Wednesday 4 June 2008

Learning to Survive and Win- Winson Green Part One

I used to support firm law and order policies.
I used to think prison worked.

Until I went there.

75% of people who go to prison re-offend.

Why? Because prison broke them.

It's a sad fact of life that people think all prisoners have it easy. They've seen and heard too many descriptions of Category D prisons, where minimum risk prisoners, (usually driving offences and the like), plus long term prisoners coming to the end of their time are sent.

A fraction of the prison population.

Well, I spent just over a year in a Category B establishment, HMP Birmingham (generally known as Winson Green, or simply, 'The Green')

One of Britain's most overcrowded gaols and home to 1,400 inmates.
Two to a cell. Eating, sleeping, and going to the toilet in a six feet by ten feet room.
And there's no screen around the toilet.

But hey, at least there ARE toilets now.

I think by the time I went through Reception, I had pretty much come round to the idea 'Look, you're going to be here anyway, so try make the best of it'

The screw at the desk asked me if I was depressed and needed to talk to someone. I said no. He replied 'You've never been to prison before, you just got four years and you're OK with that?'
'Yes'. Not much I can do really, is there?'

And he looked at me and shrugged. But he could see I meant it. Most first time sentence prisoners get a pink card put outside their cell, to indicate they need regular watching (they are a suicide risk). I was spared that.

Don't get me wrong. It's a shock. You strip, you shower, you kiss goodbye to your clothes and walk forward in a claret prison T-shirt and prison jeans. You're even wearing prison boxer shorts, prison socks and prison shoes.
You are a number.

You spend a night or so on induction wing (where everyone points up at the cell Fred West 'committed suicide' in. Nobody in The Green believes this version of events. General consensus, is he had help, and maybe that he didn't strictly speaking ask for this help. There have been some strange deaths at The Green, over the years).

Actually getting on the wing, well, your nerves are up then. It is very much like Porridge, in appearance, or at least A wing is, which is where I was. And some idiot has painted the walls in maroon and yellow. In a prison. The two colours any psychologist knows can trigger depression, and the wing is painted in them. Go figure.

Your first priority is to get into things. When that cell door opens and the screw says 'Association, lads', just go out, get in the throng. Don't forget, whilst many prisoners are pretty socially inadequate, and many are actually just ordinary people who made a stupid mistake, there are some nasty people in there. And you can't show fear.
So, sling your towel over your shoulder, and head for the showers.
Then come back and introduce yourself to people stood by the pool table.

You soon pick up the gaol slang. It's a funny lingo, a bit like army slang, and it exists because prison has always been a segregated population, there are always prisoners passing it on. Much of it IS in fact army slang. Prisons are full of ex-soldiers, and their contribution to prison slang has been substantial.

Cells are pads. Tobacco is burn. Prison officers are screws, or Germans. A cellsearch is a spin. Dessert is duff. Sex offenders are Nonces or wrong uns. People liable to be bullied are fraggles.

Now, you have to remember, I'm a pretty tiny person. Not only that, I've always had a boyish face. And very feminine hands. And of course, I had really played up to that over the years. During my time at the bank, I had developed a habit of pretty much mincing down the aisle between the booths to my desk 'Crushed's catwalk'. I had always affected a lot of camp mannerisms. And now of course, I do so again. But I really had to drop them in there.

The closest it ever came to a proposition was when I was standing looking down over a balcony smoking and an old Irishman who had been in for about five years came over and said 'You have lovely hands. I'm thinking what they'd look like wrapped round my dick'.
I was a bit unnerved, and I can't actually remember how I handled that, but either way, it worked. He didn't mention it again. In fact, we got on OK, after that.

One risky thing (I guess you could say) that I did, was keep my artifacts. Prison rules say you can keep objects of 'personal significance'. So I kept my watch (Quite an expensive one), my crucifix, and my Claddagh ring. It was something I was determined to prove to myself; I'd walk out wearing them all.

I'm looking down at all three of them now.
The watch, especially, has acquired a tale of it's own. People often look and say 'I've just noticed- is that a paperclip holding the strap together?'

