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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The kids are all riot

"Morning Splinter" I say as my giant of a cellmate rose from his bunk "there's been trouble in your manor." I've got the lingo down now, you see.

I flip the channel to show him what I mean. It seems you lot have been busy. Rioting across Britain. Police losing control of the streets. Violence, arson, anarchy. Thank Christ I'm safely locked up in here.

The rolling, if Breakfast, news coverage hits on the salient point and Splinter holds his head in his hands.

"They're Rioting in Brixton" he opines "and I'm fucking stuck in here!".

Less than an hour later Splinter gets told he's going to C wing and we say our brief goodbyes. It's odd seeing him go - while I think Splinter would agree we didn't quite qualify as friends, we'd bonded during our four days in a locked room. Worst of all, I never got round to asking him how to rob a bank, which would at least have given me something to fall back on if comedy doesn't work out.
With Splinter gone I use some of my direct action skills to occupy a space, in this case the bottom bunk, thus making me king of E 4-05. Before my new roomie arrives, however, I am spirited away for resettlement, an Orwellian sounding process which actually only involves asking me a few questions ostensibly to make sure I've got somewhere to stay when I leave and won't mug an old lady for her housekeys on my way out of the gate. Towards the end of my friendly interrogation, the screw filling out the form asks

"Is there anything we can do to help prevent you from re-offending?" I think about this for a moment before deciding to answer honestly.

"Imprison Rupert Murdoch." There isn't a tick box for this, so she diligently writes my answer down under "other". If I end up back in here, the state has only itself to blame.

As we were waiting to be taken back to our cells, something I've become quite adept at, talk turns to violence inside and outside of jail.

"They use rubber bullets and bean bag guns" offers Mr. Ben, who has set himself up as an expert on riot control.

"Actually, on the mainland..." I interject.

"They do inside High Down." He informs me. I'm out of my depth.

Rugrat, a comrade from E wing, seems undeterred. "There's a lot more of us than there are of them" he points out accurately "we should just bash out at S&Ds and do it."

"They'd lock us up 24/7" interrupts one lag.

"So?" responds Rugrat "We're locked up all day anyway." I laugh nervously. I'm pretty certain this is all just banter, but who knows? Maybe this is how prison riots start.

Before going back to the lodge I'm buttonholed by Bucky, a guy from C wing, who says he's
heard I'm writing about the prison. Clearly walking everywhere with a pen and paper in my hands is not a particularly subtle strategy. He tells me a story of the genuine violence which happens within these walls. A week ago Bucky had said the wrong thing to a couple of screws while he was collecting his dinner and they'd followed him back to his cell. When he realised what was happening he ran for the door and asked another jailer to lock him inside, but it didn't work. The two guards pinned him down in his dwelling and kicked the shit out of him- his face is still puffy and distorted from the beating. He looks at me like I'm crazy when I ask if he's thought of reporting it.

Back in my own stone box, my new cell mate, Rocksteady, has arrived. He's asked me not to write about his circumstances, so I won't. Luckily he didn't say anything about hacking his voicemail, so I still have options if he tells me anything really juicy.

We spend a lot of the evening chatting about riots and getting to know one another. Annoyingly for you, his story is fascinating. It's annoying for me, too, but at least I got to hear it. I mean, seriously. Wow. Prison has its perks.

I spend some time working out what to do if there's a prison riot, interspersing calm strategising with the occasional mindblowing glimpse of vertigo when I realize that, yes, I'm considering this as a real possibility. With a little luck you won't get to read about my plans in the papers before you read this blog. They mostly involve hiding.

There's one other unsettling note to my evening. According to Rocksteady, screws don't take too kindly to people writing about what's going on inside. Considering Bucky's story, I can see why.

