Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Chesil Beach viewed from The West Weares

St. John's Church viewed from our house

More 'fluffy stuff' from The Verne

I’m five minutes early which is just as well because I need my ID.  I thought my national database number, which the prison sent me after long, extensive and thorough vetting, would preclude my having to take in ID, but I was wrong.  Kristina (not her real name), the guard  showing us around, decides I’m safe enough to let inside anyway.  She claims she’s checked my passport to the two men controlling the gate, even though it’s still home in my drawer.  She’s subtle enough to do it without the other two potential volunteers noticing.
We start off in the gym, which Kristina tells us is vital for the inmates as they need to let off steam and keep up their spirits.  Despite the intense heat of the day, all the equipment is busy and she says it’s always full.  The men are given time-slots and there’s also some non-assigned time when it’s on a first come, first served basis.  It’s a huge space and there are two offices set up high with glass walls overlooking, so security can keep an eye on what’s going on. 
The most open wing is the one they graduate to when they’re close to getting out of The Verne and into an open prison.  The inmates get a lot of freedom here, with a pool and snooker table to use, as long as they look after it.  Kristina gives us a tour and one of the men lets us see his cell which looks like a room in a students’ hall of residence.  I tell him it’s neater than my son’s.  They’re allowed to have pin-boards to keep personal stuff on and I see a photo of a little girl, blonde and pretty.
This inmate is keen to talk to us and he says he’s been on this wing for a year and has regained some of the social skills he lost when he was in the lock down wing.  This is a vast place but Kristina says that although she has been in charge of it all by herself at night, she has never once felt uncomfortable here.  She says the men like having women guards because they can open up to them – they don’t like to admit ignorance or weakness to another man, but a motherly woman is easier for them to confide in.  Sometimes the men can’t read – but they don’t like to ask a male warder to read a letter to them. 
The lock-up wing is more like the old-fashioned kind of prison with barred windows and doors with slide-across openings for the guards to check on the inmates.  One cell has a transparent perspex door and this is for men who are suicide risks.  Guards take turns to sit in front of this the whole time if a prisoner is thought to be in danger of trying to kill himself.  Next to this cell is a cupboard full of riot gear – helmets and full body shields.  The head of the wing gives me one of the shields to hold – I can barely take the weight and could never manage to hold it for long.  Kristina must be a lot stronger than I am.
Sometimes, if somebody is kicking up, the head of the wing says, you have to go into the cell wearing all this kit to try and calm him down.   All the guards are trained how to use it all.  Kristina says sometimes they’ll send her or one of the other women in, as a flailing, pissed off prisoner will often restrain himself straight away, saying it’s not fair, he can’t attack a woman.  There’s a small exercise yard at the end of the corridor, so they can get some fresh air.  The fence around it is 30 metres high, even though it only separates this wing from the rest of the prison.
We put our heads into the chapel on our way to the health centre.  It is as elegant, cool and spacious as I remember when I came with a choir to sing Faure’s Requiem last Easter – that day  the men attended in droves and gave us a standing ovation which was unexpected and moving.  Near to the chapel there is a multi-faith space where muslims can wash their feet and pray.
The health centre is run like a GP’s practice in the real world with appointments system so that the men remember how such things function when they get out.
 “We don’t want to spoon feed them too much when they’re in prison,” Kristina says.

She shows us a dorm, where the room is divided into eight separate private spaces by just curtains.  The men have a communal sitting space and three of them are watching tv.  The aim is that they can practise getting on with other people when they’re sharing the same space.
It’s almost too hot to move so we walk slowly through the trade areas – brick laying, plastering and decorating are all going on.  A guard is patting down a man before he leaves the area.  Since  they are working with tools such as hammers and chisels, the guards have to be very thorough.  We pass huge greenhouses where the men grow many of the vegetables used in the prison.
The head of security talks to us seriously and bluntly in his office, asking us questions about how we think things work in here.  He says he doesn’t like all this fluffy stuff like inmates going outside the prison to work or do community service and volunteers coming in.  It all makes his job harder – the main point of which is making sure nobody gets out before they’re meant to.  Nobody would stick around if the fences fell down. 
We must always remember that these men are all criminals.  Many of them will try to condition us to make us like them, so it makes their lives easier.  One of them might ask us to post a letter for them – he’s missed the post and wants to send a card home in time for somebody’s birthday.  They can send letters out, but they are all read first.  When it’s too late, the prison might find this letter has gone to the inmate’s former victim and is full of threats.  We must always be professional – never share personal details with them, or chat too freely to staff members in front of them, giving away information about ourselves or staff. 
We must be vigilant and help with security also.  If we notice a hole in a fence, don’t presume that security is aware of it.  If we hear of any security lapse that they ought to know about, make sure they do. 
Should I confess I’ve been let in without identification and drop Kristina in it?  Not if I want to come in as a volunteer and stay friendly with her.  That will get us both into trouble.  And yet, this is exactly the kind of casual, dangerous behaviour he warned us about.   

