Monday, 27 October 2014

The Zoo (Part 3)

Twice a day the cell doors opened for meal times. A frenzy of activity saw inmates firstly scramble to collect food at the servery, then barter with other inmates for a whole range of goods. Food was just one of the forms of currency that could be exchanged on the prison's thriving black market; along with clothes, sugar, burn, paper and much, much more - including drugs of both the prescribed and recreational varieties. The rush to pitch, haggle and transact before time was called made it all the more intense. It was the perfect example of a barter economy.

No one was aware of my detention so there was no chance of me receiving any money to buy goods from the prison canteen. I knew if I wanted anything in addition to my meagre rations I would need to participate in this meleé. Through this process, and albeit briefly, I spoke to pretty much every inmate on the wing.

I struck a deal with a decent chap two cells down. He was friendly and seemed as alien to the environment as I was. I gave him my dessert; he gave me two burns and two sachets of sugar. He got the sugar hit he craved, whilst I could have a cup of tea and a cigarette each morning and evening. I discovered later on that my bartering partner was serving 7 years for armed robbery.


The first feed was from 11:45 until 12:20 and varied only slightly each day. It typically consisted of a baguette, two hard-boiled eggs and an apple. The second feed was from 16:45 to 17:30 and only fractionally more enticing. Minced beef seemed to be the primary component of almost every dish - sometimes mixed with potatoes, peas and sweetcorn for a stew; sometimes with pasta, tomatoes and onions for a bolognese. To follow; a chocolate biscuit, some jelly, or an iced lolly. A breakfast pack was provided each evening, but this rarely made it to morning - usually consumed late evening due to boredom or hunger.

Aside from feeding, cell doors opened only briefly. At 08:00 inmates had thirty minutes to submit application requests, or take a shower - whichever they felt more pressing. Whilst, some days physical exercise was allowed for forty minutes mid-afternoon. The opportunity to be outside seemed appealing at first, but an enforced procession around a concrete forecourt turned out to be anything but pleasurable. The back-drop of the 'lifers block' and a 20-foot border of electric fencing merely reinforced the feeling of captivity. A group of prison guards patrolled the session with those dogs straining angrily at the leash. Despite their presence I witnessed a brawl, and was offered drugs on the first - and final - physical session I took part in on day two.

For 22 hours a day the cell door was shut. Time passed unimaginably slowly.

The 36 hours I'd spent in police custody had been in solitary and I was now forbidden from contacting the outside world, With my ability to communicate deprived, I soon realised how much I valued it. The privilege of another human being to talk to was one of the few benefits of the move to Woodhill. And with so much time to kill, Igor and I talked about everything. We spoke about a wider range of topics, and on a much deeper level, than most friends I'd known for years on the outside.

Igor was kind, intelligent and selfless; not a bit like I'd expected at our initial meeting, or from the stereotype his conviction and nationality might have suggested. He had an altruistic nature and was deeply religious. His depth of knowledge in a wide range of subjects was impressive - from history and politics, to music and sport, he even shared my passion of geology. He had children too and a girlfriend he loved very much. I found comfort in hearing him speak about the longing for his children. He felt the same way I did. When he spoke about his girlfriend I thought back to happier times - I remember how in love I'd felt myself. It also made me wish I had someone outside waiting for me. Despite a relatively high level of engagement between us, after the first 24 hours the silences began to outweigh the conversations.

The removal of distractions provides prisoners with time to reflect on their crimes. To consider the error of their ways and think how they will do better in the future. It's the first step in the rehabilitation process. For me, the time for reflection simply accentuated the feelings of frustration, injustice and disbelief. I'd done nothing wrong and just wanted to go home. At the very least I wanted a phone call, just to let people know where I was and that I was still alive. I was plagued by the constant longing to see my children, to talk to them and squeeze them. I felt very low, close to giving up. I knew I needed to stay occupied; to pass the time, to prevent over-reflection and simply to maintain my sanity.

On day three I borrowed a book from the guy in the next cell. It was a novel; a thriller, the type of book I would never pick from the shelf. I was in no position to be picky and under the circumstances I was very grateful for it. I read the book in just a few hours - without pause. Never before have I been so engrossed in a book. The title and the plot, the theme and imagery all bore many ironic similarities to the environment in which it was being read. With no distractions it felt like I was there, I felt like an animal in a zoo.

Igor mainly watched TV, whilst for me, writing filled almost every spare waking moment. First, I set about documenting the reasons why I should be released. I knew I should, but could I convince a court of that?  I certainly had the time and also the motivation.

Every couple of hours we did a simple work-out routine: ten push-ups, ten sit-ups and ten reverse press-ups. It was good for the mind and good for the body, also good for dissecting dauntingly large periods of time. We reckoned if we kept it up we'd emerge from prison in tip-top shape. That was the plan, but with calorie intake at an all time low, I actually felt myself getting weaker and weaker with each passing day.

