In the Sweatbox to HMP Wandsworth

9 Feb

“NEXT!!”

I wake from a daydream, a daymare, the guy in the cell next to me hasn’t stopped banging his feet against the door. Perching himself with his arse at the foot of his door, he has been banging his heels against the metal exit for hour after hour. I thought he would tire after a couple of minutes. But I wasn’t in luck.

My door swings open and a plump woman observes me indifferently, she beckons me to stand and sticks my right hand in a shackle attached to her left. We make the short walk down a set of stairs, into a large garage. There is artificial light everywhere, I don’t even know if its light outside. We walk toward the white Serco van and I am directed to walk up a set of steps and onboard. I’m unsure as to where to walk, this isn’t me, I don’t want to get bitched at for making my own choices. I’m conforming already and its only been a few hours.

Inside the van there are 6 to 8 seats each side, each of these segregated with a door seperating us. Its like sitting on a plastic Easyjet chair, my knees don’t fit and there is certainly no seatbelt. “Hey, I’ve got a window seat” I think. On the floor is spit, grime and a courtesy water cup, supplied by a brand called:

Decantae

I never wrote that name down, its indelibly marked in my memories you understand.

My cubicle door slams shut, the handcuff is removed. I’m free within my own small space.

City Views

Looking out the window, I see a sepia blanketed summer’s day. Its not so late that the sun has set, as we drive out across the City, heading through Borough on a balmy June evening. I see girls in flowing skirts, men in suits off to see their pals or on important missions, all inexplicably by nightfall to end up in the drinking dens across the Smoke. I wonder if they catch a glance, a tiny glimpse of the face staring on. Staring in – that world isn’t mine now.

Not one of those faces I look upon could ever imagine their own life heading toward the fate I caught; it wasn’t so long ago that that care-free Citykid was me. Rushing off to an evening down the Falcon in Clapham with friends or pounding the streets of Islington with a girl in my arm and a swagger in my step. I know the forks, the sliding doors, I know where my life began to take an awkward slide, but this is a prison diary and that stories for another time.

We drive along Wandsworth Road, through the Junction, I see the Lost Society nightclub and Artesian Wells: I was there only weeks ago. Some lads keep kicking their doors and shouting:

“Jailer”

It was too hot for them, the sweatbox nickname of these vans is valid. The Jailer relents and puts on the Air Con. I never understood why they called him jailer. Maybe thats their title. It doesn’t really matter in the whole scheme of things but it distracts my mind away from thinking about prison.

I drive right past my good pals house. Its a drive I’ve made so many times, its just a shame I can’t stop by.

All told, the drive from Southwark Crown Court to HMP Wandsworth takes little more than 20 minutes. Does it feel a lifetime? I don’t know, I can’t tell you whether the nerves of arriving at a relic of Draconian Victorian Justice, made the journey fly by. I just remember the route being uncomfortable and the relief of knowing this is ‘Endgame’ made those nerves dissipate. The journey wasn’t hell, I hope that helps others to know that. I know it will anger others too. But I’m doing my bird for those people.

As we approach the prison I do my first weak thing: I look away. I don’t want to see the front gates, I don’t want to see the infamous, Victorian entrance that screams PRISON!!! Its funny that the visual aspect is what bothers me. I’m calm about everything really so far, but the entrance – NO CHANCE! This way I don’t know what its like to pull into a prison and neither do those with clean records, so I figure I still share that common ground.

We pull to a halt and I begin to take in my surroundings. Barbed and razor wire is the cherry perched upon every meshed fence. Yards within yards and a sea of concrete. These places don’t inspire self-improvement but that isn’t the point of punishment.

Our bags come off first and if i’m honest (My comrades will disagree) I was impressed by the efficiency of the disembarkation and entry to Wing was managed. Gradually, we are allowed off the van and gain access to a loitering room, filled with little more than a handful of wooden benches, a newspaper and an assortment of individuals, in all manner of attires. Suits really aren’t the order of the day I realise.

This is probably the most nerve racking time for me. I don’t know where to look, it seems some of the people here know each other, this is normality to them, I don’t know anyone and I don’t know anything. There is that sense of ‘Little boy lost’ but you don’t show it, you’d be mad to. Some fella with a mars bar (scar) across his face asks me if I’ve got any burn:

“Nah mate, I don’t smoke” in my best artificial Essex. Time to forget the elocution lessons I had as a kid. The tension though is all me, the other fellas are fairly relaxed. I gather that they have to go back and forth to court each day for long running trials both at Southwark and the Old Bailey. There are a lot of nobodies who end up at Wandsworth, the sort of mugs who nick a lager but there are some very serious people who come in and out of here too.

The night before, I had been on the court listings to see if there was anyone else getting sentenced today. I found one chap and after a google search saw he was a white-collar villain too. Involved in a multi-million pound mortgage fraud, I took his name down as someone I could bond with. As the numbers of people in the waiting room dwindled by the action of us being called out in some unestablished order, just I and one other man remain there. Both suited, both looking tense. This is my new friend I think to myself, I step up to him, stick out my hand and say:

“Its Ian right?”

Now, not everyone has the same resourceful attitude as I had last night and here is a bloke obviously never in this kind of position before and a complete stranger confidently steps forward to you as you enter the unknown of prison and knows exactly who you are. He was understandably taken aback.

A minute or two later, his nerves eased, we exchange small talk. We are two blokes, well dressed, no cuffs, having a chat. With what has happened so far today to both of us; this feels great.

