Chapter Fourteen ~ prison regime, how to fit in

Not really wanting to go to back to sleep I had to be content with just lying there, cold and alone. It seemed like hours although it probably wasn’t but without a time piece it was difficult to tell. Perversely, in the gloom it began to feel that some of the trivial things were becoming more important than the bigger picture. Having not worn a watch for many years was it something I must work on; perhaps there was one on the canteen order sheet. Being used to a well-ordered life linked closely to the calculated movements of the clock, this new existence might prove more difficult. Although I had always considered myself adaptable, here in the stagnant atmosphere, it was getting clearer that there was nothing I could do about it, nothing I could organise for it, nothing I could take charge of within it.

Trying to remain quiet, both in my body and my head, I turned to look out of the thin slither of window. It was still night-time but it would never be dark. The yellow orange flood lights reflected off the wire mesh fences behind which the background was a pale watery indigo blue. Still looking for a little comfort from somewhere, I took my shrunken manhood in hand, wiped the few drops of salty but familiar fluid from its unseeing eye and wrapped myself back around the only solace I seemed able to find.

On the wing, the night’s formal routine slowly wound down with the last check up on we guests. The regularity of this watching brief was only changed by how many special-order inmates there were on the wing. It was easy to spot the worst offenders from the coloured cards placed next to their picture on the door, silently indicating you were part of the special observation regime. With intervals of anything down to 15 minutes, it could be a real pain even for those of us who weren’t designated so. To be fair they were necessary for some prisoners and, after the first few nights. I was only affected if they happened to be in the cell next door, or in one case and only for one night, in the cell with me.

Several things triggered the timed cell watch, mainly self-harm. Some people just couldn’t cope with being locked up, some with the solitude, others with the relative silence. On the other hand, there were those who were just hell-bent on harming themselves and of course, some cases were pure belligerence. Having no psychological training and only a basic appreciation of mental issues, perhaps that was too simple? On the whole, I managed to steer clear despite my natural urge to help people with problems.

There were some I didn’t want to leave to their troubles. One pleasant, articulate guy, perfectly calm and composed in the daytime, suffered regular and extreme night terrors. When it happened, he would hide away under his bunk and console himself with a razor blade prized out of the disposable items issued to us. When it got too bad he was on hourly watch. This meant he was unlikely to bleed to death although he did make an incredible mess of his cell each time. Once discovered, with attention from an often-annoyed nurse, copious bandages and with any luck a calming word from an understanding night officer, he would be kept going for a few more nights. He was one of the few people I talked to regularly and I was torn between trying to be some sort of support and just minding my own business. In the end, I opted for the latter but felt sorry for him each time it happened.

Most self-harmers would wait for the night shift as good delaying tactic. While I was there it was not customary for the night staff to have cell keys, only those for getting on and off the wing; it was a security measure for reasons I could never understand. However, any medical intervention for cutting up or other general disruption required an exchange of crackling radio calls to central control, copious garbled exchanges, and the often-long wait for the keyed officers to turn up with whatever support the situation required. Ambulances and fire engines were a regular nightly light show if you were on the road-side of the block, which I was for most of my stay. With sleep often eluding me anyway, there were many nights when I just couldn’t help peering through the narrow cracks at the door edges and listening silently to the chaos and complaints. It became a rather perverse and macabre game to work out who had done what and where they were going to be taken. It passed the time if unfortunately, at someone else’s expense. There was a lot of that sort of behaviour but after a while you had to learn to switch off from most of it or at least distance yourself for your own sanity.

Other annoyances included dirty protests, arson, or just general smashing up of the cells. Whatever the trouble, I never could understand the mindless destruction of your things out on the few benefits we were allowed, especially the television; what was the point?

One afternoon there had been an altercation with an inmate and the staff, it was nothing new so no one took much notice of it only to stay out of the way. The individual had stormed off the floor and slammed his cell door behind him with a chorus of foul language. As we didn’t have to be out on the wing if we didn’t want to, nobody amongst the prisoners took too much notice at the time. The first thing any of us knew of a problem was the alarms going off and an emergency lock down being ordered loudly. Officers were immediately running about with purpose and you had no choice but to return to your cell and keep out of their way. All doors were quickly locked and the day’s routines unceremoniously cancelled. It was difficult to work out what was happening from just the activity passing the very narrow gap in the door frame but, it didn’t stop me trying. After the initial panic, the rather more hushed tones and leisurely pace of the staff became a good indicator of the incident. The arrival of an ambulance and the equally unhurried pace of the medical team confirmed it had been a fatality.

