Some of the funniest, kindest, wittiest, cleverest and wisest people I’ve ever met are in jail – as are some of the most evil, selfish, cruel, arrogant and greedy bastards that ever walked God’s green earth.
For some, a prison sentence is the most terrifying experience of their lives, for others, it’s nothing more than an occupational hazard, a thief of time and a chance to re-evaluate, regroup and consider future options.
The most-dangerous men serve their time in Category A (or Double A in extreme cases – often deep within the confines of a Cat A). Category D is what’s known as an open prison which allows freedom of movement, occasional home visits or days out in the nearest town, employment in the community either on a voluntary basis or for a low wage, half of which is deducted and paid into a fund for victims of crime. White-collar criminals such as crooked accountants, drink drivers and corrupt MP’s frequently serve their sentences in open prison.
The jail I worked in for seven years as a Creative Writing tutor is Cat C and home to around 340 men.
Surrounded by a 30ft-high fence topped with razor wire, each wing is a small, self-contained prison in itself. Manned by a team of officers and uniformed staff, it has its own cleaners and orderlies who do the laundry, paint, work the servery, clean and generally maintain the area. They earn themselves a couple of pounds a week in wages and an extra hour in the gym.
There’s a morbidly fascinating honour-amongst-thieves ethos which, rightly or wrongly depends on the nature of the offence committed. Any men convicted of sex offences, crimes against children or excessive violence against women are housed on a separate wing for vulnerable prisoners or VP’s. They’re segregated from the main prison for their own safety and if they’re moving around, are potential targets of violence, intimidation or worse.
Bearing in mind that many of the long-termers or lifers have nothing to lose, they gain kudos for avenging crimes and may even have a vendetta to fulfil from outside for past grudges on behalf of a peer, family or gang member. It’s a dangerous place to be and VP’s need eyes in the back of their heads. They can’t sleep, exercise, shower or socialise without fear of recrimination, day or night.
Prison uniform is worn at all times: grey tracksuit bottoms, a turquoise T-shirt and a grey sweatshirt with the name of the prison stamped on the front. The only thing that allows for any kind of individuality is footwear: trainers or wheels. There’s no limit to how much money will be spent on a new kicks and the more expensive, the better. They never go un-noticed.
No garments have pockets so nothing can be concealed and offenders are patted down by an officer when they leave the wing, a classroom or place of work. Lack of daylight, sunshine and a healthy diet give the lads a matching grey pallor and most shave their heads daily. Escapees wear a brightly-coloured ‘jester’ outfit on visits so they stand out from the crowd and lads on the works parties are issued with bright green trousers which, at a glance, signifies that they’re allowed to be in the grounds.
As a general rule, canteen is ordered a week in advance and paid for with private cash sent in by friends and family in the form of a postal order. There’s a list of authorised items available: crisps, chocolate, biscuits, greeting cards, tea and coffee, magazines and general tinned foodstuff. All of it is extortionately overpriced. Pin-phone credit can be purchased (also at way over the going rate) and is used to keep in contact with selected friends or family members who’ve have been checked out and approved by the authorities.
Nobody is allowed cash, stamps, phone cards or anything which can be used as currency, on the inside, tobacco or ‘burn’ is king. Sugar and tinned tuna are also a valuable commodities and are often used for bartering purposes or to pay gambling debts.
Although crockery and cutlery is plastic and no glass is allowed in the establishment – the windows are toughened plastic and mirrors, highly-polished steel – weapons can be hewn from everyday objects. A top tool of choice is two razor blades, side by side, melted by a cigarette lighter into the nylon fronds of a toothbrush and used to slash up. One blade is effective, but two make it almost impossible for the wound to be stitched neatly and will leave an ugly scar as a reminder. A sharpened biro can inflict a serious wound and two tins of tuna or snooker balls in a sock makes an effective cosh. Sluicing is when a container of boiling water and sugar is thrown into the face of a fellow inmate. The sugar turns the water into a syrup and makes it stick to the skin. There’s also a high percentage of men with parts of their ears missing as these are easy to bite off – allegedly.
For every action, there’s a reaction and sanctions will be placed on the perpetrator, this could be in the form of extra time added to the sentence, withdrawal of visiting orders, loss of association, segregation or ultimately, a ship-out to a higher-category prison. One thing is for sure, Her Majesty’s prison system is set in stone and can’t be beaten.
My classroom was on a residential wing, which was manned by two or three uniformed staff. There was a panic button on the wall, press that and there’d be three dozen officers on the scene within seconds. I never pushed mine, but some did, usually for altercations between men. It’s infrequent that non-uniformed staff will be targeted, after all, they’re only doing their job.
When I did my prison-awareness training, I was told ‘You’re safer in there than you are on the out.’ I thought this was wildly exaggerated but it turns out, it was spot on. In all the hours I spent alone in the classroom with these menaces of society, I never once felt threatened, anxious, intimidated or afraid. I can best describe it as a cross between working on the ferries and going to a football match.
