It’s June 24th. My husband has just been sentenced to 9 years in jail. I watch him walk out of the dock and into a life where he is no longer mine…he’s a convict now, owned by the state until his release. I pray that the system will see the man and not the crime; the future and not the past. Above all I want someone to care for him and keep him safe. I do not yet know that my prayers are pointless and that prison is designed only to punish, the more the merrier…
After hours of travelling and processing, including strip searches, property logs and endless form- filling, he is taken to the unit where his first cell awaits. It really does look like something off the set of Prison Break or Shawshank Redemption. His new home is a huge cavernous space three floors high, hollow in the middle with metal crash netting strung between the walkways of “the two’s”, (the first floor), to stop people throwing heavy objects (or jumping) down onto unsuspecting people walking about on “the one’s”. He doesn’t yet realise how likely both of these eventualities are.
The guard who is escorting him to his new residence stops suddenly at a random door, and ushers him in with his prison bag. It’s a double cell about 6ft wide and 10ft long with a child’s bunk bed on the left and a small shelving unit on the right. The walls are covered with graffiti. It’s filthy. Most of the shelves in the unit are missing, and there is rubbish and slices of white bread strewn on the floor. He spots the loo in the corner next to the shelves. It has no seat and there is no cubicle around it. It is unspeakably dirty and covered in brown marks on the porcelain which transpire to be burn marks from the many rollies that have been flicked at it over the years from the bunk beds and missed their lazy target. There is a sink too which is chipped and equally as fouled and unsanitary. The window is shut and barred. There is no curtain or blind. There is only one mattress on the bottom bunk and it is ripped. There is no pillow, or bedding of any description. The guard leaves without a word, locking him in. There is nothing for it but to clean up what he can, which isn’t much in the absence of all tools, and pray for the guard to return with bedding.
The hour ticks by. At last the officer comes back with a foam block covered in wipe-down blue plastic (a prison pillow), green sheets and some orange prison blankets. Rob is pathetically grateful. Having decided against unpacking until cleaning products can be sourced, hopefully in the morning, he slips in-between his polyester bed clothes, shivers at the thought of the damage a naked flame could wreak in here, and pulls up the blanket as far as he can. His feet are pressed against the end of the bunk which isn’t designed for anyone over 6ft. He turns off the light, exhausted, but sleep will not come in this foreign hellhole and so he lays there listening to shouts erupting around the unit, ricocheting off the walls and through the bones of his skull until, finally, he passes out sometime after dawn.
Rob awakes to the sounds of keys turning in locks and pool balls smashing into each other. There is an inordinate amount of shouting too and a hum of activity. He dresses quickly, opens the cell door which has just been unlocked without comment by a screw and is met with a blast of activity and a sense assaulting scene of ordered chaos. His cell is opposite the pool table. Clusters of spectators are gathered around it watching the game unfold. Everywhere he looks groups of men are intent on different activities: dominos, cards, the cleaning of cells with mops and buckets. Every part of the hall: the walkways, the staircases, individual cells and communal areas are teeming with indecipherable purpose.
There is a very specific look being worked around the room. Tattoos, vest and plastic shower shoes worn with socks is the height of prison chic, so he nips back into his cell, removes his trainers and adopts the fashion. Best to blend in as much as possible. He is fresh meat. Within minutes people start asking for things. Anything and everything. Before the hour is up he will have been offered every drug you can think of, plus many more besides. He ventures out of his pad (cell) with trepidation as met by the sight of a seriously intoxicated man trying unsuccessfully to remove his trousers as he prepares to jump off the 3’s two stories up. No one bats an eyelid.
The drug of choice here is Black Mamba, AKA Spice, or just plain Mamba. It looks a bit like weed, but its effects are infinitely more extreme. Your average prisoner used to pretty much rely on cannabis for their R n R until mandatory drug tests were introduced and heroin became a safer bet. Cannabis hangs in the blood stream too long, but smack will be undetectable after a day or two. Mamba is better though. So far there is no test for it, so even though it totally messes people up they’ll go for Mamba every time. That way if they get hit with a random drug test they won’t lose their visits or canteen or parole. The downside is it’s lethal.
Twelve recorded Mamba deaths in UK prisons so far this year and we’re only half way through it. God knows how many near misses there must have been. There are so many mamba casualties they call they call ambulances “Mambulances” inside. It also stinks like fish and puts people into crazy psychotic states as well as heart failure. When supplies come in no-one really knows how strong it is, so they test it out on ‘Mambapigs’ and the results aren’t pretty. Like the guy on the 3’s. Someone has pulled him off the railings at least, but he has managed to get his trousers off and now’s he’s butt naked and shouting and moaning to the mild amusement of the unit. It’s one way to deal with your time. Prison is basically a holding pen for all areas of society that we can’t be bothered to deal with. The majority of inmates either have drug and alcohol addictions of varying severity and persuasions or mental health issues.
