First 3 Chapters

Down to the Prison

Craig

The green outskirts of a northern industrial town. We walk by a field of buttercups, past dog walkers that nod heads and towards sycamore trees that rise at evenly spaced angles. Craig’s been out nine months, having spent eight years inside the vulnerable prisoner wings at two local prisons and one high security prison. Olive skinned and bald headed, thick set and with a cheery face, he looks at the sycamores and smiles.

I planted these trees, every one of them. I know it’s daft but it’s a good legacy. It’s what, thirty years on? I was happy back then, working for the council. I wished I’d stayed at it. They were two inch diameter, six foot saplings when I planted them, just spindly things. Now look at them.

The sharp sing-song of blackbirds and the constant chatter of swallows. I ask Craig about imprisonment, but he retreats further back to the day of his arrest.

I was in bed asleep and there was a shaking on me shoulders. I thought I was getting mugged, I didn’t realise it was the police. They took us downstairs, told us what the charges were, then it was in the back of the van and down the station. It was Christmas Eve and I was due to see me daughter the next morning, but they took everything for forensics, even me shoes, so the next day I had Christmas clothes on with a pair of working boots. I lied to me ex-wife, said I’d been in a fight and lost one of me shoes. And from then on, I was living life but already serving me sentence, because I knew I was going to court and the chances were I’d be found guilty and go to prison, and I wasn’t due in court until the following November. I had eleven months of it, going to the police station every week to sign in, wondering if they’d keep us ‘til the trial. Every time I was talking to somebody, I thought it might be the last time. Every time I saw a police car, I thought it was for me. Every time the phone rang.

 

Val

Tall and lean, with long black hair, wearing a waterproof and Converse trainers. We shake hands and walk out of the village. I check my map and  Val, released from prison in 2015 having served five and a half years, picks her little dog up at the sound of a car engine.

He used to drink twenty-two pints a day, and I knew, I had this horrible feeling in my stomach when he was on his way home. I was suffering extreme domestic violence, I’d been nearly killed three times. So I decided to get revenge. I turned to the Yardies for protection, and whatever him and his family did to me in the day, I did back to them on the night. I took drugs to stay awake and became feral.  My daughters were seven, thirteen and eighteen when I was locked up. The little one was in nappies until she was nine because of what they done, like sneaking in our house in the night and having a knife to my throat. I had scars all over my face from when they ran me over. They got me in this garden and beat me up, about forty of them. I drove my van through their front door. Every car they got, I smashed it up. I got one of them with a hammer. I come back one day and one of the lads had burnt all the stuff in my front room, smashed every window in my house and injected in my kitchen. I caught the lad and punched fuck out of him. His family tortured people, even this woman who had cancer and her disabled son, they shit all over her house. I was even more of a target because I was sticking up for her. So when I went to prison, it was fuck all, it was sanctuary.

 

Craig

I turned up for sentencing with a hidden Stanley blade, thinking, if I get found guilty, I’ll slit me wrists. But they told us I’d get a community rehabilitation order, so I opened me phone and the blade was behind the battery. Then a previous crime came up and I was rearrested, and I didn’t tell nobody because I was that ashamed, and I thought, if I don’t get jail, nobody else will be none the wiser. When me girlfriend went to work, I put court clothes on and went to court. It got adjourned for mental health reports, other reasons. I went back home, got changed again and met her from work. She said, what have you been doing? I said, just pottering about. I did want support, but I was too ashamed, and I knew I was getting a guilty verdict, despite what me solicitor said. I went behind the glass and seen this big screw and thought he hasn’t been there all week. Everyone was doing something and wouldn’t look at us. I heard handcuffs in the back getting sorted. The judge came in and did the summing up, but I was self-harming, constantly scratching the skin so I didn’t have to listen. But I heard the word guilty, and it was like someone had punched us in the face, I couldn’t breathe. Me solicitor suggested I play mentally ill. You’ll go to a mental institution instead, he said, but once you feel better you’ll go to prison and start your sentence. I was tempted, and thought I might as well be somewhere like that if I’m gonna end me life, but part of us knew I wouldn’t be able to do that, because you never know, you might get a short sentence, and so even then you’re in denial. They put handcuffs on and put us in the van. Other lads were shouting, asking what I’d been done for, but I didn’t say a word, I was like a scared animal. I stood up and looked out the window, it was plastic and all scratched, and I went past the shops I knew, past the pubs I knew, and down to the prison.

 

Val

I told the judge I couldn’t give a fuck. I’d never been to court before and I was exhausted and covered in scars. I sat in the park that morning, thinking, just when I’ve found peace, I’m going away. I was drinking at the time to numb everything. They’d got my daughter and put gloss paint all over her hair. They’d done all sorts to us. They tried to burn my house down and we were moved out the area, but we sneaked back at night-time just to say it was home, because we were sleeping in the park at the time. I told the kids, I’m going to jail, but I want you to know that I love you. Things have to be the way they are, you have to be big and strong. There was loads of our friends in the gallery, but when I told the judge I couldn’t give a fuck, he cleared the gallery and gave me another five years, so I got eleven instead of six. In my mitigation, the coppers had been called out to my address about two hundred times, but then I got a crossbow and said, if you don’t do anything about this, I’m going to shoot anyone who comes through the door, my kids are terrified.

 

Billy

Medium height, with a fighter’s build and tattoo-covered arms and hands; Billy invites me into his home and moves baby toys and playthings so I can sit on the couch. His girlfriend smiles and goes to make me a cup of tea, their baby under her arm. The telly is on; In The Night Garden with Igglepiggle, Upsy Daisy and Makka Pakka. Billy looks at the telly as he talks to me.

I was brought up to be violent. When I was five, this young lass was playing with something I wanted so I smashed a brick off her head. That was the way I was brought up. Violence was bred into me. When I was ten, there was this older lad in the street who’d done something to me, and my dad, who was in our house drinking with his friends, gave me this pick-axe handle and said, if you don’t bray him with it, then I’m going to bray you with it. So, for my dad and his friends pleasure, I went out and brayed this kid. And that was normal.