So, if you're reading this, ends day 7.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Day 6 - Prisonomics

Here, as far as I can gather, is how the prison economy works.
Every Sunday (today) our captors furnish us with a “canteen sheet”. This is a double sided A4 list of purchasable sundries, ranging from chocolate to tweezers, playing cards to bibles, super noodles to shaving foam. The most important items are phone credit (40p a minute) and tobacco (“burn” in prison parlance), both of which make appearances at the top of the canteen sheet.
Convicted enemies of the state, such as myself, get a maximum canteen spend of £17 a week (to come out of any money we’ve brought in with us or earned inside) whilst prisoners on remand, like Splinter, can spend as much as they like. I invest in some chocolate, paper, stamps and tangfastics then sink the rest of my liquidity into the blue chips: coffee and burn.
Tobacco is the currency of choice here in jail for one simple reason: most people smoke. Even if you don’t, there will always a market for the lethal stuff, so it makes an excellent, if short term, store of value. So far I’ve traded burn for paper, pens, stamps, sexual favours, semtex and coffee.
Coffee acts as the prison’s second currency of note, the Euro to burn’s Dollar, though there is less demand for it and most inmates are looking to trade coffee for burn rather than the other way round. Of course, in our barter based system anything can have value to the right customer, and I’ve made a range of happy trades swapping jam, salt and porridge (yes, I know) for stuff that I actually want.
Another item in seemingly high demand is tin foil and its substitutes – yoghurt lids, polo wrappers etc. I’ve yet to actually be offered drugs here but the shadows of the black economy fall long away from the searching eyes of the screws. I couldn’t tell you exactly how drug deals work inside but I’m guessing that, as the price of skag comes in a fair bit dearer than £17 a week, most money changes hands on the outside – just get your people to talk to theirs. A lot of stuff can be bought this way, though the import tariffs here are steep – a bog standard mobile phone is £250-£300 (still cost effective compared to the payphones) and a gram of skunk will set you back £50, around five times street value.
However, there is one drug that the prison’s awash with, and it’s absolutely free. Methadone maintenance programs are Wandsworth’s quick fix for dealing with junkies: heroin users who don’t opt for detox are shuffled onto D wing, where their “treatment” awaits, along with a whole cornucopia of commercially available chemical delights. Absurdly, the methadone maintenance program stops abruptly when users leave jail: shivering junkies are turfed out onto the street , told sternly not to reoffend and given £47 to start a new life with. NHS waiting lists for methadone can be weeks long – many will be back inside before the wait is up.
Methadone is unpopular even amongst those who take it. Many of my new junky pals describe it as harder to quit than smack and resent the prison for providing them with this chemical cosh. If you’ve been using on the outside you’re often entered onto a programme without consultation, a cruel temptation for those I’ve met who see their periodic visits to jail as rare opportunities to give their bodies a break.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. With the death of EMA, jail is now the only place in Britain that still values education, and you can earn as much as 90 pence per three hour session learning a variety of trades. Inmates can train in anything from plastery to radio production (at our in-house station “radio wanno”). Private companies have seen a chance to make a buck too, and Timpsons (the key/shoe making people) provide a range of courses which then offer you the chance to do some unpaid work for them on the outside, followed by the somewhat dubious promise of a full time position.
There are inside jobs, too, paying similarly princely sums for your time. You can work as a cleaner, cook, orderly, wing rep, or anything else the screws are too lazy, apathetic or incompetent to do themselves. I shouldn’t badmouth these posts too much – they represent one of the few useful ways to spend your time inside, and speaking to an orderly is generally far more pleasant and productive than trying to convince the guards to do their jobs. Yet however helpful they may be, some lags see prisoners who take these positions as no better than collaborators, an image which isn’t helped by the fact that they come with an impressive range of perks, from a break room with a plasma TV in it to all the sly burn you can… er… burn.
The prison economy usually functions fairly well but ran into trouble recently after a group of rogue orderlies began lending large quantities of tobacco to inmates with the promise they’d hit them back a few snouts once they got their canteen through. Demand for these credit-fag swaps was high, so high that orderlies were soon raiding the store cupboard to feed Wandsworth’s appetite for cheap burn. By the time the scale of the problem became clear, it was already too late. The two bed properties many lags had put down as collateral turned out to be worthless as they already belonged to the prison. The Governor has authorized several costly bailouts in an effort to put an end to the crisis, but the prisoners smoked those too. As I write this, A and C wing teeter on the brink of default and, for the first time, E wing risks losing its coveted triple “Aaargh!” status. In just a few short hours, canteen forms are due back at the landing office and the tension on the wings is palpable.
So ends day 6.


