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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.