Wednesday, 15 October 2014

56 Days (Part 2)

The screw led us from the Induction Centre to Wing 1B. As he locked the gates behind us I took a deep breath and gazed at the imposing scene ahead - this place would be home for the next 8 weeks - maybe more. The wing was triangular; windows spanned from floor to ceiling on the near wall. The other two walls were lined with four floors of twenty-or-so bluish-grey metal doors. Each floor was connected by a white metal staircase. A couple of pool tables in the far corner were the only glimmer of humanity. The dim lighting could not disguise the fact that everything was grey and lifeless anyway. It was a menacing sight.

We climbed to the second floor and came to a halt outside cell 2-10 B. Two heavy clunks, the door opened and I was ushered in. The cell door slammed shut and the same two heavy clunks signalled the end of my induction. That would be the last I'd see of the screws until morning - other than the occasional eye at the window of the cell door. The screws would peer in every few hours; to make sure inmates were alive and unharmed. For now the metal shutter was closed making it impossible to see in, or out.

The cell measured twelve feet by six. To the right a green curtain did it's best to conceal a scabby toilet and sink. To the right two wooden boxes, on one perched a portable TV. At the back of the cell was a small window with bars; beneath it a concrete ledge. A rickety set of bunk beds occupied half of the floor space. The top bunk was empty and presumably mine. On the bottom bunk lay a guy who looked roughly the same age me. He was white, heavy-set, with brown hair and a scruff of brown stubble. My entrance seemed to shake him from a trance and as I stooped to catch his eye, he was already rising to his feet. He stood a couple of inches shorter than me, but much broader. He saw I was no threat and offered no threat of his own. He looked pleased to have company.

"Igor" he stated and offered his hand. His accent sounded Russian or Slavic.

"Julian" I said, as I planted a firm handshake.

Neither of us raised a full smile, but there was enough warmth and honesty in our greeting to allay any immediate fears of murder or brutal ass-rape..

Igor's English was good, he told me he was 31 (four years my younger) from Lithuania, but born in Russia. He lived in a town in the UK I knew well. He'd arrived earlier that day and this was his second time in prison; indeed his second time at Woodhill. His sentence was sixteen weeks - which meant eight weeks in prison, assuming he was well behaved. His previous sentence had been eight weeks and he'd subsequently served four. Our initial exchange was reassuring. Igor was not a violent criminal, he seemed like a nice guy and he seemed a lot more comfortable in the present environment than I did.,

Igor opened his pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette and perched on the ledge next to the window. I rolled a cigarette too and he asked me about who I was, and why I was there.

I told him I hadn't been sentenced yet, I was on remand and my trial was 56 days away.

"Je-e-sus!" he gasped "What did you do?!"

His singular eyebrow rose in disbelief.

"Are you terrorist?"

His question made me smile. Did he really think I was a terrorist? My grin vanished almost immediately when I realised he wasn't smiling back.

"No, no of course not!" I said, but Igor had already produced a pocket-sized Bible and was thrusting it in the air.

"I am Christian" he declared - with a pronounced rolling of the 'r'.

I assured him of my Christian upbringing, then gave an overview of my arrest a month before, and the present occasion. I told him about the adjournment of the trial, and how I'd been refused bail. His look showed signs of sympathy. He told me he knew of two other inmates who had been in Woodhill for precisely the same thing. He told me I should have pleaded guilty. He reasoned I'd have got an eight week sentence - like the two guys he knew. That would mean 'just' four weeks in prison. By pleading not guilty I'd made things worse. I'd have to spend eight weeks in prison awaiting trial and possibly more if found guilty.

I thought back to the family court hearing a few days earlier. I'd waited so long for a Christmas with my children, now I could miss it. I could also miss the final family court hearing in early January and with it my parental responsibility and access to see my children. Things really couldn't get much worse..

I finished my cigarette and tossed the butt out of the window. Igor looked  at me with disgust.

"Don't throw it out there" he said "throw it in here" - he shook a yoghurt pot with a dozen butts in it in my face..

"You'll need it later."

As I would learn, Igor had good reason to think I might be a terror suspect. He explained that 56 days was the longest period anyone could be detained without trial in this country. Recent anti-terror legislation had increased this time from the previous figure of 28 days. He told me that Woodhill catered for prisoners of all categories. He and I were category B, our wing housed about 75 other category B and C inmates. He pointed at the cell window, to a heavily secured block less than 50 yards away.

"That's A block" he said,"also known as the lifers' block."

He named two of the countries most notorious criminals and scanned my face for recognition. The first, one of the men responsible for one of the most shocking and gruesome murders in recent history; The second, a man famed more for his string of violence in prison, than his crimes outside it. Their proximity reinforced the gravity of the situation I was in. In the eyes of the law I was a serious criminal. All that separated us was a couple of walls, two electric fences, several metres of razor wire, and a handful of armed guards accompanied by the most fearsome and aggressive dogs I have ever seen and heard in my life.

