The Memory of Prison Mattresses.

Yesterday morning, after completing my breathing and meditation exercises I head out to meet an old mate for a cup coffee. He’s out walking, losing some weight and we discuss the size we used to be. We discussed how and why we put on so much of it over the years.

Was asked why a few times over the years and the answer can be comedic ‘I bulked up to go to the gym but forgot to go’ or ‘it was a form of self harm’. The self harm answer normally throws people until I describe how I felt ugly inside and wanted to look the same on the out. When I get back home I nip round to the local gym after signing up for a year.

Later in the day I’m making plans and head up for a shower after a good work out. Then it hits me. A full blown panic attack. No warning signs, totally uncontrollable and a frightening experience. The rest of the day is cancelled as I climb under the duvet for an hour or two, scream into the pillow and use all of my knowledge and breathing tricks that enable me to ride this storm of fear, dread, panic and seeking of oblivion. I’m lucky in the fact that I know what it is and that it will pass. Come teatime I’m back in the land of the living.

So, where does it come from?

Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) – is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Panic Attack – The sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, terror, impending doom, depersonalization, and derealization, occurring in phobias, schizophrenia, and major depression.

The worst one I can sort of half remember was the night before my release. Was having a chat with my probation officer. Saying our goodbyes. Then it hit me. My probation officer was horrified and in tears. My probation officer told me what happened as I have no recollection of it. All I can really remember is the fear of exploding and asking to go to the SEG. Apparently my eyes rolled in my head, I went sheet white, lay on the floor and started trembling. It passed and I was able to spend a sleepless night laying on top of my bed waiting for the dawn to come. Ironically I’m editing that part of my book at present but strangely it’s all a bit of a blur.

My prison time has become a bit of a blur until I watch programmes like HMP Norwich aired on ITV last night. It’s the little things that stir me (and many other people who have been to prison), the things a TV programme cannot tell you, the images that trigger smell, feelings and emotion of that old time and place chestnut.

The new guy putting pictures up on his wall. What was not shown is the scraping off the wall the dried toothpaste used by previous occupant. Toothpaste is blue tack in prison. Most prison do not allow you to put stuff on the wall as a small notice board is provided. The security notion of prison being that covering any part of a wall can hide a tunnel or escape attempt of some sort. Too much Shawshank me thinks.

The guy being put on basic after stealing clothing from his workplace. The ease of which twenty two hour bang up is accepted. Yet, in most prisons if you cannot get a job or education course one is on twenty two hour bang up anyway. If you are lucky enough to be in a cell on your own – is this not solitary confinement. In most prisons food has been reallocated in policy whereby the prison only has to provide one hot meal a day. This means that a breakfast and lunch pack can be given the night before and they don’t have to let you out until the following night for your one hot meal. You want to try juggling that lot when you have to walk up three flights of old Victorian stairs. A one way system is imposed at feeding time – an HMP version of Ikea. Standing at the grill (The bars that segregate the servery) with blue plastic, bowl and cup hoping you’ve been let out early enough to get a decent place in the queue.

The compulsory wearing of prison clothes for the first two weeks in any prison. A further addition to Goffman’s stripping of personal identity and becoming an institutional number see

The blue mattresses piled high in the store room. Blue mattresses are normally used in police cells and SEG blocks. The standard HMP issue mattresses are white and made of… Actually, I don’t know what they are made of. What I do know is that they are approximately four inches thick and end up being nothing thick depending on the size and weight of said prisoner. Prison mattresses can only be reissued very six months or a year depending on local prison policy. This must be a fantastic contract for the supplier of mattresses as the need is perpetual and costs HMP an absolute fortune. The reality is that you spend most of your time sleeping on a metal shelf with a bit of cloth to cover it. Most prisoners stock pile towels etc to try and get some semblance of softness. Over a period of six years my hips still ache. The memory (not memory foam) still haunts me and I so appreciated my lovely mattress when I climbed into bed last night.

Then there’s the in cell kettle. Here in Northern Ireland, prisoners are still not allowed in cell kettles as boiling water can be used to attack staff and other prisoners. Lock up here involves the cry from a member of staff ‘hot water’ and the ensemble traipse to a boiler and fill up flask for the night and morning ahead. Hot water is not normally hot come morning.

The Listener smoking on his way to visits and walking onto a block. That is a hanging offence in most jails as the prison cell is the only designated area where a prisoner can smoke. And, we are all aware that this is being made illegal.

There is so much more I could go on about but I want to get back to the question about PTSD et al. In its duty of care toward prisoners and staff prisoners must be checked at night to make sure all is safe and well. This involves a torch being shone into a darkened cell or light being switched on. In England and Wales it was infrequent and only really used if you were deemed as ‘at risk’ or under some sort of security observation. Here, in Northern Ireland it used to be every hour on the hour. After a Judicial review I got this reduced to three times a night. In simple terms what this means is that a prisoner will not get one nights uninterrupted sleep for the length of their sentence.

I served my first two years in England and last four in Northern Ireland. This then leads to a plethora of questions. How does one survive the day in prison without the aid of a good night’s sleep? How can a human being be expected to function without the biological need for sleep? What psychological damage does this long term duty of care/institutional need have on a person who has been to prison? I’m sure, like me, many others are still feeling the repercussions many years after their release.

Prison is a horrible place. It’s meant to be. Last night’s programme was a sad attempt to demonstrate the good things that can happen in prison. Story Book Dad’s is a fantastic concept and gives Fathers (and Mothers) hope. Visits are essential but in reality the trauma of going to and from visits for both prisoner and family is a psychological nightmare.

I don’t know how long these panic attacks will plague me but at the very least I understand them and know that they will pass. What about the people who have been to prison who don’t know what they are? How do they cope? Back to more of the same me thinks and the repetitive cycle of drink, drugs and self harm. I craved all of the afore mentioned, all at the same time for about an hour yesterday. It passed. Therein lie the rehabilitative affects of imprisonment.

I’m off to vote! Please don’t start me on that one.


About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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