As we entered the police station, I was sure I was about to get a warning -- most likely a night in the holding cell, I figured. To be honest, after the hours of arguing, and the two days' drinking, sniffing and smoking, I was looking forward to some relaxation.
Things went fairly smoothly that evening, and although not a comfortable bed, I slept well in the small and distinctly-smelling room -- lemon disinfectant, I decided; it always reminds me of hospitals. There was one disturbance at 6 or 7 in the morning with a drunk being dragged into a holding cell threatening anyone with calls from the other holding rooms to “shut the fuck up”. It shocked me that the coppers dealing with the drunk and violent prisoner were all very calm, and carried on talking to the “gent,” offering simple instructions as to what they were going to do with him and where they were going to put him. It crossed my mind that if the guy had struggled this much on the outside, he may've got away. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I peeped through the grating of the cell “window.”
“Hello Mike!” Mike was a good lad; unfortunately he had a drink issue and his missus Lucy was just as bad -- he had been in the holding cells 100 times before. It really wasn't a proper weekend unless Mike had been arrested and taken to the holding cells. “Fuck off you caaaant!” Mike replied to my cell door.
Once the morning proper had started, I agreed with the statements placed in front of me, and was put in a small tin cell in the back of the transport (SERCO) van, and taken to the local ‘nick’, where I would be spending my time on remand. By the time I arrived at the prison I had worked up quite a bad case of The Worries; I had never been before and although I had heard loads of stories about how easy it was, I didn't really believe them. What I did know for sure was that every film I had seen or news story made it very clear -- prison is a dangerous place, somewhere I did not want to be.
Once at the prison the paper work was filled out and I was taken to a cell. I expected to be on my own, but wasn’t...I was sharing with three other blokes.
Now, everything I had heard about prison from TV and films was about t be put to the test. Surely if I was sharing a cell I would be the victim of violence, most likely sexually assaulted and stabbed? As I entered the cell for the first time I would love to tell you my thoughts, what I saw, who was looking at me and how they looked upon my arrival. But I can’t -- I was scared and doing all I could not to show it. I stared everyone in the eye, walked to the bunk I was pointed to by the guard in front of me and put the few possessions I had on the bed. This was the real deal now, I thought back to all the conversations I'd had with mates who had frequented the big house far more often than is advisable...now, what had they told me, again?
There are a simple set of rules to follow that will make any time you have to spend incarcerated a less stressful situation. And it is very important to put anything you have seen in The Bill or a grimy British action flick out of your mind. They “glamorise” prison for entertainment, but are way off on the reality of the situation.
You do have money in jail, and there's a shop which is open a few times a week. You can buy all the essentials, and a few treats as well. But as would be expected, money is tight and from what I have seen, is also the main cause of tension between inmates. Tobacco is used as currency and is extremely valuable.
Every expectation I had went out the window; 99 per cent of the prison population are sane and normal people, in prison for justifiable reasons. Others are in there for reasons that seem altogether more flaky, and it always seemed unfair to me that someone who had committed a legislative or fraudulent crime against the state would be in the same wing as a violent offender. What really stuck out for me was how people just tried to get through each day as quietly as possible. The reality is of course there are some nutters in prison; you could even say it’s the best place for them, but they are few and far between.
You can get whatever you want -- it is really very simple, and everything is available at a (hefty) price. But this is where a lot of inmates get into trouble; they quickly get into debt and their addiction keeps them borrowing. The one thing you never want to do is owe someone in prison; it's not like you can avoid them. Of the fights I did see in my time inside, every single one was to do with drugs -- mostly a junkie taking a whooping, it seemed, for money owed. I always questioned why the supplier would continue to give the addicts gear, and surmised that it was because they enjoyed the periodic beating and the power it gave them over their “victims”. I decided to stay away from my beloved weed while inside, as let's face it, I knew it would only be a few weeks on remand and thought my body could do with a rest.
I was instantly given a dashing grey tracksuit and plain t-shirt when I arrived, and informed I would be given a few more essentials the next day. The majority of the other prisoners wore their own; tracksuits certainly seemed to be the fashion, and luckily I had a decent pair of trainers on when I was nicked -- it is important not to look like too much of a mug; you do not want to stand out. And wearing a really shit pair of trainers will bring as much heat as wearing an overly-elaborate pair. The main thing I learnt about prison clothes is that wearing heavy cotton-base tracksuits works best; you have to remember that the prison washing machines are fairly heavy-duty.
And the most important rule...
You would be shocked to hear that aside from some fairly strong language and the shaking sweaty junkies, prison is a well-mannered place. I will not go as far as saying it's a polite environment, but definitely people behave better than on the high street on a Friday night. The fact is, prisons are overcrowded, and being locked up in a cell 23 hours a day with three other people can be tough. By being tidy and thoughtful for your cellmates it makes things easier; when you are out of your cell for a short time each day it's really important to get on your cellmates, and it will make other inmates have less reason to want to give you any grief.
It's very important that you stand up for yourself in prison; you do not want to be seen as an easy target at all. Other inmates may try to push you, and see how much of a liberty they can take with you. You do have to be prepared to stand up for yourself and may have to fight if someone goes too far. From what I learnt, it did not matter about winning or losing the fight; you just have to let people know you will not be a bitch and are prepared to throw hands and feet when required.
The second and more formidable group which challenges you in prison are the guards, who are total bullies. These, in my time inside, seemed like the toughest people to deal with, revelling in their position of power, every day trying to fuck with someone. It began on my search when I arrived; stripped off and asked to bend over.
“Fuck off,” I told the officer frankly.
“Bend over and touch your toes son,” the fat guard smirked; he knew I wouldn’t but was testing to see how green I was.
“Fuck you,” my conversational skills diminished rapidly.
Guards, like in all walks of life, were a mixed bag -- some friendly enough, others total pricks who enjoy the situation they're in far too much. As long as you toe the line and don’t stand out, you will get the same amount of grief as they give everyone else and fortunately for me they seemed to bother my cell the least.
So if any of you are ever going to prison for a length of time just remember:
- Be well mannered and confident; don’t slouch around, and always look people in the eye without staring them out.
- A sturdy tracksuit and comfy trainers are essential, but do not try to stand out. Simple colours, and avoid black as it looks washed-out very quickly.
- Stay away from drugs if you can.
- People always tell you to give up smoking ciggies, but what are you meant to do in a cell all day?
- Stand up for yourself.
It sounds simple, like prison is a breeze (and some people will tell you it is), but for me it was emotionally and mentally exhausting. My brain never switches off; the slightest noise at night and I would wake up, and trying to hide my nerves from my cellmates and other prisoners was a full time occupation. The first few days seem to take months to pass, and by the time I had been inside for four days I felt like an old prison hack, moaning about the inefficiencies of the system and improvements I would make if I were in control. But more on that next week.
For the next few weeks I will be looking at my time in prison, and some of the guys I met while I frequented HMP.
Jamie Snoll is a pseudonym for a drug-dealer born and bred in Essex, who offers up a view from the different side of the law to our monthly columnist Matt Delito.