He smashed the coffee mug on the floor and quickly reached down for a broken shard, jabbing it repeatedly into his bare forearm until two prison officers tackled him off the bench. Blonde hair swept over his puffy face and he lay limply on the floor. Neil had achieved the desired result, got his pain. The blood didn’t gush out like it would if an artery had been caught but he had made three or four good wounds which would require medical attention. Neil allowed himself to be picked up under both arms and dragged gently to the secure lift and down to the nurses on the floor below. They’d stitch him up with as minimal sympathy as they could muster and he’d be back behind his perspex fronted Hannibal Lecter door before evening bang up.
One of the surprising things about prison to me was the sheer number of people who were quite honestly in the wrong place; people who should have been receiving treatment from professionals in an environment where they could make progress. In every jail I ever worked in, their medical wings bulged with them, shrieking, covering themselves in shit, or staring through empty eyes into the middle distance and shuffling around like long balls of fluff on lino. Too many got even more damaged inside. If mental health deterioration led to any of the offences these poor sods had committed then surely it was a no-brainer to cut to the root of the problem? Apparently not. Most are shoehorned into what are called “Healthcare Units”, ostensibly to provide a bit of protection from the sharks living on normal location, but also to cut down on the workload of the small team of nurses and the visiting psychiatrist. The effect of mass housing this many people with severe psychiatric problems created a unnerving and forlorn atmosphere. One minute the unit would be silent, the next there’d be screams and banging, or heavy sobs. At any time there could be any one of a number of human fluids pooling out from beneath cell doors. Healthcare Units are a bit like the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only without the humour or the humanity…
I was called up to the healthcare unit to assess a guy who had requested drug input. All I knew about him was his age – 35 – his name (Billy) and his apparent main drug problem – heroin.
Now, before I go on, don’t get me wrong, I’m no Bruce Lee, and I’m not one to usually enjoy a fight, but I’d been on all the Krav Maga (Look it up. Explore the Violence) training over seven years and could probably make a good go of things against most people. I’d been taught how to take an eyeball out, break a nose, break an arm/leg/wrist, and even how to fight when I was lying on the floor being kicked in the head. Still, I wouldn’t want to hurt someone, not unless there wasn’t another option – and there was always another option in my experience. Billy was just another day at work.
He came from out of his cell followed by a Prison Officer with a head like a Beluga Whale. Billy was tall, maybe 6’4″, with receding blonde hair in about seven or eight matted dreadlocks. “Hey!!! Drug Worker!!!” he shouted, “I’ve been waiting to see you man. Good to see you, good to see you.” He sat down and I shook his hand and smiled. He was looking around quickly like he expected to see something threatening appear from out of the ether. I could see that in his dreadlocks he had woven some feathers from the feral prison pigeons, brightly coloured thread, and those green T shaped string things with metal ends some people use to keep documents together. “You know none of this is my fault don’t you?” he asked.
“What can I do for you Billy?”
“I mean…….the nurse at the hospital……I………She….. I mean, they were trying to steal my blood, see I’ve got this special blood and it can cure things – cancer, AIDS, you name it. I got injected when I was little and now they are following me.”
“Billy, the past is OK, let’s leave it there my friend. How are you doing in here right now with your addiction? How are you feeling?”
“I kicked her hard man. Really hard. Right in the stomach. I mean….she was coming for me you understand, to take my blood. I didn’t know she was pregnant…” He tailed off into silence and stared over my shoulder. I watched his eyes glaze up, frosted and distant.
“Billy. Do you actually have a drug problem?” It sounded harsh under the circumstances, but I got the feeling I was there for Billy to let off some steam, which was fine but I wasn’t the guy trained to be offering up talking therapies with someone so clearly paranoid and complicated. The Officer – who had been standing two feet behind Billy the entire time – shook his massive head at me.
“I get so angry,” Billy whispered, staring at me. Then he got up and walked off back to his cell, the Officer following. A few seconds later came a blood curdling scream. Doors started to be kicked and punched from the other inmates.
I was not attacked, but I was told later that Billy had planned to do in a Drug Worker but didn’t fancy it when he’d seen me; good fortune for us both.
As for Neil, they put him on constant observation again – a Nurse sat reading a book right in front of his perspex cell door twenty four hours a day. There was even a camera I think. But he still manged to strangle himself, slowly slipping off his prison jumper under his sheets in bed and tying it in a knot around his neck – pulling gradually and making a good job of it all. They saved him just in time. He was assigned a prison psychologist on a more regular basis – a guy who’d I’d employ about three years down the line – and he hadn’t even qualified. God only knows what Neil thought while Anthony (the psychology student masquerading as the beacon of help) boomed his patronising voice down on him among the stark walls and dirty sheets. I know I’d crack.
Something in the system is broken when we house so many damaged people in the Hell-pits of Healthcare Units. Sure, lip service is given to “Counselling”, or therapeutic interventions but from what I witnessed, those damaged souls would have been better off living wild with wolves than listening to the poorly trained counselling staff and putting their advice into practice. Being in prison shouldn’t mean serving time and getting out in a worse state than when you went in. Am I getting it wrong here, or does this make complete sense?
The phrase “reached the bottom” never meant anything to me until I’d been in prison healthcare units. Inside there is no redemption, no happy ending and no clear way forward. They are truly lost.