The riot

There was a drawn out silence – weird in a Young Offender jail – like a deep breath before the plunge or the pause as the coke addict rocks his head back after snorting a line. Either way, in prison silence is a rarity and it stands out.

 

A Young Offender jail is full of 15 – 20 year olds. It’s a bit like gathering up all the naughtiest kids you knew at school, giving them no hope, a heroin habit, the balls to think “Fuck you” about everyone, and the anger to do something about it. I loved working there, no two days were ever the same. But, I worked with a guy who was, without a single doubt, the worst person I’d ever met who actually went home at night instead of wanking himself to a frenzy behind a 4 inch thick steel door to pictures of the women in car magazines. Then again, he probably did that too, except his door was pvc.

 

Rob was an ex semi-pro footballer. He’d lost his hair prematurely – much sooner than I’d lost mine – and was the product of some shithole near Leeds. He was sexist, racist, and loved every minute of doing a job that he considered “Ordering Scumbags about”. He’d gathered together two of the most misogynistic prison officers he could find and they’d often sit at lunch times chewing the fat and whipping each other into sexual turmoil by grading female members of staff and bemoaning the lack of real sex they actually had in their lives. It was like being in a KKK meeting with a bunch of inadequate onanists, plagued with their lost youth and the anger of their failings as men. Rob loved the fact he had keys – in prison, keys are power – for me they were just something I needed to get around the place, and he also carried a radio (something I had always refused to do). He’d even put in for “Control and Restraint Training” so he could carry a truncheon. Yes, really, a truncheon. Fucking hell. I hated him.

 

We had about ten lads in the unit – the “uncontrollable” in the jail, made to come to our unit as their last chance before a long and shitty stay in the block. They were a good bunch, headstrong, assertive, aggressive, but also lost; just too young to experience the lives they were leading. We could do some good for these kids. The work was valuable and I always thought of the numbers of people who wouldn’t get robbed if we could just gently lead any one of those prisoners onto a slightly different path in life. Rob didn’t give two shits. “Fuck them,” he’d say “they’re fucking no-hopers. And did you see Sharon’s tits this morning…..phwoar!”

 

We’d done a group cooking session one morning – making lasagne, which even in here meant better food than on the wing – and were all sitting around eating it in the centre, except I wasn’t eating. I had a thing about my weight at the time and I was trying to lose as much as I could. But I sat with them all anyway, chatting and watching them enjoy eating what for some of them was the first meal they’d ever cooked in their lives. But it wasn’t enough for Rob. He kept glancing over at me as he shovelled the lasagne into his grim mouth like he hadn’t eaten for months. I could see his brain working. “Ere….” He called over. “Ben, howcome you aren’t eating?” He knew why, I’d stupidly told him about how I thought of my weight. “I’m not hungry Rob.”

 

“Is it because you’re on a diet you fat fucker?” he said.

 

“I’m just not hungry.”

 

“You fat cunt,” he laughed. He paused, looked around the room at the lads watching him, and then he picked up a big fork full of his food and slung it across the room at me “Here doggy, doggy. Here, fat cunt.” He was laughing really hard. Then he threw some more “Come on fat cunt, eat some.” It landed on the table in front of where I was sitting. The lads just stared. Nobody spoke, and the only person laughing was Rob. I got up and went into the office to calm down. They finished the meal a few minutes later and went back to their cells for lunchtime bang up.

 

I was in the unit office when the lads came filing back in for the afternoon. They were hovering around the door. “Ben, can we have a word?” asked Ollie – inside for gutting someone with a knife.

 

“Yeah, what’s up?”

 

“We’ve been talking and we didn’t like what Rob did to you this morning. So, we’ve come to ask if it’s alright to fuck him up when he gets here.” I looked past him and could see bulging pockets on some of the others – a sure sign there were pool balls or any manner of self-made weapons in them.

 

“Ollie, Rob was just joking, it was a private joke between us. Don’t be so daft. Now, get into the unit and we’ll get started.” Half of me, no, most of me, wanted to say “Yep….in fact, I’ll fucking do it, you just keep watch,” but where would that lead? And I kind of liked my own bed, clothes, and freedom. Anyway, he was gone for the day. “He’s a cunt,” said Ollie. Yes, he was.

