Putrid Modern Hell #29

by HST UK on April 20, 2012

Care of Cell 44

At any given moment you could make a terrible mistake. An argument you didn’t even start escalates one night at the Dog and Duck. It ends in fisticuffs. You land a perfectly placed uppercut on the jaw of a burly loud mouth lout blighted by pickled onion breath. Your stinky mouthed foe falls backwards to the floor, fails to answer the ten count, fails to answer any count in fact, as he dies, and you get arrested, charged and then sent down for several years. In a split second your whole life changes for the worst. Nobody, not even your family and closest friends would ever think the same of you again. What would you do as you waved goodbye to your career, your lifestyle, your freedom? How on earth would you survive your first twenty four hours behind bars, and then the thought of thousands more lonely nights that you must endure?

I was given the unique opportunity to visit my local prison last month. The visit had a profound effect on me. I came away with preconceived ideas peeling from my mind. The inmates I met were guilty of a variety of crimes, but I didn’t ask them about why they were there. I didn’t need to know. They were men who had made mistakes – we all can make them.

On the drive over to the prison I felt a sense of trepidation. It wasn’t strong enough to be considered fear, although I was very much uncertain about what I might see. Perhaps I was concerned that I would be sympathetic to the plight of the prisoner. Already, in my guise as a volunteer I had talked to prisoners over the phone, and listened to them tell me about their black melancholic thoughts and suicide attempts. They described a hell I couldn’t fully grasp. Sure, I’d seen prison documentaries on television, but I couldn’t fully imagine the day to day life of a prisoner.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I was to one day get incarcerated, whether or not I could endure the psychological torment. The battle through a prison sentence would involve frantically clinging onto your identity, an identity that is forever altered and possibly forever lost.

I was given the chance to visit the prison through the voluntary job that I work. In my role I often speak to prisoners over the phone, basically I offer emotional support to them when they call. Within the prison there is also something known as the ‘Listeners scheme’ where prisoners are trained to offer further emotional help to their fellow inmates, again this is done on a voluntary basis. Prisoners are vulnerable, many self-harm, some even attempt suicide. The suicide rate is high because hope quickly gets lost within the cells. Some might say, let the bastards rot, and if they kill themselves then that’s all for the better, whilst failing to realize that this isn’t justice, and it isn’t humane, and it certainly isn’t part of the plan if prison is viewed as a system which rehabilitates inmates in order for them to become contributing fully functioning members of society society. Although with a significant amount of re-offenders living a cyclical life between freedom and incarceration one might ask – does prison even serve that purpose? (In 2010 a study from the Ministry of Justice revealed that in fourteen UK prisons the reoffending rate was over 70%).

In the UK, the prison population is nearing one hundred thousand. I visited a prison populated by around nine hundred men. These men are classed in the category B and C brackets. Category B prisoners are “Those who do not require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult. Category C prisoners are “Those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to try to escape”. This prison has in the recent past been severely criticised for failing to implement anti-drug and anti-bullying policies.

The prison coordinator for our voluntary organization seemed to know every inmate, warden and prison worker on first name terms. I noticed this as we made our way through the foreboding wrought iron doors; she greeted the front line guards, the gate guards, the patrolling guards, and the first prisoner we came across, who was making tea for some wardens. Me, and the two other volunteers shook hands with this prisoner after he dropped three sodden tea bags into the bin. He introduced himself, and told us he was one of the ‘Listeners’, the men inside who talk to their fellow inmates about a variety of issues. He wore the uniform of someone who had been in for several months – his own clothes, a white polo shirt and navy trackie bottoms.

We moved on to the B Wing, which housed local offenders, prisoners who were receiving drug treatment, and up on the top level the vulnerable prisoners, most of whom were sex offenders. They are kept on the top level for their own safety. If you’re a sex offender, and your crimes were committed against women or children then life in prison was sure to be bleak.

After navigating through a maze of corridors and numerous more locked doors and gates we found ourselves in the cells. Powder blue railings and bleak grey floor and ceilings made the place seem lifeless. Our coordinator introduced us to a bohemian looking Eastern European fellow named ‘Marko’, another ‘Listener’. We were told he spoke six languages, was a philosophy graduate and also a Martial Arts expert. I noticed a book on Aikido when we went inside his cell. It felt extremely narrow and claustrophobic in there. An uncomfortable slab like bed, a toilet and basin and three cheap wooden shelves tacked to the wall took up most of the room space. Due to Marko’s tidiness, the cell was at least ordered. Our coordinator talked about how the cells were made to be as suicide proof as possible, but unfortunately people get quite creative in prison, and there are always ways out. Marko proudly told us that he was breaking through and genuinely helping several domestic prisoners, but his fellow Eastern Europeans were far more reluctant to speak to him, believing he might use information against them. In prison information is currency.

Prisoners strolled around us as we chatted to Marko, at first I got paranoid, felt unnerved as they were circling like sharks, perhaps they were curious. Many were quite taken by the attractive female volunteer in our group. I felt a little sorry for her, getting ogled as she did throughout the tour. Luckily me, and the other male volunteer are not much to look at, so we didn’t get much more than feeble stares.

After that we sauntered across to Wing H, the hospital wing, which also housed those on suicide watch. I got to meet a prisoner who I had once talked to on the phone. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with him, tearfully he told me about how he had tried to hang himself with his sweater, and got pretty damn close in doing so. Somehow I had kept him on the line long enough to get him talking about the hope of becoming a free man, and he seemed a bit more optimistic. He had ended up in prison after a botched suicide attempt. He tried to kill himself at his flat but inadvertently set the whole building on fire, luckily nobody got hurt. In many ways his sentencing is an injustice as he was severely depressed and not in control of his actions. There is a campaign currently on-going to get him released. Though after seeing the distant look that he had in his eyes through a post-box shaped slot in a metal cell door I genuinely fear for his immediate chances.

Finally, we visited Wing L, where all the lifers are. Now, in this case the lifers are over sixty five and it is actually more like a retirement home. In fact, Wing L was a nicer place then a private retirement home my Grandfather stayed in last year, with a lovely little garden and a nice social room. Old cancerous men cautiously moved about on zimmer frames and motorized wheelchairs; they were too far gone for release, had served their time and were now waiting for God.

When I was walking home after the prison visit I stopped suddenly, looked up at the sky and then all around me. I was free to go anywhere I desired. I hadn’t appreciated that fact much before.



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