Thursday 5 June 2008

Proving Yourself TO Yourself- Winson Green Part Two

Well, my appeal failed.
There was no pointing in crying about it.

I'd done four months by then, so I had a maximum of twenty eight left. But it was in my power to make that twenty.
And in my power to live as good a life in there as I could. And make use of my time.

About this time, a lot of things began to work my way. Firstly, I'd been there long enough for those that pull the strings to have made their judgement on me. And that's what matters.
Screws know that to keep order on the wing, they need the co-operation of a certain group of key player prisoners. These tend to form kind of a negotiating class, but also form a kind of moral leadership. People with clout.

Oh, gaol is full of the 'Gangsta', the young Afro-Caribbean male who thinks wearing his trousers round his ankles (a trend apparently started on death row in the States) and makes 'plock plock' pistol gestures at his mates wins him respect.

No, I'm talking about your Costa Del Sol, brought back to the UK, because they were extradited types.
I knew that things were looking up, when out of the blue, The Green's very own Harry Grout (Who I hardly knew) asked me if I fancied being his deputy Orderly over in Education- filling in for him on his legal visits. Hand in hand, came the job of marking all the literacy and numeracy tests ALL prisoners must fill in.
I had been approved.

And after that, things were easy. Although Harry Grout wasn't on our wing, I was now accepted into the circle of inmates whose opinion mattered. The ones who can get things done.
How had I got into this circle?

Well, firstly, prisoners DO judge other prisoners. To society, they're all scum. They broke the law. But prisoners ask 'Are you ACTUALLY a scumbag? Did you hurt someone? Or just break the law?' There's a difference, and prisoners are actually pretty moral about this. Some lie about their offences. But you will get caught out. Several prisoners who know that they will b treated as pariahs if the truth is found out- and suffer violence- nevertheless don't fancy going on G-wing with the rest of the circus freaks. Of course, they get found out. Most people talk in agonisingly boring detail about their case- even if they've been in four years. Spot the guy who never talk about it, and when he does, the story keeps changing. And they end up on G-wing anyway, but they take a detour via the hospital wing first.

The pariah class is not just sex offenders, it is bent coppers, bent judges, bent prison officers, grasses, people who mug old ladies, etc.

And then there is kind an ascending scale. Clout comes into it. And armed robbers always have a healthy respect. But usually, the rule is; who did you hurt?

There is a general consensus that people who sold ecstasy, or who defrauded the bookies they worked for, are basically all right.

Shoplifters, well they're harmless, but somehow, it doesn't really gain respect. It doesn't really prove character.

So, university degree, getting on well with other inmates after four months, respectable crime, just the sort of person who has a place to fill.

In practice, the system relies on such a group of prisoners existing. These prisoners take on a lot of the day to day responsibilities- but in return, get perks.

So, I did a few things. First, I signed on to do a crash training course to act as classroom assistant over at the Education department. I also volunteered to help teach illiterate prisoners to read. I also got elected to represent the wing in liaison meetings with the Education Governor.

And most importantly, I signed up for the Listener scheme.
I say important, because from my point of view, it was an eye opener. Distribution of Listeners in the gaol was very uneven, and at one point I was the only listener on the wing- the only person answering distress calls out of 160 inmates. And A wing, had many of those. A wing is part of the Victorian gaol and it tends to house longer term sentenced prisoners- usually those newly sentenced. N wing had five listeners, but being a wing for those well into long sentences, no one ever needed one.

I was pretty much guaranteed a callout most days. And some were pretty mindblowing.

I was under a confidentiality agreement for that, and I consider it still binding, so I can't tell you ANYTHING I heard in any of those consultations. Sometimes, I heard things that sickened me. Sometimes, I'd have LOVED to have broken confidentiality, so a rapist could get his just desserts.

By the same token, I discovered just how much one of those famous 'causes of crime' is in fact, sexual abuse.

Yes, it was stressful. But also, often, very rewarding.