For a somewhat less abstract blog about day 7, click here

Day 5 - Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Wandsworth

I’m worried I’m going to end up writing 14 stories where nothing happens. It’s sobering to think that The Shawshank Redemption chronicled 20 years in sing-sing and still only found a few hours of narrative - and Stephen King was allowed to make stuff up.

I’ve rather lost the Shawshank spirit myself over the last 24 hours. Fighting with heart and mind against an unjust system feels a bit silly when you’ve only got 8 days of oppression left. My initial attempt at a blog for today – a withering polemic on the purpose of prison itself – was brusquely abandoned mid-flow when Deal or No Deal came on. It was, in any case, an effort to use the abstract of my situation to conceal the embarrassingly mundane reality of life in here. We’ve spent most of the day waiting for Harry Potter.

Movies are a big deal in prison. With next-to-nothing to look forward to, most of the chatter on the wings naturally gravitates to TV, particularly films, and for the last few days all of the talk has been of Harry Potter. This is particularly weird when you realise that Watchmen is on tonight, and the other night we were treated to Blade, which has a vampire in it and lots of massive guns.

Harry Potter is a kids' film. About a wizard.

I woke at 6 again this morning to another imperial pronouncement from Hubba-Hubba, God-emperor of the Hoobs and future overlord of all mankind. Something about the Hoobs' incessant cheerfulness and utter contempt for humanity seems to unfailingly penetrate my slumber. The TV is always on; Splinter can’t sleep without it, so every day I wake up to its sickly glow. My first few nights inside I didn’t mind, I was exhausted anyway, but there is so little to do in here my body has now caught up on its sleep debt and considers the most minor stimulation to be a clarion call to get up and DO SOMETHING, no matter that, of course, there is fuck all to do. As a result I have developed my first bit of jailtech, using rolled up Rizla as rudimentary earplugs.

Jailtech is amazing. Jailtech (I’m the only one who calls it that) is simply the art of being creative with what you’ve got. Prison toothpaste becomes wall glue for photos from home, old magazines become lampshades, orange peel becomes air freshener, forks and bowls and towels, somehow, become a curtain to shield you from the afternoon sun. One inmate, left without a working kettle, pulls the broken apparatus apart and carefully lowers the exposed wires into a bucket to boil water. Human beings are capable of incredible things, if only you try to stop them.

I spent the morning glazing at the telly, writing up yesterday’s court adventure, and waiting for the exercise yard. At around the time I should have gotten to stretch my legs, a guard came round and informed me I had a surprise visit. It was a surprise because I’d been told I wouldn’t get visitors until I’d filled in the right forms, which I couldn’t fill in until I got my visitors’ addresses, which I couldn’t get until I made a phone call, which I couldn’t make because this prison is run by incompetent twats. So, a very nice surprise indeed.

The visit was glorious, an hour with three of the people I love most on this earth. In truth it’s a little overwhelming. I’m not allowed to take notes – or, indeed, anything – with me, so a list of questions lies unasked on the desk in my cell as I make my first contact with the outside world. With so little time it feels like we should spend all of it talking incessantly at high speed, like coked up chipmunks, but instead odd silences gape awkwardly between bursts of news. It’s all over far too quickly and I’m taken back to my cell, a bittersweet taste in my mouth, wondering if a little of something can be worse than nothing at all.

I spend much of the day considering this, how the poverty of our condition here seems to help us cope, makes us take an almost spiteful pleasure at times in the little we do have. Every ad break my giant gangster of a cell mate and I sing along to the snatches of music in the adverts. We particularly look forward to one trailing the forthcoming “Street” season of programs on channel 4, which has some nice grime beats we can’t get our hands on anywhere else. I have a feeling we wouldn’t appreciate these as much if we, you know, had something good to listen to.
The same goes for friendship. Splinter and I would be unlikely to mix in the same social circles outside of prison, but in here necessity means that we get along (though, if I’m honest, I think Splinter’s embarrassed to be locked up with such a shit criminal).


