A lot of people have been asking me what a day in prison is really like. What follows is a little prose of my first impressions of life way back in the early days. I’m glad I recorded it as much has changed yet nothing has changed and it’s good to reflect on what was and make the comparisons to and of the present.
HMP Rye Hill
6.00am it’s that time of the morning again, the five or ten minutes between sleep and being awake, the time when your brain starts to stir from its slumber. The time which slowly stirs you from the warmth of sleep.
You haven’t opened your eyes yet but, your ears are working. You can hear the silence occasionally interrupted by the chirping of the birds, or pigeons cooing.
If you are resident in London or a big city you can also hear the city coming alive. In London you can hear the planes starting to arrive, slowly descending on their approach to Heathrow. If you’re in the country – nothing – just the birds. In London the rumble of the trains or tube in the distance, the gently increasing hum of the traffic interrupted by the staccato of a siren, an ambulance maybe, a cop car. In the country – nothing – just the birds.
Your brain starts to register slowly; how warm you are, how peaceful you feel, how good life is and all you can think about is how everything is well in the world.
Your warmth is teased by a distant irritation, a tapping, that won’t go away. Then it arrives, you hear the bangs – metal on metal, the voices, the jangling of keys, the laughter, the different accents, the macho comments, the false laughter, and the girlish giggles.
Then the flash of lightning, clap of thunder, a punch in the mouth, the thump on the head of a baseball bat. You see stars, your body is weak, your head starts to spin, you feel the nausea creep through your soul, and the bile fills your throat and nostrils. Suddenly you realise where you are. Prison. HMP or some other private institution. For me it’s a private nick – although, I’ve also been in few HMPs, open my eyes and my heart sinks. Oh god, why did I do that stupid thing? Oh well, no point crying, time to get up the forces of nature dictate so.
There is no proper time frame for what I have just described, although for me, the mornings are the worst part of the day. I will never get used to it nor will I ever be happy about it. For me, these minutes are the hardest. This is the time when you have to dig deep; this is the time when you have to decide who you are and to find out how strong and how much of a man you truly are.
Every single day you remind yourself of why you are here and what you have done. Personally I blame no one but myself. The same dickhead who’s looking back at me in the mirror. ‘Fuck you, asshole! Let’s just blank it out and get on with the day.’
So, you do your ablutions, have a shave, have a fag, cup of coffee, meditate, say a prayer, feel sorry for yourself, try to escape, smash-up your cell, strangle the Budgie (or cell mate) or whatever floats your boat
You hear the keys approaching. They are never the same. They always sound different. After a period of time, it becomes recognisable; you can actually tell which officer is on duty just by the way they handle their keys and unlock the doors. They don’t need to speak; sometimes you can even tell who it is by the squeak of their shoes.
The wing starts to get noisier; it generally ends up being a constant reverberating hum. All of these places would be a sound engineer’s nightmare. If you’ve ever had a bad ear infection you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes you don’t want to walk out your door; the cell door muffles the noise.
When you do get out there, it’s like Grand Central on Acid. Everyone is on a mission. This is one of the most potentially volatile points in the day. There are so many flashpoints – as I say – everyone is on a mission.
You normally have thirty minutes to get your bits and pieces sorted out. Everyone has a frown on. Everyone is touchy, edgy, mainly homicidal. It never ceases to amaze me how arguments start over the most minor of details. Even saw a fight break out between two mates because one of them didn’t say ‘Good morning,’ to the other! Most people in real life are nasty and grumpy in the morning anyway. So, you can imagine what it can be like in here.
Guys have been sitting festering behind their doors all night. The anger, the frustration, the depression, the futility of not being able to undo a foolish act builds up inside, ferments and simmers. So, it’s no wonder it kicks off and it’s not surprising that a lot of people choose to stay behind their doors. After a while you get into a routine and always say ‘Good morning,’ even if you don’t mean it.
Bang up and head count. This gives you time to have another cuppa, fag, murder the budgie etc. and to plan your day. Some go to work, some go to education, some do in-cell education (banged up), some people are unemployed (banged up), some people are unemployable (banged up).