About twice a month, I'd get called over for caresuite watch. This is a special cell- a double cell, kitted out like a normal living room. Beds with duvets. A little kitchen. It's used for prisoners who have been deemed so likely to attempt to kill themselves, they need permanent watching. This task is done, not by screws, but by Listeners. The idea is that Listeners are more likely to establish a bond of trust with the suicidal person- and of course, have received SOME basic training in dealing with the situation. To be honest, it's hands on learning, but you learn fast, when really, the difference between someone living or dieing, really MIGHT be YOU.

And in one case, I know for sure I WAS the difference. Because the other listener went to sleep and left me to do the work.

Listener work was voluntary, but all the rest added to prison wages, and I was earning about twice what the average prisoner earns. That's only twenty odd pounds a week, mind, but it makes a difference. It means you can start building up stockpiles.

Stockpiles of tobacco.
In prison, tobacco is money.

Prison rules are 'Double Bubble'.
I lend you an ounce of tobacco on Thursday, because you've run out.

When canteen is delivered on Monday, you owe me two ounces. That's prison rules.

No, I didn't feel bad about that- that was the accepted exchange rate. But I covered my back. I'd never lend till Friday- always a chance your customer might get shipped out on a weekday- and I paid someone to collect for me. No point me doing it- I'm not very threatening. So, I paid a cleaner an ounce a week- cleaners help the screws hand out canteen, so as they hand it out, they can collect my tobacco for me. If I've lent five ounces, I'm getting ten back, so I'm still four up. I'll smoke three in a week myself, but I've still got surplus to re-loan next week, or use to buy things myself.
However, I went one better than most 'tobacco barons' do. I set up a sideline. Prison is full of dirty magazines doing the rounds. Truly hardcore ones are hard to get in B cats, but for most people, just pictures of naked women is good enough. If people couldn't repay, I was prepared to consider a decent magazine collection in lieu. And I started a lending library.

What did I use my 'financial' power for? Drugs, you say. No. Couldn't risk that. As a Listener, I was tested too often.

The little things to be honest. Milk was one- couldn't abide the powdered stuff they handed out. One tiny carton of milk a day, for your cereal.
Well, I drink about eight or nine cups of coffee a day, I needed three milks at least. And sauces. You get two sachets a week. I needed about five a day. That's thirty five a week.
If you've always got tobacco, people will save their sauces up for you, just so they know they can get a couple of roll ups from you on a Sunday evening when they're tight.
Little things, to brighten up your life, I paid two ounces for a proper Backgammon board to replace my hatchet job of a big piece of card, some buttons and a pool chalk (which was weighted in favour of four), and of course, a Monopoly board.

One of the essential status items I got, was a denim jacket. Denim jackets are hard to come by. Anyone can wear one, you just have to get one. And in a gaol of 1400 people, there are about twenty. So you have to get one when someone who has one left.

Once I'd got one, I was essentially a 'made' man. It's the equivalent of wearing an Armani suit in there.
Plus, I also made some other dress/style decisions which marked me out. First, was to refuse to wear the prison T-shirts. As I said 'Just because I'm a prisoner, don't mean I'll wear claret and blue' (For Non Brummies, these are the colours of Aston Villa FC- I support Birmingham City).
So I only wore blue and white striped 'visiting' shirts. For most prisoners, since you only get one, and laundry is once a week, this isn't practical. But I had stored up seven.

The other thing I did, was not to cut my hair. I figured partly, it would be interesting to watch time go by, Edmond Dante style.
Secondly, without a prison hairdresser, it was clippers or nothing.
As I said then, look like a Nazi, or look like a Trot, I know which I'm going for.

I kind of made it work, for me.

I can remember once, when the wing was on lockdown going up to one of the screws and saying 'Look, three days without a shower, please, any chance?'
I was in the same boat as everyone else, but...

He came back ten minutes later 'Special favour. The Laundry lads have to have a shower- rules. And as luck would have it, there's one space free. Keep it to yourself, yes?'

