Chapter Nine ~ how things work, or sometimes not

A manly shout echoing down the wing broke noisily into my musings.

“Workers back on the wing,”

“What goes on now?”

I deliberately hoped to deflect some of the inevitable rhetoric with a meaningful question.

“It’ll be dinner in a bit and it’s canteen day, you won’t get anything and you’ll have to wait ‘till next week.”

Yet another thing I didn’t understand.

“This is what you get later,” a double-sided printed sheet was offered up to me, “did you have any money when you came in?”

“Not much, no,” I didn’t remember how much.

Being certain that I didn’t want to share my personal information if I could help, I remembered I had only handed over a few pounds and some odd change. My last act of freedom had been to go to the shops so there wasn’t much left in my pockets. The thought seemed to have been part of a previous disconnected life, yet it had been only been two days ago.

“You need to get some sent in or get on the workers list, I can’t work you know so I don’t have any money, no one ……”

He was off again hardly drawing breath and I switched my attention to the paper he had given me.

‘Canteen’ was in effect, a shopping list. The items listed were extensive, probably around 350 or more at a rough count. They included a wide range of products including personal hygiene, stationery, telephone credits, smoker’s items and greetings cards, recreational and religious items. Most notably though, and making up at least half of the list, was food stuffs. It was fascinating. Items ranged through chocolate, sweets, biscuits, crisps, tinned fruit, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, dried and tinned food, sauces and spreads and many other things; in effect, it was a mini supermarket.

Dave’s details were printed out at the top of the sheet, name number and status, he had ‘standard’ which must be the same reference I had seen on my card outside the door. There were also the details of how much money he had in his prison account; it wasn’t much as he had already implied. There had been something in the induction process about basic allowances for each prisoner, just a few pounds a week plus whatever work they could eventually get to do. It was a bit of a blur but I had plenty of time to look it up and work it all out. Dave was still sharing his discontent at the system but I managed to filter out only the bits I felt might be of use; I was getting good at that.

‘Standard’ status; non-working prisoners had about £2 or £3 a week, workers or those on an education programme could get £12 or more depending on the type of job. Extra money could be had by achieving the ‘Enhanced’ status but he didn’t bother to elaborate on it, he just complained that he wasn’t allowed it; I would consider what all that entailed another time. So, this money and whatever you had brought in from the outside was held in an account and could be spent through this ‘canteen’ process. The telephone system also became a little clearer. It seemed you could buy credit which was stored somewhere, presumably for when you needed to use the phone; I hadn’t considered talking to anyone on the outside but the thought made me shiver.

Intrigued by it all but not wanting to rely on Dave’s version, I fished out the sheaf of paperwork I had been presented with on the first night. As well as the standard status which almost everyone started on, there were two others. Enhanced was something to be aspired to but seemed to entail an amount of effort. The other, Basic, was what the system could use as a punishment tool. Ridiculously bound by the various conventions on human rights etc., there wasn’t much which could be done legally that is but, the loss of your television or the reduction in association or other little things I imagined would be magnified unbelievably for those who suffered them.

To attain an Enhanced status there were several hoops to jump through. To start you had to wait for at least three months before you could apply for it. It meant having been a model prisoner and somehow get two references of your character. These had to be from one of your personal wing officers and then from a workshop or education officer; whichever scheme you managed to get on. Eventually and in the systems own time, you might get called in for a face to face chat with the wing governor. Here you would be asked to explain how you were getting on within the regime and your plans and aspirations for the rest of your remand or sentence. It sounded rather complicated for just a few more pounds in your account however, there were more valuable things than just money.

The most prized thing for many prisoners was the advantage of having one more visit added to your normal quota. Not everyone had or wanted visits for their own reasons but, for those who did, like me, this would be well worth the effort. Other things included extra association, a wider range of personal belongings, being allowed a proper mug, if you could afford it a radio and several other items could only make enduring the system a little easier. It took me four and a half months to get my upgrade. Other than enjoying the remand allowance of three visits a week instead of two and my earthenware mug, I had decided to think ahead to save up the extra money for a digital radio and some headphones. In my mind, I had acclimatised myself to the fact that I would be here, or somewhere else inside the prison system for several years and I would need the benefits of certain luxuries to help get me through it.

Jumping ahead, once I was convicted, the visits would be only two a month for the standard regime but three a month for enhanced which would continue to be the greatest boon for those who wanted to keep coming to see me. When they started, most of my visits were very much appreciated once we had gotten past the initial embarrassment, mainly on my visitor’s part. Over time I did start to notice that it was getting more and more difficult to find things to talk about. There was not very much to share from my side after all, not once the general novelty of the situation had worn off anyway. People were very kind and the level of support was certainly more than welcome. Some of my visitors would be more interesting than others and some came from rather surprising quarters. It proved the point when it’s only at the most difficult times when you find out who your real friends are.