Yes, is the answer. The clasp sprung open whilst I was doing some filing in the Education department. I couldn't find the clasp, and it wasn't as if I could just pop over to the jewellers to fix it. So I broke a paper clip in two and fixed it myself.

Yes, I've been out a long time now. But I still won't get a new clasp. That paper clip is a reminder to me- you went through a year in The Green and kept a sixty quid watch on your arm.

Sometimes, when people know me really well, I tell them THE story. As far as I am concerned, it's the story that matters.
It's the story where in one split second, you found out who you were. You didn't know who you were up till then. And had you been a different person, you would have gone to the wall. Gaol would have broken you, as it breaks more than half of those who pass through.

I always see this as being the moment in my life I was truly tested, and I won. And because of that, my sentence was- well, as easy it ever really could have been. That doesn't mean it was easy, just that really, I had it lucky. I managed to find a way through and kind of win. And it started here.

Fourth day maybe?
I'm sitting in my cell, it's association. I'm drying my hair. Two lads come in. One was an evil dude, you could see it in his eyes. You know that look that's both shifty AND a bit psychopathic? that was him. And about six foot tall, well built.

And he had another lad with him. 'Got any burn, mate?'
'Enough to spare you one between you' I said.
They weren't happy.
'No, you got more than that'

I replied again in the negative.

Then, at lightening speed the shifty psycho whipped my tobacco out of my pocket and made for the door.

Did I think about what I did next?
No. But my subconscious instincts must have done. They must have thought 'Risk a good kicking now, or go under'

I whacked the cell door shut and said 'I don't think so, mate.'

His eyes went wild. He flung me down on the bed. 'Calm down! Jesus ! We was only messing with you! Here, have your burn!'

He flung it at me, tutted and the pair walked out.

I was shaking. Messing? No. That wasn't messing. Had I done nothing, that would have been the shape of things to come. But no one really wants to fight, unless they have to. Yes, they would have put me on the hospital wing. But not worth the risk to them.

I'd passed.

And never, ever, again, in two long years, was I ever threatened with violence.

Slowly, you get into a routine. Things become habit forming. You get your canteen on a Monday (basically you get a form on a Thursday and you tick the items you want to purchase out of the fourteen odd pounds prison wages you earn every week. Most of it goes on tobacco, at least initially. But after that, if you're smart, you become quite enterprising. I'll save my prison enterprises for the next part.

Once you have got a steady income coming in, you can afford to treat yourself. I always bought two cigars a week- one to smoke during CSI on a Tuesday, one for CSI Miami on a Saturday. Otherwise, to be honest, I learned to LOATHE television. The fact is, most cellmates prefer it on all the time and will watch any old crap at high volumes. Frankly, this wasn't how I chose to pass my leisure time. I made a makeshift backgammon board until I managed to acquire one of my own and generally tried to teach most of my cellmates how to play. Some became very good. When I managed to get a Monopoly board, well, negotiating a full TV switch off, got even easier.
Nowadays, I hardly watch TV, for the simple reason I've had enough TV to last a lifetime. I have two, and I tend to have one on most of the time, but in the other room. I only probably ACTUALLY watch about four hours a week- not including football, of course.

Food. You buy a fair bit of snack food. Certainly in The Green, you have very little choice. With rules like 'One Sausage per person' and a serving of beans which barely covers the compartment in your metal tray, and the the certainty that you'll get less sympathy than Oliver Twist did (and the annoyance at watching screws help themselves to three or four sausages, knowing their wives will feed them at home), you stock up on, well, junk food. Jalapenos, Yorkie bars, etc.

Trust me, you soon develop the complexion of Gollum. After all, you only see daylight on the way to and from work, or on the way to a visit. I think I felt rain twice in a whole year.

It took a while to find my feet, certainly. The first three months were hard. For a start off, although I had opted to go on Education, with the intention of getting an Open University degree in Philosophy, I discovered the prison service wouldn't fund it if you already had a BA. Which I do, of course.

After about three months, I was getting used to it. Visits had already become strange. These people sitting there talking to you, they bring you a coffee and a packet of Quavers- the only Quavers you ever get to see, and talk about all these things that no longer mean anything to you. It might as well be China they are talking about. It's a world that has no connection to yours. You live on a wing which smells of urine, you have to go to the toilet in front of another bloke, you eat in the same room, the night is a chorus of catcalls 'Yo, yo, yo, you listening?'