 Likewise, Wandsworth’s walls can even make friends of potential enemies. Take gadget, who I met today in the exercise yard. He’s just started a 5 month stretch for GBH and, as we lapped the little square of dirt which is our outside, we traded life stories. His world is as different from mine as Splinter’s is, though all three of us have kids. His 9 to 5, a concept I find alien, is spent at the MoD. We joke that, if we met on the outside it would probably be across a police line. Still, gadget and I get on, and even discuss politics. He points out one of the nice things about this place is that, under the glare of the guards, we’re all equals. While I think the gang that I hear runs A wing might disagree on that point, I can see what he’s getting at – there’s a certain camaraderie to being a lag, a sense that we’re all in this together as David Cameron would put it if sweet, sweet justice ever landed him behind bars.

Later, as I sit in my cell, I consider the horrible irony of this. As an anarchist I dream loftily of a world where people are all equals, none above another. Now I discover that the best way to achieve that might be to lock everyone up. Who knows; maybe prison really does work.

At time of signing off, E wing has gone eerily quiet. It's time for Harry Potter.

So ends day 5.




The next prison blog is here.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Day 4 - Don't Fear The Jailer

Every day feels like a week in prison, but today was the first where seven days actually came off my sentence. It nearly didn’t happen.
I was woken at 6 by a screw informing me that I had a surprise court appearance. A surprise for me, I mean – the prison must have known for at least a couple of days, but decided to keep it to themselves, presumably because they know how much I ruddy love surprises.
I made myself a rolly and a bowl of coco pops and plonked myself down in front of the Hoobs. The Hoobs, for the uninitiated, are a gang of brightly coloured extra-terrestrial fuckwits whose pre-invasion intelligence gathering operation consists of asking children what a farm is or how to make a kite. I ruminated darkly on how futile my appeal seemed in the face of this inevitable alien onslaught.
I also wondered if it might not be futile in the face of a legal system that seemed determined to fuck me in any available orifice. The past few weeks showed an unmistakable pattern – every time I made a concession, it seemed to make things worse. I was sick of the ragged nuggets of hope held out to me by the state only to be cruelly snatched back at the last second. I wouldn’t take the bait this time, I decided. Why waste a day of my sentence languishing in a custody cell (worse, by far, than prison) just so an old man in a wig could restate how bad I’d been, when I could stay in Wandsworth and write, smoke and listen to Splinter’s stories to my heart’s content?
Then I thought of MiniMarbles and the summer I was missing with him. Despite my noble, pigheaded instincts, if there was just a 1% chance of me going home that day I had to take it. I let the screw stroll me to the van.
No more compromises, though, I thought. I’d not spend the day throwing myself on the court’s mercy. The prison offered to let me change into my own clothes. I declined. That’ll show ‘em, I thought, my sleep-deprived brain quickly rationalising my spiteful nose-chopping. I would not dignify a process that did not dignify me. Or something. So they took me to court in my prison sweats.
As I was handed over to SERCO, my reign of half-arsed defiance continued.
“Take your shoes off.” Barked the guard in a needlessly confrontational manner. After all, we’d only just met.
“Take your shoes off… please.” I suggested. The guard looked understandably confused.
“I don’t have to say please to you.” He stated accurately.
“But you can.” I replied, matching his accuracy. “There’s no reason we can’t be civil.”
“Take your shoes off.” He growled again, getting all up, as they say, in my grill.
“No.” I replied, because I am four years old.
A torturous and surprisingly lengthy exchange then followed wherein we argued the comparative merits of my captors either asking me politely to take off my shoes, or doing the job themselves. They eventually plumped for the latter option.
“Chuck him in solitary.” Spat my former debating partner as he dropped the shoes back at my feet. I secretly beamed. Solitary meant I’d actually get a chance to write and think and maybe even grab a little sleep. Sleep, I dimly realised, was something I probably needed, as I appeared to be starting pointless arguments with petty dictators over the square root of fuck all.
I sat in solitary and thought about my predicament. I realised that, along with my appeal would come a lawyer, with whom would come news of the outside and through whom I could talk to the people I loved. I spent the next hour hastily scribbling messages to my family, my friends and my girlfriend, trying to cram four days of homesickness into a few paragraphs of prose. By the time my barrister arrived I’d almost forgotten there was going to be an appeal.
