|Chesil Beach viewed from The West Weares|
Wednesday, 11 September 2013
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.