We read every single piece of graffiti in the entire cell - etchings that dated back as far as 1996. Some were funny, some were deep and philosophical, others were angst-ridden. Each tag evoked images of it's author and their story - their crime, their pain, their humour, their advice, who they loved and missed the most. My favourite tag was etched in the paint on the back of the cell door, it read:

"If you put people in cages, they'll behave like animals."

An entire day was consumed by cleaning the cell with nothing but two old toothbrushes, some toothpaste and four sachets of prison-issue shower gel. The toothpaste was used to polish the metal surfaces: on the beds, on the sink and on the toilet handle. We folded the empty shower gel sachets into strips and tied the loose curtain back to it's rail. We could finally go to the toilet without being in full view of each other. By the time we'd finished our compulsive clean the cell was completely immaculate. The sense of purpose, achievement and satisfaction derived from the task were all surprisingly pleasant.


The TV set was our only link to the outside world and duly stayed on almost continuously. Getting temporarily lost in a programme or film was a welcome escape from reality and a good way to pass time. When I wasn't lost in writing I'd watch. Igor's viewing was pretty much constant and due to the that he had free reign of channel selection. As someone who chooses not to own a TV, my dependency on it felt a lot like I'd imagine a vegetarian would feel who's just eaten a bacon sandwich.

For eight days Igor and I repeated the same process. Each day felt like a life time. Igor counted down the days, but I didn't know how many days I should be counting down from. It could've been as little as 24 hours, or a further forty-seven day - with a conviction at trial, considerably more. On the eighth day we were a given a brief escape from the cell and it probably came at a good time. With the bail hearing the next day neither writing, nor the TV could distract me.

Igor, myself and six other recent arrivals were taken from our cells to the Education Centre. As we left the wing and crossed the forecourt it occurred to me that it was the first time I'd been outside in five days. I squinted in the direct sunlight, the air smelt fresh and moist in my nostrils. The light drizzle felt wonderful on my cheeks. It was a reminder to my senses that I was still alive.

The purpose of the trip was to meet with a Relocation Officer, then on to complete tests in literacy and numeracy. These tests determined the education we would be offered, or what jobs we might be suitable for. This was good news for me on both counts - I had a pre-prepared list of 24 important matters that needed to be attended to that I had written whilst in the cell. With my consent the officer could contact them all and do business on my behalf. My list contained instructions for the other court proceedings I am involved in, a message to my employer, payment to my landlord and a host of other bills, even things like a note to my daughter's teacher apologising for my no-show at parents evening. The officer seemed both surprised and pleased with my clarity and level of detail, He responded by speaking to me in a way I had not been spoken to since speaking with my solicitor in the police station. It was mutual respect, and it felt good. I agreed with the officer that I would give him consent the next day, but only if my appeal was unsuccessful. Knowing that everything was taken care of was a huge sense of relief.

The numeracy and literacy tests took place in a locked class room. We each had a PC and the tests got progressively harder with each level. A certain percentage of correct answers needed to be achieved to reach the next level. When finished, each inmate was given a print-out of their score, had a chat with the tutor and then was escorted back to their cell.


The early levels of the tests were simple, but as they progressed the questions became more and more complex. I hadn't done simultaneous equations since I was at school. It took all of my focus and all of my memory to remember how, but it was incredibly satisfying. I got so engrossed I didn't realise that everyone had left except for the tutor and a guard and they were both now peering over my shoulder.

"You'll have to finish now, it's time for lock-up" said the screw
.
"But I'm not finished yet" I pleaded, and pointed at the unfinished sum on the screen.

"Let him finish this one" said the tutor.

I completed the final maths question with an impatient screw breathing down my neck. I thought that deserved extra marks, but the screw didn't seem particularly impressed. As soon as the question was answered he whisked me back to my cell. The tutor didn't even have time to print off the results, but said she would send them on in the mail, I would get them later, or tomorrow morning.

Back in the cell me and Igor now had something to talk about. He talked about how it was hard for him to complete the literacy test in his second language, but did well in the numeracy test. Less than an hour later we were still talking it through and the cell door opened again.

The guard told me the tutor wanted to see me to give me my test results. I thought it was strange as she told me they would be posted to the cell, regardless I was pleased to be getting another outing. He led me back to the Education Centre and back to the same room where I had completed the test an hour or so earlier. This time it was just me and the tutor, and this time her tone was different; more welcoming, and smiling.

She told me I'd done very well in both tests and asked me what my job was on the outside. I explained I was involved in the planning of business development strategy. The tutor told me I had the highest marks she'd seen since the test was introduced in 2010. She was lavish with her praise and for a brief moment I felt valued and genuinely proud. She asked me how long my sentence was and if I would like to work in the Education Centre. I explained that I was on remand, but if my appeal was denied I would be glad to help - it would be a pleasure.

All of this took my mind off the impending appeal, it even offered some solace if the appeal was denied. At least I'd have something to occupy myself with. The respite was brief; within a couple of hours the cell door opened again. Again it was a screw. This time he simply said:

"Smith, get your stuff together, you're moving. I'll be back to get you in five minutes."





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