And you smile, pretending it's good to hear all this news, but what you're really thinking is 'Fill me in on all this in a couple of years. It means nothing to me now.'
And you're faintly relieved to say goodbye and get back to the wing. It's your home now, after all. That visit was stressful. Because all it did was remind you that there is actually a world outside the walls. A world you can't see from your window. All you can see, is the remand wing.

Sex. I suppose that's what you all want to know. How do you cope without that? Surprisingly, is the answer. After a while, it isn't sex you miss. You stop thinking about that quite quickly- because you have to. You're just NOT getting it, so you might as well not think about it. Same with beer, MacDonalds. And a lot of other things. Sure, you start to develop the odd crush on the female screws (I had one on a slightly chubby Asian screw called Ms Johal..), but you put it that back of your mind. You often think 'They MUST know they fuel the sexual desires of most of us sex starved males- and we're all gagging for it. MUST give them a power trip'

But perhaps that also explains why the female screws were generally more human. They got their power trips from being lusted after. The males, well, to be fair there were many pretty decent guys. But a few army or police failures eager to exert their bitterness on people who couldn't fight back.
More on that in the next post.

Intimacy. THAT'S what you miss. THAT never goes away. A cuddle, a kiss. Holding someone close, who cares.

I think after three months though, I'd started to pick up something positive.

I knew I was going to survive. And I remember once standing out on the landing and turning to say to someone who'd become as much a friend as you can call anyone in there 'In a way, it does say a lot about people. The will to survive. It's very strong. People ARE strong, when pushed to their limits'

Because they are. If ever there was a life that should be guaranteed to cause nervous breakdowns, suicides and God knows what else, it's prison. And it does happen, but not quite as much as your initial logic thinks it will. I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown in there, before I went in. I didn't.

And the nastiness and the violence. Yes, there's lots of it. It's a powder keg of male frustration. And Nonces, if caught out trying to blend in with the general population (They have a wing of their own, but some, on admission, refuse to go on it and pretend to be in for something else), will receive a special, ancient punishment. Sugar dissolved in boiling water, flung from the kettle into their face. So it will scar for life.

And people are slashed with razor blades on an almost daily basis. I often remarked, during association 'As we sit here playing backgammon, someone in this prison, is being hospitalised.'
Because it would be true.

And yet...
MOST people are decent. These are the scum of the earth, apparently, but most behave with humanity and decency to eachother. There's a sense that keep to the rules and we're all in this together. People boost eachother's morale. People DO look out for eachother. You really can get by, and make a survival strategy of just having a brain in your head, and being likeable.

Hey, it worked for me.

In many ways, prison gives the lie to Lord of the Flies. Put people in the worst possible environment you can stick them in, and most of them, ain't so bad, whatever society might judge them as.

Humanity. Take everything away from them, give them numbers, treat them like shit, feed them on grease and lard and the odd sausage, take away their dignity, take away any rights they have, and still, deep inside them, they strive. Not to win, but to be human.
To still be able to show compassion, caring, friendship- even perhaps, a certain brotherly love, in the face of overwhelming brutality and menace.

And here, here, in Winson Green, I first started to ask.

What the f**k is wrong with our society?

Because THIS, this carpet we brush all the problems of society under, if you held it up as a mirror to the hordes out there who shout 'Build more prisons', like the Roman plebeians demanded Panem et Circenses, they'd lower their heads in shame.

Why are we breaking so many people?

And is it necessary?

I'd started my journey. And I learned a lot.

And I don't regret any of it.


Anonymous said...

How enlightning Crushed. I know I would never make it like you did in gaol, I'd end up a fraggle I suspect. But until you're put in that situation, I guess you never know.
These are the most riveting posts I've read in some time. Again I have to say thanks for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would be able to cope with it all. It is amazing what we do cope with when the situation is out of our control. Interesting story Crushed.

Anonymous said...

Wow, another interesting post. I went out with a guy who had been in prison for a year or more for something 'naughty'...but he never wanted to talk about it.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post.
The picture of the watch is a good touch; the symbolism hits the spot :-)
I can picture that scene with the fags; can't imagine what I'd have done in your place... wow :-)
Most people will do anything to survive; I guess if I were in prison, would have figured out ways too.