 

And now, a couple of weeks later, me and Rob were listening to this silence. All the lads were on lunchtime bang up. Suddenly Robs radio blared out “All units, lockdown. Alarm houseblock C”

 

“What’s going on?” Rob asked.

 

“No idea.” Though I knew it wasn’t good.

 

“I’m off out to see,” and he ran out of the building towards houseblock C. Then, like a rumbling train, the noise started. At first I thought it was just the general hum of the prison waking up and getting back to normal, like an engine warming up on a cold day, but this was different. Then were screams, and things started to get smashed up in cells. The noise built, toilets were being kicked off walls, TVs thrown at doors, furniture kicked to pieces, and as I looked at the nearest block of cell windows I could see burning debris being thrown out of the small window slots between the bars. Prison officers were running up and down looking fierce. And hopefully Rob was getting his head kicked in.

 

About half an hour later an officer rushed into the unit “There’s an escape and the rest of them are causing a riot to distract us. We’ve got three missing.” Rob appeared.

 

“This is ace!” he was beaming from ear to ear.

 

“You cretin.” But he wasn’t listening, he was turning up his radio.

 

“Prisoners are in the gym roof. All tornado team to the gym.” Rob quickly got up and rushed to the door. “Where are you going?” I asked. Like me, he wasn’t a prison officer and had no business going anywhere.

 

“The gym!” Then, “Wooo hoooo,” he yelled as his fucked up ex-footballers knees carried him in their slightly off-balance way along the path to the large gym block.

 

Ten minutes later the prison riot team walked in a big black mass past the unit with Ollie and two others in head and arm locks, bent over and handcuffed. Ollie was struggling and being walked quickly. Rob was following right behind, laughing and looking all the world like an angler with the biggest fish of his life. The prison officers were ignoring him. “Hahahahahahaaaaaa Ollie,” he shouted. There were cries of triumph and dismay from the cell windows. They hadn’t made it out, but at least they’d given the prison the run-around; taken some power back for everyone inside that jail that afternoon. The riot faded quickly as the prospect of sleeping in a flooded cell began to sink in to excited minds. Ollie was moved to a more secure jail and Rob was hauled before the governor.

 

A couple of months later he was sacked. But not before I had the chance to punch him in the car park one glorious evening. We were one less wanker inside,  for now.

Pressure Cooker.

When I started work at the Cat A jail a colleague had warned me “Ben, this place is a pressure cooker. Working in here makes people do strange things and act out of character.”

 

I took no notice. After all, I’d been in a prison environment already for four years in two different jails. I’d been threatened, attacked, mocked, caught up in riots, and on more than one occasion seen someone get hit around the head with a pool ball in a sock. I’d been faced down, taunted, tested, I’d scrapped, and I’d been drawn into the completely desperate worlds and lives of some of the people incarcerated. Yeah, I knew pressure alright.

 

If you’ve never been in a prison I guess it’s probably best to give you a brief overview of what the atmosphere is like. Prisons stink, I mean they actually smell. The first time I’d gone onto a wing the stench was overpowering. At first I thought it was spunk, but in a cruel and possibly fortunate twist of fate, the cleaning fluid just happened to stink of semen. A thousand cooped up men certainly contributed their own sweaty and cheap shower gel note, but mainly a prison smells of polish and of this spermy-smelling cleaning fluid. Prisons are noisy, men shout at each other, threats are bellowed out of cell windows and shit dance music blasts from tinny portable stereos. Depending on the status of the jail, the local vibe, and the time of the year (summer always heralds the arrival of more assaults), the hive-mind mood can vary wildly between stasis, and heavy violence – and on those days the air was thick and dark and you felt your heart pump in time with some primal defence drum beat. On those days you walked slowly and with care. There never seemed to be an in-between. I suppose the phrase I trot out most when people ask me what prison is really like is: “It’s like a cross between ‘Porridge’ and your worst nightmare.” Prison is very black and white, which suited me.

 

The differences between a Cat A jail and the normal jails are many, and I’m not allowed to go into a lot of the nuances, but I guess it’s safe to say they are more secure. A lot more secure. And, generally, they house people who are deemed so dangerous that escape must be made impossible. The general population are made up of your average Joe car thieves and burglars, but there are that certain nucleus of “Book men” who travel on cleared walkways and always with an escort. Those men are legendary in the system and hold a special mystique for a lot of the other prisoners. It’s fair to say that I met a few of them, though I’m guessing I can’t mention their names. Serial killers, gangsters, yardies, and some of the most violent people in the system – some of whom were so threatening they could only be allowed out of their cell if 6 large prison officers in full riot gear and an unfriendly dog were waiting outside of the door – they were all here. And they were all in a bad mood.