Most of the men were coming towards the end of their sentences and had earned privileges such as wearing their own clothes for visits, evening classes, extra canteen and enhanced status. These could be instantly withdrawn by the governors if they were exploited in any way: if the offender failed any of the regular drug tests, breathalyser or was caught breaking rules: fighting, bullying, owning or using a concealed mobile or making inappropriate or unauthorised phone calls
You’d go a long way to find a prison officer who isn’t smart, sensitive and incredibly funny. They work long, tough shifts and are permanently poised to diffuse whatever situation may arise. From breaking up a fight to issuing a new toothbrush, they’re streetwise, sharp, fit and utterly fearless.
The gym officers are hard men who’ve heard, seen and done it all. Frequently ex-armed forces, they diligently monitor their zone and run a tight ship. The gym is the most-visited and revered area of the entire establishment and is well-equipped. It’s here that the frustrations of incarceration can be worked out via rowing machines, weights, five-a-side football, running machines, basketball and general personal development and improvement. One of the most feared punishments is withdrawal of access to the gym and indiscipline is rare.
A couple of things have always fascinated me about the prison population and at the top of that list is the hugely disproportionate number of left-handed men. Statistics show they make up around 10% of society, but in prison, I’d wager it’s more like 40%, possibly higher. At one time, I had 10 men in my class, eight of them were lefties. Now I’m assuming that it’s not just southpaws who make rubbish criminals and keep getting caught. Left-handed men are notoriously creative, musical, arty, poetic, sensitive and great leaders. My theory is that if there’s no outlet for that creativity, it turns to mischief, which in turn leads to bigger, but not necessarily better, things.
Another is the ‘bad seed’ notion. It’s not often that there’ll be an entire family of wrong ‘uns. If you speak to these lads they’ll usually tell you that they come from decent, hard-working families and have numerous siblings in respectable professions who know right from wrong. They say that they’re the black sheep of the flock, have been in trouble for as long as they can remember and it’s always been a cause for alarm to their parents who’ve never broken a law in their lives. If you think about it, there’s usually one in every family who’s walked the line. Well, these lads are they.
Back when Liverpool was a thriving port, those wayward young men would have been sent off to sea as young teenagers and that would mend their ways. Crewing a ship is hard graft and a huge responsibility, there’s no room for shirkers, thieves or miscreants and punishment for any of those misdemeanours is swift, memorable and harsh. I honestly believe that if Liverpool was still the busiest port in Europe, the city’s prisons would be standing virtually empty.
Stepping back from what was my normality, I’ve realised how institutionalised I’d become and that the world on the out is a different place to the one I left behind.
I’ve fallen back in love with my iPod, open-toed sandals, radio, metal cutlery, sleeveless tops, mobile phone and the ability to wrap food in tin foil with impunity. I never have to wake up at 6.35am again – unless it’s to catch a flight to California – and I can walk through any door I like without having to either lock or unlock it.
Prisoners are just regular people who’ve made a few bad choices. In the main, they’re accepting of their fate, knew what they were getting themselves into and take the consequences of their actions like men. They do their jail with a smile on their faces and look on it as nothing more than an annoying inconvenience.
Most of them take the opportunity to get fit, quit smoking and taking drugs, eat regularly (although, haute cuisine it is not) and build bridges with their estranged families. They spend their days in purposeful activity: education, works parties, painting, cleaning and gardening or voluntary posts in the community. Their evenings consist of an hour’s association when they can play snooker, darts or have a shower, then at 8pm they’re banged up until breakfast the next morning.
You can usually tell the men who’ll never return and others who are serving their 10th (or more) sentence who’ll be back with another neck tattoo before you’ve forgotten their names.
As a teacher, I saw them at their best: drug and alcohol free, with sharp minds and rapier-like Scouse wit – willing to learn and happy to share their stories.
My class wrote and produced ‘The Sentence’ – an award-winning prison magazine, won countless Koestler Awards and wrote brilliant poetry which was published and earned them cash prizes. I couldn’t have been more proud.
Occasionally, they’d write personal memoires and read them out loud to their classmates. A thousand tears were shed in that room as they recounted their childhoods and how their lives had panned out. I had youngsters who were just 21 and men in their 70s and none of them were invincible.
More often than not, the older men had spent their formative years in borstal or church-run approved schools where they were mentally, physically, emotionally and sexually abused. They’ve carried the scars for their entire lives and as they recounted their tales with streaming eyes, I would hand them a gratefully-received tissue and reiterate my mantra, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. In that moment they completely understood and I hope they take that knowledge with them.
On the whole, I’ve learned vast amounts from my life behind the razor wire. I’ve laughed ‘til my eyes bled, felt pity, remorse, exhaustion, grief and empathy by the bucket-load and discovered that hard drugs are truly the root of all things evil.
I can’t tell you how I miss those lads with their incredible generosity of spirit, empathy and gallows humour and I wish them all the luck in the world. It’s tough out here.
© Becky Tallentire