What’s the worst thing about being moved to a new prison? Probably the lottery you face on arrival. What’s your new cellmate going to be like? Will he be a serial killer or an unpredictable psychopath; or will he be some poor lad suffering from some kind of mental illness who really should be in a hospital?
When I first heard I was being moved I wasn’t best pleased. At the time, I was only two years in on a life sentence, but I’d already heard so many horror stories about this establishment that I just knew prison life was about to get a lot more difficult. In this grim environment, humanity counts for little because to the prison staff, we really are just cattle: one on, one off and make a note of the numbers in and out.
After a long journey, I was herded onto a new wing and stopped on the landing outside the door of my new lodgings. As cellmates go, ‘Joe’ seemed to be OK. But over the years, especially in prison, if there’s one thing I have learned, it’s this: trust no-one.
Over a couple of days, I settled in and it was shaping up bearable enough; that was until I was approached on the wing by another prisoner who gave me a ‘friendly warning’.
Stay away from Joe, he said, something bad was about to happen to him and it would be better if I made myself scarce while it was occurring.
Moral dilemma time. My predicament was this: First off, I couldn’t sit back and let it happen without giving him at least a heads-up.
But if I tell him, I’m a grass and trust me; to put it delicately, that’s not a good thing. At the same time, my ‘friendly warning’ came with the clear message; stay out of it.
You’ve also got to ask yourself; are you really prepared to start inheriting the enemies of a bloke you just met two days previously?
But I knew I had to warn Joe; I’d already seen too much suffering in my own life to idly watch him suffer. So I told him. I tried to reason with him: he would be better off on another wing; even if it was the VP (vulnerable prisoners) wing.
Let’s just say, Joe wasn’t the advice-taking type and about an hour later, four lads came in on top of him in the cell. He was ready for them and a can of tuna in a sock gave him at least a fighting chance. And to give Joe his due, he put up one hell of a fight. In fact, even after being stabbed in the leg, he came out better. His attackers went away beaten, bruised and black-eyed. It was still unfinished business.
Joe was taken away to healthcare to receive stitches. Now, to my knowledge; the staff has a duty of care and a set of procedures to follow in these kind of incidents. Photos should be taken of the injuries; incident reports need to be filled out and most crucially, for his own safety, the prisoner should always be moved immediately.
For reasons I can’t fathom, none of these things happened and after a brief stint in healthcare, a patched-up but wounded Joe duly arrived back onto the same wing...
Later on that day, I was again approached on the wing by one of Joe’s attackers and the warning was the same; stay away from your cellmate, it’s going to come on top.
Why was I given this warning? I think word had already got around the wing that I was the bona fide victim of a serious criminal justice stitch-up, and I suspect it was probably felt that they should look out for people like me.
Lots of prisoners will tell you that they are innocent. But the prisoners who actually maintain their innocence are few and far between. I am one such prisoner. I don’t consider myself a criminal; far from it, in fact.
Maintaining innocence, I can assure you, doesn’t make for an easy ride from the prison authorities. Not surprising really when progressing through the penal system depends in large part on your acceptance of your crime and punishment.
Whatever about mine, I was pretty certain that Joe’s punishment was imminent if he lingered any longer on the wing. Again, I pleaded with him and again he remained resolute and unmoved.
I left the cell reluctantly. My sense of foreboding was broken shortly after by a scream; I’d never heard anything like it. I turned in time to see a filthy junkie walking quickly out of the cell with a flask in his hand.
Joe came crawling out after that. As it turned out, that wasn’t too far from the truth. It was boiling oil that the junkie had thrown in Joe’s face. I heard subsequently that it had been heating in a pot for a half hour; it was so hot, it had melted the flask’s plastic lid-casing when it was being poured in.
I wanted so badly to help him but there was nothing I could do. And all the while this going on, the prison guards were down the other end of the landing doing their crossword; exactly where they’d been conveniently plotted up when Joe was attacked the first time. Some duty of care.
That was the last time I saw Joe; after that, he never returned.
This story was written as an open letter to all the ‘plastic gangsters’ out there on the social networks, bragging about what a holiday camp prison is; like it’s the Thug Life version of a finishing school; like going to prison is a good thing for your bad boy CV. The awkward truth is that if these wannabes had any brains, they probably wouldn’t be inside in the first place.
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