 

At first I assimilated quickly into work in there. It was mostly like the other jails – even though things were much more security conscious – and drugs are still drugs wherever you are. But as the years went by I changed beyond all recognition and need. I used to be friendly, happy, quick-witted, and fairly laid back. Instead, I’d become angry, spiteful, and emotionless at work. I’d lost 5 stones too. I’d also begun to resent people. Colleagues would knock on my office door with a cheery smile, just to ask me for some drug related help and I’d end up just telling them to “fuck off”. It wasn’t me. Somebody said I had gotten too sensitive and now I was combatting it by going completely the other way, but I’d still go home and think about the horror of it all, waking up screaming in bed in the early hours, sweating , heart thumping. By the end of four years working there, I was a pale ghost of a man, just a silhouette of what I used to be. Something had to give.

 

The end came for me one Saturday morning. I lived in some new cul-de-sac, I’d just washed the car, and was half way through mowing the lawn. It was a nice day, the sun was out. Then I looked up and saw three other male neighbours doing exactly the same thing. Almost like a thunderbolt everything became clear – I was tied into this shit, doing pointless things, acting out life from a shitty script. Married, but why? Life completely tied to thankless friends and the prospect of the void for absolutely nothing in return. No art, no love, no good in anything. It was all fucking stupid, and I wanted out. I thought about running away, joining the Foreign Legion, becoming a tramp, just travelling anywhere to get anywhere but here. I felt sick to my stomach and I began to hate everything and everyone.

 

So I did what any other 30 year old would do – I cheated on my wife. Then I left her and moved in with a girl five years younger than me. I bought a soft top car, and I swear I was a whisker away from getting a motorbike, but I definitely got a divorce. I even got a tattoo. It was pathetic.

 

I was a few years from going completely batshit crazy but the ever-present signs were growing. I’d ride the pressure cooker out for several more years, leaving the prisons and working in the community, stupidly thinking I was doing some good for people in the overriding shitfest of social climbing, money, and greed. I couldn’t last, and I didn’t.

 

 

Scars

I was in the reception area of the building when the front door buzzer started being punched repeatedly, and urgently. Picking up the intercom phone I could see on the screen it was Cheryl – a sex worker, and client of mine. “Eh up Cheryl, we’re open in about ten minutes love. Just hang about for a sec.” It was a stupidly officious rule, but we all knew it – don’t let anyone in outside of drop-in hours if they don’t have an appointment. “Ben….” she was sobbing “I really need to see you.” Fuck it, I punched the entry button and watched her come inside, what’s ten minutes anyway. She rushed into the waiting room and burst into tears. “Ben, can I talk to you please.”

“Yeah, ok Cheryl, just hold it together.” I went round the counter and led her to the nearest spare room. “Sit yourself down. What’s happened?”

“I’ve been raped,” she spat out, then she started to cry again, heaving and retching.

“Oh God, Cheryl. How long ago? Are you hurt?”

“Last night Ben. Two of them….. They took my money too.”

“Have you told the police?”

“Yeah….” I noticed a small bruise on her cheek. She was in pieces, sitting there in this grim building, doubled over and sobbing out the biggest tears onto the floor between her feet. Her mascara was running in two big black lines down her face, meeting at her chin. She had a scar over her right eye – a reminder of another sexual assault. She’d never bothered to report that attack or get treatment for the injuries she received – she’d had a couple of teeth knocked out that time too. How do you get over something like that? Can you ever get over it? What can you say to someone when they’ve been raped again – ‘there, there, it’s going to be ok’? I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be ok, not for a long time, how could it be?

We spent a good hour or so in there, her sobbing and filling me in with the details, me just sitting listening, battling my own tears, comforting, and trying to get her to go to the rape crisis centre. In the end, she wiped her eyes, smearing the watery mascara rivers across her cheeks, looked at me, and said “Right, I’m going home. Fuck them.” I’ve never seen a person pull horror out of their face so quickly, before, or since. And she left. That afternoon, a colleague who I shared an office with trundled into work with a big grin on his face. He took his coat off, revealing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Give me a zero gravity blow job’ and the picture of some wanker off the tv. I made him put his coat back on and told him that if he ever wore that t-shirt to work again I’d happily punch him around the car park. People just didn’t get it; the terror some of our clients faced, the pain, the danger, it was all just something they watched rather than experienced. Some people said that if you saw the same film a hundred times it became boring, and that was the same with hearing about the horror in our clients lives. But that was never really true, not for me.