Because to be fair, by this time- I'd become part of the furniture. I was one of the prisoners who made life easy all round.

If I had a morning call out that went on till Labour movements had been done- and therefore couldn't go to my job at Education, they'd pretty much let me just mooch around the wing- even pop to the prison library. I really did have it about as good as you could get it.

And little projects kept you going. In the drama group, we did our own production of Julius Caesar. I edited the script (heavily) to get it into half an hour- but I kept Brutus' best speeches (I cast MYSELF in that role, as you might expect :). I tried to keep the message simple, one of self-sacrifice for liberty- I felt such a message would resonate, and it did.

And the performance truly was a success.
I was actually interviewed for an internal prison documentary, but I think they lost interest when they discovered that I had a BA and had had a respectable career before incaraceration. That didn't suit THEIR message.

Yes, I could tell you a LOT of grim tales. I could also tell you a lot of really funny stories too- about Wilko, The Green's resident nutcase, who lives half his life there and is completely irrepressible. No matter how many screws give him a kicking, he can bang his door solid for eight hours until they cave in and GIVE him a fag.

But there isn't room for all that.

I just want to end with what I think, is a nice story- before we say goodbye to Winson Green once and for all.

I'm not going to use his real name, I'm going to call him Mr Mackay.

Mr Mackay had served in the Six Counties, in the British forces. Mr Mackay was pretty contemptuous towards Catholics. I mean, pretty contemptuous to everybody. Not all screws thought all inmates were vermin. Most adopted a policy of 'Treat as vermin till proven otherwise'. And I suppose, that policy makes some sense. But Mackay's policy was simply, 'Treat as vermin'.

And I saw him do some OTT things. Technically, you're not supposed to put your cellbell on, unless it is an emergency. Mackay didn't think having no bogroll constituted such an emergency and issued someone with an adjudication for it.

And oh the joys when Mackay announced Sunday morning Mass 'RC Service! Put your bells on if you want RC Service! RC Service! ArseHOLE Service! RC Service!'

Oh, and he forgot to do this on Good Friday. So no one on A wing got to go to to Mass at all, on a Holy Day of Obligation.


The day of Pope John Paul II's funeral.

They came to the labour movement, and I said 'Not going today, I'm watching the papal funeral.'
The screw said 'You do know there's a service in the chapel?'
I stared at him 'Why haven't Catholic prisoners been told?'
He replied 'There's a notice outside the SO's office.'

I shook my head in disbelief 'You know the Catholic prisoners on the wing- it's on their cards. All Catholics should have been told. Who reads the noticeboard?'

He looked apologetic. 'We'll take you over once we've done the labour moves.'
I nodded 'I'd like a shower first though, if that's possible.'
He nodded 'Not a problem.'

Anyway, when I came back from my shower, there were a group of screws standing by my cell, with peculiar kind of Hollywood moment smiles on their faces.
'Wait here for five minutes, Crushed. Mr Mackay's going to take you. But he thought he'd better go have a shave first.

Mr Mackay. The Catholic hater. Mr Mackay taking the most avowedly Catholic prisoner on the wing, for a Mass to say goodbye to the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic faith.

When he appeared, I'd never seen him so smart.

It was a lovely service. Not many there, but it was moving. Here, in the depths of hell, we were at one with eight hundred million fellow Catholics across the globe in saying goodbye to a man who was a deep part of our lives, and apprehensively contemplating a church without the awe-inspiring figure of JPII.

And Mr Mackay mourned with us. He prayed, mumbling it is true, but fortunately he had an order sheet to help him.
He never said anything to me throughout the service.

And at the end, he waited whilst I knelt and prayed silently for the future of the Church. When I had finished he looked at me with (this is cheesy, but I mean it) peace in his eyes, and said 'Are you ready to go back now?'

I don't think Mr Mackay really cared about the death of JPII. But I do think, when he heard that a screw was needed to take me to the service, he volunteered for a reason. He'd known me now for almost a year. And I like to think, that at this point it suddenly hit him, just how hurtful such contempt being continually shown to your faith, when you can't fight back, can be. I think at least as far as I was concerned, this was his way of saying sorry.

