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Monday, 7 November 2011

Doing porridge.


As an adult I have always lived in a tiny space, though not through choice but necessity. Whenever visitors first came into the bedsit I used to rent they would invariably declare it to be “cosy.” In short, it was extremely small but it suited me and it was all I could afford at the time. The lack of space was more than compensated for in my eyes by the views over a mature Edwardian garden. I must admit I got a shock when I moved into the bedsit in the November, a month after I had originally viewed it. Instead of fairies at the bottom of the garden, the now bare branches of the trees revealed a railway track. However that was what had saved the garden from redevelopment and I quickly got used to the sound of trains going past.

I later moved into the servants’ garret at Brimstone Butterfly Towers. A flat had been carved out of a Victorian bedroom and a box room. Again, I have views over mature trees so were it not for the sound of traffic coming from the street below I could fancy myself to be in the countryside. Perhaps visiting stately homes is my way of living vicariously. But cramped though it is, my flat is a virtual palace compared to the prison cell I went to visit recently.

Having just had an interview at an organisation which tackled alcohol abuse, I was sorely tempted to drown my sorrows if I had but a liking for hard liquor. Fortunately, neither drink nor illicit drugs have ever appealed to me so I decided to get high on endorphins instead and walk to Waterloo station as it was such a fine autumnal afternoon. Out of a sense of nostalgia I decided to pop into the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. It used to have a café where my mother and I would indulge in the occasional cake and coffee. She was a psychotherapist attached to St Thomas hospital across the Thames, so it was an ideal meeting point for us when I was working in central London. Incidentally, St Thomas is near the Houses of Parliament. It has been claimed that the real reason why it has often been spared the kind of draconian cuts imposed on other hospitals is its convenient location for MPs taken ill within Parliament.

The café I knew had long since gone as indeed had my mother. Through the floor to ceiling windows I could see there was an art exhibition being held in the area where we used to sit to eat our meal. Curious I went inside to take a closer look. The exhibition displayed artwork by prisoners from across the UK. In addition, there was a life size replica of a prison cell complete with two actors playing the role of prisoners, something I think they had performed in real life too. The idea was that they would spend hours banged up in their cell whilst they were viewed on a live video stream. Visitors could also enter the cell and chat to them about prison life or talk to them through barred windows at the other end of the cell. The installation called gotojail  has been set  up by Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) which, according to their website was established in 1999 "to develop innovative, arts-based approaches to working with prisoners and staff within U.K. prisons."

One of the women on duty asked if I would be interested in entering the cell. I said I was too shy to but before I knew it she was propelling me up to the door of the cell and introducing me to Paddy and his cell companion, a much younger black guy whose name I failed to catch owing to my partial deafness. I perched on the edge of the lower bunk bed with Prisoner 2 whilst Paddy sat in a small blue plastic chair. The cell consisted of two bunk beds and a desk with a space for a single chair underneath it. On top of the desk prisoners could place personal items like bottles of soft drinks and a radio. It seems they would have been provided with a kettle to allow them to make hot drinks at night.

I used to share a bunk bed as a child. I had a routine where I would climb up to my bunk from the base of the bed and then roll head over heels on my mattress to my pillow. I was shocked at how little space there was above the adult prisoner’s head in the top bunk. The whole cell was cramped and prisoners could find themselves locked up for hours on end in it during the day as well as overnight. In retrospect it was probably the size of my former bedsit.

I was curious to know how it was determined who should share a cell with whom. Paddy said the officers tried to take into account similarities and if you found you really were not getting on with your companion you could make a request to be moved.

Long term prisoners who behaved themselves could expect to be moved into their own cell over time. In the interim, if one member of the cell misbehaved it would have adverse consequences for his cell mate. Thus, if misconduct led to a prisoner being deprived of television privileges, it would automatically mean that his cell mate was not able to have one either.

My poor hearing meant it took a while before I realised that the cacophony I heard was not coming from the public areas outside the mock cell but from a soundtrack being played into the cell. According to Paddy and his friend it was a realistic representation of the kind of noise to be heard in the average prison during the day. That alone would have driven me mad.

But the worst aspect of the cell for me was the stainless steel toilet by the cell door. Part of the desk formed a low wall providing a modicum of privacy but the loo did not even have a lid. Paddy explained that prison etiquette dictated that prisoners endeavoured not to do their “number twos” in the cell, only to urinate. During the day they could make use of communal lavatories elsewhere in the prison block. I could see that rule quickly going to pot if one of the prisoners fell ill with an upset stomach. Paddy said that at least in this cell the loo was in a corner. He had been in cells in which the loo was by the head of the beds, a revolting thought for someone as fastidious as me.

I asked about temperatures within the cell. Prisoner 2 explained sometimes it could be too hot and at other times too cold. I can well imagine the prisoners would swelter in such a tiny cell in the heat of the summer.

I had only been in the cell for a relatively short time and asked Paddy and his friend how they adapted to returning to their own homes and suddenly having so much space and a separate loo! Paddy said it could be quite strange and somewhat disorientating at first.

At that point, seeing other people hovering by the door I thanked them both for chatting with me. It was sobering to reflect later that I had spent half an hour banged up doing bird. That was a ninth of what actress Lindsay Lohan had to endure when she was slung into jail for 4 and a half  hours only a few weeks later. In such charming company as Paddy’s and his cellmate’s I am sure I could have managed as much porridge as La Lohan.  

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