Cheryl lost her partner a few months later – he’d overdosed while they lay together in bed after sharing a dig. She didn’t realise until she woke up a few hours later and he was cold beside her. I guess she’d been lucky not to go over herself. They had a strange kind of bond – like a filthy and poor Yorkshire version of Bonny and Clyde – and when she told me he’d died I could see she was genuinely devastated. Here he was, this guy who had got her onto heroin in the first place and who relied on her earnings from sex work for his own considerable habit, and she was utterly destroyed when he’d gone. She cried again that time too when she told me, but there was something different in her eyes. No more defiance, no more fight, she was emotionally finished, there was nothing left. In a weird way I think it saved her. She moved away but kept in touch with the odd phonecall to tell me what she was up to. She’d got clean. “I loved him you know,” she said “but I’m glad it’s all behind me. All I’ve got are the memories….and the scars.”

Royal Tits…

God only knows why, but I was standing there wearing a suit. The snappily titled “Protocol Sheet” hadn’t even requested I wear one, though it did tell me how to bow, talk, and behave. As someone who has never enjoyed the royal family at any point, for any reason, I was kind of questioning my morals and wondering if, when push came to shove, I was even capable of going through with my own convictions. I guess not.

We’d been asked to select four “safe” prisoners: safe in that they were deemed by us to be of no real threat to the special visitor despite their violent offences. I hadn’t even really given it a second thought, I just picked people who I thought weren’t going to piss about too much and cost me my job. I’d put the names forward to security and they had checked them out and approved it all, so the line-up consisted of me, my boss (Jane), a kidnapper, two street robbers, and a 19 year old murderer who I hadn’t beaten at chess for two years.

“Right, it’s Ma’am to rhyme with Pam…..got it?” I was trying to help everyone in the line-up.
“Eh?” said one of the lads.
“Oh, fuck it. Say what you want.”
We’d been told to bow and to shake her hand if it was offered. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be. I was second in the line.

I could see outside the door of the centre that people were beginning to mass. Next thing the door opened and in came a tall guy wearing a beige mac and an earpiece. I was about to say hello but he just strode across the room and stood in the far corner eyeballing everyone. He put his right hand inside the front of the mac. If he didn’t have it on a gun I’d be surprised. “Has he got a shooter?” whispered the lad next to me.
“No idea, but I wouldn’t go doing anything to find out.”

Then…..in she came. Princess Anne. Followed by the prison governor, lord high something-or-other with his stupid uniform and sword, head of security, mp, it went on and on. People must have worked very hard to get on the grovelling train. She was wearing a mustard colour wool coat and matching gloves. I was starting to panic. Ma’am, Pam….Ma’am, Pam….. bow from the waist, not too much! Don’t swear, for the love of god Ben, don’t swear.

She was talking to Jane but I wasn’t listening, I was still running through my protocols. Then she was just there…right in front of me. She offered her hand, so I shook it, forgetting to bow and said simply “Hi”. She stared at me for what seemed like ten days, and I remember thinking that she wasn’t as ugly as she looked on tv. Her eyes were crystal blue and it was like looking back in time while we held eye contact, possibly thirty times too long for comfort for both of us. After I’d gone grey she smiled and said “So, what do you do here?”
“Erm….I work in the centre with Jane. We try and help these lads sort themselves out, make something of their lives.”
“Hmmm. Thanks.” She moved on down the line. I noticed she didn’t offer her hand to the others.

It was all over and in truth it was probably only five minutes. “Why didn’t she shake my hand?” said one of the lads after she’d left the room.

“Maybe she forgot,” I lied.