 

Daniel

A new estate, strategically placed a few miles from the main A road that serves the region. Daniel answers the door, wearing a t-shirt that moulds around tattoo-covered muscles. He’s arranged to meet me at his father’s house, as it grants him another reason to pay a visit. I accept a cup of tea and partake in polite chatter, but Daniel’s father, a successful and legitimate businessman, looks uncomfortable when the conversation slips into his son’s past. And so we decide to go for a drive instead, and sit in Daniel’s BMW. He admits he has no idea where he is; he’s only been here once before and he followed the Sat Nav. Don’t worry I say, just drive.

The first time I got locked up was in 1995, so I was fifteen. I’d been remanded into the care of the local authority because I got done for nicking a motorbike and my mum wouldn’t have me back. I met other kids in trouble and did street robberies, and from the age of sixteen to twenty-two, I was never out of jail more than three months. I wanted to be this notorious guy with a fearsome reputation, because when you grow up in these kids homes, that’s all people live on. I wanted to be the biggest baddest fucker in the whole area. And so I learned from everybody I met, I absorbed everything, every crime somebody had done. I’d say, what are you in for? How did you get caught? I’d listen and think right, I’ll not get caught that way. I watched Police, Camera, Action to see what they were looking for. Then I turned twenty-one and ended up in adult prison. Altogether, I’ve been in six adult prisons, two privatised and one high security. I’ve been out just over a year now and I’m thirty-six, so I’ve been twenty one years in and out of all types of prisons.

 

Billy

I was always trying to impress my dad. I was his party piece.  He used to force me to be violent to others and then gloat about it. But actually my mam was more violent towards me and my brother, she dished out more of the beatings. She hit me more than forty times with a belt once. I had welts all over my back and had to stay off school so nobody knew. Social Services were never called because we moved house that often, and neighbours put up petitions to get us evicted. Our whole family was violent and my mam and dad were always on drink and drugs. Everywhere we moved, something happened.

Colin

With a chiselled face, sharp stubble and piercing eyes, Colin has a cinematic presence that suggests numerous journeys throughout his forty-six years. When he shakes my hand, I notice his fingers are tattooed with pagan symbols. Over Victorian architecture and shabby industrial estates on a seventies flyover we drive, and then out of town, past fields of crops and cattle. I don’t ask about the GPS tag fitted onto his ankle, but I know it’s there because he told me about it during our phone call. And as he begins talking, I wonder if someone is tracking us on a computer.

I was whisked away by unmarked cars, taken to a secure police station and intensely questioned without anybody knowing where I was. If you created levels of questioning where shoplifting was one and murder was ten, then mine was around fifteen. I didn’t get any sleep, they questioned me day and night, the psychiatrist stopped it because I wasn’t in a fit state to continue. I had no conception of time but I was told afterwards it was two weeks. The law says you can only be held for a day or two, so they kept putting a video camera in front of me and the judge gave them more time. Then I was rushed to a secure remand unit inside a prison, where I was on remand and in isolation, apart from suited and booted prison guards, for almost a year. It was hell on earth. I had to put an application in for exercise every morning, then I’d be marched down to this small yard. They often forgot about me, so I spent an hour wanting to be back in again. The only other time out of my cell was for a shower, and I had to apply for them each morning too. Other than that, I spent all the time in my cell, because I wasn’t being questioned, they’d finished that at the police station. Then they told me I was moving and bundled me into a paddy wagon, just me and five screws. I was double-cuffed by large padlocks with a small chain between, and when I went off the van I was cuffed to a screw. They made me wear a banana suit, a yellow and green boiler suit, but I was so desperate to get out that unit I’d have gone anywhere, I’d have gone to Guantanamo Bay if they’d asked me.

Antonio

We pick our way around the corner of an imposing rock face; Antonio, his wife Layla and I, all inappropriately dressed and shivering. Layla’s wearing heels and a mock fur coat. Antonio, a thick set man in his late forties, is wearing a black jacket and black trousers. Ten minutes later, the great mountain stands colossal in front of us, it’s snow covered peak catching glimpses of sunlight that have slipped through dense cloud. Off the path we step, carefully, to rest our backsides on a huge cold boulder and wait for Antonio to light his cannabis joint in the breeze.

When I was young, I used to fight the screws, and so I was always down the block and I lost all my remission. But this time I was thirty-eight and in this high security remand unit where they have thirteen prisoners and fifteen staff, so by circumstance you’re forced to associate with screws. They’re all really amicable. Don’t call me sir, don’t call me boss, I’m Pete, I’m a good lad me. And they are very amicable lads, no doubt, but they’re all very big lads as well. I was watching rugby on a rare association period and one of them sat down on the couch. He said he’d been in the normal prison. I’ve had this right big argument with some fucking black kid, he said, and he was proper cunting me off. I was wondering what he was gonna do, because a screw who nicks someone is a dog, but a screw who never nicks anyone is alright. And so I asked him, and he went, nah, you know me mate, I wouldn’t do that. But listen to what he said next, because this set me up for the rest of my sentence. He said, if he thinks he’s getting away with treating me like that though, I’ll phone a mate who works in census and every one of his fucking letters are going missing now. He thinks he’s getting his visiting orders? There’ll be sudden glitches. Then I’ll phone my mate in finance and all his money he’s getting sent in, his canteen for tobacco, his toiletries, there’s gonna be glitches with that as well. And another of my mates works with dogs on reception, so any visitors that do come, the dog’s gonna knock on them, so they’ll have to have a closed visit or fuck off. And inside, from the neck down, I went cold as ice, not with anger but with fear, because I was just starting a twenty-five year sentence, and I wanted to fight these fuckers, that was my mental state. I thought, I’ll never get out, I’ve got over twelve years remission to lose, I’ve got to play this different. I remembered when I was a kid and I tried to get in this illegal blues den in the black area of the city, and the doormen told me to fuck off or I’d get a slap. But I wouldn’t, I’d back off, stay longer and say, they’re smart trainers them mate. And if anyone kicked off, I’d get involved and help them. In the end they’d say, get yourself in you little twat. And that was how I decided to deal with the screws. If I heard someone say, alright George, next time I saw that screw I’d say the same, and I know he’s read my shit in the paper, and he thinks it’s mint some fucking gangster knows he’s called George.