And a bit more. I think he was trying to say that in my case, he had made it as far as 'Treat as vermin until proven otherwise. For once, even I, Mackay, accept proven otherwise'.

There is hope, I think, in more people than we sometimes give people credit for.


Anonymous said...

A fine effort, I will update my post to include part 3. Is there going to be a part 4?

Anonymous said...


First off, this is some of the most powerful prose I've seen on this site. It's inspirational, sure. But it's not irrational. And you do a good job to see the humanity in everyone at Winson Green. IMHO, well done.

I think this (and subsequent posts in this series, if you got them) should receive a wider readership, for we're talking about a large mechanism of social control. Perhaps a newspaper or op-ed column would be interested in a piece like this?

Through television and movies, we develop a notion of what prisoners are like in general. We tend to see them as less than human, and we refer to them in language that reflects this.

Like you, I have always felt that the high incidence of repeat offense has to do more with the prison system itself than anything else. In the US, for example, we hear more accounts of brutality, and almost zero acceptance once a prisoner gets out. We also have really strict enforcement of parole violations, so a substantial portion of prisoners are in jail because they hung out with the wrong friend, tested positive on a drug/alcohol test, etc..

Law and order is an easy mantra to chant if you don't fear that you will ever suffer the consequences.

But even if one doesn't go to jail, he still suffers the consequences. We're talking about the hardening of a person because, as you point out, they have been broken. (I would hazard a guess that some are kinda broken when released into general society.) In the US, this kinda assures a steady workforce that works at slave wages, which in large part are subsidized by the state. I don't see any motivation to rehabilitate people in a system like this.

We could only hope that more people can articulate the issues you raise here, concentrating on value to society as a whole if it made efforts to help prisoners, upon their reinstatement to citizenship, have confidence that they can legitimately stay and make it on the outside--in addition to the confidence that society can see this as a long-term goal.

Anonymous said...

I think I'd last about one day in prison

Anonymous said...

This is just straight up good reading, Crushed. You have me hooked more than usual. Both from just an observational standpoint, as well as from the deeper themes running through it. The fact that you were able to see the good in even the most heinous man at one point, and in prison of all

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, not every person in prison is an ass hole. You have related a very intriguing story. What is next?

Anonymous said...

Great series Crushed. A look few of us ever get, and at least for me, vastly different from what I would expect. You took something that would have broke many others and turned it into a positive. I'm very impressed.

Anonymous said...

I bet you never thought that you would be writing all that here, did you Crushed? Funny how things work out.

It's been an amazing thing to read and hat's off to you for dealing with the whole process so positively.

I could not help comparing the Listener role to one of a priest, as I am sure you did too.

Did you hear I have been demoted from Goodheart to the stupid doting old fool?

Anonymous said...

Bill- There will be. Part 4 is less brutal in some ways, because we're on happier soil. And part 4 will also lead to my obvious identification by possibly a couple of thousand people- sadly, including the authorities.

But in some ways, it is the most important of all.

Part Five IS important in that it perhaps will explain my outlook on life. Part five is an afterthought- it was asked for by a reader- how I coped when I walked out of the gates.

X-dell- Because you live with them. You make do. And trust me, you can have a good laugh in gaol as much as anywhere. Xmas day 2004, I had a great cellmate- nice lad, colege student, had a relapse into shoplifting, in for that one month, scared out of his tiny little mind. We had hours of fun playing Monopoly. A funny Xmas, but it was still Xmas. And much goodwill in our cell, at least.

Yes, it IS a mechanism of social control. And it first posed the qustion in my head of how far we live in a prison generally. It goes back to Nietzche, if you TRULY are free, then freedom shouldn't be that easy to lose. We are free on sufferance, free by warrant. I truly believe that I HAD been 'tried by my peers'- as in, the COMMUNITY, the people, had had the power to judge me (or in fact, the majority of 'criminals', justice would be very different indeed.