We stood against the heavily barred windows to watch her and the ridiculous entourage walk across the large yard and up the metal staircase to the covered walkway. They were all halfway across when, from four floors of cell windows belonging to the houseblock next door, there came a lone voice “OI! PRINCESS”. Everyone turned around, “GET YOUR FUCKING TITS OUT!” She stopped in her tracks. The head of security – wearing his peaked cap for the first time in years – put his hands over his face. The entire houseblock would be paying for this before the end of the day. And Anne also wasn’t feeling the love. She walked over to the forty or so cell windows and stared at each one of them in turn, daring anyone to say anything as a follow up. Nobody said another word, and faces quickly disappeared from between bars. Satisfied, she turned and led the group up the stairs and disappeared from view in a haze of freshly pressed uniforms, polish, and sycophantic slather.

I still haven’t got an MBE.

The body….

I was sitting on the “Protected Prisoners Wing” with a handful of drug assessments to carry out. In contrast to most of the other wings in the jail this one was quiet, orderly, and didn’t have the same chaotic “anything could happen” atmosphere to the rest of the prison. The prisoners sat around playing cards or chatting. It was hard to match their offences to these people, but the truth was a good percentage of them had committed sexual offences on women or children, and then there was that guy on my caseload who was doing four years for male rape. Someone had fucked a goat – and was rumbled when a slowly rolling train came right past the smallholding and shocked passengers rang the police – and a few were just on there because they were unable to cope on the other wings; usually grasses.

I’d sat at a table in the middle of the wing waiting for my last assessment of the morning – Kris – who I’d never met before. Kris sidled across the wing with a smirk on his face and plonked himself down heavily in the chair opposite me across the table.
“Kris?”
“Yeah.”
“My name is Ben, obviously you know why I’m here. So first, I’ve got to carry out an initial drug assessment and then we’ll see where we go from there and what treatment I can offer you.”
“Go ahead.”

 
Kris was about 24, around six feet tall, thin, shaved head, homemade tattoos on the backs of both hands and across both sets of knuckles. One read “Fuck”.
I started going through the formalities: name, drugs used (inside and prior to custody), date of birth, yadda yadda, but then I got to the old stumbling block – Offence. I didn’t like asking the question at the best of times but some chinless wonder in the Home Office wanted the information, which was weird considering the court system must have the best answer to it already. Paperwork was pure madness in prison – prisons love forms.
Kris looked at me for a second. “You want to know what I’m in here for? Is that what you’re asking me?”
“Pretty much. I don’t like asking it and you don’t have to answer the question, so we can move on if you like. I’d like…”
He leant across the table and stared at me, “I’m in here for killing a baby.”
“OK.” I wrote MURDER in the box, “So Kris, let’s talk about your drug using history.”
“She was only a year old.”
“Thanks Kris, you’ve answered that question. So……about your drug use..”
“When they examined her after she’d died they found over 100 separate injuries on her, fag burns, bruises, broken bones, loads of stuff.” He was staring at me intently, “I did them all. How does that make you feel?”

 
I looked at him for maybe thirty seconds. He was enjoying this. That motherfucker was actually enjoying this moment. He was still staring at me, waiting for a reaction, his lips had pulled back into a sneer and one of his hands was tapping gently on the table. “Well, Kris, here’s what’s going to happen now. I’m going to get up and leave this wing. And when I come back this afternoon to continue this assessment if you mention this offence to me again you’ll get fuck all help. Sound good?” I gathered the paperwork together and stood up.
“You can’t do that!” he protested.
“Watch.” I walked away.

I went the long way back to the office, just to give myself some fresh air. What are you meant to do after a conversation like that? Rage is the only way of describing how I felt. And now I’d started to think over what he’d said and how he’d acted I wanted to do something primal, get it all out, make things right. But beating Kris to a pulp – even in this dump, where no-one outside finds out about what goes on – was out of the question. And it would have accomplished nothing. Truth was, I felt like throwing up; and without question he’d won. But I didn’t go back. I couldn’t go back. I sat on my own by the pathetic fountain in the middle of the laughable Staff Chill out Area and wept.

That afternoon I was still reeling from the horror of the morning, so decided to catch up with some work on the prison detox unit – the definition of Hell. Stinking, freshly incarcerated heroin addicts and alcoholics, straight from the courts and well into their respective withdrawals. The place wreaked of heroin and piss, but there was an honest glimmer of good down there; people were genuinely trying to help each other. I liked it, I could try and forget the morning I’d just had.

The nurses on the unit were mostly a good bunch, savvy, and even caring, but doing a rattle in there must have been the worst experience any of the prisoners would ever have in their lives. Sweating on plastic coated mattresses, chasing what little heroin had been smuggled in up the arses of the pre-planning profiteers, retching, and all of it with the over-arching knowledge they had just lost their freedom. You couldn’t work down there without some form of human empathy.