At this point I feel as if I must interject to explain how fucked up prison life can be. My cell door has just been opened so that they can check my cell to make sure I haven’t dug a tunnel (I’m on the third floor) or loosen the reinforced concrete and metal windows. The unit manager is leaning in the doorway with a cup of tea in her hand. I ask a question about getting my education classes sorted out. It could have taken her two minutes. They can’t do anything about it I must sort it out with the education dept. Fair enough. I’ve just moved into this cell yesterday evening, its dark blue and I put a football picture up on the wall to make it look a bit brighter, homely if you like. Was told to take the picture down, pictures where only to be displayed on the notice board provided (I didn’t have one) and my cell is not allowed to be this colour and it will be painted white immediately. As if I’d fuckin done it. If it wasn’t repainted within the week I’d get a red entry.
Unfortunately this is what happens when you actually speak to some of the middle management in prison. After all they are only following orders. I’m forty one years of age and I think it’s pathetic how grown men are treated in prison. Especially by women. It infuriates me how childish these institutions are. I’m now in bad form and will have to take a break to calm down.
It’s a very sad fact of life but that’s how easy it is to get wound up in here. Sometimes its simply easier not to speak to officers as all you get is ‘don’t know,’ or they will find something negative to pull you up on – something totally unrelated.
The head count is complete, sometimes it’s wrong, in some places its wrong more often than others – depending on staff intelligence. The wing cleaners are let out and the boom, boom of the base starts up from certain cells. The cleaners go about their business, shouting, banging, trying to sing but generally talking bollocks. If you are trying to do in-cell work you need ear plugs. If you’re trying to read you need ear plugs and if you’re trying to watch the telly you just turn it up.
Unlock for lunch. You queue up, have a chat with whoever is around, try to sort out any arguments you had in the morning. You eventually get your lunch which is served up by the mild-mannered, helpful and ever smiling servery guys. It has to be the most stressful job in the prison, cause these guys never smile, innit. Ok, you get the odd one with a sense of humour. If you’ve ever seen Godba slap on the mash in ‘Porridge’ that’s what it’s like for us, twice a day. Must explain that the food is always monitored by an ever watchful officer and favouritism never ever happens, honest. You then go back to your cell to eat your lunch. In this particular establishment the exercise yard is also sometimes opened. So, you bolt down your dinner in an effort to get some fresh air and walk off the indigestion caused by bolting down your lunch.
It’s pretty good here though. You do get an hour for lunch and you can sit at some of the tables on the wing and have a chat with your fellow convicts. However, in other places. You get let out one landing at a time and it’s straight back to your cell and bang up.
Bang up. Time for a snooze, feet up, chill out or try to resuscitate the Budgie!
Move to work, education etc. Same as the morning really. The only difference is most prisons have association during the morning or afternoon session. In here, if you’re not working or at education your banged up. So if you’re too embarrassed to go to education and have a health problem your fucked.
The cleaners are let out and in most places the guys are given a chance to get to the gym again in the morning or afternoon session. Again this all depends on things running on time and if the head count is wrong, bang up. In some places it’s a nightmare. Sometimes you don’t get unlocked until after three and by that time it’s too late to start anything so they just cancel everything, no explanation given and lock you up again. So, you end up behind your door going mad – literally. Some of the procedures set out in certain places are a recipe for daily disaster. Leading to a pissed off workforce trying to control a pissed off population.
Unlock for dinner. Same as lunch. Although most people are more settled and in better form as specially as the day is nearly over.
Bang up for thirty minutes. This time is used by the officers to do whatever they have to do. I watch the news and do my dishes.
Unlock for association. Everyone (apart from those on basic) are let out to play pool, chess, have thirty more minutes exercise or walk about aimlessly reading the walls to find out if there are any new notices or rules. Any new information will do really. If there is no news, make up your own. Start a rumour or just hang around and discuss the bollocks of a day you’ve just had. You normally find a bunch of guys you can get on with. So, you can ask for advice, give advice or generally chew the fat.
Bang up. Settle down, watch the telly, write a letter, do your homework or fill in a request for a new Budgie. Sometimes I forget where I am when I watch the TV. It’s only when I get off the bed to walk the four feet to the toilet that I realise where I really am. Some places are an absolute mad house this time of night. People pass stuff from window to window, door to door. Shouting, screaming, yelling, music blaring, people getting dragged off to the seg block for smashing their cell up. All sorts of fun. This place is cool though. Most of the guys here – like me – have long sentences and just want to be left alone – do their time.
The Night Staff come on. Normally just one person. They do their count, sometimes they ask if you’re OK or say goodnight. Not very often though. Then you’re on your own again.
I drift off by using breathing exercises and good thoughts. This doesn’t always work. So, you end up getting up and pace your cell getting more frustrated or more depressed.
Sometimes people don’t wake up.