 

Billy

I was getting sentenced for Actual Bodily Harm, Aggravated TWOC (Taking a Vehicle Without the Owner’s Consent), driving without licence and insurance, criminal damage, and some drunk and disorderlies. I’d gone off the rails basically, but I was eighteen and thought there was a good chance I’d get off. I didn’t even understand how many crimes I was up for and I was really hungover. The judge called me back in and these two big G4S blokes walked in and I thought, oh dear. They cuffed me to them and the judge spouted all this stuff. I had to ask how long I was going to prison for. He said five months and I got took away and put in a holding cell. You see all these programmes and hear all these stories and I was really nervous.

 

Paige

Every knock on her door is louder than the previous one. I’m beginning to think she’s hiding inside and has changed her mind about talking to me. I wonder if I should put my face to the living room window instead; I can hear children’s programmes on the television. But then Paige arrives behind me, having dropped her children off at pre-school for the afternoon. We go inside and sit on her couch, and stay there, in the same positions, as she scratches her wrist and answers my questions nervously and quietly.

I was shitting myself because I knew I was going to jail. I had nine Actual Bodily Harm’s and one Grevious Bodily Harm on my record, and I’d been to a Secure Training Centre and been warned if anything else happened I would go to jail. But my mam passed away and I went off the rails and set a fight up with all these gypsies, and I got grassed up. I was sentenced to three months but I only did eight weeks because I did good and didn’t kick off or anything, so I got released on a tag.

 

Craig

We drove through massive gates, two of them. They took us out and asked us loads of questions, put us in a cubicle and didn’t shut the curtain. I had to take all me clothes off and turn around, and I heard people laughing and thought they were laughing at me. It’s just a normal work environment for them, but it was the most painful and degrading thing in my life. Then I was allowed a phone call, so I rang mam. She said, hiya son, where are you? I said, mam, I’m in jail, and I had to tell her what for. And I knew she was gonna read the papers and there was nothing I could do, and I wished I’d had time to say this might happen, that might happen, or tell me brothers, mam’s gonna need you. Because of self-harming, they put us on the hospital wing. I thought, at least I’m not going into the main prison, I’ll have a hospital ward and it will be ideal. But it wasn’t, it was a cell exactly the same as the others, but all I got was a concrete bed, a concrete table and a concrete stool. There wasn’t a kettle, there wasn’t a cup, I didn’t have a blanket, there was absolutely nothing. I had two cameras looking at us and the light was on all night. It was the longest night of me life.

 

Val

They put me in a cell and nobody came near me for four weeks, Probation, screws, prisoners, nobody, because I was still feral and I’d have fucking killed them. I had nightmares and I slept with the light on.

Was there a time when you started trusting anyone?

I don’t trust anyone, I’ll never trust anyone. I took that to jail and it’s done me good.

 

Billy

I went to Young Offenders in a sweatbox. All the lads were talking normally, saying how long they’d got and what for. When I told them I’d only got five months, they said, oh that’s a shit and a shave that.

 

Craig

Next morning they opened the door. They didn’t say, go and get your breakfast, they just opened the door. I put me head out all cautious like, is this a trick? I saw all these cons in their jeans and blue striped shirts and I followed them to the kitchen area and everybody was staring at us. I assumed they knew the worst, so from day one I was expecting to get battered. The only time it eased was when mental health chatted to us, because working with them in the past, I knew they were on my side. But whereas before, they could put us somewhere and get us help, in there they couldn’t, and what I found was, the more I assured them I could be trusted, they would give us a kettle, teabags, toilet roll and bits and pieces. Eventually, they moved us onto the wing itself. They had Vulnerable Prisoner wings but I didn’t know what VP was then, so fortunately, with me mental health, I had me own cell, because most had two or three people in. But that put us in a dilemma, because if I got better mental health wise, they’d put us in a shared cell and I’d go downhill again. And so I made it plain that if I was put with someone else I might lash out.

 

Daniel

Imagine the last year of school. You always get four or five lads bullying everybody. Then imagine a wing full of them, that’s what young offenders is like. Everybody’s out to create. Everybody wants to be top dog, it was absolute mayhem. And in 1995 there was no telly in your cell, no right to exercise every day, you got your meals and were locked up most the time. I had a pad mate because you got doubled up. We played table tennis. We used the ball out a roll-on deodorant, had two bits of mirror as bats and took a line out the sheet as a net. We bullied people out the door. Anyone new came in, we shouted at them for something to do. And if you got enhanced, you were allowed a radio, so you had your favourite programmes, like the top 40 on a Sunday. You got yourself into a regime and it became the norm, and after a while I kind of liked it, because when I first went in I was fifteen and everyone bullied me, but then I got to the eighteen mark and I was top of the food chain. From there, you go into an adult jail and you’ve gone from being the big I am to this young kid, and when you get bullied it’s more serious because they’re grown blokes. But at that point in my life, I honestly didn’t give a fuck, I was constantly fighting. If anyone said anything, I’d unleash on them straight away, and it got to the point where people left me alone. So once again, that fed my ego. I was a twenty-one year old knocking thirty-year olds out. And being in an adult prison, feeling that respect and power, you take that back out onto the street.

 

Billy

The first couple of weeks were hard. I didn’t know what to say, what to do or where to go. They offered me this horrible microwave meal in reception that I wouldn’t feed to the dog. I gave it to the other lads, a big regret because I was starving later. I got my bedsheets, my grey clothes. I got checked over by the nurse. Nobody explained anything to me. And then I sat in my cell, looked out this horrible window onto massive wire fences and thought, what the fuck.

