I had been at the prison for about two weeks. It was tough but rewarding. My job consisted of working on the enhanced prisoners unit with about 60 young men who had little hope of a future and even less of a present. Most were lifers under the age of 21. Not all were doing life – a bit over half actually had life sentences – but 99% of them were serving over 4 years. It’s a long, long time when you’re young.
And prison is no laughing matter. Forget the crap you might have read about it being like a holiday camp, it isn’t. It’s fucking awful. They are violent and intimidating places and you are never safe. I always know if people haven’t a clue about prison because they’re the ones who say it’s too easy. It isn’t. Imagine the worst people at your school, the worst bullies maybe. Add a heroin habit to them, some inner rage, and then put them with 1,000 other people just like them. Take away any hope of positive change when they get out. Teach them how to make knives from razorblades – putting three side by side to make the cut harder to stitch up – and how to blind someone with boiling water mixed with sugar. Now stand back….
The feeling of fear left me within a week as I began the long process of forming constructive relationships with the prisoners. I was worried that they were going to be suspicious – they were -, and aggressive – mostly they weren’t – but the one person who went out of his way to make me feel welcome was “John”. He saw the difficult time that was potentially ahead of me and I don’t know what motivated him to help, but he would always drop by and chat with me, asking me if I was ok, and generally helping me ground myself in their world. It hadn’t taken me more than five minutes to work out that we (Jane – the center manager, and I) operated in a kind of “no man’s land” in the prison. We weren’t “one of the boys” with the prisoners yet and the prison officers viewed us with stoical eyes, devaluing our work at every opportunity.We sometimes felt like we were in some crazy limbo, reliant on each other in one of the most challenging environments possible to work in. She taught me how everyone deserved a chance. I took that with me, and it’s still with me today.
John kept on being a friendly face for about two weeks, I enjoyed his company and it gave me a great sense of achievement to have begun to break down the barriers. I saw, in him, a way in to the rest of the wing (the cell block), and his smiling face was an important light in a dark, dark, difficult time starting out in my first proper job. I hadn’t bothered to ask what John was doing inside, it wasn’t really the done thing, though I knew he wasn’t a lifer. He was from some South Yorkshire shithole; poorly educated, and he talked very little about himself “outside” of the prison. He would ask me about my life, my interests, and he got from that at least some honesty in a place that thrived on lies and stories.
The center where I was based was just a room on the first floor of the wing. 60 cells stretched out away from us on two levels. Highly polished floors, a couple of pool tables, a table tennis table (where a few months later a Triad Assassin called H would beat me 21-0 in front of a joyous, baying, mob of 50 cheering prisoners), a television, a serving counter for meals, and assorted chairs. Two shower rooms were positioned on each floor, nearest to where officers could get to them in an emergency. They never managed it, and fights were common inside on the tiled floors. Below our room was the prison officers “Bubble” – a large, heavily re-enforced glass sided control room. Always manned, always alert – as useful as being staffed by beanbags sitting treacle if the wrong shift was in charge – full of camera screens, a tv which was always on, old copies of tabloid newspapers, and a silence which would descend like a shroud whenever I walked in. Pastel colours were meant to calm and sooth the violent and re-assure the vulnerable. This prison used them everywhere, even in the staff toilet. It re-assured no-one of anything except that somebody somewhere was getting a good paycheque for coming up with bullshit.
John smiled and laughed his way through it all. And he was directly responsible, two weeks later, for a growing number of prisoners using our room to sit and talk to us, read, ask about courses, or just to spill their horrors. I felt like I was up and running, thanks to him.
We didn’t work weekends. And I always wondered what they were doing while I was at home on Sunday reading the paper. I couldn’t wait to get to work on Monday just to check everyone was ok.
That Monday, about three weeks into my job, things weren’t ok at all. As I walked onto the unit I was greeted with the same sour faces in the bubble, but the whole place was silent when it should have been full of people eating breakfast, talking, arguing, the usual morning routine of every morning in prison. Instead, as I climbed the wide metal staircase up to our center, I saw a prison officer sitting outside a cell reading a paper about twenty feet from our door. “What’s going on?” I asked. He looked up and motioned me over, gesturing me to be quiet. As I approached him I saw a brown stain up the wall next to the cell, like a wet tea bag had been thrown at it and dribbled and leaked down the wall to the floor. “Have you not heard?” he asked.
