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.