 

Colin

I was plastered all over the media well before I was convicted. When it got to court, there was no point going to trial, because it was already a done deal. I was told if I pleaded not guilty and was found guilty I’d get seven years Imprisonment for Public Protection, which would be a life sentence really. If I pleaded guilty I’d get ten years, so I thought that was my best option, and I don’t think guilt or innocence came into that, it was about self-preservation. IPP prisoners always do a lot more than their sentences stipulate. They’ve abolished it now for that reason, but they haven’t done anything about those still serving them. I met one lad who had an eighteen month IPP and he was still in prison seven years later, it was horrendous. And it’s impossible to prove you’re not a risk to the public.

 

Paige

I went in one of those paddy wagons and there was a paedophile next to me. He got dropped off at the male prison, then we went to the women’s and the guards pushed me out the van. They made me do wee samples to see if I was on drugs, but I was only on green, cannabis.

 

Craig

Mental health listened and I kept that cell to meself. But people kept coming to the door and asking what I was in for, so I hid under the bed, thinking if they looked through the flap, they’d think I was out. I put the chair there, the table with a towel over, and I laid under the bed and watched telly on the other side of the room and ignored people banging on the door. They banged twice as much though, because they realised someone was in there hiding, they saw weakness and pounced on it. But bit by bit, I got out. In the meds queue, I talked to the person in front because the person behind was having a go about what I’d done. I went to the library and talked to people there. Then I got me first canteen sheet and it said I had £1.15 and I didn’t have any clue you got money in jail, so I bought a pencil and a bag of sweets. And when a letter came, I used the envelope and drew a caravan on it. I drew me freedom, and it was only a childish picture but it gave us hope.

Daniel

And then you go from adult prison into high security and it’s a total different kettle of fish. In Cat B, I bullied people but I never got caught for anything, so in the prison officer’s mind I was a really good prisoner. The officers made me head of the cleaners and I kept order on the wing. I didn’t like people kicking the doors at night, I wanted to sleep. I didn’t like them pressing the bells unless it were an emergency because it woke everybody up. I like the wing clean because I’m that type of person, and I don’t know how many times I beat the fucking shower cleaner up because the showers weren’t clean. Then they said, you’re going to Rye Hill. I got on the bus and the governor said, you’re not going to Rye Hill, you’re going to high security. He waited until I was locked in the bus because I would have kicked off. So I got to this high security prison and I’d heard all these stories and I was completely on edge, because every time you go to a new prison, you’re wondering what’s behind the gate and what’s going to happen to you.

 

Antonio

The first five years I was claustrophobic and desperate to get on the landing, even if I hated the wankers that were on the wing, even if I detested every screw. All those moments you’re in a cell, if a flood or an earthquake came, if your kids are dying, you’re not getting out, no matter what, it’s a fucking steel box. The landings in high security are all pretty much the same; groups of blokes, loads of testosterone and sweat, uncontrolled emotions and people with irrational thinking and social skills, just fucking crazy basically. Everything from extreme terrorists hugging people but stabbing them in the back to murderers. Every type of crime you can commit, and nearly all violent. After the first five years, depending on the landing, it was get me behind my fucking door, not because of any fear or sense of danger, but because they’re fucking idiots. There’s people who’ll just walk into your cell and say, morning mate, then nick a roll-up when you’re in the shower. And I’m not bothered about them nicking a roll-up, but this type of person wouldn’t have my number outside, I wouldn’t introduce them to my mother, if I knew who she was, I wouldn’t let my kids shake their hands. He might have killed a granny. Actually, he wouldn’t have killed a granny because he wouldn’t be in my fucking cell, but he might have killed his best mate over a bag of heroin, you know, something fucking horrible. So yeah, the second seven years or so, you’re dying to get back in your cell, unless you’re doing something constructive like gym or education.

And what did you make of your cell?

Well any traumatic experience in life brings out any suppressed fucking mentalist stuff you’ve got going on, and a lot of lads with big sentences turn OCD on themselves. They get curtains and carpets, it looks like a fucking lounge, you’ve got to take your shoes off when you go in. That was not my fucking home, it was their fucking kennel. I tipped cigarettes on the floor and brushed dust underneath my bed, it was a fucking dump. All I kept clean was my bog and sink. Some of the OCD lads came and blitzed my cell for me. Fuck that, I wanted to never forget I was in prison.

 

Craig

Eight months I was in there and I never shaved once. Me beard must have been seven inches and it was pure grey, me hair had grown back and was itching like hell and I was still scratching meself, so I was constantly getting wrapped up. Then someone from high security came and said they could help but I needed to stop self-harming and clean meself up. So the next day I got the courage to go down to the barber. He shaved the top off first and left the beard, and people were going by saying, fuck me, it’s Charles Bronson, and that made us giggle, for the first time in eight months. And then I got talking to different people and built me confidence a little, and went out on the exercise yard, just sitting near the screws at first, but eventually going for a couple of laps. Then they sent us to high security. I’d heard stories about how awful it was, how certain people were in there, and I was never a Category A prisoner, I was Category B, but when I got there it was better than the local. I had me own cell, they had more education and work, you got better money so you had better canteen, and I was on the VP wings so I didn’t have to worry as much about getting battered. Then it came to sentencing and a taxi picked us up, me and two screws. The driver didn’t know where Crown Court was, so it was me telling him where to go, with the screws laughing like hell. And I still didn’t know the sentence because I totally zoned out, I just looked at the piece of wood on the dock and nothing went in, it was like white noise. A couple of days later I realised I had eight years, so it was a case of buckling down and doing the best I could.

 

Val

I loved jail. I loved the safety and security of it. The only thing that was hard was not having my kids. I asked the dad, look after Tina, but he said no. The youngest two ended up on the estate I’d come from, where all the shit happened. I’d told social workers I didn’t want my kids going there. This guy came to my house with a machete and the little one hid behind the sofa, but they still put her with his family because domestic violence is accepted there, it’s seen as the norm, and the social workers didn’t realise how bad the family were. I thought about my girls all the time, it tortured me. The little one was such a baby, she was going through pure hell and couldn’t say anything because she knew there’d be consequences. The middle one was raped and held hostage. They came to see me three times in the first year and it was amazing, I couldn’t believe how much they’d grown. But then the family put them against me, so they never came anymore.