M, not un-typically, has both. He is an utterly charming alcoholic manic depressive and gets chatting to Rob in the exercise yard where they break the monotony of the circling with conversation. He has just been sent back inside for violating his parole. As soon as he is released he drinks and then abuses or assaults someone. He is utterly at a loss as to what to do with himself and is as baffled by his own antics as are the authorities. He has pretty much given up on his free life as he can’t see a way out of this vicious cycle. When Rob asks him about therapeutic help for the alcoholism, he just laughs at him. “This is prison mate, no-one here wants to help you, they just want to punish you, and then forget about you”.
He meets affable small time dealers too like P who come from drug families where it is accepted that you will spend roughly 2 years out of every 10 inside. It’s a shit life, but it is all P knows and all he feels he is qualified for. P shrugs his shoulders. “What can you do? The kids like to eat”. Then there is A, caught by a police entrapment scam. He’s a user, not a dealer, but he took pity on a rattling junkie who turned out to be a cop and now he is doing three years for dealing.
It doesn’t take long to realise that acts of violence are everyday occurrences here. A badly beaten body in a locked broom cupboard that no-one is supposed to have keys to. Black eyes that spring up overnight. Not unsurprising when you bang up thousands of men together in cages, deprive them of the humanising influence of their women and kids, feed them crap and give them nothing meaningful to do. Everyone knows that violence will lead to punishment, but mostly there’s no-one watching, or caring. If you can’t pay for the drugs or other favours that you have blagged on tick during the previous week, you will get beaten up come Black Eye Friday (which is payday in the slammer in more ways than one). The guy in the cell opposite is clearly in arrears judging by the massive shiners he is sporting.
About 30% of men admit to having a drugs problem when they come in, but 75% use illegal drugs inside. Drugs, especially if you include alcohol, are at the root of why most of them are here, either for using, involvement in the trade, acts of violence under the influence or theft to fuel the addiction. Entering prison is distressing, so it’s not hard to guess what people will turn to for solace as soon as they get here and soon after you are in debt. You have made promises you can’t keep and you’ll spend the rest of your time inside trying to catch up, because in prison all borrowing is “double bubble”: You borrow a cigarette, you don’t pay back, the debt rolls over and now you’ve got to pay back double. Same with mamba, same with everything. When Friday comes and you don’t cough up, you will be beaten up, and you’ll owe twice as much. Next week it will be the same and so double bubble will kick in again. It’s an algorithm that mushrooms insidiously. Now debts get so big you can’t service them from your weekly allowance and so only people on the outside can pay them off. Threats are made to families about their loved ones inside and they then have to settle the debts directly with the families of the debtors, or face the consequences. The families are already struggling to cope but they find a way to pay up. That’s love for you.
It’s the end of Rob’s first full prison day and it feels like an eternity has passed already. He settles down to sleep but is awoken by an incessant buzzing. He looks out of the window and see that a large UFO is hovering outside the partially openable windows on the 2’s. Further investigation reveals that this is in fact a drone. There is frenzied activity in the pad above as expert attempts are made to hook it inside using a broom handle. Guys are shouting at the guards to mind their own business and go back to sleep. Eventually the consignment is successfully received and the excitement dies down again. Drones are commonplace. One of a variety of methods of getting drugs and other goods inside, but much more hassle than getting the guards to bring it in, which they do in huge quantities. Tomorrow the market will be particularly buoyant. If you don’t have a drug problem when you arrived in prison, chances are you’ll leave with one. Sending men out in a worse state of dependency and mental health than when they arrived is one of the few things that prison does well.
Ultimately this is a place where men are worn down and made to feel worthless and powerless. No one ever dealt with addiction that way. The very essence of the men’s masculinity is consciously gelded in prison in the crazily mistaken belief that to break a man is to reform him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the men fight and kick off to assert themselves, some just bleed out hopelessly until such time as they are released. Many will end their own lives – a suicide every three days in a uk jail, and one in 7 of those happen in the first 48 hours inside. After what Rob has just experienced it isn’t hard to see why. I’m watching powerlessly from the outside in horror, wondering how we could be getting this so wrong.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this blog and would like to tell your story, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a guest blog by Josie Bevan who writes at http://prisonbag.com/
Suggested reading: Hope and Mick