Day to day routine behind the walls was all very straightforward now, although I was still amazed at how easily I had fitted into it all. Today, Dave’s extended efforts in complaining had used up most of his energy and he was even quieter after he had tossed his lunch into the bin as some sort of retrograde protest. Noting his apple had rolled away to safety under the worktop, I made a note to retrieve it later when he wasn’t looking. The workers eventually went back to their toils, Dave fell asleep and I was thankful for small mercies.
“Lights on for exercise,” the officer’s voice was familiar but the instruction was new.
“You had better put the light on if you want to go out,” a sleepy voice wafted up in a dreamy muse, I was still none the wiser.
Having an idea that they might have been referring to the emergency call button by the light switch, and having already overheard what happened when prisoners misused it, I hesitated as I didn’t want to fall foul of the wing officers and spoil my short but so far untarnished record.
“Is it the call button I need to press?” I didn’t get an answer but dropped to the floor and pressed it anyway.
The small neon light next to it started to flash slowly as it would do in time with the corresponding one above the door on the other side.
While I waited for whatever would happen next, a glance back out of the window showed it was sunny outside and I contemplated if there was need to wear a jumper or not. Deciding there might be, I fished it down off the shelf and pulled it awkwardly over my head catching the narrow neck edging on my glasses which I had forgotten to take off. Peering with some difficulty in the mirrored plastic tile that constituted a looking-glass I reset the frame across my nose but was dismayed to notice my already portly outline unflatteringly emphasised by the acrylic mix of the garment; it must be one or two sizes too small, or was it me? I quickly prized it off again just as the door was being unlocked.
“Both of you?” I looked back at Dave already knowing the answer.
“You not coming?” I knew it was only a common courtesy for me to ask.
“Well there’s a surprise you lazy fucker,” the officer obviously knew him well.
Stepping quickly through the door before it was noisily locked behind me, I had successfully managed to avoid Dave getting up to speed in his usual protestations.
There were only a few prisoners meandered towards the doorway to the exercise yard and despite verbal encouragement from the officers; no one seemed in any great hurry to get some of the hopefully fresh air. So as not to do anything other than fit in, setting my own pace to that of the others we slowly drifted to the end of the wing. A short queue was forming at the inner gate where three officers were waiting for we prisoners to gather together; it was obviously not a free-for-all event. From the smart black fleece jackets which the warders wore, I wished I had put my sweatshirt on now. With experience, I would take note of what the officers who did the pre-exercise fence checks would wear, to gauge whatever temperature it was outside. As there was generally only one chance to do anything in here, I had to put up with things like this, for now at least.
The heavy steel barred gate behind the wall of officers was unlocked and we filed through into a small lobby area. From here you could just see the adjoining wing through yet another set of doors, a small window and, although there was little time to take in anything else as we all moved forward for a body check, it was another snippet of information to store away. With arms out, feet apart, palms open, the standard procedure for any off-wing activity proceeded to roll us one by one out into the yard.
If you didn’t have anything on you which you shouldn’t, it was then only the ritual humiliation of distrust you had to suffer. If you tried to sneak anything other than the items allowed it just created an unnecessary fuss for nothing. Smokers had all their bits and pieces, asthmatics had their inhalers, nothing else was allowed. On reflection, it would be the perfect place to swap illegal meds or the many other types of contraband. My own rather jaundiced recollection of US prison drama’s saw the yard as the place for a good fight or other lethal retribution; even with my over active imagination I couldn’t see it happening here but I had no real idea.
Once we were all counted out, I found myself uncomfortably in that great land of the lost once more. Having only just got used to the confines of the cell and even the restrictions of the wing, disturbingly, out here, there was just too much space. Once everyone was out there was no going back either, not before the allotted time unless it rained, snowed or there as a major incident of some sort. On this my first outing, obviously not knowing the form, I slowly wandered off to one side to see what anyone else did while being careful not to seem overtly interested in anyone; this was an easy thing to manage given my many years of practice.
Some of the crowd made off to the farthest corners of the area obviously planning to be out of easy sight of the three officers who stood resolutely by the door; there was nowhere to hide out here. Some of the fitter looking inmates started to walk purposefully around in a rough circle near the fence line, others just stood in huddled groups, chatting but suspiciously keeping an eye on everyone else at the same time. Outside the fence there was an officer watching us, perhaps for something perhaps for nothing, his radio in hand he was pacing up and down the wire corridor between the this and the yard next to ours. We were the only prisoners outside at that point, but we were ‘special’ after all.
A few inmates were sitting on three metal benches spread out along one side of the space, they too were huddling together laughing and chattering over this and that but nothing I could make out. Feeling rather lost and exposed, I started to amble slowly and rather aimlessly, hopefully in tune with some of the others walkers all the time trying to spot any clue as to what I should actually be doing.
Glancing around at nothing, but seeing everything, I noticed an elderly guy walking rather stiff-legged in my direction with more of a purpose than most of the others. He was smiling and his rather rotund outline made him roll like a caricature Santa, without the red coat, the hat, or the beard come to that; nothing like Santa at all really and I knew it was just my panic bubbling up.