 

Daniel

We pulled up and parked at an angle so I could see this high security jail, and I thought fuck, this looks like a serious place. We got through the gate and four officers with shields, all kitted up, came onto the bus. I’d never seen prison officers with dogs before, drug dogs yes, but not Alsatians. They said, are you coming in quietly or are we pulling you in? I said, no I’m alright me, I’ll come quietly. I walked into reception and they said, you’ve never been in high security before, we’ll give you a tip. If you go onto the wing and anybody’s got a problem with you, just hide in your cell, don’t stand and fight because these lads will kill you. I walked up this concrete runway all the way to F-Wing and the prison’s on exercise, so there’s a yard to my left, a yard to my right, and everyone’s staring at me. I got onto the wing and I could tell it wasn’t like any other jail I’d been in before. There was hardly any noise and there seemed more officers than prisoners. I looked around and thought fuck, everyone looks massive. And when you’re talking to people in high security, you can see in their eyes they’re totally different to any other prisoner. I don’t know what it is, but the stories they tell you, you think fucking hell.

 

Billy

I was in one young offenders for four or five weeks, then another for four months.  Then I got out and had a lucky string of not getting caught for violence until I was nineteen and got sent down again. I was on remand for two months and got sentenced to twelve more, and this was in an adult prison because they’d closed the young offenders. Adult prison was horrible. It seemed chilled out but the consequences were more serious. Young offenders, you could have a straightener in the shower. In adult prison you were locked up with some nasty bastards.

 

Paige

I got kicked out in Year 6 because I smacked a teacher. Then I went to another school but I was only in there two weeks and then I got kicked out of there for calling the Head Teacher and smashing his window. The next school I was in there for two years but then I hit a support teacher and never went back. They put me in a Secure Training Centre and it was a piece of piss. Things kicked off nearly every day, especially with lasses. But you get PlayStations, takeaways and everything. You’re allowed to mix with the boys and you can order Avon products if you have enough money. It was like a giant youth club or holiday camp, I loved it. My mam was alive then, she came to see me three times a week. Maybe if I’d learned my lesson there I wouldn’t have got sent down. But then I got out after three months and six months later my mam passed away.

 

Val

There was this lass, she got done for chucking rhubarb at her brother’s car, but the fucking car crashed straight into a tree and killed him. I couldn’t stop laughing when she told me, she looked like a school-teacher. There were nurses in there, doctors, all kinds, really intelligent people. And this other lass, she was beautiful, but she walked around with this dazed expression on her face. You should never ask a lifer what they’re in for, but I did, I was intrigued. She’d had a baby, it was only six weeks old, and her husband came back and started on her because he’d been drinking, so she picked a knife up, stabbed him and killed him. She had this sheer look of despair and wondering where she was the whole time.

 

Capitalism’s Elastoplast

 

Peter

I started at Probation in the late eighties. I was working with people being decanted out of long-term mental health institutions into the community, but I was funding for my own job on a rolling four week contract, not an enviable position for a guy with a mortgage and two young children. The Probation Service I joined was very white, very middle aged, very middle class and very middle brow. People typically came in with life experience, in their mid-thirties, and the younger generation of qualified officers were bringing in notions of equality of opportunity and anti-discriminatory practice, what became disparagingly referred to as political correctness gone mad.  But it was a very good and necessary thing, and most of the people who drew it to ridicule were the people who had the most compromised values.

 

Donna

When I was twelve I did voluntary work in a mother and baby rehabilitation unit. I’ve always cared for people who were struggling with life. I studied Social and Community Studies when I was seventeen, and in 1985, aged twenty five, I did a degree in Community and Social Work, with the intention of becoming a social worker. I did my last placement in Probation though, and it was a lot easier because you were more protected, you were an officer of the court, so you weren’t going to get filled in like a social worker. I’ve spent the last eleven years doing purely resettlement, with a case load of prisoners serving twelve months or over and coming out on licence. I’ve been going into prisons for twenty odd years.

 

Caroline

I applied for the Diploma in Probation in 1999, did a year of my traineeship in the field team and had an horrendous year. My practice teacher had been married, had a son and was a perpetrator of domestic violence, then he left his marriage, came out as gay and lived with another guy. He made instant decisions about whether he liked people or not, and if he didn’t like you there was no going back. He said, it’s my business to make sure you don’t pass. I’d do a piece of work for him, he’d rip it to bits, give me it back and say, that’s sugar-coated shit, do it again, but not give advice on how to improve it. I had that a for a whole year, and honestly, he was representative of the training department. But one woman, seconded from Probation to University for the academic side of things, she was lovely and supportive. I’d refused to do an assignment and got the union involved because this guy was being destructive. You’re on for a first, she said. Your academic work’s fine, and I know what you’re dealing with because he’s a shit. I told her I was going to leave, I wasn’t putting myself through it anymore. We’ll give you a Probation Service Officer role, they said. We don’t want to lose you, we’ve invested time and money and you’ve got skills we can use. So I went to another field team and loved it. The staff were fantastic and the manager was really supportive. The guy who’d been my practice teacher was taken out of training and became Diversity Manager, and it must have been because he was gay, because he was the most un-diverse person you could ever meet.

 

Stephen

I’ve worked in the mental health arena, in psychiatric hospitals, in women’s prisons, high security prisons, training prisons and with young offenders. I’ve done direct one-to-one clinical work, such as suicide prevention, group work such as anger management, and then at an organisational level, including how to select and train prison officers, and training psychologists. I’ve also worked in central government, influencing policy.

 

Peter

I’ve visited prisons many times, mainly for sentence planning and post course reviews. I come from the day when you visited prisoners, it was part of what you did. And the more you put into the person, face to face, pre-release, the better chance you have of a successfully completed licence period. Why wouldn’t I respond better to you, if you took the trouble to come and see me? Because part of the job, especially with guys serving long times, you’ll probably have to say things they don’t want to hear, such as, you’re not doing as well as you think you are, there are areas you need to go into that you’re declining to acknowledge. One guy who’d disengaged for a long period, his rationale was, I’ll behave as if I don’t care whether I’m getting out or not, then they’ve got nothing to hold over me. He found the segregation unit suited him. From my point of view, this is a maladaptive coping strategy. From his point of view, you don’t understand my reality, this means they can’t break me. And perhaps there’s a dimension of control in there, an attempt to control an environment in which you’re supposed to be powerless.