He’s got 7 years, he’s got 3 kids, he likes rugby……

A little time passes and I am called out. I walk through a set of doors and arrive at a reception desk. Manned by 4 or 5 prison guards, I am photographed, questioned briefly and moved to another room. (This happens a lot in prison, I learn)

In the next room I talk a little more with Ian, I try to chat to him about happy things; like his family. I set him off a little, a couple of tears – I may change my tact next time, I gee him up and tell him not to show too much emotion in public places. What do I know just yet? Not a lot, but I know common sense.

Again my name is called, this time I head into what seems like a storeroom. I am asked to undress, one half at a time. It is supposed to let you keep some dignity, plus it isn’t really necessary for the screws or for me to be stood there stark bollock naked only hours from my previous life. My girlfriend often mocks me for having too many grey tops in my wardrobe at home, so it was a little bit of humour when I was given a grey tracksuit that matched one I had back in Essex.

Contrary to what I and many others think, there is no wiggly finger up the jacksie. I get to keep my pride. The same screws who have searched me go through my holdall from court. I get to keep a lot of which I’ve brought:

My DAB radio

My books – lots of them

Some photos – they are tucked inside the books, others get put to one side

Pens/Paper/Stamps/Envelopes

Underwear

Trainers

Top Trumps – YES, I brought top trumps with me to prison. Actually ‘Crap Trumps’.

As I leave the search area I return to the second waiting room and chat to a cleaner from Tilbury and another about tonight’s tv choices. I’m recommended to watch Idriss Elba’s new detective show. One other bloke, who came back from court with me, pokes his head around the corner, he sizes me up in seconds:

“You look like you took a wrong turn”

He’s old school London, he’s in on a big charge, very comfortable with himself and I decide I’ll chat to him again when I get the opportunity.

I’ve not seen Lord Taylor yet or any MPs, perhaps I may soon!

Finally, I’m told its time to head onto the Wing and my first taste of a real man’s prison. I am led down reinforced avenues of cement by a screw, there’s no cuffs now. Weighed down by a big see-through bag of belongings, which I try to obscure any valuables to avoid the problems I’ve only ever read about; that’s handcuff enough for me.

The corridor we cut through is a stale white colour, featuring door after door, until at last we step out onto E-Wing, the induction centre, the sounds, the smell, cheap tobacco and white noise; this is my first time in prison and I am greeted by a cacophony of depression.

E-Wing

There is a little kiosk on the ground floor of E-Wing, the 2′s* as its called. The kiosk seats a handful of polite gents in prison get-up but judging by their manner I can barely comprehend if they are prisoners or civilian staff. There’s a lot going on, its dinner time and a friendly white haired man by the name of Aslan, tells me to relax and that prison isn’t how i may imagine. I’m asked if I smoke or not, I tell them no and I’m placed in a cell with a guy I’m assured is sound and also a non-smoker. Okay, thats a good start I guess.

*The actual base floor is the segregation and punishment block downstairs, I think its called the annex now and used to house the orderlies in their single cells.

HEY HEY its my man Ian! That is a relief. There is an air of army basic training about all this, the unknown, the bunk beds etc We both potter about the small space alloted to a prisoner and his cellmate trying with some difficulty to sort our belongings then together we head out to get some food, served at a canteen point a little way up the wing.

Dinner is Argentinian Beef and Spinach, while the Chef gives me loads of extra tea, milk, sugar, rolls etc. So far so good. I leave loaded up with carbs and a dining set. (Plate, bowl, Cup, cutlery, all plastic of course.)

NO PILLOWS, well you can’t have everything. I’ll use my spare sweater and jogging bottoms for now as a make-do. I’m sure it will begin to grate on me.

My only worry right now is about my friends and family, I think back to the words my brief and barrister said to me after sentence. I worry they will feel so helpless. I’m alright, I just hope they are. I feel at ease BUT on guard and I am pleased with my first cell mate. They say the first night is the worst, well by tomorrow morning providing nothing has changed its only going to improve right?

I have one more meeting with two female officers in an office in the middle of the wing; they ask me who my next of kin is and ask me again if I smoke or not. I am given a ‘Non-smokers’ pack containing, milk, biscuits and much needed caffeine. I’m provided with a couple of quid telephone credit, this should all tide me over until I can actually use the Prison Canteen List. (It is to me and always will be a tuck shop – a canteen is where food is made and served, but thats the military in me)

They have a chat with me about how I feel, I’m chirpy, they see that and think I will be fine.

I get the offer of a call home by the ‘First Night/PACT Team’, I make sure my mum gets to hear that I’m all good. I’m fine, this is after all what I’d prepared for. I don’t get to make the call myself, its done on my behalf, I’m thankful for this small grace. I’m thankful as I know my parents will be.

The cell door slams shut for the first time. I’m sorry I can’t make that more dramatic than it is; but its really not the milestone its made out to be. The tv goes on, I am after all paying £26 a year now for the courtesy of using a decade old analog telly and I need my money’s worth. Embarrassing Bodies, the News and Lethal Weapon: I take it back, this is hell!

I’m already writing, i’m writing to my princess on the other side of the world, i’m writing to my folks, i’m writing to my pals, i’m writing a diary. Thank god for pen and paper.

I finish a letter home to my parents:

“I haven’t cried, so you guys shouldn’t either”

Time for bed.

Thanks for reading. tbc

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