Arrested earlier this year by what looked like genetically modified cops, I realised that another prison term was inevitable. Disposal: 12 months for possession of half a kilo of cannabis. Prior to this, to complete a potty history, I had served two lengthy stretches for bank robberies – six years in the 70s and a 12-year sentence in 1987, eventually liberated on parole in September 1994. Stepping through that revolving door seems like you've never been away.
That old saw – the more things change the more they stay the same – is apposite when applied to life within the confines. Monotony is the thread holding together the fabric of an unravelling system. A good thing too. If every day were different – a 'fresh challenge' as unhappily reshuffled government ministers are wont to say – there would be no numbing routine to drift on. Every night, week, month, year would be spent wondering what came next rather than wondering where the past had gone. That's the way to handle time – looking back.
Sociopathy is a broad church and when pressed reluctantly into the role of 'Father Confessor' (I'm crowding 50) by culture-shocked first offenders, my advice is: not to think of 'outside' too much; emphasise the first year is the worst; and after that, it's one year at a time (sweet Jesus!). Many go on to find solace in religion. Unlike Frank the Crank.
Frank sprang to mind last week when a young guy jumped onto the anti-suicide net, arms outstretched, bouncing lightly with knees slightly bent.
'What are you doing, dafty?' a screw asked.
'Ah'm surfin' the net, boss, just surfin' the net.'
A mad grin split his face. That's progress for you.
'Hawaii Five-O' was Frank's favourite programme. All day he Da-Da-Da-Da-Da'ed its theme, pausing only to say, 'Book him, Danno – murder one', then laugh like a drain. Prison is the place for madmen, not legitimate lunatics.
Before prison, suffering from 'winter of discontent' redundancy, it's said that Frank brooded indoors for almost two years. One day he got dressed as if for work, made sandwiches for dinner break, poured petrol over his steel toe-capped boots, then stuck them in the fire, feet firmly laced inside. Arriving by chance on the scene, his wife doused the flames with the contents of a teapot and goldfish bowl. When police and ambulance arrived, he ate one of the fish, then punched a copper. At least he got it the right way round.
Found 'sane and fit to plead', Frank received three years for wilful fire-raising and nine months for police assault. Within months he was admitted to Carstairs. Two years later he ricocheted back to the nick. In those days no psychiatric loop-holes allowed disordered personalities an escape into an unsuspecting community. Released to incarceration, his fragile mental health deteriorated. Soon after, he did a flier off the top landing. A giant leap for mankind, Frank's crispy feet one jump ahead of progress. Years later it struck me that his continuous theme-tune delivery resembled a musical SOS.
All human life is here, no it's not all doom and gloom. And in the midst of life, there are deadbeats and real characters. When Elvis died in the 70s, Big Razor McGrath emerged from his 'crypt' draped in a sheet singing 'A Dont'cha – Step On – Man Big White Goon' with accompanying leg movements. Elvis devotees spent many days behind their doors, faced turned to the wall or buried in pillows with the unforgiving rigidity of an infant's headstone. Back then, no immediate counselling was available to distraught fans of the hamburger kind, no Coke cans or ice cream wrappers enshrining a solitary copy of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. That particular form of mass hysteria hadn't been invented.
Unsurprisingly, it's impossible to swing a pisspot without hitting an innocent – typified by a solicitor captured in possession of 40,000 hard-core porn videos. Through his four-year sentence, he insisted they weren't his. 'I was only watching them!' he protested ad nauseam. Considering his feverish foraging for copies of Hustler, it seemed churlish to demur.
Middle-class professionals are a rarity in mainstream prison populations. They are usually chauffeured off to open conditions then released at the first suggestion of degenerative disease to further careers in naked duplicity. (What happened to Saunders? Is he better now?)
Labelled a 'professional criminal', I, and men like me, accept prison as an occupational hazard. There is no whinging or special pleading (and certainly no informing) as is the case with felonious fat cats or fulminating MPs impaling themselves on trusty swords of bullshit. Establishment striped shirts are great levellers. We all look the same until some open their mouths just wide enough to insert the other foot.
Foot in mouth disease is commonplace. Many a prisoner has been convicted on the testimony of a 'trusted' cellmate. Too often prisoners think sharing a cell means sharing a brain cell. The urge to confess can be seductive; resisting that urge stratifies criminals into an unwritten hierarchy of lowly cardboard gangsters and those equipped to carry a cerebral burden. If knowledge is power, the latter are undeniably powerful. The former, with inexpert folds and tucks, seek to fashion themselves into three-dimensional characters, but rarely surpass caricature. Bogus Cagneys strut the landings sporting 180-degree swaggers you could dry washing with, but are eventually considered nothing more than objects of ridicule with nicknames like The Godblether, Don Cornflakes or whatever else surfaces from the sobriquet reservoir.
My five-year hiatus found me ill-prepared to comprehend the extent of opiate abuse now rife throughout the system, brought about by prisoners' fears of losing remission for failing a drug test. Cannabinoids remain detectable in people's systems for up to, and beyond, 30 days while opiates, especially heroin, can be flushed from the system in two or three days. And, as the vast majority of offenders are drug users outside, they either stop using benign soft drugs or make the step up (or more accurately, down) to heroin. So, when the Scottish Office heralds a 'downward trend in drug use in prisons', it really means a decrease in cannabis, not opiates. Many leave prison with a heroin habit whereas prior to incarceration they had been hash smokers or occasional opiate users, i.e. cocaine or ecstasy.