 

Caroline

I loved the challenge of working with people on how to break their patterns of offending. The way Probation was set up then was very different to now. You had individual meeting rooms so you could work with somebody on a one-to-one basis. Now it’s like American Diner, you’re sitting back to back. How can you do one-to-one offence based work with fifteen other people seeing fifteen other offenders in the same room? It doesn’t make sense.

 

Peter

Lord Denning was right when he said, justice delayed was justice denied. I accept that. But there’s a world of difference between preventing self-indulgent delay, often because of lack of preparation within the Crown Prosecution Service, and a desire of offence lawyers to have more balls in the air than they can actually bat. There weren’t drop down menus when I started, I had a biro, an ashtray and my own office. My first year, every report I wrote was gate kept by a team manager, every one, and we also gate kept each other’s reports, so you learn a lot from your colleagues, both in terms of confidence in your own work, and from more experienced people that are particularly eloquent or descriptive. Personally, I think a well written pre-sentence report is a thing of pride. But let’s talk about good stuff first. We’re well trained, we’re pretty well supervised, we’re the best agency I’m aware of, and I would include Psychology but perhaps not Psychiatry, at risk assessment, and we’re the best at risk management. We work alongside Public Protection Units and MAPPA, we’re key players and we’ve earned our seat at the table. We’re good at protecting children and we’re good at managing dangerous guys.

 

Caroline

Risk assessments were paper based and hand-written. I loved them, but they were so bloody subjective. What I perceived as a risk, somebody else might not, and it doesn’t matter how much training you give people, it’s still open to interpretation. They tried to take out subjectivity and streamline things. They came up with this tool called OAYSIS and it was introduced with a massive launch and two day training course. It’s all about getting everybody thinking and working the same they said. It’s going to be seamless, start at the beginning of their sentence, go all the way through with them and come out the other end. And it was drop down menus, pick something from these options. It stripped away autonomy, and yes consistency is important, but it shouldn’t dictate and it does. You can only pick what’s there, and you’re working with people that change constantly, their circumstances change constantly, and when you’re trained in Probation, they drill into you that risk is dynamic, it alters with situations and circumstances. So why not make the bloody tool dynamic? Give staff a little bit of autonomy back, give them space to think, because you’re training people to have opinions and then not allowing them to express them.

 

 

Peter

Delius is our new recording system, and people will tell you, depending on how far up the management food chain you go, what a great tool it is. I’m here to tell you, that like much of the IT in the public sector, if the people who designed it at great expense worked for Amazon, they’d be sacked. You can lose work in it. You can literally lose a parole report, the product of eight hours work. We have a drop down menu for pre-sentence reports, five hundred character limit in risk assessment, and three hundred character limit in response to previous supervision. Three hundred characters is six lines. I couldn’t tell you their criminal history, some of them, in six lines. Now given what I said to you about our excellence in risk assessment, why on earth don’t we let ourselves explore it? It’s madness, absolute madness. This Delius is a matter of huge regret, known without affection as Delirious.

 

Caroline

It took years for prison and Probation to marry up, and for OASYS 2 to follow through. And I trusted a handwritten risk assessment far more than a computer print-out, because you knew someone had taken the time to actually think about that individual, But if you haven’t the space to put individual opinion, then you know it’s just a generic document, and staff shouldn’t have to read between lines when looking at medium or high risk offenders. And when you’re scared the tool isn’t appropriate, you err on the side of caution, sometimes extreme caution, because God forbid you miss something and somebody goes out and commits a heinous offence, that you’re accountable for. And so tools like OASYS become a back covering exercise, and that’s not what Probation should be about, it should be about rehabilitation and working with offenders to address behaviour. But that’s statutory services on the whole now, isn’t it? Let’s make sure we’re safe and secure before we think about the people we’re working with. It’s a sad state of affairs.

 

Donna

The last report I did before I went on the sick for my heart operation, was for a lad who’d been involved in affray and was going down. Nobody had actually done anything to help him. I put my heart operation back three weeks and did my report, my style, and the judge said, thank goodness, this is a real piece of work, an old fashioned report. And I was chuffed, but I’ve never done a report like that again. That report made a difference, and I personally think I’ve made a difference, but more and more of the job has been going where you can’t. Things began to change about 2007, 2008, and it wasn’t the officers fault; they were being told what mattered by assessments on computers and time constraints.

 

Peter

We don’t break down into soundbites very easily, do we? We’re complicated people with complex needs, a multifariously messed up community. I worked with a woman who was old-school. She used to say, we’re capitalism’s Elastoplast. And I don’t know if that was true when she started in the seventies, but Thatcher made it true, didn’t she? The message was clear; not only do we not want you, but actually we need you to be unwanted, because you provide a mechanism for human wages, for institutionalising and so on. And increasingly, there’s a poverty of aspiration. A poet friend of mine working in a primary school asked the kids, what do you want to be, when you leave school? Five or six wanted to be famous, as an end in itself, a kind of X Factor effect, but this one girl wanted to be a checkout worker. My friend said, why do you want to do that? She said, that’s what my mam does. He said, do you not want something different, perhaps more challenging? And she said, well, if I just want that, then I won’t be disappointed. And by the time these kids come to us, they’ve been social-worked, and have a way of describing themselves and sometimes very real trauma in their families and lives that they’ve survived, that they give you their story like a hand of medium trumps.