As usual when interacting with lawyers I tried to give as much thought and gravitas as possible to decisions which, most of the time, might as well be fucking guesswork. As wonderful as my particular briefs are, they are legally bound not to tell me what to do. At times it’s rather like having a surgeon ask you where to make the incision, and can lead to me saying some fucking stupid things. Like “guilty”.
In this case the rub of the matter was that the presiding judge could allow our appeal, refuse it, or, in fact, lengthen my sentence. This obviously raised the stakes somewhat, but I was told such an outcome was “very unlikely”. I recalled the same two words being used about prison, but I took the gamble anyway.
I’ll say this for our legal system: it’s more entertaining than daytime TV. Watching the judge squirm through my appeal was enormous fun, and I even got to steal a glimpse or three of my gorgeous girlfriend through the Perspex of the perp box. To be fair to his honour, he was caught between a rock and a hard place: no honest reading of the sentencing guidelines could place me in prison, but he’d be persona non grata on the dinner party circuit if he just let me go. It was quite a bind the poor sod was in.
In justifying the injustice of my continued incarceration, the bewigged one made some rather eyebrow raising pronouncements. First of all, his honour suggested my crime had overtones of contempt of court. It wasn’t a court, he hastily added, but it, sort of was, as well, a bit. Though also, it wasn’t, obviously.
Of course, if it had been a court Murdoch and Son had been sat in, I wouldn’t have made such a tit of myself at all. Indeed, had the bastardly duo been addressing any body with real power, then I’d never have undertaken my slapstick crusade. For me, the fact a pie in the face could deliver more justice than the select committee was the biggest joke of all.
Finally, the judge said, I must remain in prison as “a deterrent”. Perhaps this was to prevent a wave of copycat pieings of octogenarian billionaires at parliamentary show-trials, or perhaps to teach the public that, no matter what the letter of the law says, if you humiliate powerful people then you will be punished. The words of my cell mate, Splinter, occurred to me again: “If someone comes at you, you gotta come back at them hard, to show you ain’t no dickhead.” Splinter would have made a fine judge.
Though the crown was, on this occasion, no dickhead, his honour did make a nod to the evident ludicrousness of my incarceration. While, naturally, he was unmoved by the arguments of the defence, the magistrate in my case should have taken into account my guilty plea (she claimed she had done) and so my robed benefactor would be taking a week off my sentence. Abracadabra – nobody did anything wrong but, somehow, mistakes were made. The legal system saves face whilst pulling a slightly less silly one and I’m left with just ten days of free room and board. I make no effort to hide my new grin and practically skip back to custody.
I’m led back into the van, a week lighter and feeling pretty great. I steal a newspaper from my custody cell and smuggle it into the van with me. Perhaps it’s sleep deprivation or conjugal withdrawal, or perhaps it’s just elation, but as we roll through London I start to feel feral, already free, untamable. My name comes over the Kiss FM news and the other isolated cons and I trade wolf howls from our tiny cells inside the van.
Back at Wandsworth the SERCO screws wander off, leaving us alone in the sweltering van for almost an hour. We can’t see each other but the shouts of growing anger are audible throughout the vehicle. Before long one of my fellow captives has had enough and begins hurling himself against the door of his cell. The van rocks gently. I begin to do it too, timing my jolts to coincide with his, bouncing back and forth off the walls of my cell as the momentum grew. One after another the whole pack joined in, unseen but united, the van tilting precariously, decentralised networking at its finest. After that, the screws let us out pretty quickly.
Aren’t you that bloke who threw the pie?” asks a sharply dressed cockney as I make a pitiful attempt at a rolly. I nod.
“What’re you up on?” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“Multi-kilo cocaine conspiracy.” He replies. “Got a spare snout?”
I’ve been warned against the cardinal sin of generosity inside, but I’m in an obnoxiously good mood so I oblige anyway.
“Don’t make a habbit of it, though.” I warn “Cos I’m the hardest cunt in here and I’ll fucking have you.” My new friend grins as he sparks up.
Strolling back to my cell I’m informed from various quarters that I’ve been on telly again. Some of the lags come up and pat me on the back or call me a variety of lucky expletives, but at my cell there is someone less keen to congratulate me.
Allright Splinter? How are you?” I ask jovially through the door.
“How the fuck am I? You’re going home next week!” A traitor part of me wants to point out the fact that I didn’t rob a bank, but that’s hardly the point. This place isn’t good for anybody and Splinter has as much right to feel pissed off about staying here as I do to feel good about leaving seven days sooner.
So ends day 4.


