Christmas in a South Yorkshire jail is grim. I know, I worked in two of them at different Christmases. There were few laughs on the ground, but plenty of rain. They are cold, sad times. True, the Hooch manufacturers profit at Christmas time in jail, but then so do the prison doctors.Hooch blindness is not a myth. Nor are Dear John letters instead of presents.
But one young man was not thinking of the cold. He had other obsessions. Fire and freedom.
Dave was twenty. He’d been inside for a few years. A sickly looking kid with black hair and skin that looked like it had never seen the sun. Even compared to the normal jail-white skin tones he looked pale. I liked Dave. He was quirky, fun even. Just a little strange.
One period between work end, picking up a shitty sandwich, then lunchtime bang-up, Dave appeared at my door on the Wing. He asked me for a sheet of paper and said he wanted to draw a picture over bang-up. I knew he was inside for arson, but one sheet of paper wasn’t going to burn the place down. I gave him a piece. He smiled.
After bang-up, Dave came walking into my room. He had the paper in his hand. ‘Here, I’ve drawn you a picture.’
I took the paper. It was a child-like drawing of a large old house, with flames coming out of its windows. Inside one of the rooms you could see at least one person struggling to get out. ‘What do you think?’ he asked.
‘Errm…good, Dave. Tried drawing something a bit less fire-based?’
‘No. I love it.’
‘Out of interest, Dave, just how many buildings did you set fire to?’
‘Over two hundred. Mostly sheds, but quite a few abandoned buildings and stuff.’ He changed his accent to Irish. ‘Oim, errr, I’m in the IRA.’
‘No you aren’t Dave.’
He left the room. I took the picture and put it in a cupboard. In that job you never knew when little pieces of information like that could lead to some unsolved murder. I didn’t see Dave until the next day. He was waiting for me when I came onto the Wing. ‘Hey, Man! Ireeeee.’
‘Hi Dave. Aren’t you meant to be Irish?’
‘Nah, Mon, I is Jamaican. Always have been. Just getting to my roots,’ he said in a thick patois.
‘You taking the piss, Dave? Because if you go around talking like that on here you’re going to get your head kicked in.’
‘I is fine, Mon.’
A month later, Dave was sectioned and moved to a secure hospital for treatment and incarceration. His discretionary life sentence with a five year minimum tariff (look it up), now usurped by a mental health order. A year later I heard he’d been released. Deemed ‘safe’.
‘I heard Dave got out,’ said another lifer. ‘He was a clever motherfucker.’
‘He planned all that mental shit years ago. He told me all about it. Good luck to him. I might try it.’
‘Jimmy, you killed three people. I’d forget it if I were you.’
He thought about it for a minute and looked around to check that we were alone in the large room before staring at me. ‘I can always make it four,’ he said.
It was the best job I ever had.