“You’ll need to get lots of stuff from the canteen so you can swap with people,” my prison education was to continue, unrelentingly.

Having watched enough dramatic representations of prison life to understand that, in a cashless society, there would be a healthy barter and exchange business to contend with, it was something which I had considered only briefly when Jim had asked for some of my first night items. Other than that, at least so far, I couldn’t see what I might want, or what I had to offer in any exchange. From what I could tell I could live with whatever I was given but perhaps I was going to be proved wrong eventually.

“You’ll get your canteen sheet on Thursday for delivery next week. If you want anything before then, I can get it and you can pay me back later, it won’t be too expensive!”

As he went on to explain some of the possible transaction costs for more commonly handled things, it became clearer that I didn’t need to be part of any of it.

Burn, tobacco in prison parlance, was generally double the cost for payback; it was the most highly prized of the legal substances on any wing. Other things like food or writing materials, stamps or the like were not so important and so generally, cheaper. You could swap two oranges for a second-class stamp or some sugar, that sort of level. Still I didn’t see how I was going to fit into this subculture, it sounded too desperate compared to how I had generally managed my life. Somehow, I imagined I would be happier to just give something away if someone really needed it and hopefully get treated the same in return but this was no normal situation.

My naiveté could have easily got me into trouble but I managed to stay safe during my time away; perhaps more by luck than judgement.

Without a break for breath that I noticed, Dave had moved the subject from the fundamentals of barter and favours to some of the more colourful personnel on the wing. He was trying to explain to me who I would need to cultivate friendship with and who I should avoid. This was all rather a waste of time as, obviously as I neither knew anyone else on the wing yet nor did I see me getting to know anyone to any degree would be top of my immediate priority list. Letting him run on with the theme, for once it wasn’t about him and I did get to hear other names maybe to help me cope later. Most important of all were the names of potential trouble makers, they would be a priority but eventually on my assessment and not exclusively that of my pad-mate. While he was rambling away I was also taking in the activity out on the wing as it ramped up towards what I was informed would be the dinner service.

With an imagination like mine it was easy to absorb the sound trolleys trundling along the walkways out on the other side of the exercise yard and the sound of one of them coming through the complicated gate and door systems onto the wing; being able to visualise things was always some kind of comfort. Soon there was the rhythmic mechanical clink clink of the observation flaps for yet another prisoner head count, numbers were called in once they were gathered, correct again this time; it was not always to be the case. Thinking that I was a ‘pro’ now, I didn’t even look up as the officer checked we were where we should be; perhaps I had fallen far too easily into the prison programme; it still being only the second day.

Dinner time arrived. There had been the usual period of anticipation from the trolley coming onto the wing through to the first of the four floors being called on. The food took a short while to unpack, decipher and prepare for the servery which didn’t help to alleviate any anxiety which I still felt. It was strange although in a good way; a distraction at least. Anticipating which floor would get the first call became an art but more importantly because it determined which of us were last and sometimes only to receive leftovers. Floor calling fell into a pattern which heightened the game, for me anyway but I had a strange sense of importance and reason in such trivia.

The actual service of this meal as with all the subsequent events was the same; the only thing that changed was the food and occasionally the staff. Even the menus were on a two-week rotation. At the pivot point of the catering week we had a sheet with all the choices for both lunch and dinner for the next seven-day rotation and you just ticked off what you wanted for each meal. The lists were surprisingly extensive and catered for several religious constraints, halal, vegetarian and vegan options. There was even a token indication at the level of healthy eating you could maintain; the highest of these having a small red heart printed next to it.

The first time I got to make my own choices I couldn’t seem to fault it. As I had come in part way through a cycle there was some advantage in trying the things that I had been allocated for the rest of the week rather than having to choose. The ‘spares’ as they were known, gave an insight as to what one might avoid in the future if nothing else. Once past the second week of ordering properly I fell into a pattern of the same meals on the same days almost without fail; it raised some questions in my mind to support my questionable mental state but I managed to keep that locked well away This mundane repetition didn’t work for everyone and was clearly not for my pad mate, supported at every opportunity by his constant and consistent complaining.

A general appraisal of the food, after having eaten there for a longer time was, it all could have been hotter, especially if you were towards the end of service. My main gripe was for one of the simplest things they could never ever get right was boiled potatoes; apparently one of the great mysteries of the prison catering world. The simple beasts were either watery mush or bullet like chunks even with the better option being to go for the chips when they had them, even when cold they were better than the other obnoxious offerings.

