Looking Back on May

We started this month with a full lock down and it made me think, how many people on the other side of the wall actually know how a lock down works? Many might think they do, but it is the intricacies which I think don’t hit you until you’re at the centre of one.

It all started when a piece of wire from the grill in the kitchen went missing. The wire is thick enough to be made into a weapon so it was rightly taken quite seriously. Since it was the start of the weekend, they didn’t lock down the prison straight away though. Instead they increased the presence of staff from the Dedicated. Search Team (DST) on the wing and searched everyone coming and going from the wing with both a wand (metal detector) search and a pat down search, even if they were simply heading to the nurse’s hatch and back. To compliment this, they did a couple of targeted cell searches on those who were most suspected of taking the wire.

However, when it got to Tuesday and the wire had still not turned up the Governor printed a notice to prisoners announcing a full lock down. A copy was pushed under every door. This is something which, I have to say, Wakefield is quite good for. Other comparable prisons I have been in (such as HMP Frankland) simply leave you locked up and not knowing why or for how long – which adds to the stress and feeds cabin fever. Staff are then deployed to methodically search every cell in the prison. The truth is, most lock down searches do not result in staff finding the object they are looking for. Usually it has long since been got rid of. However, even if the item in question is found on the first day, the lock down will continue until all cells are searched because lock down searches actually tend to turn up things which staff either didn’t know were missing, or didn’t know they existed at all.

At the start of a lock down the kitchen workers will be searched first so that they can attend work and continue cooking prisoners’ food. At lunchtimes a cold meal is provided in a carrier bag and brought to your door by officers so that you never have to leave your cell. At dinner times a hot meal is provided as normal, served at the wing servery, but instead of everyone queueing at once just half a dozen prisoners are unlocked at a time and watched en route to and from the servery to collect their meals. Some prisons have kettles. Wakefield isn’t one of them. Instead we are allowed flasks which can be filled at the wing boilers. During a lock down flasks can only be filled at dinner time, which is an area of some complaint since part of the lunchtime meal is powdered soup and/or instant noodles, which cannot be made at lunch since hot water is not available until dinner. Finally, at dinner you will also be issued with a breakfast pack to eat the following morning.

During a lock down there are no phone calls, legal visits are cancelled, and no one but the kitchen workers can attend work. You can still post letters (taking them down with you when collecting your dinner) but it is uncertain whether these are collected or processed. My cell window looks out across the route taken by staff from the censors department to the wings and, during the lock down, I didn’t see anyone coming to collect or deliver mail. This is most concerning because letters would be the only way of letting your family know you are ok. The night before the lock down started I had told my mum that I would call her back at lunchtime the following day. I couldn’t do that and it would be understandable if she became worried when my call never came through. This is especially the case in extended lock downs. The longest one I ever experienced lasted for a full week.

The final issue relating to lock downs is the search itself. The way this is conducted depends very much on which officers are conducting it, whether or not they know you, and what they know about you. For example, if the officer searching your cell is a known jobsworth they will ignore the fact that they are looking for a piece of wire, or a mobile phone, or whatever, and read every sheet of paper in your cell too. Something which clearly doesn’t aid the targeted search. Similarly, if you have a history of being found with weapons, or if the officer searching doesn’t know you or your history, they will also search more thoroughly. On the other hand, if you get a reasonably straight headed officer searching, who knows you and knows you have a clean history, they will search only up to the extent necessary to be sure you don’t have the item they are looking for.

In theory staff are meant to leave your cell in the same state their found it. In practice this never happens, it is always at least a bit of a tip after a search, but it is usually not hard to put it all back in order unless you get a particularly malicious officer. In the past I have known personal photographs to be literally ripped from the wall and trampled underfoot on the floor, electrical equipment to be dropped and broken, and (in one case) someone’s toothbrush was put into and left in their cell toilet. Occasionally this will result in disciplinary action, but usually it results in a complete denial and closed ranks.

Once the lock down is over, and prisoners are released from their cells, tense, worried about family, and stinking from lack of a shower, the regime varies. Around half of the time association period is laid on for prisoners to make calls, get a shower, and chill out. But the other half of the time prisoners are expected to go straight back to work. These only times when I have point blank refused to work. It is a personal line in the sand for me. I simply don’t work without a shower. It is degrading.

But how often do lock downs actually happen? Here at Wakefield there was one in September 2013 and one at the start of this month. They are truly rare. Back at Frankland they were a little more common. At one stage there were three in a month. The funny thing is, you never know who is going to do your lock down search. During the search here at Wakefield in 2013 they called in officers from other prisons to assist. I had been transferred from Frankland just a month previously after a blade was found in my cell and one of Frankland’s governors confirmed that it had been planted. When it came to my turn to be searched at Wakefield, the very same officers who had found the blade in my cell at Frankland opened my door to do the search. They were all very interested in knowing what had happened to my adjudication for possession of the blade and when I told them it had been dismissed because it had been planted they could only protest “well, that’s what you say”. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “No, that’s what the governor said.” They didn’t reply. Once the search was complete and I was being escorted by them back to my cell in tense silence. I gave in to temptation once more. “So what did you find this time?” I asked. “Kalashnikov behind the TV? Tank under the bed? Or just another one of your blades?” He remained silent.

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