It wasn’t until the next day that snippets from several sources and other people’s experience slotted into place. The discussions were so matter of fact it was almost as disturbing as the even itself. The Plexiglas in his cell window had been melted through in two places, one either side of the internal bars. With some dexterity, a piece of bed sheet had been threaded through and back on itself. The rest was just down to gravity. It certainly wasn’t an operation you could do on a whim and everyone was surprised at the number of cell inspections which must have missed the careful preparations. Although no amount of speculation or recrimination could bring him back, I felt rather aggrieved when I overheard an officer complaining about the amount of paper work such an incident produced, not to say the triggering of an outside investigation. Of course, I kept my mouth shut but hoped I would never get to that degree of despair or frustration. One other attempt by a different prisoner was either poorly timed and most probably deliberately poorly executed but I noticed that any such attempts would bring the whole wings mood down for several days; testament to us all being human to some degree or other.

Just another morning and while still curled up and relatively comfortable on my bunk, the flaps eventually started to flip flap their morning chorus to mark the formal transition of night to day. If you were good boys and stayed in plain sight, there was no need to have the cell light put on; you were expected to be in clear in view at all times. These modern cells were very clever in their design. There were only two places to hide and only if you were a midget. The table cum worktop was too narrow for an average sized person but under the bottom bunk was the favourite when someone wanted to play silly buggers. Anyone daft enough or just plain bored would suffer the wrath of the officers for wasting their time. There was little leniency on this simple rule and the black mark it placed on your personal record didn’t come off.

With the night shift leaving, the first of our own daytime officers would trickle in. The first on duty would do yet another head count but generally with a little more verbal buoyancy and banter to help us wake up. Counts done, status verified, numbers shouted up to the office on the threes, hopefully correct according to the list, it was off for their important first cup of tea of the day; many of us had ours as well as although you couldn’t hear them This job done, the staff, with ties now clipped neatly onto the stiff white collars and the crisply ironed shirts tucked into a variety of waistlines, officers were deployed to the levels and yet another day was ready to roll.

Officially, inmates had to be up and dressed by 7.30 on weekday mornings and 8.30 at the weekends; most of us were, as far as I could tell. Getting up was always easy for me; not being one to lie around unless it was either very cold or there was someone to lie with. Having had a quick swill of my face and brushed my teeth, I was generally bright-eyed, if not always bushy-tailed. For my pad-mate it seemed to be the morning sport for officers to verbally prod him to get himself up and dressed, not that it never seemed to work very successfully, the only demarcation between the two-time zones for him was a laboured and complaint ridden transfer to the toilet. Here, a series of un-pleasantries would emanate from his dishevelled body, followed by an equally noisy and effort ridden return to his pit. The language was colourful from both sides of the door but it somehow helped to brighten what might be a particularly dismal morning; just a little.

In an effort to manage Dave’s general personal hygiene issues I had worked out a scheme to get him to wash himself most mornings. After I had finished with my own attentions, I would replenish the hand basin and make suitable noises about not wasting water etc. If the weather wasn’t too cold and there was enough hot water, which wasn’t always the case, he managed to help himself quite well. It worked well most of the time and the levels of BO were more acceptable at least.

Outside on the wing the days assorted processes were swinging into action regardless of what we were doing, safely locked away. Forms were being collected for the copious and regular complaint or request systems. Everything to do with prisoners was done in triplicate, literally and forms were snatched from their carefully balanced position in the gap by the door lock. For some categories of grievance, an inmates signature was required before the form could be processed. This always managed to create a degree of fuss as it meant unlocking, reading the detail of the form, signing it in front of the prisoner concerned before handing the bottom copy back as a record of the transaction. There was always an unwarranted commentary but again, it broke the boredom. Most officers had rather adverse views of our human rights and were not shy about letting you know what these were; it was easier if you had a thick skin which was very easy for me.

The officers on P wing were supposedly hand-picked to work with we VP prisoners and although difficult to spot, their attitude towards us was expected to have an appreciation of our issues. To be fair, most were OK, some were even good but, it took time to work out who they were and more importantly those who were not.

