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,


‘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


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


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”


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.