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

St. John's Church garden now a building site

Opposite our house is now a building site.  It was originally the garden of St. John's, a large Victorian church but was sold off years ago to pay for an organ.  The site has been sold before but nothing was done with it and we had pipe dreams of making it into a community garden.

The new owner, a builder, bought it at an auction from the bank who had repossessed it and now he's clearing the site himself with a digger.  He's knocked down part of the Portland stone wall which separated the road from the site and cleared  years worth of  fly-tipping and japanese knotweed but he's also smashed up the buddleias which were in a purple patch and making the butterflies happy.

He's had two huge fires which smoked up the neighbours' houses and both times they called the fire brigade on him, although he says he'd let the service know ahead that he was having a controlled fire.

"Nobody wants this site cleared," he complained on Saturday.  "I'm thinking of selling it.  I know they was looking for a place to put a half-way house for prisoners when they get out.  They've spoken to me about buying this so I might just let them 'ave it and save meself the hassle."

"We want it cleared," I said.

"You're in a tiny minority."

Jamie looks a bit pale about the prospect of a halfway house across the road.

"Maybe he just wants the residents to think more kindly about his garages,"  I say. 


Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Room full of Gentlemen


A Room full of Gentlemen

8.25 I’m trying it out to see how easy it is to get here in time for an 8.30 start.  I’m a bit too early as I was booked for 9.30 and it turns out Vikki is busy helping Sandy with oral testing so I have to hang around for a while in the waiting room in the gatehouse.  The governor asks me if somebody knows I am waiting.  I have to show my passport and put all valuables, mobile phone and my car key in a locker.  Somebody with prison keys has to escort me so Shauna, the education administrator, comes to get me and takes me to the education wing.  In the staff room, I meet the Art teacher and have a cup of tea to warm up.
Vikki comes and we have a chat about my qualifications and experience and what I would like to do as a volunteer.  I say that I would like to help out with reading and writing.

She takes me to Sandy’s bright, warm, spacious classroom and I meet some of her students.  Most of them are black, non native English speakers.  Far from being intimidating, they are the most motivated, charming and polite group of students I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in a classroom with.  Gentlemen, the lot of them.

Sandy calls them Mr. So and so and they all call her by her first name.  It’s good practice to keep your surname out of it and never tell them where you live
I listen to one of the men read and then join in with the class when Sandy teaches them some how to spell words they may have to use in their writing exam on Monday.  She has a relaxed, chatty manner and a good relationship with her students, even teasing them gently at times.  They’re very respectful with her and the whole class has a supportive atmosphere.  The lad whose reading I listened to rushes to give me a tissue from his pocket when I have a coughing fit.  Sandy says her Wednesday class is very peaceful and she comes out feeling calm.

 “The Verne isn’t a real prison,” one of them says.  “The Scrubs is a real prison.  You know you’re in prison when you’re in The Scrubs.”  One man says he liked The Scrubs better because you knew where you were in there.  He doesn’t like all these corridors in The Verne.

 The Verne is not an open prison but the men take classes and many of them work.  Some of them work outside the prison in The Jailhouse Cafe and in charity shops.  One man tells me he packs tea bags and cereal into boxes which go to other prisons.
“Do you have any choice about what work you do?”
“When you first come in, they give you a list of jobs and you can put down which ones you want to do.”

"This man is the best in the class.  I can't teach him anything."
She reads out the letter he has written asking a friend to buy a present for somebody in his family.  It is faultless.  He will sail through the tests.

She is very worried about these tests, which have just been brought in.  They have to do speaking and listening tests, reading tests and writing test every seven weeks and in some cases they can’t even read when they start in her class.  From not reading to taking these tests is a huge step but she can’t bear the thought of them failing.

One man, (let’s pretend his name is Bruce), helps the other students with their work.  Sandy says he is a great example of what prison education can do, as he is now well educated, despite having had no qualifications when he left school – although he says he was always good with spoken language. 

Bruce says he was moved around so much as a boy, he could never settle down in any school and also says he was a “scumbag” who deserved every bit of his sentence.  He’s been inside for ten years and has grey hair which may be premature. 
“When I went into prison I thought at least I could get some education.”

He talks about giving something back by helping some of the others learn.

There’s a programme in the prison called “Toe to Toe” where good readers can be peer tutors for those needing to learn.  The tutors wear a tee shirt with a Toe to Toe logo so they can be identified .

“I love it when they shut my cell door,” This is Bruce again.  “I read books do some of my art and I know nobody will disturb me.”
 He tells me that his fiancĂ©e is a teacher, but she’s thinking of giving it up, because of the pressure she feels under.

 “You wouldn’t think he was a murderer, would you?”  Sandy says when we leave the class room. “I never ask them what they’re in for, but most of the lifers are in for murder.”
I suppose you wouldn’t get life for much less.
 “I learn more from them than they learn from me,” Sandy says and not about murdering, presumably.  