Now the wing was up, in our ‘house’, breakfast was taken as a leisurely affair as neither my pad-mate nor I had anything really pressing to do most mornings. The breakfast packs had been collected with the previous night’s dinner was, and just to be kind to them, functional. Being a category B prison and only one step down from the most secure facilities, there were no communal amenities as there were in many other places. Stories of toasters and microwaves were tantalising if fanciful, although I did hope, if not expect, to get some of the benefits when I was moved on to another prison after my sentencing. For now, we had the pleasures of a bag of cereal, 4 tea bags, 4 sachets of dried milk, 5 sachets of sugar and 2 plastic tubes of a thick sweet sticky liquid which purported to be jam. Four flavours of this dubious treat rang the changes and only the orange coloured one which masqueraded as marmalade didn’t do it for my taste buds. The others, blackcurrant, strawberry and my favourite, raspberry, were quite acceptable. All this was contained in a plastic bag and by carefully removing the tape closure and saving the bags you also had a relatively clean and practical storage system for many other things of prison life. It also didn’t take too long to build a collection of sugar and milk, neither of which I used in drinks, although I did make hot milky substitute for late night suppers of cereal, especially in the winter months. Jam was kept for snacks between meals with saved bread; if it hadn’t gone mouldy. The often overgenerous first and second lunch and dinner servings would supply more bread than I wanted but, with careful stock control it could last for a couple of days at least; never did a plain jam sandwich taste so wonderful after a lack lustre day or an often-unsatisfactory main meal.

Most of these normally innocuous food items would become my contribution to the ‘currency’ of the wing. Fruit was the most appreciated, after sugar that is, some people even liked the orange jam which at least saved it from being thrown in the bin. Having seen the results of deals that had gone wrong, although I was still reluctant to enter the whole barter scheme, these harmless items seemed to be as acceptable, in comparison to the many illicit and illegal offerings from other parts of the vicarious population. Not wanting to get involved at all, I preferred to discretely pass on a handful of whatever I had to people I liked, thus avoiding the pitfalls of full-blown barter.  Being very selective in my dealings in the first place, we few sometimes joked candidly about payback being of a more personal nature; I often wondered it my subtle suggestions were maybe too subtle as none were never taken up; perhaps I should have been more obvious.

While still not on any work or education programme, once breakfast was done and my bunk made, there was not much else to do from then on. In the early days I used the time to build up visualisations of what was going on around me, from the many sounds and smells, if not many of the sights. It seemed prudent to have at least half an idea about prison life than no idea at all so, with the occasional bits of additional information from my pad mate, I could soon identify quite a lot of the daily activities which we were so far excluded from. There were many of them in such a busy environment but most were still rather mundane. Occasionally and marginally more interesting, loud calls of ‘get off the fucking phone’ indicated were inmates taking liberties with the time, ‘Where’s so and so the lazy bastard’ was often answered by ‘he’s on a visit Mr Holland’ or ‘he’s at legal’ or ‘down for the doctor’. These were all different things which went on outside the confines of the wing, all of which I wanted to know more about. Despite the unremarkable daily life, the varied events added a watery splash of colour to the bland cream and blue dullness of the inside of the cells.

With the workshop chaps eventually gone off somewhere, the wing workers would be next to set about their allotted tasks. These always seemed to start with a cup of coffee and a chat with the officers on floor duty that morning. Coffee was a luxury item inside here and it would seem, a definite perk of the job unless you could afford to buy it for yourself that is. Having coffee of your own or at least access to other people with some was a valued step up in the wing hierarchy but not one I was keen to take up. It all seemed too cliquey to be worth it, although I would of course be pleased to accept any toll-free offerings. Most mornings, in fact most days were the same as each other. For me the first few had the diversion of visits from the welfare officers about housing, money issues, family, pets, and the whole gambit of everyday life on the outside. Despite their varied efforts, there was nothing I needed or wanted to think about, although I probably should have.

We did go through how to prepare the telephone lists and visitor applications. The instructions I had seemed to differ from my pad-mate’s interpretation but I took the official version just to be safe. Anyone you wanted to see or speak to had to be fully vetted before-hand, their details had to be supplied on various forms and after that it took several days before you knew if any legally or morally inappropriate people had been blocked, depending mainly on your legal case or personal circumstances. There were few people on either of my lists and only one was struck off but you never got to find out details.