“Walk with me,” he said it with a smile and I followed alongside him without thinking or questioning.
“Thank you,” I didn’t really know what I was thanking him for.
I had seen the outwardly amiable chap in the meal queues chattering to other prisoners about all sorts of things, sometimes having a laugh and sometimes a more serious conference. Here, his general assurance and friendly demeanour passed on some degree of confidence for me to trust him.
“My name’s Sam, I’ve been trying to get to you since you came in, sorry for that.”
“Sorry, I had no idea,” immediately I realised my own apology was unnecessary.
“I’m the wing rep,” although the title was lost on me I kept quiet this time, “I’m a sort of go between for we inmates and the officers, or anyone else for that matter.”
Although I nodded my acknowledgement, what he was saying seemed to be part of a predetermined speech and I didn’t want to spoil it.
He went on to describe the sorts of things he dealt with, where prisoners might have trouble relating to issues or just didn’t know how to manage for themselves. He moved on to me specifically, about for my stay so far, nothing sprang to mind that I thought I might need help with although I was realistic enough to know something was bound to crop up eventually. Hoping I looked suitably serious and nodding in all the right places, he eventually finished the pleasant and informative diatribe. What I was more anxious about was the way I might have looked to the other chaps, some of whom seemed to be taking note of my being so obviously, the new boy having his induction speech.
“How are you settling in?” my attention was pulled back to Sam.
It sounded like a genuine question and I told him my general thoughts on things, not that there was very much to tell. He, in exchange, gave me the same warnings about my crazy, lazy, pad mate which the officers and others had; we shared a chuckle about him and some of his antics.
“One other piece of advice I give to all the new people, especially first times like yourself,” I changed my face to match his more serious tone, “prison is a state of mind. There are three golden rules to making life easier than it can sometimes be, while you’re in here….,” he went on to list them for me.
Each seemed to be simple enough. First, be respectful to officers and staff always, they are Sir or Miss and this small courtesy should get you a sliver of respect in return; from most of them anyway. Second, keep your head down and stay out of trouble; if there is any to be had, it will find you soon enough without going to look for it. Lastly, don’t talk about whatever it was which got you in here, he added the caveat that it was a personal choice, but often it would work against you eventually; even VP’s amongst their own kind aren’t always safe from inmate retribution.
“I won’t ask you about your issues and I don’t expect anyone else to ask me about mine, it should apply to everyone but it’s up to you, I just try to help people out as best I can.”
The chat had taken us twice round the yard and I noticed his limp had become rather more pronounced.
“I need to sit down for a while if you don’t mind,” of course I said I didn’t, “come and join us at the bench over there and I’ll introduce you to some of the better reprobates.”
He had said it loud enough for the guys in the huddle to look up and raise cheers of mock indignation. As each was identified I didn’t bother to try to remember all the names but nodded to each. Having nothing to contribute but welcoming the inclusion in the small group, Sam was soon fielding questions, dispensing suitable advice, real and comedic, encouragement or warnings. Taking it all in, in silence, but continuing to absorb the rest of the yard’s activities, the statutory one hour a day of fresh air soon passed.
“OK you lot, let’s be ‘aving you,” the call to heal came from the supervising team but was blatantly ignored by most people.
“Let’s be ‘aving you please gentlemen.”
The officer’s mockery was met with a range of suitably growled rebuttals and complaints but we all made our way back inside to the comparative airless confines of the cells.
My pad mate hardly dragged his eyes away from the television as he spoke.
“If you had gone out you would have found out wouldn’t you.”
I surprised myself at the retort but the half-joking reply had a more serious point to make; of course, it went unnoticed but that was expected. Another hot drink would help change the subject and to my amazement, he had already put the kettle on; I had to admit to being a little suspicious. Nothing came from it after all and the rest of the day ran its course; as did the next; and the next after that too.
Several days after, I don’t remember how many, my morning ablutions were interrupted by a loud shout at the side of the door, through the gap.
“You, Rollason?” I didn’t know if it was a question or an accusation.
“Yes,” I spluttered towards the disembodied voice through a mouth full of toothpaste.
“Visitors slip,” a narrow sliver of paper fluttered to the floor at my feet.
“Thanks,” I continued to spit and slaver but he had gone.
Wondering what it was and who had delivered it, I knew it wasn’t one of our usual officers from the accent and the level of educational tone. I stood looking down at the paper but realised how ridiculous I must look. Dave spoke up breaking the spell.
“You have a visit, that’s good I guess. Who’s it from? It’s very quick. Who do you have on the outside? Will they come often?”
His stream of inane and intrusive questions went unanswered.
Being wiser to Dave’s game of kiss and tell, without the kissing bit of course, he didn’t get anything out of me easily. Although I didn’t know it, he was right in that it was too soon for my visitors list to have been approved. It turned out someone was determined enough to have sought a compassionate visit through the Governor’s office; very resourceful of them. At least someone wanted to come and see me, I hoped so anyway, but I would have to wait for the afternoon visitors’ session before I could find out.