The upsurge of poly-opiate abuse engendered by an ill-informed, arbitrary drug-testing programme has its roots in external attitudes. Significant shifts away from socially benign cannabis use to more addictive substances, mainly heroin, have had degenerative consequences on individuals and prison atmosphere. Cannabis was the most effective 'baby sitter' known to prison staff. While acknowledging the illegality of hashish it surely cannot be prison policy to knowingly create heroin addicts in a meaningless campaign to extinguish cannabis. Hash-barons had a mellow attitude to debt collection and I've yet to see an angry prisoner on hash.
No so with smack-dealers who must violently ensure collection to feed their own increasing habit. If authorities cannot stifle influxes of drugs to a closed community, how can a 'war on drugs' hope to eradicate introduction to an open society? Increased seizures only advertise increasing quantities finding a way into both communities.
One interesting statistic recently divulged that more people are killed every year in high-speed police car pursuits than of ecstasy consumption. If agencies of social control can't be relied on to respond safely, there's an argument for relevant educative training for police drivers and occasional space cadets alike. Apropos statistics – twice as many people die in chip-pan fires than of ecstasy use, so perhaps we'll have the oven chip police crashing the door in to confiscate the Crisp'n'Dry.
Quality incarceration time depends on who shares your space. Not the easiest person to live with, the majority of my years have been spent blessedly alone. Your radio becomes your friend. And of course, books, those 'friends that never let you down' as I read somewhere. Occasional Feng shui desires soon dissipate when confronted with screwed-down furniture. Eventually you settle for what you have and personalise the cave as far as regulations allow.
One person I did enjoy sharing the eight by six space with was an ex-public school Oxbridge bohemian doing six years for manufacturing cosmic quantities of LSD. Unimaginatively titled The Prof, he equipped laboratories and masterminded distribution of enough acid to intimidate Timothy Leary. He introduced me to the intricacies of chess; the beauty of Vaughan Williams' 'Lark Ascending'; subliminal imagery in dark Victorian novels; and a hilarious psychedelic justification for the existence of cricket. Toothless, as a 'consequence of a bit of a fracas with a second cousin over croquet', he had ample room for additional plums. He possessed an accent to cut industrial diamonds to shreds.
He prefaced the most ordinary questions with 'I say, George old sport' and used 'spiffing' without a trace of irony or self-consciousness. He was a hoot! And also one of the most dangerous men I'd ever met. His violence, similar to his merchandise, was synthetically manufactured to fit the occasion. Understanding its ridiculousness enhances the lethal consequences. Public schools must operate on certain individuals to eradicate all semblance of compassion, effectively implanting snobbery with violence as an alternative. An example may illustrate his psychology more vividly.
We were next-door neighbours occupying single cells a year or so after we'd been two-ed up together. Single cells were a privilege and mark of time served. On a weekly basis, prisoners purchase 'luxuries' from the canteen which The Prof called 'the tuck shop'. Items such as civilian soap, shampoo, tobacco, biscuits and – his favourite – cocoa. 'It reminds me of plumped-up pillows and Nanny Catherine', he once recalled, regressing to infancy in a twinkling. 'Peterhead Revisted', I could have countered if I'd been aware of all that 'trouble with Sebastian' in an unfamiliar novel. He was an odd fish. Soon to mutate into a hammerhead.
'Peter' thieves are lowlifes who steal from other prisoners' cells. Carefully they select a victim and approach an unguarded cell. They had mistakenly labelled The Prof a 'bam' due to his accent. Their relative newness to the prison left them ill-informed. They tend to advertise themselves if you know what to look for, but The Prof's head was full of other things. Today it was Pink Floyd and a kaleidoscope. Discovering his stuff had gone west, he asked if I could 'detect the culprits' and suggest what to do. 'What's the usual form?'
Counter-measures are legion. One involves snapping a couple of razor blades, then pushing the pieces beneath the surface of civilian soap. (Toiletries and soap are prime targets.) Once it's disappeared from your cell you just wait until screams are heard from the showers or blood starts to drip from offending mitts at the communal sinks. There they are, red-handed.
'The quickest way is to slam the door on their hands,' I advised.
'Capital,' he said. 'Capital idea.'
And that's what we did. We walked in on these two metre-bandits lid-deep in cocoa and McVitie's chocolate biscuits (plain chocolate, mind) a feat they'd never experienced outside never mind inside. The Prof left them more traumatised than England cricketers.
A few of us chipped in some goodies to replenish his stocks. He was visibly moved by this gesture, referring to it periodically in his stream of consciousness letters for some years. The last I heard he had re-established himself in London, providing internet services no one considered feasible. This guy is an anorak with attitude.
Re-reading this offering only highlights what's been left unsaid. Maybe just as well. Observing the constant ebb and flow of 'loyalty card' recidivists washing up like mutant waves on Dounreay shores isn't any kind of life. I'm no better, only different I think. For those constructed of irregular grain, the outside world resembles a journey through an art gallery without knowing what you're like. Prison, for many, is an escape to a place where living portraits really do follow you everywhere, then tap you for a roll-up. In essence, it's akin to dropping through a trapdoor. You're fine as long as you keep falling.
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