Saturday, 28 March 2009
115 days to go: Jailbird Part Three - early days
Today a friend of mine Neil Caple came to speak to the prisoners.
Neil has many talents. He is an actor, director and writer.
He is an accomplished stage performer, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and is an experienced film and television actor although he is probably most widely known as Marty Murray from the Channel Four soap, Brookside.
Neil is currently appearing at the Liverpool Everyman in Billy Wonderful but he is also working on writing a ten-part television series.
Yetsterday my writing group were on the edge of their seats as Neil shared some fascinating writing tips opening up a huge debate about drama.
The ideas were coming thick and fast you could almost see them buzzing around in the air.
Today went so smoothly that I almost forgot how hard it was in the beginning so before I reveal the final part of my Jailbird series with a Day In The Life I thought I would add another extract from my journal written just a few weeks into my residency.
I leave the TC to move to my own room on B-wing and begin to understand the concept of Gate Fever. I had been on the TC for four weeks and got used to the staff, the prisoners and the routine. Now I’m being cast adrift in the big, wide prison world.
The office is small, airless, dusty and filthy. I hear shouting and screaming, not unlike a zoo. This wing is not drug free. Emotions and frustrations seem to run a lot higher here.
A senior female officer has just been told to “Fuck Off, you fucking bitch”.
She stands there, totally blank and unconfrontational - the only way to deal with this type of situation. Across the hallway I hear steps are being taken to get this prisoner taken off the wing and down to the Seg (Segregation Unit). But as is the case in prison, unless there is a clear and present danger of death this takes a while. For the next hour the prisoner paces up and down the corridor like a caged animal. But I have a more urgent problem - I need the bathroom and the only way to get there is to walk past him.
I accept I am in a mad parallel universe where the call of nature shrieks loud and hard. After locking my door I walk directly across the corridor, past the prisoner and unlock the bathroom door. To my great relief I get to the loo and he has ignored me completely. I do not wear the prison officer’s uniform of black trousers and a white shirt so I don’t count. Thankfully.
As I return to my room I take a look at the main spurs and the cell layout surprises me. They remind me of the university halls of residence where I once lived. The smell of industrial disinfectant, the enforced banter to feel safety in numbers, the raging hormones and the loneliness of living so closely to strangers.
I decide to make a cup of tea in the kitchen five paces across the corridor. For this simple exercise I have to lock and unlock four doors twice.
After my cup of Dutch courage - strong black coffee, I force myself to wander around the prison and introduce myself to as many people as possible. Communication is not a strength of this regime. Confusion and rumour is the currency. There are eight wings and each wing is like a small village. Staff can work in different parts of the prison for years and never know the name of their compatriots on other wings.
I wander to the next wing and meet a friendly faced officer. She tells me she decided to become a prison officer because she was looking for a job with a good pension and the retail sector where she worked was becoming too aggressive!
She introduces me to B, a young man in his 30s sentenced for his part in a multimillion pound fraud. B is moving to the wing as he is planning to use his time in prison to study for an OU degree in sports science.
I write up a piece about him for the prison channel and then meet P, a senior wing officer. This is a driven man. He has written several plays, taught himself to play guitar and gets up at 5am every morning to practice.
I let myself off the wing and walk over to the Chaplaincy where I meet the RC chaplain - a small and slight man with a gentle, friendly manner he patiently puts aside his work and sits me down to guide me through the way prison works. As we talk a more rotund and robust character strides into the office. It’s the Anglican chaplain who tells me he originally wanted to be a War Chaplain but prison is the next best thing.
“I couldn’t do the Mothers Union meetings,” explains God’s Christian soldier.
Sixteen locks later I arrive on the wing and hide in my room to calm down.
Next the thing I have been dreading happens as I walk along the corridor I see three prisoners waiting, they want me to open a gate for them.
“Can you let us through Miss?”
Panic, what do I do?
Slips I remember.
“Got your slips?” I say my mouth dry and fingers shaking.
I check the time and where they are going.
I don’t want to hesitate too long in case they realise I am new and want to take advantage.”
“That looks fine. On your way,” I say. My heart thumping, bumpety bump as I wander down the corridor suddenly aware that my every move is observed on the not so hidden cameras monitored by security.
But the prisoners soon realize I am new as I head down the corridor and into a dead end and have to walk back.
Further along the corridor I see my friendly ram raider.
“You’re looking better today,” I say, genuinely pleased as I was concerned about him yesterday.
At lunchtime I meet a member of staff in the rest room. He tells me he is on the VP (Vulnerable Prisoners) unit. VPS are prisoners who "take the numbers" which means they voluntarily ask to be segregated for their own protection. These men are a mixture of sex offenders, owe debts to other prisoners, "grasses" or just those struggling to cope.
I explain to the officer what I do and he says some of the prisoners may want to have a go at writing as they have nothing else to do and can’t get out to mix with other prisoners.
I descend into the dungeons of the prison and am shown to a classroom across the corridor from the office. Six prisoners appear. Three look friendly, two look as though they are here to pass the time and the other one - well, if looks could kill!
I decide to abandon the workshop on poetry I had planned and instead take them on a guided travel writing exercise with 17 questions.
It worked well last time and the guys in the TC took themselves to all kinds of exotic places.
This time the places this group visit are different. They have all returned to a different time in their life. The sullen prisoner doesn’t want to share his work but the others do.
They are very good although I hope the story about the prisoner who bumped into his mum in Amsterdam and discovers she is a serial killer was fictitious.
That’s the thing about prison, you never can tell.
Of the 840 prisoners here more than half are serving life.
Jailbird - the concluding part: A Day In The Life of a Writer In Residence one year on