What happened to Jonnie next? Find out in our next thrilling installment.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

47 hours in a locked room

I'm tired and I need a pillow.

Yesterday my captors moved me upstairs to a cell with a spotlessly pillow-free bunk for me to sleep on. Despite Splinter's spirited efforts to get the boys with the keys to rectify this, along with my own, meeker entreaties, I'm still without a cushion for my head. This is not the only reason I'm tired.

As anyone whose ever really tried it knows, doing nothing is exhausting. The mind and metabolism grind to a halt and even staring into space feels like an effort. We're supposed to be let out of this little room for about half the waking day - 6 hours worth if the posters dotted on the landings are to be believed - but in practice what we get is about an hour, split into two chunks. Today we didn't even get that.

Our first daily dose of diet freedom, the exercise yard, was rained off. There was no big announcement, no wet play, it just didn't happen. Then the clock rolled round to rec time, (or "S&Ds" as it's apparently called) and it kept on rolling. After a while the reason became clear - the weekly canteen delivery (the snout, supernoodles and sundries prisoners buy with their own money) was making the rounds, and it got scheduled for the same time as S&Ds. So S&Ds got cancelled.

It's hard to know whether such a mistake comes from callousness or incompetence. Both events are regular, predictable, part of the vital clockwork of the prison. Both are important. But somehow the institution couldn't schedule them for slightly different times. Even moving things round by half an hour would have made all the difference, to us anyway. I guess it doesn't seem quite so important from the other side of the door.

One of the first things I realised in here was that when you've got next to nothing, what you still have means the world. The bright side of this is that a friendly conversation or an unexpected cup of tea brings more joy than I ever remember getting from the games and gadgets that occupy me on the outside. The dark side is that, when even the little you've been told to hope for is taken away, it's devastating.

Part of me feels ridiculous, whining about being locked away in here. This is, after all, a prison, and missing out on 30 minutes respite sounds like small beans, but when you're in here, it means a lot. Not being let out means we can't shower, we can't call home, we can't apply for visits or doctors appointments or jobs. It means we can't talk to each other or take a walk or just get a little space. It means we'll spend nearly two full days in a locked room, smoking and sweating and bickering with each other, staring at the walls or, worse, the TV, wondering if the next break will come round or if some further fuck-up will cancel that, too. Most of all, it means the glum exhaustion of doing nothing.

It's 10 PM now and a guard just came round to check we hadn't somehow escaped through the 40 foot tunnel I've been secretly building. I managed to get his attention before he breezed past.

"Can I get a pillow please, guv?" I shouted at him through the slit.

"Office is closed." he barked back dismissively. "You should 'ave asked during S&Ds".

So ends day 3.


You can read about day 4 here.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

So, prison is scary, right?

As I got back from my medical this morning E Wing was on lock down. From floor 4 I could hear shouting and screaming, the banging of prison doors. It was a right kerfuffle. “You're fucking dead, mate” shouts one prisoner, which is a pretty unfriendly thing to say to your mate. Floor 4. The floor I was about to be moved to.