 
I’d been down there maybe an hour when we got a call over the radio about an imminent lock down. No movement off the unit, no excuses, no exceptions. I asked the unit manager what was going on and she ushered me into the office and asked me to shut the door. “There’s been a death.”
“Where?”
“On another houseblock. Some guy last night. Seems like he died in his sleep. They’ve got the wing on lockdown but need to move the body out. The undertakers are here and the route out is from the lower walkway and through here out to the gatehouse.”
“So, that means they are bringing the coffin through here?”
“I guess so” She didn’t know the details, just that we were to lock down everyone and keep quiet. A death in a prison can be a touch paper for rioting and needed to be handled with sympathy and reverence. There would be some form of reverence, surely?

Twenty minutes passed, then the large door into the unit opened up. Through it stepped the head of security and two prison officers. The head of security looked furtively around and, deciding that the coast was clear, signalled to someone behind the prison officers. He stepped quickly into the unit followed by the most pathetic and sad sight I think I ever saw. On what looked like a luggage trolley removal men use to move washing machines, was a large, orange, thick plastic bag, and in the bag, its shape still visible against the plastic, was the body of the dead prisoner. He was in the foetal position. The door at the side of the unit was unlocked and they quickly wheeled out and into the sunshine of the gatehouse yard. The gate clanged shut behind them.

“You lucky Fucker!” came a shout from one of the detox windows.

That night, I sat at home and tried to figure out a purpose or a meaning for what I’d experienced that day but there was no answer. There wouldn’t ever be an answer.

Sex Work

We had a fairly big red light district in the town. Estimates varied on the total number of working girls but the best educated guess usually came in at around 300 at any one time. They used our service mainly for needles and condoms and were a famously difficult drug using demographic to get onto treatment. I remember reading a study on the economic power of UK sex workers with crack habits which showed an “average” female sex worker would generate around £90,000 a year, of which 90% would go on crack and heroin. If this was true it meant the local red light area generated in the region of 27 million pounds a year. Huge money. Complete insanity. But if you can generate that level of income and are able to afford your habit without having to rob banks, it meant the girls were hardly ever rattling and the thought of getting on a methadone script was usually far, far, away.

Anecdotally, the girls I knew would have widely differing levels of income – some would say they could earn £400 in a couple of hours, others would admit to earning £20 in an entire night. And, yes, most of it went on heroin and crack.

I met Julie when she was forced to enter treatment to avoid going to jail for a petty theft. She was 24, about 5’5”, mousey brown straight hair and probably could have been very pretty if ten years of sex work hadn’t left her emaciated and sick. Yeah, you read that last sentence right, Julie had first started working in the sex trade aged just 13. “The younger girls get plenty of punters”, she said. I’d never met a punter, but I couldn’t see it going well if I did.

Within the Drug Team, Julie was notoriously hard work, aggressive, and a serial non-attender of appointments. Some colleagues had patted me on the back and wished me luck when they read her name on my caseload list. That was the problem of the place; they just saw people as “problems”, trouble, too much effort.

But she turned up for our first meet and greet on time. She was looking at her watch when I called her name out. “Bout fucking time you cunt” she said. I laughed. She liked my response, because she burst out laughing too. The receptionist sneered as she walked past, so Julie flicked her a v without breaking stride and slammed the door behind her as she left the waiting room.

Julie lived in a squat not far from my office, which she shared with about 6 other people, all of them crammed in one room upstairs. The house was owned or rented or overseen by some half-crazed amphetamine user in his 40s with no teeth who had collected so much rubbish downstairs that you walked in unsteadily with your head near the ceiling. She was earning in the region of £500 a night and seemed to be supporting her own drug habit while heavily subsidising the habits of her friends in the house. They were grateful. Julie’s 18 year old sister – Emma – had moved in and was starting work on the streets even though she didn’t use heroin. “The money’s too fucking good Ben. Where else can you earn £400 in an hour? Bet you can’t.” She’d be making money at that rate until she got a bit older or lost her looks, or got sick. Punters were critics, and they voted with their wallets.