 

 A Hand of Medium Trumps

 

Daniel

The first night, I was tidying my cell and had my stereo on. The next morning, this old feller James walked in and said, if you ever have your music on again, while I’m watching EastEnders, I will fucking kill you. I spoke to somebody on the wing and he went, yeah, he’s a fucking mad-head him, just ignore him and be careful. Two weeks later, he come back in my cell and said, was you playing Fleetwood Mac over dinner? I thought, oh shit, here we go again. But he said, can I borrow it? So I lent him it, and I never got it back, I never even asked for it back. But I started talking to him, and he was sentenced to natural life, he wasn’t just a lifer. I was sat in his cell looking at pictures of his daughter, his family and dog, and I said to him, how do you live every day, knowing you will never get out? I couldn’t do it. And he said, the reason you can’t do it, is you haven’t done anything to warrant it. I’ve killed six people, so I sit on my bed every night knowing I deserve to be here.

 

Val

My first time at canteen, these four lasses came up and said, go over there and give this fucking message, that when we see so and so we’re going to kill them. I said, I don’t think so, I don’t do messages. And I’m glad I never, because the lass they were threatening hung herself the next day. See, you get a hierarchy, but I’m a gym freak and I lift weights, and I knocked around with the hardest lass in prison. So I had a good pecking order because they knew I wasn’t frightened, I’ve had to stick up for myself all my life. I got this lass called Christina to do my sandwiches because the young offenders spat in them. I was on four Prozac a day and I wouldn’t let anyone jump the meds queue. I’d tell them to move or I’d move them myself, and I could feel my mouth talking, but my mind was saying, what are you going to do? Anything could happen here. But once they knew I wasn’t bothered what anyone said or thought of me, and that I’d fight back, they backed off. I wasn’t hard, I just wouldn’t back down.

 

Billy

Young offenders was violent. The second day I was there, someone launched a pool ball off someone’s head, for nothing. I got put to the test pretty quick. This lad said, I’ll play you at pool for a quarter of baccy. I don’t smoke but I got a pack when I got in. I potted the black before it was all cleared up. He said, I win. I said, no, it’s re-spot the black. We argued about it, but he was just this skinny little freak who’d mugged someone.  Lots of people stopped and stared. I said, you want your fucking baccy, come and get it. He said, I’ll see you in the shower. I said, get in the shower then. I saw him in another young offenders a few months later, we were in the same maths class. He said, you still owe me some baccy. He was showing off in front of others. I told him to fuck off and he never said much after that.

 

Paige

I had my own cell because I was seventeen. If you’re eighteen you have to share, so it was good I had my own cell because I didn’t want to be someone else’s bitch. I didn’t know anyone in there and I was literally shitting myself. And I wanted to do myself in because I had nothing to live for. But after three weeks I met a few people  and they seemed alright so I stuck with them. I’m still in contact with one of them, she’s in a psychiatric hospital now because she self-harmed that bad. It’s high security isn’t it? For nutters. Proper nutters. She’s the only one I’m still in touch with.

 

Colin

After trial they took me to a high security prison. I’d been to prison before but that was young offenders. The first couple of weeks was settling in, learning the ropes, and it was a bit scary. Everybody’s interested in who you are, what you’ve done and what you’re about, and I’d been all over the papers and news, so people had heard of me. Main wings can be gang or clique orientated. Muslims, blacks and whites tend to stick together. Some of the Muslims tried to convert me, they gave me an English version of the Koran with sections underlined about fighting non-believers. They said Allah would forgive me and kept asking me into cells to discuss religion.

Were you tempted?

Not at all. I think I’m the type of person that does the complete opposite of what someone tells me, that’s probably got me into trouble most my life, and I appreciate discussions on society, but this wasn’t discussion, it was convert or else. I took the or else like I often do. And people do convert in prison, but it’s out of fear, I don’t think they genuinely convert, they look to belong and have back-up and protection. And because I wouldn’t convert the self-proclaimed wing imam put a hit on my life. A couple of guys came to stab me with shanks but were outnumbered so changed their mind. The prison found out about it and moved me down the block.

 

Daniel

High security was a wake-up call. You can cook your own meals and you get more freedom but in stricter conditions. In Cat B you’re in your cell more, but you’re allowed on the exercise yard more and you never get escorted to certain places. High security seemed to give you more freedom, but really you were never off the wing, unless you were going somewhere like education or gym. And the atmosphere was much more tense. I cleaned my cell every Friday, but in high security I was told, make sure you clean your cell from door to wall, keep your eyes on your door all the time. And it got to the point where I washed my hair with my eyes open, because everything happened in the showers. See, because I wasn’t in a certain religious group, I was an outcast to certain people, and because I believed in respecting the country, a lot of people found that offensive. And lots of lads carry weapons, so I made sure I never slipped up and was facing every door. When we trained in the gym, there were three of us, someone training, someone helping and someone keeping an eye out. We cooked in twos, one cooking and the other making sure everything was alright behind you. It was constant, all the time, so it became natural.

 

Craig

Getting behind me door, that was a big thing. I did that lots at first, but then I realised about going into the yard. The yard in high security has cells on all sides, it’s just a square and you go round anti-clockwise for about an hour. I couldn’t communicate with the young lads because they had this daft sense of bravado, and to feel better about themselves, they’d look for somebody with a worse crime and tell everyone. I walked with older lads, they had something interesting to say about past lives, or we had something in common like farming and gardening. But sometimes I took sugar sachets with us and every time I got to a certain point, I took a slug of sugar. When I got to thirty laps I’d think I done well there. Some of that was to keep fit or pass the time, but sometimes you just need your own space, and if you walk slowly, somebody will come for a chat. I’d been in education all day, I’ve had to talk to screws, teachers, be pleasant to lads in class I don’t get on with. I’ve come back, queued for dinner, queued for meds, queued for canteen, and until you get locked up, even if you go in your cell, the door’s still open so people come in and out. So walking fast, people wouldn’t come over. And if you got enhanced you could go onto A wing, which had a considerably bigger yard, about the size of two tennis courts. You’d get young lads walking fast, laughing and joking, then older ones who, if they were on the outside, the young lads would be going round them all the time, and they might have a crafty dig or something. So the old fellers walked further in, their heads down, trying to be invisible almost. I stayed on the outside usually, but often, if someone looked like they wanted to talk, I changed and went diagonal, or zig zagged to be on me own

 

Colin

I was down the block four weeks, then given the choice to do the rest of my sentence down there, five years, or transfer to VP’s. There’s an enormous stigma for a mains prisoner to go to VP’s, it’s seen as being full of child molesters and rapists and you’re frightened to be tarnished with the same brush. But I had a girlfriend when I came to prison and she swayed me. The block is the segregation unit within prison. You’re kept in an isolation cell and you lose things like association, education, work, library and gym. If you’re Good Order and Discipline, which was the case with me, you don’t have to have broken any rules and you’re down the block indefinitely. In the secure remand unit they’d kept me there for months, so when I landed down the block in high security it was a throwback. It affects people psychologically more then they’d admit, long periods of isolation. In that secure remand unit, some guy was noisy and the officers burst into his pad and kicked the shit out of him, so any interaction there is, it’s negative.