The exercise yard is tense. I feel exposed walking laps on my own until a guy I recognised calls me over and I take a seat with his crew. They talk gangster shit I half understand interspersed with a quiz regarding my own illegal antics.

“So, why'd you do that, Blood?” asks Ruxspin. I give him the long answer: Beyond hacking dead girls phones, Murdoch supports despots in both dictatorships and democracies and has poisoned the public discourse with racism, class war and ever shriller cries for harsh and punitive “justice”. The short answer is simply that he's a cunt.

“You shoulda thrown a grenade, mate” suggests Ruxspin. While I might not agree with Ruxspin's tactics you can't fault the boy's spirit. Particularly not to his face.

I get back to my cell and am told I'm moving in an hour. I pack my things, say goodbye to Mr. Magoo and steel myself. I've already gotten the knack of moving round the prison, avoiding eye contact, spotting the nutters with my peripheral vision and keeping a wide berth. It's not too hard - after all, I was raised on the mean streets of Windsor. These tricks only work on the wings, though. It's a different story in a 6x8 cell.

“You taking the piss, guv?” opines Splinter, my new bunk buddy. He is the very man many of my haters wished on me after my light hearted prank/vicious assault on our democracy: a big black bloke from Brixton who likes neither me nor my proximity to him. Maybe we could both take it up with the Judge?

“I'm Jonnie” I offer, hand extended. No response. After a few silent minutes I try “I sense you'd prefer to be on your own?” I'm curtly informed that Splinter does not actually give a fuck.
Splinter gruffly orders me to make my bunk up, which I do. “Nah, make it up proper, I don't want you fucking about later when I'm trying to sleep or watch telly”. By way of apology I tell him that I'm new at this. “What do you mean you're new at this?” I explain it's my first day in prison, like, ever.

“Why, what you in for?” he asks

“Well...”

20 minutes of laughter and gossiping down the wings later and the mood has lightened considerably. Splinter gives me some hard won prison advice. He's been in and out of the system for 30 years.

“If someone comes at you in here you gotta come back at them hard. You've gotta smack them up” I tell him that I value his counsel, but suspect that I might not be the hardest bloke in Wandsworth.

“That's what I'm saying, bruv, people are going to come at you and you gotta show that you ain't no dickhead.”

We break for rec. time and showers. I drop the soap, slip over and hurt my arse. Write your own joke for this, you lazy pricks.

During rec. time I also fail to get a phone call. Some bureaucratic fuck-up is still working its way through the system and the guards are unsympathetic to my plight. I've yet to speak to anyone in the outside world.

I get angry for the first time and kick the walls of my cell impotently. My problems, of course, are neither remarkable nor surprising. Wandsworth houses over 1600 inmates and, like everything else, is spluttering under the cuts. That means fuck-ups, and a penal system that does not keep to its already deliberately low standards. The daily frustrations must take their toll after a while. It's no surprise people kick off.

At this point 4 huge blokes block the doorway to my cell, peering round expectantly as another slips through and squares up to me. He looks, well, hard.

“You Jonnie?” he quizzes me. It seems silly to argue.

“Yeah? Well Murdoch sent me”

I scan his face for a hint of a smile but I find none, a look I'm all too familiar with from the stand-up circuit. Who is this guy? A Wendi Deng fan?

“Murdoch sent you?” I reply, remembering Splinters words and trying to hide my fear.

“Yeah, he's my uncle” he says. We both break into grins and the familiar dance of how, why and hellos plays out. I give him the short answer first, then the long one. Five minutes later Beebop, my newest lag friend, is getting me to sign his copy of The Sun. He says he is going to sell it on e-bay. Maybe I'll buy it.

So, prison is scary, right? Yes and no. Yes, there are men of violence here, and others who have simply coped with the system's bullshit for far too long. So far, though, the philosophy that brought me here has served me well. Everyone is human and none above another, whether they're a billionaire or doing bird.

As I write this Splinter is passing the time by watching Top Gear - a reminder, if one was needed, that there are far worse people than the ones you find in jail.