Later, Vikki and I have a debriefing session.  She tells me that when I have my security briefing they will try to talk me out of coming.  They’ll ask you what you would do if you were taken hostage. 
“You would comply with what they say and keep yourself safe.”
I ask her what would happen if a dangerous situation developed in the classroom.
“Every classroom has a panic button that you can press if you need help.  In the three years I’ve been here it’s gone off three times – twice by mistake.”

The keys I will carry on my belt when I am cleared by security have to be put down a chute  when I go home.  If the keys leave the prison, every lock will have to be changed.  Luckily an alarm goes off if you forget to give them in but soon it will just become automatic.

My friend Charlotte texts me when I get out. 
“Are you free to talk?”
“I am now.  I just got out of prison.”
I don’t often get a chance to say that.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Two new shops have opened up on Fortuneswell.
One is Jackson Gallery, a spacious, beautiful cafe with local art shows and a view which replaces a boarded up window and gives Fortuneswell a soul-satisfying look at the sea.  They have imaginative lunches and brunches on Sunday and they even cater for difficult foodies like me who don't eat wheat.  Their coffee is delicious and they carry redbush tea too so we are big fans.
Mark and Jo who own it run a bed and breakfast business in the rest of the house and have a holiday flat for rent below with the same sea view.
The second shop is Portland Pride, which sells local produce and gifts.  We have started buying all our cow's milk there as it only comes from Weymouth .  They also stock vegetables from Steepton Bill Farm run by Tess and Steve who used to supply the Saturday morning stall at Victoria Square when we moved here.  It's good to have their vegetables again.
The shop is a real boon to the neighbourhood as it is beautifully decorated, has fairy lights in the window at night, gives 10% discount to people over 60 and delivers free on Portland.

Fortuneswell has been transformed by these new shops.  Long may they thrive.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The South West Coast Path is closed along the West Weares, which is my favourite bit of Portland.  A huge crack has opened up and if it turns into a landslide when you walk along it, you will fall down a 300 foot cliff.

If you want to walk here, you still can but you have to detour through Tout Quarry, which has the benefit of being sheltered, with Anthony Gormley's Man Falling to look at, but it doesn't have the jaw dropping views you get from the West Weares and you can't see Chesil Beach at all.  I miss this walk, as it's one of my regular routes and the quickest way to get to the gym on foot.

The upside is that the number of suicides may go down.  The West Weares has three or four jumpers a year and there are a couple of places with memorials and flowers.  A spot for a lad called Browner had a bottle of beer left out last time we walked by.  Every year the islanders play a game of cricket in his memory.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Guillemots in trouble at Chesil Beach

Hundreds of dead or struggling guillemots coated in a sticky, transparent goo landed on Chesil Beach last Wednesday.  The survivors were taken to a bird sanctuary where they are being washed with margarine  then Fairy Liquid.  If they live, they will have to wait until their waterproofing returns before they are put back in the sea.
Nobody knows what the stuff is and there is no sign of a slick on the water or the beach.  There's talk of it being Palm Oil, which is ironic, as we are fighting to stop a Palm Oil Plant being built in the area.
Anyway, we've been on the National News and the BBC were looking for a local eye-witness, so I ran down to the beach on Friday morning but couldn't see anything except for a huge television news truck with a satellite dish on top.  The surfers were out at Chesil Cove.  They were't afraid of getting coated in sticky goo.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Snow in Portland

It hardly ever snows in Portland.  Two years ago, when we had just arrived, it snowed for the first time in eleven years, even on Chesil Beach which is covered in salt.  The children in the primary school had only seen snow in pictures.  Now, this year in the middle of January it snowed again.  We haven't even been here for three years and already it's snowed twice.  Could this be down to our Canadian heritage?  Friends advise us to keep quiet about it.  We could get attacked in the street, the weather we're having.  Luckily our accents have all but faded and we hardly ever wear our mukluks, although now is the time we need them most.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

New's Year Eve

On New's Year Eve we go to The Cove House Inn.  It is the only house left standing from the original Chiswell village, most of which was washed away by the sea a century ago.  It looks like a cottage from the Yorkshire Moors, the white Portland stone turned to the colour of Millstone grit over the decades.  The sunsets from the front door are without compare and in the bars are pictures of shipwrecks and scavenged lobster pots.
Big Kev who works on the Oil Rigs tells us about the night in November a forty foot wave came over the shutters and washed his uncle, who couldn't swim, down the cellar stairs.  He survived but refused to come back here for twenty seven years.
There's free food and music for the regulars and a few people are wearing costumes.  One lady is there with her seven sons and they are all in fancy dress.  They come every New Year's.  There are men in black, a bat man and Mandy's son is John Lennon.  The pretty girls behind the bars are wearing wenches' outfits.   At midnight we hug and kiss everyone.  Kev's step daughter Amy gets tearful and his son Zak who has Downs syndrome is dancing up a storm.  He doesn't have speech but he communicates beautifully.  I join in until until the music is unplugged half way through a song.