Letters as a form of communication would become a massive thing; for me at least. My handwriting was never good at the best of times and with the general lack of practice, having never been one for writing letters, when I had written anything I often had trouble reading it back anyway. The general letters I wrote often ran to 8, 10 or even more pages and acted as a therapeutic tool for my sanity more than a means of constructive communication. Everyone had one free letter per week, each Sunday morning we had blank paper and an envelope pushed under the door. These were always pre-dated and marked as prison supplied. The paper was only just larger than A5 but better than nothing and the postage was always free. Eventually I would get my own A4 writing pad, envelopes, and stamps for all the copious and therapeutic writing I did. There was a post box on the wing but all envelopes had to be left unsealed so the contents could be read and uncensored if necessary before they were sent on. It was similar for incoming mail. There were rules about written content obviously and what else could come in or go out with it. Restrictions on photos, cards and any other material were strictly applied and rigorously enforced. The only time this rule didn’t apply was for legal paperwork. Incoming letters were handed unopened to you personally and not just dumped on your bunk. Outgoing legal things had to have a special code on them as an indication, but I would imagine they still had some scrutiny depending on who you were and what your record was like; it was another theory I didn’t bother to put to the test.

There was a sort of standing joke that everything took a week, whatever it was but slowly all my lists and arrangements began to slide into place. The visitor list was just waiting to see who wold book one; this system didn’t allow for prisoners to ask people in, I was nervous about them but never shared the fact. As far as my visitors list was concerned, I knew the system worked because at least one person I put down had been blocked. He had been of some interest to the police from my case. In a way, it was fortunate for him as he wouldn’t have coped with coming into the prison’s visitors’ system. On the other hand, he didn’t appreciate the intrusion and disruption I had set in motion. All the others were approved but there were not very many. The telephone list was the same and just a matter of waiting to see if you could log into the computerised system with your pin number given out at the induction. Once you could do this, only approved numbers could be accessed.

Remand prisoners had the huge advantage by being allowed two visits per week, in stark contrast to only two visits per month for the convicted. Eventually a third visit could be added for gaining enhanced status but for me, that was much later. The issue of who I would want on either the already limited, friends and colleague’s overshadowed the list although, it was no real surprise but in some cases, it was another valuable excuse for many of them to take me off their Christmas card lists.

Some sheets of paper fluttered to the floor from the side of the locked door and Dave perked up into his version of active life. He had been quietly watching the television while I wrestled with some of my formal paperwork and my conscience. He had already shared his thoughts and expectations on his rather limited contact with the outside world which, in an odd way, made my rather paltry expectations seem much better. The papers were our canteen sheets. To my amazement his gangling form managed to get to the pages remarkably quickly before I could even get off my bunk. Although I didn’t comment on his dexterity, it did make me smile. My more uncharitable thought was he wanted to see how much money I had in my prison account, just in case I could help him out perhaps; I immediately chided myself for such cynicism but also knew I was right. Taking into consideration this must constitute the only positive thing my self-inflicting pad mate had to look forward to each week but he was still as whiny as ever about it. It turned into another opportunity to expound upon his many theories on our restrictions and restrictive practices in general. Trying to ignore the many complaints on diet and dignity, I snatched my canteen sheets away and took the time to browse the lists.

My recollection had been right in that I didn’t have much money, but I didn’t think I needed very much at that moment. My earlier perusal of the list had shown some treats which would be nice but things like paper, stamps and phone credit would need to come ahead of deodorant, a sponge, better soap and shampoo; they could wait a week or two. Carefully balancing the few pennies in my account, I allocated what would just have to do for now. The telephone credit was difficult to calculate, but I did still have my one free telephone call from the first night to use. Not knowing if it had a time limit or not the thought of asking an officer to put in their code to initialise it made it something I could do without; quite irrationally I was finding tiny puddles of concern would quickly turn into oceans of worry if you let them and I didn’t need them at this point. The matter was swept away.

“If you pass yours down I’ll put it with mine, they get collected later this afternoon or in the morning.”

Not falling for that old chestnut, I thanked my pad mate but said I hadn’t finished looking through mine so I would keep it for now; I knew he only wanted to see what I had ordered.

“If you want me to get anything, a treat, an extravagance?”

His vocabulary surprised me more than the second attempt to involve himself in my shopping task.