You can read about day 3 by pointing your cursor here and pressing click.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Day 1 - Going Down

Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I remember the blood rushing through my ears and the sick cramp in my stomach as the judge passed her sentence. My probation officer, my lawyer and the law of the land all agreed that I should not go to jail. Rupert Murdoch had dropped the charges. But this woman, alone and unaccountable, was having none of it. There were rules, she said, but she, like I, was willing to break them to make a political point. I got 6 weeks.

My girlfriend was in tears and I was in shock as I was led into custody. The man who took me down worked for SERCO, a private contractor, the same one currently bidding to run the probation service. My own probation officer was hard working and overworked, dedicated, caring, fastidious and fair. I dread to think of the plight of future defendants if his job is taken by the lazy gang of plastic pigs who clumsily processed me.

The one exception was Amy, SERCO's sole female guard. She came and asked if I was OK and I burst into tears. As she comforted me I told her about my son and the summer I would miss with him.

Minimarbles, if you are reading this, whenever that is, I am deeply sorry from the depths of my heart. I love you and miss you. Not seeing you is my real punishment here; the only one I care about, anyway.

My first contact with another prisoner, in the dungeon beneath Westminster Magistrates Court was a trifle unsettling. As the plastic SERCO pig opened the door to my new, temporary digs the man inside (we shall call him Dangermouse, because that is not his name) leapt to his feet. He wasn't supposed to be put in with anyone else, he protested. There had been problems. Violence. The look of fear in his eyes matched the one growing in my heart, but the SERCO screw locked the door on us anyway.

The mood soon changed once I introduced myself to Dangermouse and we got talking. I was relieved to hear that we would soon be furnished with dinner and tobacco. Dangermouse and I traded prison tips for protest anecdotes till the time came for my appeal.

To nobody's great surprise the same power-drunk petty dictator who had sentenced me also refused my bail application. She did not give her reasons. It must be excruciating to live a life where everything you do is so utterly predictable.

An hour later and we're rolling through the gates of Wandsworth Prison. Its 40 foot walls are iced with barbed wire and spikes, which I reckon is gilding the lilly, to be honest. Who has a 40 foot ladder?

I'd been advised by Dangermouse not to say what I'd done, just that I was in for assault. This plan went up like a lit fart the moment I stepped into E-Wing. “Oi, Pie man!” shouted one of my fellow lags. A few cons camme over to alternately shake my hand and take the piss. We had some of what I believe is known colloquially as “banter”, something I have not enjoyed since university. It is not like riding a bike.

I was introduced to an “insider”- a prisoner whose job it is to show n00bs like me the ropes. I'm told I'll be on E wing for a week before being moved. “Go to A wing if you want a quiet life” says a man who was not called Donatello “Go to B or C if you like socialising. If they try to take you to D wing, protest. That's where they put all the drug addicts”.

I've already been advised to keep my tobacco in my sock and never leave it in my cell. “It's the main currency in here” confides Donatello “That and coffee”. Suddenly I wish I was better at giving stuff up.

My tobacco comes, along with a bag of sundries: 1 plastic plate, 1 plastic bowl, 1 plastic knife, fork and spoon, 1 plastic cup which I immediately lose, 1 tube of toothpaste, 1 toothbrush, 2 sachets of shampoo which state that they have not been tested on animals, 1 bar of soap which does not, 1 envelope, 1 pen, 1 sheet of HM prisons paper. The spartan functionality of my welcome pack immediately focuses the mind. I decide straight away that the item in shortest supply is paper. Donatello quickly finds me some, through some quasi-contraband process which I do not understand, but for which I am eternally grateful.

That night I watch Celebrity Juice with Mr. Magoo, a sickly Romanian man recovering from an operation who is my new cell mate. Celebrity Juice is easily the worst thing that has happened to me in jail so far.

As I lie on my bunk drifting to sleep I notice a 2Pac quote inked on the wall above my head.

“Please father, I'm a sinner
I'm living in hell
Just let me live on the street
cos there ain't no peace in jail.”

I hope this place won't be like that. Maybe 2Pac was a wimp.


You can read about what happened on Day 2 here