“About Wharburton” he whispered. It was beyond him to use John’s first name.
“What’s happened?” I tried to whisper back, but I spoke too fast and it blurted out in collapsing vowels and a high, girly shriek.
“He was killed yesterday morning”. I can remember my mouth opening, but I couldn’t say anything, so I raised my hand and walked to the center door, unlocked it, shut it behind me, and stood there in the middle of the room for maybe five minutes, motionless. Jane came in and I told her the news. She made some phonecalls and we found out he had been in a fight yesterday morning with another of our boys “Joe”, who had got John in a headlock and crushed his skull. The stain on the wall was apparently Johns blood, kept as evidence. I spoke to one of the lads on the wing “It was a fucking accident Ben. Joe and him were just fucking about and then he stood up and had a funny look on his face, then passed out.”
It’s times like these when the first thought should be “What the fuck am I doing working in here?!”, but that wasn’t going through my mind. What I couldn’t get over was that this was all just stupid. Joe was a good kid. True, he was enormous and could bench press 180kg with ease, and…..yes….he was inside for kidnapping and torturing a drug dealer, but he simply didn’t mean to do it. Did he?
Joe had been taken to the punishment block (the “seg”, or “block”) and reports came back that he was beside himself with grief. Rumors reached us that he was to be charged with murder and the whole wing was placed on lock down as tempers were high. It was a couple of days later when the prison chaplain came to see me. “Ben, Joe is in a bad way in the block and he’s in desperate need of a friend right now.”
“You want me to go and see him?”
“I think it’d help” He replied slowly, before adding “And I’ve cleared it with them down in the seg”. We used to joke that the only person in the prison who didn’t need keys to get around was the Chaplain. He was obviously public school educated, slightly effeminate, and had more than a look of Kenneth Williams about him. Everyone loved him, everyone respected him, and I was no different. If he thought I could help, that was that. Even if it meant subjecting myself to the seg.
At the Seg, tempers were always high. They put the meanest prisoners in there and staffed it with the meanest officers they could find. The block was a place of total and utter despair in any of the prisons I worked in. Shit food, a bed, table, toilet, half an hour a day out of your cell, sometimes not even in the sunlight, and with a palpable tension bearing down on you 24hrs a day. There, through the shouting and the banging, I found nineteen year old Joe. An autopsy had just taken place on John and they had found he had a skull abnormality – some kind of eggshell skull. The police were now trying to find out if it was really murder or just a tragic accident.
I was told there would be 4 officers outside the cell while I was inside, and the door would be locked open. At any sign of trouble I was told they would “steam in” – hitting Joe, me, each other, anything that got in their line of vision. I stood in the doorway to Joe’s cell.
“Hi Joe”. He looked up, he’d been crying. They hadn’t let him have his coconut hair lotion or a comb so his afro was all over the place. His powerful shoulders struggled to be covered by the thin prison t-shirt but he looked as weak as a kitten. “Ben…..” he started to say, but trailed off and began to sob.
“You mind if I sit with you?” I asked.
“No.” There being no chair, I sat on the filthy bed next to him.
“I didn’t do it Ben, I didn’t…….it was a game….we were messing around…..fucking hell, what’s happened Ben!?” He collapsed into tears so I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to comfort him.
“Joe, it’s ok man.”
“We were friends” he said through the sobs. “I……….didn’t…….”
“It’s ok Joe.” I tried to re-assure him, but I honestly didn’t know what would happen. In this crazy place they could sign his life away for murder. Anything was possible.
We sat together for an hour or so, him mostly crying, me trying not to cry for him, and thinking of the waste of a lot of young life in the madness of prison; Johns most of all. The sun shone through the bars and left big striped shadows across us and I remember thinking “God has a sense of the cliche”. It was warm. As I left him, Joe said thanks but didn’t look up from the floor. Leaving the block, one of the officers opened their small bubble door and said “Fucking wanker, deserves all he gets, murdering scum. I hope you’re fucking happy you fucking do-good’er”. I didn’t have anything to say. There was nothing to say. So I quietly closed the big metal gate behind me, locked it with one of the large metal keys attached by a chain to my belt, then walked slowly back down the walkway in the sun.
Back on the wing two prisoners were mopping the stain from the wall and the floor. Radios were on loud, people were eating, playing pool. The wing was back to normal.
The damage had started. I was 23.