Curiously the servery was also one of the hot spots for volatile outbursts and rarely because of the food quality or quantity. For reasons I couldn’t readily work out, both petty gripes and serious grievance all came to a head there. Over my time, I witnessed several of these flare ups and they were not pretty events; although sometimes exciting in a brash primeval way. The infrequency was only because they were contained by vigilance and the swift, brutal management of officers who were always on heightened alert at such times.

In terms of general living arrangements especially for my time with this my first pad mate, I tolerated being a ‘slave’ fetching meals for ‘sir’ despite being offered any number of suggestions for ‘the lazy fucker’ by officers and inmates alike. In the great scheme of things, it was no great effort; or so I kept telling myself.

In the early days of our being ‘two’ed up’, one of the more interesting subjects which my curious chum seemed desperate to share was the subject of medication; ‘meds’ as they were conveniently known. Having already guessed there must be a high proportion of prisoners needing one type or another, it was far more extensive than I could have guessed. My general impression was there were a wide range of both psychological and physiological problems amongst the prisoners as well as the full range of addictions which one might easily expect. Many people were obviously hardened addicts; some would just need something to ‘take the edge off’ as they liked to call it but overall, I counted myself very lucky to have no such difficulties and a healthy loathing of medication in general. You might have thought I would feel different after living with a doctor for seven years, but thankfully no. Having already nosed around Dave’s collection when he wasn’t looking, just out of curiosity of course, it didn’t reveal very much in the end; not that I was an expert in these things.

All the legal drugs were dispensed by three degrees of delivery; as were most other medical matters. Twice each day out on the wing there were loud calls for ‘meds’ where those due them were unlocked to go to the small dispensary up on the ‘twos’ to collect them. The second degrees were the prisoners who were only prescribed relatively harmless items and trusted enough to keep them in their cells. These would be ordered and delivered at whatever time scale was allocated but were rare from what I could make out. The final level was for those who either couldn’t get to the dispensary had broken the trust issues or, whose medication was strong enough to warrant having it administered personally by a nurse. Dave was in the latter group in that ‘he couldn’t walk’.

Each day, twice a day he would have something passed to him in a little plastic cup and be watched as he took it. Although I wondered what some of the other things hidden on his shelves were, they turned out to be just everyday pain killers; or so it said on the label at least.

It didn’t take a genius to notice that Dave never actually swallowed his tablets, why I noticed this I didn’t know, I had no real reason to watch him more than out of idle curiosity. Perhaps it was the elaborate, rather theatrical throwing back of the head and sometimes a raucous coughing which rather gave the game away; to me at least. Once the busy and obviously unobservant staff had moved on, he carefully took whatever it was, out of his mouth and secreted it away in various folds of cloths or corners of his bunk. He offered me yet more advice after one of these amusing if farcical events.

“You need to get on the list to see the doctors as soon as you can, tell them you can’t sleep and you feel depressed or you think you might try to do yourself in, that’ll get you all the right meds ready for selling to the others.”

The image which formed from his suggestion was nothing I would have considered even for an instant. Having already twice professed my general sanity and stability of both mind and body when I first came in, I couldn’t change it easily even if I either wanted or needed to. Needing medication was one thing but, to get it for other more estranged reasons, I didn’t think so, no. Call me squeaky clean, a goody two shoes I didn’t care, I was not getting into all that. I didn’t bother to try to explain my feelings.

Without any interruption, he went on to explain exactly what people wanted and needed and, according to him at least, what I might get in return for them; I didn’t save the rather doubtful information. He did touch upon one fanciful option where there was the possibility of having a cosy ‘bunk up’ of the rather stereotypical prison kind, but I was sure I still wouldn’t have gotten involved even for that; not for meds anyway. Dave continued his exposé of the wider subject.

“I never take mine you know, but nobody knows that,” I let him hang onto the small misconception, “I get all sorts of stuff in exchange for them you know, Steve and Jay have them, yes I…..,”

He went off on a verbal ramble once more and I switched off.

Although I didn’t know who these people were, I would get to meet one of them straight after dinner only a few days later.

The meal had been served, consumed and the trays duly collected. There followed the now familiar activity of the click clack of pool balls and excited chatter which was the workers having their association; this was socialising out on the wing before lock up. Those who had been in the workshop during the day were allowed this additional time while we ‘idol’ people didn’t. We would have our out of cell time in the day-time not that I would find it very stimulating.

The flap at our door’s tiny window clicked open and made me jump. It was normally kept closed to keep us separated from the others but now, a rather haggard bloodshot eye peered through and was obviously not that of an officer. It quickly disappeared again and was replaced by a gruff voice through the gap at the hinge side of the door.