I know of more than one prisoner who, though they wouldn't admit it, had come to prefer life inside. It had become a world they understood, whee they received a respect denied to them on the outside.

As far as I see it, it's the last acceptable refuge of the same sentiments that cheered at hanging, drawinfg and quartering- thoughtless judgement of the 'wringdoer' and demanding'punishment' without seeking answers.

Jeremy- No, you'd survive. It's what's in your head that counts. You'd surprise yourself.
The best comparison I can come up with, is people who have fought in wars. No disrespect to war vets, but in truth, it's a similar experience.
You do it, because you have no choice. And you find that actually, you are twice the man you once thought.

This is whre prison fails. Because it either breaks or makes people. It never changes them, just sifts the men from the boys.

Princess P- It teaches you a lot. It makes you stand back and question every value you ever had- and reconstruct hem. Because this is REAL living. Not living in social constructs, it's getting by day to day on the basis of how you interact with the next man. No artificial rules- just truly natural ones. Dog eat dog, but a bit of kindness goes a long way.

It's not easy to always be ethical in there- but somehow, you do discover REAL ethics. As in, you start throwing away book morals and really focussing on what's RIGHT.

Nunyaa- Next part deals wuith what some would call 'Holiday camp prison. My year in a D cat. Less interesting from a shock point of view, but more interesting from hearing my 12 hours a day, seven days a week attempt to really make a difference.
Basically, the story about how I became a cause driven workaholic fanatic.

Fusion- I hope it IS vastly different. I've seen prison sob stories in print before, and frankly, most of them aren't candid. It's just not like that. It's more Colditz than Auschwitz.

Well I guess with me, it WAS a personal journey. By the time we reach the end of this post here, yeah my short term focus is on parole- and really, I'm not looking beyond that, but I'm by this point firmly convinced that I have seen a guuter lieing under the fake facade of the Capitalist paper paradise that gives the lie to the whole structure.

And I'm decided by this point, that whatever else happens in my life, I ain;t wasting what's left of mine- when I get out.

jmb- No...
Still, in a sense, it could be for the best. A very dear blogging friend of mine always says that they think these experiences affected my entire outlook, and yes, they did. They meant I could no longer see things through the veil of crap they spin us.

THIS was when I 'took the red pill' and taking the blue pill, was too late.

It is a very similar role.
Technically, Listeners aren't supposed to offer solutions, only ask questions to get people to open up. But there's a tacit admissio that really, certainly in prison, people want you to solve their problems. So you just phrase each solution as a question 'Have you considered...'

When I was in the succeeding prison, the role become even MORE pristlike, for reasons which will become apparent.

But yes, thee was a certan selfishness in it. I used to be a little possesive about my callouts, because yes, it's very rewarding and that sense of fulfillment is a huge personal morale boost- doing that sort of work, kept me going, in an emotional sense. I actually do think if you take on the burdens of others, your own fade into insignificance.

I did see. But we are talking about someone who thinks writing posts taking the piss out of conspiracy theorists who he found in an online forum (which he himself was still tragic enough to frequent) and NAME the guy, is somewhow NOT completely contemptible.

If I were you, I wouldn't worry about the opinion of a socially inadequete little shit.

If he does have a job, he's a taxi driver, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

I had not heard of the listener scheme before. It sounds like a worthwhile thing to do!

I am really enjoying this series of posts.

sorry I am slow to comment, but will be catching up on them all

Anonymous said...

Engrossing.... deserves a triple wow! :-)

Anonymous said...

As someone who has had the unfortunate experience of attending WGP i was drawn to your story and found i could relate to all the stereotypes you mentioned,(and some you didn't) the door banging nutters, the lenders, the debters, the ex-military style officers. An old con once said to me "they're all bastards but there's good bastards and bad bastards" and that sounds about right now.You give a very good account of day to day life in the green and i found my self subconciously chuckling more than once. I had to congratulate you on a very vivid, well written piece, very inspirational too, well done.