CREATIVE Jeremy HughesNWR Issue 105
Stephen King’s story ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ on which Frank Darabont’s film is based, opens with the Morgan Freeman character Red declaring that there’s a man like him in every prison in America. It was true, too, of my comprehensive school, where there was a boy who could get you anything, or, more precisely, whatever he could shoplift in town at the weekend. Jeans? Wranglers, Levis, Brutus… what size? A badminton racket, you say? Which one, exactly?
When he was first pointed out to me I thought, But he doesn’t look like a shoplifter
. Perhaps that’s why he was successful, and as far as I know, he never ended up in prison. I did.
I had to do a placement in industry, commerce or community as part of my postgraduate teacher training. Someone dropped out of the placement at HMP Cardiff, so, thinking that it would be the only opportunity of ever seeing inside, I put my name forward. It was at the end of the course, and because I made a sensible impression, or they were desperate, they contacted me when they were short staffed and I counted myself through the seven gates to the education department every day for a year.
I started work 150 years after the place opened its gates and the inmates were still slopping out, that is, emptying their potties into a sluice each morning. Some of the men were three to a cell. Men are used to urinating in front of each other but not opening their bowels on a potty. It was a case of getting on with it, not thinking about it. Blocking it out. Occasionally an inmate would turn up to class ‘blocked’, the term for being drugged to such a degree that they could barely function. The drugs would have been smuggled through from visiting time or they might have been prescribed medication. It shut out the grinding and unchanging view of a room with bars on the window and the stretch ahead. Some feigned illness so that they’d be prescribed Valium or similar, the effects of which were significantly enhanced if they didn’t actually need them. At the end of my time, the programme to install toilets in each cell was just about to begin, and the new building would follow shortly afterwards. If it weren’t for its colour – grey – and its proximity to the original building, it would look more like a budget hotel on a motorway junction.
You can park your car in a multi-storey opposite and look over the wall and razor-wire-topped fence into the prison’s surroundings. There are several buildings which overlook it, from which people at their work can look down. Occasionally they’ll see a prison officer coming and going, or prison vans ferrying inmates to and from court appearances or other prisons. With the expansion of higher education, there’s a building on the Adam Street side of the prison called Student Castle. It advertises itself as being ‘well located, minutes’ walk from University of Glamorgan’s Atrium (Cardiff School of Creative & Cultural Industries), C
ardiff University and Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama’. It goes on:
A choice of new studios and mix of 3-6 bed cluster apartments, all completely self-contained with excellent study, storage and chilling space
Ultra-fast new generation broadband 30mbps FREE + 8mbps free WiFi
Personal Contents insurance included in the rent
All inclusive rents (electricity, water, broadband)
Brand new on-site laundry
24 hour security and on site management
A fantastic student social atmosphere in common room complete with all the latest technology/SKY TV and free WiFi.
All this for £107 per week, while it costs that much per day to house a prisoner across the road, the proximity of which isn’t mentioned and enjoying some, but not all, of the benefits above. I enjoy the irony that some of those inmates are in for drug dealing, no doubt to students who might be ‘chilling’ just a puff away. It must occur to them, too, but no doubt they ‘block’ it.
On the first day of my placement I stood at central control. The place was brilliantly and Victorianly solid, the heavy metallic slam of the gates, the swing of the keys on the officers’ chains, the floors, the walls, the faraway ceiling. It was more
than the TV. The inmates were moving, all of them looking down on me from their various landings. I was someone out of the ordinary. I was something
out of the ordinary. No one is missed. Nothing
One of the most important lessons I learned occurred at an evening class that first week. These classes consisted of a different group of inmates from those who elected for education in the day, and I was encouraged to attend for this reason. I worked one-to-one with a man who wanted help to write a letter for a friend who was in trouble. I was glad to. He wanted to know what to leave in, what to leave out. He worked hard at explaining himself. He really needed to help his pal so it was important to get it just right.
The next day one of the prison officers who’d been on duty the night before said, ‘You know that letter was for him, don’t you?’