Next, Igor ran through the prisoners' daily timetable. It didn't take him long. The cell doors would be opened at 8 am for thirty minutes. During this time we could have a shower. We could also speak to the guards - to ask for razorblades, or replacement kit. If we wanted anything we would have to document it on the appropriate application form. These applications should be placed in the boxes on the ground floor. For any immediate requests we would need to speak to the governor directly.

Lunch would be served between 11:45am and 12:30pm, during this time cell doors would remain unlocked. The same applied to dinner - between 4:45pm and 5:30pm. However, at 5:30pm cell doors would be locked-down for the night.

Every other day between 2:30pm and 3:30pm there was an hour of 'social'. We could socialise with other prisoners, play pool, or go for a supervised walk in the yard outside. Further time out of cell could be earnt by working in prison, or attending a class of some sort. The application process for both employment and education could take two or three weeks, so neither Igor or I would be doing anything like that in the immediate future.

After an hour or so the conversation waned, All major topics had been covered and quite a few obscure and niché. The silences grew and conversation started to become an effort. I made up my bed - doing my best to not obscure Igor's view of the TV - and hopped on to my bunk. I settled back and fixed my gaze on the TV. I remember thinking it ironic that I didn't have a TV at home, yet here I was watching Friday night TV in a prison cell. TV or no TV, I would have given anything to be at home. I thought about my son and my daughter - fast asleep by now no doubt. I knew I wouldn't see them for a long time now. I wished I had photo's - I missed them both so much. As I lay back and looked at the ceiling I couldn't help but think back to the long nights of waiting for them to be born. How did I end up here?

A convoy of programmes came and departed, the likes which offer no interest on a typical night in. This wasn't a typical night though and I was grateful for the distraction.The light, sounds and movement from the little set were comforting, the subject matter - largely irrelevant. I felt myself drifting away in the early hours of Saturday morning. I woke several times during the night, either due to a madly barking dog, from the jangling of keys, or the occasional wailing of a fellow inmate.

The cell door clunked twice and swung open. I opened my eyes and saw Igor on his feet. It was morning and outside the cell I could hear the buzz of activity. As Igor left the cell, steam poured in from the shower room next door. I freshened my face at the sink, I had no time for a shower, I needed to go and make a call.

There was a queue of about a dozen inmates outside the governors door. I joined the back of the queue and took a moment to look around. Careful not to eyeball anyone, but sure to return any nods or fist-taps offered up. Everyone had the same bluish-grey jogging suit I had. Some wore trainers from the outside world, the less fortunate ones wore black elasticated plimsolls. People were walking around; talking in groups and talking to the two or three screws that were on duty. It was a hive of activity, especially when I thought back to how it had looked the previous evening when I had arrived. Despite the activity it was all still depressingly grey.

After five minutes the queue hadn't moved. It was clear that in thirty minutes I would not reach the front. I wouldn't be speaking to the governor this morning and I wouldn't be getting a phone call. I left the queue and made back for the cell. I passed a screw on the way and asked about making a call. He told me that due to my charge I probably wouldn't be able to make a call for 3 to 6 weeks - a lot of checks needed to be done. My heart sank. I asked if there was anything I could do, I was desperate.  He said that I could ask the judge for permission at my bail hearing next week.

"Bail hearing?" I asked him to repeat. I thought I understood but I wanted to be sure.

He explained that prisoners on remand, like myself, could apply for a change in their bail conditions at a bail application hearing. This usually took place a week or so after the initial trial. It's not compulsory, but I could appear at court via video link and appeal to the judge for a change in my bail conditions. I could even appeal for my release. The disappointment of the phone call was rapidly replaced by glimmer of optimism.

As I walked back to the cell I allowed myself a smile. All of a sudden there was hope. I could be home within a week. Igor could see I was lifted and asked me why. I told him about the phone call - or lack of one, and about the video link. He told me not to get my hopes up.

"What will have changed in seven days?"

I had to concede, he had a very good point. It would be a long shot. Nothing will have changed, why would they change their mind?

"If you can't call anyone you should write" Igor said, pointing at a pen and some paper on the side. He was right and I couldn't believe it hadn't occurred to me first.

For the next seven days (aside from meal breaks, health checks and an educational assessment) I wrote. I started with the reasons for my release. Then my finances; the monies I needed to pay - who to - and by when. I surprised myself by how much I could remember. Memory had long been my Achilles heel - or so I thought. Next the admin mountain from the outside world - messages for all sorts of people; my employer, my daughters school, my solicitor, my doctor, my friends, even a friend to babysit my fantasy football team. I had plenty of time on my hands so why not cover everything. These things needed to be sorted out and finding time was difficult on the outside world. Writing took away the frustration of being locked up for 22 hours a day.

Click here for part 3

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