 

Nigel

VP’s tend to fall into two types; those that can’t handle main location and are moved there for their own protection, and then the majority, which are sex offenders. Both types are extremely manipulative and try to gain some form of control over any situation. That being said, they usually behave a lot better than mains where it’s an extremely volatile and challenging environment. I did two years solely on the mains and preferred that to working on VP though, because I felt I could talk to them like men, unlike the VPs who are generally just sinister and nasty.

 

Antonio

We don’t associate with VP’s, ever. I’ve got a good anecdote though. In this high security prison the VP’s were the kitchen workers, they cooked all the meals. One sunny day, the lads were out sunbathing and the screws walked past the fence with some unfortunate nonce. All their heads turned and they nonced him off terrible. When he got to the end of the fence he stopped, then with a smirk on his face and loud as fuck he went, enjoy your tea lads. And that’s all he had to say, they never ate off that servery for the three years I was in that jail. In the last prison I was in, it’s the other way round, and a lot of lads working in the kitchens, I know them personally, and every chance they get to spit, piss or gob in food they know is going to the VP wing, they will take, without a shadow of a doubt. They’re just normal boys off the council estates. Who wouldn’t? Just read the fucking newspapers, there’s some horrible bastards out there.

 

Billy

You don’t know who you’re talking to. There’s probably loads of nonces walking among the general population, trying to get along with things. This lad told everyone he was in for Section 18, blah blah blah, you just believe people. Then one of the lads walked in with a newspaper and showed everyone. He’d got three years because he was on some order and the police knocked on his door and he had a fourteen year old boy locked in his cupboard. The lads walked up to his pad, because he was banged up, and said to his padmate, bash him or we’ll do you. So his padmate brayed him all over.

 

Paige

I was on the quiet wing. The other wings were rowdy and there was always fights on them. I was on the quiet wing because I’d self-harmed when I first went in. But it was full of ex-druggies who would come in your pad begging for stuff. Someone tried to steal my jacket.

 

Val

Women who’d committed offences against their kids were red flagged. You never usually knew what they were in for, but you always got that creepy feeling. We raided their cells. This woman, she was always flanked by two officers and she was proper naughty. She’d been messing about with her daughter in front of a bloke, she done all sorts, shot everything at her. We tortured her. She killed herself in the end.

 

Billy

Sex offenders get brayed all the time. I’ve seen it happen loads, I’ve done it myself. This lad was on A wing. He’d raped someone and got six year, then got caught trying to rape a lass. I used to shake his hand on exercise, I thought he was a good kid. He said he’d stabbed a lad who’d nonced his sister. We were on exercise, and he’d been in a year, and he told me the lad he’d stabbed had just had his life support turned off. Nobody’s on life support for a year, plus he wouldn’t have been done for Section 18, he’d have been done for Attempted Murder. So when I had a visit with my brother, I said google his name and see what you find, I’ll ring tomorrow and ask you a question. If you say yes, I know he’s a nonce. If you say no, he’s not. My brother answered the question with, yes definitely mate, one thousand percent, so I knew he was a bad nonce. I was about to get shipped out. I rang the bell and said, can I get a shower, I’m getting shipped out, I’ll be in a paddy wagon all day. I said to that lad, come for a bit of crack in the shower mate, I’m getting shipped out tomorrow. So he came in the shower and I knocked him clean out, started punching him all over. Nobody even knew it was me.

 

Nigel

Very inappropriate types of conversation have to be stopped and challenged in VP classes, and these people are often inadequate and dirty. Mains are men, they take pride in themselves and make it very clear they’re totally different to VPs. Mains tend to be gangsters, criminal organisation types and terrorists. But VP classes are a lot easier to handle, and so most teachers prefer to be on VP education for that reason.

 

Paige

I went to the library once but there was this famous child killer in there, so I never went back. She got slashed, in her face, so she stopped going to canteen but she went to the library. You used to see this other child killer as well, this paedophile, another famous one. She has privileges, she has five guards with her all the time, in the corridors, down the canteen, just because of people attacking her. She used to go past pregnant women and lick her lips and that, it was horrible.

 

Colin

I ran campaigns against paedophiles in the community, I saw them as worse than animals, so it was a major step for me to go to VP’s. The people I interacted with first were all ex mains prisoners, they’d got into drug debts and run off because of punishment beatings and the risk of being stabbed. I wasn’t allowed to work when I first landed, I guess they didn’t trust me, because some prisoners do come down from mains and bully or attack VP’s. It took a few months and I was never trusted for some jobs. I was a wing cleaner on the mains but I wasn’t allowed that job on VP, because you’re out your cell most the day, you’re more of a security risk. Cleaners are the couriers in prisons, they have free run of the wings, they pass messages, smokes and drugs from door to door. Then I became interested in what made people tick, I talked to people on a personal level, whatever their crime. I played chess with a notorious child killer and at one point I’d have been ready to kill him. He came across as very intelligent and he won the chess game. We had discussions about the death penalty and he agreed with it and thought he should have got it, which surprised me enormously. I agree with him, but you can’t have a death penalty with the corrupt system we have now, with the media deciding the outcome of trials and exaggerations and downright lies by police.

 

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