From then on, I was much more circumspect. There was a temptation not to believe anything I was told but that would have been awful, so I took it on the chin and tuned my shit-detector more finely.
During that initial week I was also given a tour of the ‘industry’, kitchens, gym, Rule 43s (those segregated for their own safety and the security of the prison, such as sex offenders, grasses and ex-police officers) and the hospital wing. Industry was stripping copper from thick electrical cable. The inmates stood at a bench with a Stanley knife. One stood behind the officer in charge and mimed throat cutting and slashing, all the while pulling demented faces. I see that man on the streets of my home town now, often with a can of beer in hand or scanning the ground for dog-ends. The other man I see from those days had been a diffident seventeen year old Young Offender. I bumped into him shortly after his release and we chatted in the street. He was pleased to be out, he was being a good boy. Now I see him with a younger woman who walks like an automaton beside him just to keep up, and they have a Rotweiller. He doesn’t remember me. Recently I passed him outside a pub and let my gaze rest too long.
‘What the fuck you looking at?’
I walked on.
I have considered stopping and telling him about those days twenty years ago when he was just a quiet boy looking forward to getting out and not going back in. But the opportunity hasn’t arisen.
I spent most of my time with the Young Offenders, who demonstrated most closely what is often portrayed as typical prison life in TV drama: violence, bullying and daddies. There was a food chain, a pecking order, whereas the adult population was more relaxed and the men didn’t feel the need to prove themselves. The Young Offenders were still growing up, going through formative experiences, battling with themselves as much as the environment.
Let out of their cells to attend class, the first moments could be charged with what had been pent up. One such time, a scrawny sixteen year old was greeted with, ‘You fucking liar!’
The scrawny boy visibly recoils. ‘What?’
‘You haven’t got a kid.’ The scrawny boy reddens. ‘You haven’t even got a Missiz!’ The boy is shrinking. ‘I talked to someone knows you. You tosser!’
Status was important and some of the boys needed to invent themselves in order to gain a position. They might gain this by a reputation for being hard or for having carried out daring criminal acts, or for being allied with a particular group or person. Weakness of any kind was immediately exploited:
‘Hey, pal, what you got on your feet?’
The boy looks down. ‘Trainers.’
‘I can fucking see that, but what
‘Trainers,’ he repeats.
‘Where’d you get them from?’
‘Woolies, I think.’
‘Woolies! Fucking Woolies
! That’s what Mickey fucking Mouse wears!’
Laughter all round.
‘You want proper trainers,’ he says, plonking his on the table and reeling off the names of the manufacturers regarded as acceptable.
Such events layered the population and labelled the individual for as long as they were part of it.
Another morning, the class had already started, when the door opened and a prison officer came in. ‘One more for you.’
A small, angel-faced boy who looked about twelve appeared from behind him, and the prison officer closed the door. There was a palpable silence before the other boys reacted.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
‘Shouldn’t you be in nappies?’
The boy was completely unfazed. He was fifteen, in fact, and in for grievous bodily harm, having broken a boy’s arm with a skateboard. His uncle was in the main prison. He had come of age. Yet to anyone who was meeting him for the first time, he was a little, little boy.
The others in the room that day were aged fifteen to twenty-one and represented the spectrum of offences from thieving to murder, and they were all settled into the prison regime, including a boy I had met the morning after his first night inside. I had been asked to give him a test to establish his approximate reading age. A boy from the Valleys, who, when I asked him about his home, burst into tears and said, ‘I want my mam!’ My natural response was to put my arm around his shoulder and reassure him as he sobbed into his arms on the desk, but I retracted my arm when I became conscious of what I was doing. I wonder what I would do now. A few weeks later and it was as if it had never happened. He had acquired the varnish of the regime, the slop-outs, the lights out, the do this
and do that
, the interminable boredom of self-examination in a tiny cell with a stranger or two, the Judas flap’s slap, the high barred windows and the gulls and pigeons and sky framed like something unreachable.
At the end of a lesson the boys would be returned to their cells, but on one particular occasion, they really didn’t want to go. I turned up ready to teach an adult class but a colleague was sick and could I possibly take the Young Offenders instead? Otherwise they would have to stay in their cells. As I had nothing prepared for them, another colleague said she had a documentary video I could show them. Of course.
