Prison is no place for the weak. The threat of violence is pervasive. On friday the blocks echo with the sound of forced entry into targeted cells where it is known, or suspected that the occupant will give up their canteen purchases without a fight. Not having yet received any of their weekly money and goods, it is too early to tell whether Rob will be targeted, but it is clear that if he is, he will fight.
The alternative is joining the ranks of the dispossessed, men like N, a tragic figure who roams the block looking for stray dog ends and who is relieved of the little he receives by the bullies who own him. There is nothing to be done for him. To intercede would start a full scale war with less exit strategy than Iraq. You are on your own inside.
Every cell is fitted with a panic button that the guards insist you should use if you are intimidated. No one ever does: You push the button, what then? Maybe the guards come, perhaps they even move you into another block, or solitary, but you still have to move around the prison and news travels fast here. Snitching isn’t tolerated, so you have to make your bed and lie in it. You live on your wits and by the friendships and alliances you strike.
There are great people here too: Guys with borderline or full blown mental illness and hysterical stories to tell as a result of the whacky decision making that results from these sojourns into alternative or parallel realities. ADHD seems to abound. There are bright sparky young men who have simply become bored with polite society and whose attempt to enliven it with the odd petrol bomb in a car has landed them inside again. Funny, clever kids with extraordinary resourcefulness who can get illegal goods into locked cells and between separated blocks with nothing more than a toilet roll and a bed sheet, who can’t cope with societies rules and so pay the price with their freedom again and again and again.
Rob meets an autistic genius residing at her Majesty’s pleasure as a result of tapping into mains gas pipes to fuel the bunsen burners necessary for producing an experimental personal batch of LSD from weed killer, unfortunately miscalculating and causing a large explosion and a rapid exit via an upper story window.
In jail applied physics that would warm the cockles of any science teacher’s heart abounds as phones are charged using TV’s that have had various cables amputated, (which explains the state of Rob and Keith’s set), and “lines” between blocks and rooms are counterbalanced and tensioned with socks and soap. I sense a vast oasis of talent and character and resourcefulness that for one reason or another is working against society rather than for it or at least has been deemed to be.
Rob has been teaching in the classroom and will soon qualify to do some one to one work out of normal classroom hours which will allow him to move around the prison more freely and get out of his cell more frequently, which is the ultimate aim of anyone trying to work this system advantageously. The listening role that he would ideally like to train for can’t be pursued yet as it would mean that Hewell would put a hold on him for 6 months and he is desperate to get out of here: It is by all accounts one of the worst prisons in the country, and though he is not complaining, he wants to move on to a category C where he can settle into a stable routine, get more deeply involved in his education and try to forge some kind of recognisable life for the next two and half years, before he moves on to category D.
In the interim however, he is currently teaching maths to a pleasant and capable schizophrenic. A certain frisson is added to the sessions when his student complains that the voices in his head are getting very loud, exacerbated by the dull roar that is the norm in the classroom. Rob has to try to get the outside teachers to lower the volume of their charges somewhat, or risk the execution of whatever actions “the voices” are suggesting. It is rewarding work though and he seems to be good at it, as he is already being personally requested for new sessions.
As much as a cat B lock up is a pretty grim experience on many levels and the level of care afforded to the men in terms of helping them to stay physically clean and mentally sane is diabolically poor, I sense that Rob is very genuinely incredibly grateful for this first hand experience that so few of the people who might have the power to change it, will have.
Back home, with the safety net of relative financial security gone, Okha is also learning fast what it is to work hard. Her hands are sore from washing hair and her spirits are somewhat dampened by the monotony of the reliable persona she has adopted to hold down this job. She is beginning to piece together a trajectory through to the next stage, towards a life where she will have choices and possibilities. There really is no substitute for experience. A few short weeks of responsibility have had more effect than all of my impassioned lectures, considered or ranting.
Something is happening to me too. I feel the urge to do or create something beyond my family. A framework for a future I must and want to provide for. I have no real idea where this will take me, but it smoulders in me insistently and interestingly.