In ten weeks Emma had a £50 a day heroin habit and was spending whatever she had left on crack. She wept as I got her a methadone script. “I didn’t mean to get like this.” In the end, she was right, I couldn’t see anyone actually meaning to get strung out on heroin or crack intentionally – despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe. Every single working girl I ever met had been raped, beaten, and robbed multiple times. It’s the side of prostitution the normal folks never get to see. It’s a dirty business in more ways than the lascivious press would want you to know.

After a while I had gotten to know quite a few of the girls, as they’d started to trickle into treatment and I was overseeing their medication. It had it’s downside. I had an open top car, and one summer evening I was driving home through the town when I had to stop at some lights in heavy traffic. From out of nowhere came “Cheryl” – a working girl on my caseload. Her left ear was mangled from where a rapist had pulled out her earrings and now her ear lobe hung shredded like three pink droplets of water. She also had a voice like a foghorn. Cheryl wandered up to my car and leaned over “Business love?” She looked in the car “oh, fucking hell! Sorry Ben! I didn’t know it was you. I’ll see you tomorrow love.” She blew me a kiss and waved as she walked backwards away from the passenger door. I drove away with Cheryl shouting “Byeee darling” after me, and looking in the rear view mirror at the middle aged man in the car behind shaking his head.

Emma ended up moving away after a few months, and Julie went to prison. I never saw Emma again, but I did see Julie – I was her keyworker when she was released. She’d got her shit together and had eventually moved to the next town, away from the red light district here and all the familiar problems. She turned up one day with her boyfriend. She’d stuck to her methadone and had got herself a little part-time job. Julie asked to see me. I was chuffed to bits to see her looking so healthy and she jumped up in the waiting room and hugged me right in front of the disapproving receptionist. “Thanks for everything Ben” she said, “we’re getting married. Can you give me away?”

I didn’t – because I wouldn’t have been allowed to, even though I kind of wanted to – but I was so proud that she’d managed to leave sex work behind and had gotten off the smack. The last I knew of her, she’d had a baby and was still clean. I got more joy from that knowledge than looking at my pay slip. But, in sex work – like in drug dealing – one leaves and another fills their place, younger, more at stake. HIV will still thrive, and the importers of heroin and cocaine will still get rich. Inadequate men up and down the land will thrust small folds of money into eager hands then cum, leaving the girl and heading home feeling sick with regret…until next time. Prostitution is the oldest profession in human history, maybe, but it’s the worst.

LSD….and me.

Now that was a drug. People at college were doing LSD, it was cheap (£3), popular, and there were stories of people getting chased down roads by hallucinations of giant carrots, talking to god, and all the other baloney the hipster liars could come up with. LSD sounded like the coolest drug in the world and if anyone needed to get that far from reality it was me.

Me and a friend decided to take our first acid one afternoon during the college free period “Rock Music Workshop” which took place in a series of portacabins on the outskirts of the campus.

I bought the acid from a girl I knew with bright green dreadlocks. She said her dad was a bishop and she spent most of her time living with New Age Travellers. She liked Ozric Tentacles. I didn’t. She sold me a tab of acid for £3 and said it was good. I unwrapped it from the cling film and saw it had a little picture of Saddam Hussein printed into the thick paper. Here I was holding Saddam’s face on some acid while many thousands of miles away the real Saddam was losing his grip on Kuwait and taking out his anger on anyone who couldn’t fight back. The irony of world events wasn’t lost on the acid manufacturers.

I showed my friend the acid and he backed out of our agreement to go halves so I cut about a third off and gave him that instead. I put the rest in my mouth, not knowing whether to chew it or neck it down with some water. I chose to chew it. There was nothing at first, just the sensation of chewing some blotting paper and after about twenty minutes I wondered if I’d been had, but then a metallic taste started in the back of my throat. After forty minutes I’d given up again, but then a guy in another portacabin accidently pulled a set of blinds off the window. It would normally have been fairly funny, but I kept looking at his bemused face and that was hilarious. My friend had seen it too. We laughed for about twenty minutes, sobbing tears and pounding the desks with our hands screaming and shouting with laughter unable to breathe. We were like squawking birds, screaming, laughing, crying, spouting incomprehensible collections of disparate words and sounds. The acid took hold strongly.