> And you smile, pretending it's good to hear all this news, but what you're really thinking is 'Fill me in on all this in a couple of years. It means nothing to me now.'
Yes! I get that feeling on the phone with my mom sometimes, and even with others, when I share my concerns, and they just go on about what they think is a related topic... but they don't listen. and even if they did, it'd be like your visitors, trying to talk to you - even if you told them, I guess they wouldn't understand, 'cos it's not their world... suffering has no place in their world..

Anonymous said...

A very candid view of your life in prison. Not a place I would ever like to be.

Anonymous said...

Superb post.

Anonymous said...

Fusion- You say that, but really, you'd be surprised.
I shocked myself, really. It really is amazing how you can't get through just by being a likeable person who can think a bit.

And it's partly why I won't accept lectures off anyone on my morals. Yeah, I went to gaol. You can't judge me on that- that in itelf WAS the judgement. Judge me on why I went there fine, but if you're the sort of person who think buying pills at three hundred for a hundred, selling 75 at 4 quid each and effectively getting 25 pills free (that's actually what I was doing) is morally reheprehensible, than frankly, I'm not interested in your moral judgement.

I judge myself on how I handled myself in there. And on that, I can honestly look anyone in the eye and say 'I know how I am. And I'm proud of it. Do YOU know who you are?'

Nunyaa- Your mind is always your own. They can never take that off you. Fortunately, with the aid of the prison library, my mind was always busy.

Kate- I don't mind talking about in RL, because I'm not ashamed of any of it.
There are some things OTHERS don't want to hear about. I think I mentioned in a post previously about an incident which creeped me out.

Eve- That's a sadder truth than you know.
Prison can be very Darwinian. I often used to stand on the landing and look round and make guessess on who I figured I'd be seeing in a care capacity at some point (more in that in the post I'm writing tonight. You can pretty much see who's going to go to the wall, and who won't. And its not about muscle. After all, I look like about as substantial as an Arthur Rackham fairy.

Well, most of it is just irrelevant. They're telling you about things people who haven't come to visit you, are doing. So- they're getting married. They COULD be divorced by the time YOU see them.

And a lot of things, as you say, they just don't get.

CherryPie- Yes, but thing is, once you've done it once, the fear goes. This is what's wrong with prison, not that it's used too little, it's used to much. Prison only works as a deterrent if you've never been. Once you've been through it, you know how it works, you've been hardened and you know you can do it. Most people are broken by it, but a certain proportion will always now secretly miss it. Seriously.

Do you know what? Even I did, for a while, in some ways. But that will come later.

Bill- Thanks! I;m actually hoping some of the later ones will actually be MORE insightful. This was still fairly much what people expect to hear.

Anonymous said...

An incredible and humbling post my friend. One I never thought I would see you write. You have so much insight to offer - I agree about prison .Other than for for clear and present danger people its useless.

Anonymous said...

This was so fascinating, and really telling.

Oddly enough, I just wrote a bit the other day (that I don't know if I'm going to post or not) about some very similar conclusions to what you discussed at the end... how, in my job working with criminals and occasionally in prison, I am so surprised at how, well, human so many of them are. Keep in mind, the people I see for work are usually in for a lot worse than drug possession and the like... but we always get taught that "they" are somehow different that us. It has been an odd experience to see how small than line really is, and how, well some people are utter scum, there are a lot of decent people who made one simple mistake that snowballed, or who have done pretty damn good considering where they came from. But, still, all we see is that convict label.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Crushed this has been a fascinating series. I will have to read them through again.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Pole and I've read your story.Sad, I would say.All that, what happened to you, is a bit funny for me(sorry)I'm saying that cause I'd spend 4years and six months in Polish Prison.Majority of this time I've spent in prison which is "Temporary jailed" Prison.That goal is for these, who has got a trail (before beeing sentenced).It's worse than normal goal for sentenced- Higher level of isolation.I've spent there 3 years.All that what you had is NOTHING in light of reality of Polish Prisons.If you wanna know some more, text me on my email adress, and I'll tell you about real Prisons.