HMP Brixton. Paddy McKillacuddy laughs inwardly, trembling, head in hands. McKillacuddy falters as he hobbles from the van. For many the word ‘prison’ sometimes conjures Saturday nights TV: comedy enshrined within incarceration, a mixture of pleasure and pain. ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’. The inimitable words of ‘Ronny Barker’: ‘you are a habitual criminal who faces the idea of prison as an occupational hazard.’ The portcullised gates of the fictional ‘Slade’, an image encapsulating fear and depression, achieved in its intent. For Paddy, though, the image that randomly recurs, moving around the system, is slide show glimpses through tinted windows from the sweat box of new cream-coloured face brick of out-buildings, receptions and visit centres that neither assuage or mask the flash of dread in the pit of his belly.
Paddy stands on ‘the fours’, watching screws go about their business; he decides to keep his head down this time. Fear drives Paddy in the real world. Fear drives Paddy in prison. Paddy silently kacks it, though it fades after a while. He simply bides his time; his immediate mission – to stay on the best wings with decent accommodation. Paddy steadily achieves his goal, a self-motivating accolade, although it’s hard not to fall foul of bureaucratic minefields which strip him of this comfortable status at the whim of ‘they who must be obeyed’. Paddy meets Johna, a wily Rasta, frosted peaks in his dreads, burns and beard, a lived-in face, eyes with worldly, all knowing gaze.
Paddy and Johna pass time chatting, shooting the breeze, watching the young uns, throwing themselves without thought or care against the system, the same system Paddy and Johna now wear like a blanket.
‘Ya Paddy man, we waz jus like dat wance ya no; now it be an incaanveniaaance ya no wat I say?’
At evening association, Mr I. Rishman, one of the older screws, approaches Paddy and Johna. ‘Want to go to a meeting?’
‘Who be dere?’ Johna asks.
‘Think its captains of industry, prison reformers, maybe some politicians,’ Rishman replies.
‘Cuptens, paliteechians, ya man. Put us down man.’ Johna has a glint in his eyes.
Paddy walks into the chapel. There’s a hole in the roof. Water trickles over moss on moulded walls. He waves at Johna, laughing and smiling, working his magic, head of a table of six or seven captivated suites. Paddy is ushered to another table; a lady asks him ‘why are you here?’ Paddy feels trapped.
‘Why are you here,’ he says?
The reply takes Paddy’s breathe away.
‘My daughter hanged herself in prison a number of years back and I want to make a difference.’
Paddy decides he needs to do something with his life. He doesn’t know what, but after a chat with Johna that night he decides to go back to school.
Paddy leaves Johna on his ‘progression’ through the system as they call it. Paddy writes to Johna about a psychologist called Robert Zimbardo who conducts an experiment where a group of twenty men volunteer to enter a prison environment: ten guards, ten prisoners are randomly picked. After a few days they have to stop because inmates are brutalised by guards. The men believe they are supposed to behave that way. Movies like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘The Great Escape’ are box office favourites at the time.
Paddy keeps in touch with the lady. She supports and encourages his studies. Paddy moves around for a while and finally settles in Surrey. A prestigious address. Paddy receives a diploma: next step, a degree. He sits down to write to tell the lady what he’s done; he glances at his newspaper. His heart jolts. He reaches for the bin. He throws up. The headline on page four: ‘Prison reform worker takes her own life at daughter’s graveside’. The daughter’s birthday is also the anniversary of her death.
Paddy becomes increasingly quiet; he looks inwardly, around him, each day. He searches for answers. One crisp November morning, writing a poem, Paddy has a moment of clarity. Paddy realises some who come to prison can turn the whole sorry affair into a learning experience, a chance to heal, to take time, to escape from society, to take stock of values and answer intimate questions only they can answer. Paddy has never been influenced by peer pressure or other forms of societal persuasion; Paddy decides he can no longer lie, to anybody, including himself.
‘The truth,’ he writes to Johna ‘is sometimes difficult, but if faced and confronted, rather liberating. No mean feat when you think about it.’
Is that what prison is trying to achieve, he thinks.
Paddy ignores the politique used in the media, the corridors of power; it is non-sense, when it comes to prison. Logic goes out the window: the institution of prison is flawed; it reminds him of aeroplanes; if they all had to land there wouldn’t be enough allocated space. Perpetual motion, a constant state of flux.
Paddy looks out over the Lough, fear raising its ugly head again this time: fear of the unknown, fear of the same society and system that allows him to make good use of his time in prison, to become a model prisoner, a totally reformed character! But ‘Red’ got it right in the ‘Shawshank Redemption’ when he says ‘Rehabilitation is just a word politicians use…’ is what Paddy really thinks. Parole? ‘Yeagh, I’m up for rejection next week’. This, though, means nothing to the average ‘Joe’ inside or out, for that matter. Paddy looks forward with hope. Paddy hears Mr McKay, in the background: ‘I’m sorry Fletcha, when I said I’d give Godba the opportunity inside, to turn his back on his faltering ways, to do something constructive, better himself. I didn’t actually intend for him to do well or heavens forbid put it to use.’
So Paddy still thinks in the dead of night:
‘Prison works. For whom?’