“What ‘ave you got for me today Dave boy,” I somehow knew it wasn’t me he was addressing.

The eye returned to the window. This time it must have seen both of us and squinted as it realised I was new.

“Who’s ‘e,” the tone took on a sharp suspicious edge.

“He’s new, don’t worry he’s OK,” I was glad of the accurate assurance, “wait, I’ll get it.”

There was an amount of shuffling below me and some ripping of paper which I couldn’t see without moving position, which I didn’t want to do.

“Give this to our friend will you,” Dave was offering up a twist of newspaper, presumably for me to take from him, “slide it under the door to our friend will you.”

My first instinct was to say I would prefer not to if he didn’t mind despite not working through any possible consequences of a refusal; I would be relying on my gut feeling.

“Come on, be quick mate,” it was the voice at the door again but I continued to hesitate.

“Sorry, can’t you can manage to do it, you must have before?”

I directed the comment to Dave but thought I might be making more of this than I needed.

“Hold on,” I could hear Dave making an excessive effort to move, he didn’t sound too happy either “here.”

He had moved surprisingly quickly to the end of the bunk where I could just see his thin legs dangling out. There was a faint thud where as he threw the small paper packet at the door. It landed near the bottom where there was a larger gap and it received a deft flick of his walking stick to push it through the thin space. Although I hadn’t seen the stick before I wondered if it might constitute a dangerous weapon for my possible indiscretion.

“Thanks mate, I’ll have your stuff for you tomorrow.”

The eye was thanking Dave but looking at me which made me distinctly uncomfortable although morally sound; I did wonder if it was worth the minor victory. Don’t go looking for trouble, which had been the suggestion from the officer the other day, perhaps I had just managed to find some.

Dave soon got over his disgruntlement; perhaps I was not the first person to refuse to help him. He went on to happily tell me that the regular supply of tranquillisers and other strong pain meds would get him all sorts of extras. Despite all his stories I should say that in the three weeks I was in with him, I never once saw anything you could count as an extra come his way. It was very much a one-way street for the traffic and I felt sorry for him, in a small way but glad I managed to stick with my original decision not to get involved.

Further transactions took place regularly. The thought did cross my mind that perhaps, if he was to take the medication himself both his physical and even mental state might have improved; it was never to be. We had at least reached a better understanding of what I was prepared to do in our enforced if unlikely relationship, but more importantly, what I was not.

We applied this new cordiality to the day-to-day maintenance of our cell and, for the most part we seemed to get on OK on that basis. Because I couldn’t do with dirt, I would do most the communal cleaning but would not clear up the more specific mess constantly engulfing him. In return he taught me some card games, I put up with his meandering thought processes and it seemed a far exchange for a relatively quiet life.

What I didn’t put up with was his personal hygiene or rather lack of it. In fairness, I did give him a day or so just to see if his smell was just a local aberration but, in the end, I had to tackle it head on; I don’t know who was the more embarrassed.

“You can’t get a good wash in the hand basin though can you,” he protested, “we’re supposed to get a shower every day you know but,” there it was, again, “I can’t walk, can I?”

I cut him off before he could start on the well exercised band wagon again.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t keep yourself clean though, does it?” I wasn’t going to let it go.

There was only one answer, or so I thought but there was little progress on the matter. Although I knew a little about the showers when I had first come onto the wing and spotted a most excellent piece of tastefully tattooed muscle clad only in a towel.

“Well, I haven’t had a shower have I,” that much was true, not that I actually knew how to go about getting one, “and I don’t have any ‘personal’ problems do I? You just have to try harder.”

To be fair he did at least try, if not exactly harder. Slipping into one of my more diverse chains of thought, I would have happily helped but he had made his feelings very clear about some life styles after the incident of name calling from outside the window; he was obviously not a ‘friend of Dorothy’.

Over time the situation did improve and I was kind enough to stay well out-of-the-way while he did his best to keep himself cleaner. We had ample supply of prison issue soap and basic deodorant for those of us who couldn’t afford to buy better items from the canteen.

Once I had worked out the logistics of my own personal hygiene, I found it was easy enough to have a strip wash every night; although always after my companion had gone to sleep. There were times I considered the opportunity for crude flirting by getting naked in the relative privacy if grotesque intimacy of the cell. Although I had the nerve to do it, I also had the brains to resist such things. Unfortunately, I never felt any of the pad mate’s I was to have over the months would have appreciated any intimacy which was a disappointment if I am honest. Overall, it turned out right to have kept my peculiar imagination and many other fantastical fantasies safely to myself. In fact, keeping most things to myself was a good idea.

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