We made the bus home to my house later – though I can’t remember how – and spent the evening in my darkened bedroom playing with an effects unit, a guitar, and a microphone. Everything we did sent colours into the black as the hypnotic sounds of a slowly dying delay and echo tripped around the room. It was beautiful. I had vivid dreams that night and woke the next day feeling refreshed and alive. I hadn’t seen any full-on hallucinations – certainly not the cartoonish gibberish that some people had claimed to see – but I had kind of got acquainted with the format of tripping and felt comfortable with it. Completely comfortable.

Despite the unpredictable nature of an LSD trip, once it’s in full flow there is a predictable pattern to each time. First the wait – usually about half an hour to an hour, then the rushing blast upwards – anything up to six hours – up towards a peak, and then, if you’re lucky, a prolonged and settled comedown – up to 12 hours. The first part is pure madness, tumbling headlong into a world where your senses aren’t working the same any more, everything is heightened, people are familiar, or dangerous, or both, colours are vivid, swirling, music is divine, rational communication is nearly impossible. And you laugh like you’ve never laughed before, at anything. Everything is ridiculous. It’s also when you are at your most vulnerable, where paranoia can kick in and cause great distress if you haven’t got a handle on things. Every acid head will tell you “Choose your surroundings carefully” and they are right. If you aren’t strong enough to hang on to the vicious “coming up” period of a trip, things can turn nasty very quickly: the infamous Bad Trip. A misread glance, unwelcome auditory hallucination, or bad thought, can trigger hours of terror – a friend of mine had to be locked in the back of a transit van for 12 hours because he couldn’t cope with the horrors of a bad trip. He emerged from that van a broken man.

Part two – when the peak has been reached and the insanity calmed – is the introspective, beautiful bit of acid. It’s the time where the madness of the past few hours comes under control and you begin to understand just why LSD was so popular for so long with people wanting to get on an inward journey. A good comedown is reflective and if you’re in a safe place with safe people the experience is calming, intuitive, and deeply enjoyable. The universe is filled with more answers than when you’re sober, but it also leads to more questions.

I was tripping once and got talking to a homeless guy – a “proper” tramp, a real transient hobo with a full shaggy beard, dirty clothes, pack on his back. He used to sleep in barns, under bridges, hedgerows, appearing for the summer and then heading south in the autumn like a great, tatty swallow. All the village called him “Terry the Tramp” – and he asked me about god. I didn’t know what to say, I’d taken two “flying saucer” blotters of acid and had only just started off over the peak into a comedown.  “Have you seen God?” he asked. What did I know about god other than I felt closer to him right at that point, but that was just crazy acid talk.

“Nope”

“I have. I’ve seen God.” He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on mine. “I’ve seen his throne, I’ve seen the lions before his throne, I’ve felt their breath on my face.” He leant back and laughed to himself and then shook his great dirty head “Man…..red, green and gold. His blood, the first Christmas tree, and the golden light of life.” He wasn’t kidding.

How do you prepare yourself for a character and a conversation like that? It was about 10pm, I was on a village street with a head full of acid talking to a man who said he had felt the breath from the lions before the throne of god. I gave him some money, even though he didn’t ask for it and tried to refuse, told him to keep safe, and went off after my friend who was also tripping but had left after the first few seconds of the conversation with his fingers in his ears.

The hippies may have been misguided – and history’s greatest underachievers – but they were on to a good thing with acid. They said it was a key to a door in the mind which could free you from the rigid drudgery of human existence, but they never took it past a loved-up recreation. Ken Kesey tried to organise them into some form of quasi-religious acid church, but he descended into self-congratulating bunkum. I had come to LSD as a 17 year old seeker with no ideas and no plan except to remain open about the world. I left, about 50 trips later, wiser, but without any of the answers I thought I’d find. I was older, the real world was becoming a scary place, full of orders, money, and death. What I wanted was to feel alive, to be part of something good and, ultimately, to ease some of the pain I felt in simply being alive and being me. It never materialised. Rave music had taken acid on as a foundation for crapness and all it had given back was dancing in a gas mask. This wasn’t how things were meant to have ended up, and trying to get on some beautiful trip into the meaning of life was never going to be the same when the tv had diluted my spiritual journey into a man in a bio-hazard suit dancing to shit music in a field. I left the badly explored naïve thrill of acid in the gutter, along with my youth, and took a job in a prison. Figure that.

Something good changed to bad and it wasn’t what I’d hoped for when I was staring at the stars on a summer’s night with Jim Morrison wailing in the background and my head full of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.