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February 22, 2006

"Am I a writer-in-residence or a memo-writer-in-residence?" - Emily Kingham offers further insights to prison life

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prisoners like boundaries. I was speaking to an inmate the other day about his childhood. Like most of the men I meet, his childhood sped by in a flurry of domestic chaos. This chaos has played itself out in his adult life and informed every choice he has made - or rather it has compelled him not to make choices. He is not, so to speak, conscious, and as a result has no conscience. Instead, he just does not think about what he is doing.

I asked him for a happy memory. He told me about his Aunt Rose. He used to stay at hers for the odd weekend. Aunt Rose's timetable for her children was rigidly adhered to, and "Harry" meekly joined in. Mealtimes were strictly observed; Ps & Qs were minded. The menu never varied. Toast was always buttered lavishly with a thin smearing of Marmite on top. That was breakfast. Tea was brewed for five minutes and made with freshly boiling water in a warmed pot. Chops or fish fingers arrived bang on time for dinner, with chips and something green on the side. Tea was on lap trays in front of the telly. The children were allowed out to ride their bicycles for an hour before bedtime. But at bedtime - and this was Harry's favourite memory - she tucked him up tight in bed, so tight he couldn't move. He loved it despite the discomfort. He felt safe, and the feel of cotton sheets encasing his limbs still clings to him. Maybe it's that sense of enclosure that draws him back again and again to prison.

I find that if I don't impose boundaries on the editorial meetings I chair for the prison magazine, all hell breaks loose. But sometimes I run out of tasks to give them, or ideas to occupy their minds. Then again, sometimes there are things going on in their lives that make the magazine seem irrelevant. Like a parole hearing, or a Dear John letter, or an adjudication for an incident on the wing.

I've had meetings dominated by prisoners fretting over what may seem to us to be minor incidents - cheeking an officer or accepting a Paracetamol from another inmate that was not logged and accounted for - but that could affect the course of their prison career quite dramatically. In short, a spell on the block(Segregation) could be the reward for a careless word or sheer ignorance of the mind-bogglingly obscure rules. Repeated infringements (but now we're talking bolshie rather than stupid) and they could have their privileges (education, visits, phone calls, etc.) removed, and be reduced to Basic, which means they're permanently banged up in their cells.

I myself have come a cropper because of my ignorance. I was recently asked to fill in a "Please Explain" notice issued to me by Number One Governor for leaving a workshop window open at the end of a session. Security officers on their evening patrol noticed the open window and reported it to Number One. Since they'd asked me so politely, I wanted to explain:

I left the window open because the room smelt of sweaty feet.
But I didn't dare. There's no room for facetiousness in a prison. Everything is taken literally.
But I was being ironic!
I can picture myself saying to a grim-faced, unironic jobsworth.

I'm beginning to think I'd make a really bad prisoner. The next picture that comes to mind is me being marched to the block. I'd never make parole.

The other day I was feeling discouraged with all the jobsworths and the endless form-filling I have to do. Am I writer-in-residence or memo-writer-in-residence? And because we're at the beginning of the quarterly magazine's production cycle, I thought me and my homeys* could slack off a bit. Roll out the Jaffa Cakes (officially I'm trafficking in choccy biccies, but I like to give them the occasional treat), chill out and have a chat. It was a mistake. Rules are there for a good reason. And they're not my homeys, they're prisoners, or offenders as I should be calling them.

Another point I should make: current prison protocol is that prisoners should be referred to as offenders. Offenders themselves refer to themselves as inmates. Wardens are never, repeat never, referred to as wardens. They are called officers. Offenders, or inmates, but not prisoners, call them screws.

The prisoner (to hell with it) "Dave" I mentioned in a previous Notes from a Prison had returned, two weeks after his release, to prison. "Dave" was placed on a different wing to the men on my editorial team, but the news had reached them anyway. (I'd love to know how gossip spreads from wing to wing. Is it, like the drugs that enter the prison, provided by the staff?)

I had introduced two new members to the team. They are both young guys, nascent big-time drug dealers. One of them, "James" is a delightful young man. He is exceptionally intelligent, and waxes eloquent when given half a chance on his favourite subject: astro-physics. He would like to be a teacher one day, and his resettlement worker is working on it. In the meantime, James teaches "reluctant readers" on his wing how to read. He is patient and gently encouraging. Because of the work he has been doing on this project, called "Toe by Toe" - where prisoners teach other prisoners - his self-esteem has soared. Even his posture has changed; his shoulders have stopped sagging, he looks you in the eye.

I brought him on to the magazine because he's a good communicator, articulate and considerate of others. And I brought his cell-mate with him because he has a genuine interest in health and fitness. He knows the calorific and nutritional value of everything served up by canteen.

James and the other new recruit, "Chris", were over-awed by the situation. I see that now. Here were four older men who had bonded over the magazine. What I didn't realize was the fact that I am a woman plays a part in how they interact with each other. I know, I know: I'm nave. The new boys started talking about "Dave" who they know "on the street" (what inmates call life outside prison). He's a "deception merchant", James said. The crimes Dave boasts of committing (big-time deals involving shooters and Yardies at the Cross**) are far from the meagre truth - he usually gets done for scamming 20 from a neighbour to score a rock.

I also heard things about Dave's sex life that made me laugh. I couldn't help it. It was funny. But at that point I realized we'd gone way too far. I had to check myself, and stop the flow. These are clever, witty men out to impress me but I can't let them. Just from feeling tired and discouraged, from relaxing and letting them take the floor, I had started swimming in deep waters. Before my eyes, their street personae were burgeoning and I wasn't dealing any more with an intelligent young man and the cellmate he's teaching to read.

They were back on the streets, scoring deals, dissing each other, swapping tips on dealing (sell it small, make it regular, keep it safe, the armed burglar of the team advised Chris - not in my hearing, I hasten to add, I heard this later). But when Chris, a fit young man, started stretching his torso pointedly in my direction, and my editor (who's rather podgy) started throwing him dirty looks, I realized I'd lost control.

Blimey. What a lesson. Not for the first time, I felt a fool. The next day, I went in with the magazine's flatplan, and we stuck to the agenda. It's a health and fitness issue, I declared. And, by God, we're promoting a healthy message. Drugs are bad. Gym is good. Is that window shut? Well, shut it, then!

*homeys = homeboys; the boys you hang out with on the street as opposed to the boys you fight with on the next street.

** The cross = King's Cross, the big time for Essex drug-dealers.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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A fascinating article and offering real insight into a world of which one knows very little. One sentence really did spring out at me:

like the drugs that enter the prison, provided by the staff
Are you sayig that a lot of drugs enter prison via the officers? Do some prison officers moonlight as drug dealers? Can you elucidate?

Posted by: Daniel at February 22, 2006 05:52 PM

Yes, I am intrigued by the same point as Jonathan. One always reads that prisons are awash with drugs - some of these must get in via visits to prisoners from family members, associates etc. But one would assume such visits to be closely monitored - how do the rest get in? Are some prison officers really bringing them in, as Emily Kingham seems to suggest? Although - and I am no expert on these matters - it does sound like a logical route.

Posted by: Jane at February 23, 2006 01:22 PM

Can I underline what the other two have said - more on prisons and drugs, please.

Posted by: Dave at February 23, 2006 04:04 PM
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