I have no memory of the documentary, only of what happened at the end. I stayed in the room – two cells knocked into one – until the colleague came from the room opposite to collect me. At that moment the documentary came to an end. She stood behind the TV as the documentary credits rolled then snow-screened into what had been taped over: porn. So the Young Offenders were now transfixed by a couple getting it on in silence with the female colleague behind the TV unaware that their attention spans had just been flicked decisively on again.
‘Time to go!’ I say, to shouts along the lines of… you must be joking.
The colleague chipped in with something about it being time for lunch, to stretch legs, and the boys kicked back their chairs and cursed. I hit the rewind button, boxed the tape and returned it to my colleague with a smile.
Lessons were rarely interrupted so when there was a commotion outside the door I went to the Judas hole. A black boy was brandishing what was left of a pool cue, splintered and sharp, and a few other boys had scattered, injured. A prison officer appeared and drew his baton. They faced off waiting for the other to make a move. The officer ordered the boy to drop his weapon as they continued to dance like bees, their respective batons raised and shaking. The boys in the classroom forced me up against the door as they crowded the Judas hole to see. The dance went on until the boy stood to attention and dropped his weapon as half a dozen prison officers came through the landing door and rushed him.
Even this boy’s actions might have been a cry for help, for that took many forms. The prison chaplains always had someone to talk to, and it wasn’t necessarily because the inmate was religious or spiritual, but because someone was giving him time, listening. I heard a chaplain say that one of the inmates expressed a wish to be like him because he wanted the peace he saw in him.
I don’t know how often inmates went into the prison chapel. The only time I
did was to see a theatrical performance. Toyah Wilcox performed a two-hander about Janis Joplin. I remembered her as the spikey and dangerous Bessie Watty in George Cukor’s version of The Corn is Green
, alongside Katharine Hepburn. For the short period of the performance, Wilcox was
Joplin and it remains one of my memorable theatrical experiences. Not known for being a shrinking violet, Joplin’s life unravelled before the Young Offenders whose lives had also unravelled to a greater or lesser degree. Some of the inmates cheered when Joplin cursed and chugged on a bottle. The chaplain walked out.
The problems within the Young Offenders’ population were not replicated within the adult world. There was far less point-scoring in classroom talk. I helped out in an art lesson, each inmate working on his own little project when one of them announced, ‘I need a hand to draw.’ He was sitting at the bench looking at his left hand and trying to draw it with his right.
Then there was a crash and shout, ‘Draw that fucker!’ as a prosthetic arm landed on the bench in front of him. ‘I don’t need it.’ The men fell about. I hadn’t even noticed the false arm. ‘Lost it fucking about on a motorbike,’ he said.
And, for want of a better word, the men were generally more forgiving.
This became evident when Y arrived. He was 6’8” and as slim as a pole. He didn’t need protection but care. Within moments of meeting him you knew he was different. There was a particular otherness to him. He was gentle and, when he first appeared, lost. It was his first time inside but the judge had said that he had no other choice than to send him down. He got into trouble accidentally.
A ‘friend’ had asked him to help him out. He stood outside the post office and was to shout if he saw anyone coming, while the friend held up the place. When the police arrived Y was still standing outside as he was instructed but the friend was long gone. He didn’t even understand that he was supposed to have run too. He was akin to Steinbeck’s Lenny.
And he wouldn’t hurt anyone. He would do anything to please. On his first night inside, the inmate with whom he was two-ed (sharing the cell) smoked all his tobacco, what was meant to last a week. It was a good illustration of the differences between them. One would give, one would take.
He was illiterate, too, and not just a poor reader. Y didn’t even know the alphabet. I wondered how this could be at the end of the twentieth century. ‘I was all right,’ Y said, ‘until I was about fifteen. I fell down the stairs and banged my head and something happened to it.’
Another inmate from Y’s village said, ‘That’s Y. Everyone knows Y. Good as gold. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. What the fuck’s he doing here? Criminal that is.’
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