“No thanks, I couldn’t afford your interest rates,” I smiled at my wit but it was lost on him.

“Suit yourself, you’ll just have to do without.”

I had already decided I would.

Only moments later and a thankful conclusion to his attempts at playing his game, another pair of sheets slid into the cell, under the bottom of the door this time; the dinner sheets. This was all too much to do in one go, what would there be to do tomorrow?

Taking my time to compare what I had been served so far, against what I might have chosen without such insight. The time was well spent and I selected what I wanted to try, despite the ongoing comments from my fellow felon. His derogatory style of conversation was having less effect on me every day despite trying to liven things up a little by daring to counter argue some of his more ludicrous points, in the end it was never worth it and I just lay back and contented myself with my mornings work.

The door unlocked. Don’t say this was yet another something to do?

“You for the doctors Patterson,” it was not a question more of an assumption.

“Yes, and about time too,” Dave replied.

The officer’s face didn’t seem to appreciate the comment and his tone changed to match it.

“Get yourself up and dressed, you look and smell a fucking mess. We’re going in ten so shift your idle bones and sort yourself out.”

The fleeting but all-knowing smile which was thrown up at me gave the real game away. Not being able to do anything but agree with the observations, I looked forward to the pantomime this was obviously going to turn into. Past the rather squat officer, outside on the wing I could just see some of the sick and sickly drifting along the wing in readiness for whatever the ‘Doctors’ consisted of. The door slammed again and I started to count the minutes to see how long it would take Dave to get himself ready. Peaking over the edge of my bunk, remarkably, he had already changed his jumper and was slumped on the edge of his bunk ready to go in what must be a record time. The possibility of medical sympathy must be a potent stimulus to one so sick.

“Can you hold my wheelchair for me please,” the common courtesy was another first.

“Of course I can,” I tried my best to sound solicitous.

Once I had jumped down I could see him more properly and, the way he had made a mess of putting his jumper on. As I straightened it out for him I suggested he also did something with his hair but was horrified to realise how motherly I sounded; it made me shudder.

Steadying the chair from behind I linked him under his frail arm to pull him across the narrow gap. It was the first physical touch I had had with anything in here, other than myself of course and without warning my brain seemed to have instinctively slumped into its baser instinct and I found myself considering all sorts of impossibilities. Unconsciously and inappropriately, I had begun to feel and squeeze the bony remnants which were all that was left of him. Only realising what I was doing as he grumbled at me for being too rough, I retracted my hand but found I was still thinking I could be a lot rougher if he wanted. The whole episode occupied only seconds in execution but hours in recrimination.

The door was eventually unlocked again and I threw away a cheery ‘see you later’ as another dishevelled prisoner dropped in behind the chair and pushed it out onto the wing; I received no reply. Curiously the door was left open behind him and I was torn between pushing it closed and sneaking a look at the outside world. It was relatively safe here inside but curiosity was a powerful thing only my momentary hesitation meant I only made one step before an officer slid into the space with his head cocked to one side as if to say, ‘where do you think you are off to matey’, I smiled an equally silent reply and quickly skipped up onto my bunk and back to safety.

It took me a moment to realise I was on my own. It was the first time since being inside the prison walls. Although I had hoped for it, at times longed for it but now it had happened I felt strangely lost. To counter the feeling, I jumped back down and fumbled with the kettle and other bits and pieces but eventually settled for flicking through the TV channels in a hope of finding something inane to distract me. Full time occupation had saved me from the perils of daytime TV and, from what I had seen so far in here, had been glad of it. Contenting myself with being able to linger on this or that programme without the usual running commentary from my friend, it eventually failed to satisfy any need I might have been feeling. Perhaps a cup of tea might be better? With a quick tidy and wipe down while the kettle boiled, I only just managed to make a ‘cuppa’ before the neighbouring wing started to filter out into the yard for their exercise period. Once back up in my corner, pressing myself against the cold hard walls I managed to become invisible to the irritants peering through the window looking for some more sport. Once their short attention span was satisfied they drifted off which afforded me the opportunity to carefully peek around the corner at the motley crew enjoying the sunshine. The tea went un-drunk as I enjoyed the spying or probably more accurately, the voyeurism. It was something I had developed into more of an art form over many years; here I found how uncomfortable I was to be reminded how much fun it could be.

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