll accompany on guitar that mic is working”

She turns, smoothes her overcoat and in a strong Jamaican accent but a weak voice:

“I come in the name of Jesus Christ….I want you to listen to the words listen for your soul ‘come walk with me’ ”

She then sings initially hesitantly but with increasing confidence and begins to act out the chorus.
If this is an English translation it’s not very good. These lyrics were learned a long time ago in sunny hills. The chorus is clear and loud

“You cannot walk alone”

Her arms above her head, no shaking just praise, firm fists to the firmament. A stronger voice fills a captivated church. The refrain again:

“You cannot walk alone”

A jig, stamping her foot, a toddler tantrum in exasperation. Her life depends on whether the audience understands this simple point. Some understand this could be her last Christmas. Some consider sadly this could be her last performance. Again stronger and clearer,

“You cannot walk alone”

Singing straight to the heart. Arms outstretched imploring, reaching. No need to grasp she has them. Shaking her head. Is she crying? Concludes speaking quietly,

“You cannot walk alone”

Everyone stands. Everyone claps. Some are in tears. The trembling hands return as she passes proffered palms down the aisle and slowly steps unaided back to her seat.