After waking up early yesterday, I was raring to go. My time had finally come and I was to be transferred at last. We were unlocked at 5 am and I immediately did a circuit of the wing. Everyone I knew, everyone I had been a neighbour to, everyone who had been a friend to me, they would all be going to work in a matter of minutes and I couldn’t leave without saying my goodbyes.
I headed down to the wing gate first, to catch the early queuers. The people who hated being on the wing so much that they would be in the queue to go to the workshops as soon as possible, and long before the gates had opened to allow them off the wing. But these were not necessarily the people I had been closest to. These were the people I knew to speak to, but who I didn’t have such an open connection to. These were the hand shakers. The “good luck”ers. The familiar faces that I’ll likely forget inside of a year. And then I moved on.
Next up was a sprint around the wing, dropping in on some of the people I have known longer and better. Some of these people might usually be queuers too. But not today. Today they were waiters. They wouldn’t seek me out, but they knew I was going, so they all waited on me to drop in and say farewell. Some of these people I have known for years. In one case, for ten long years through our time in two different prisons. These people were split. Some were hand shakers, others were huggers. They were all “don’t come back”ers, reminding me of the number of people that do.
In one year alone I had seen at least half a dozen people return to Wakefield from Grendon after being de-selected or de-selecting themselves.
I had asked each and every one of them what they thought of it and the answer was always different.
“It’s great,” said one. “I just wasn’t ready for it. It’s therapy twenty-four, seven and it was too intense for me. But if that’s what you need, Grendon is the place to be.”
“It’s shit,” said another. “I got in one fight and they kicked me out.” I concluded that, like the first person, he just wasn’t ready for it, though I doubted that he could see that himself.
After completing my circuit of the wing I headed back to my own cell. “My own cell”. Well, at least it was for the time being. There I found the last group of people I had to say goodbye to. These were the ones that mattered. They were the ones I was closest to. The people who I might not have known as long as others, but whom I knew best. These were the ones who needed no explanation of where I had run off to first thing in the morning, they were comfortable to just go into my cell and wait for me to come back, and I was comfortable to let them. Some of them would usually be queuers, but today they didn’t mind being late or, if it came to it, missing work completely, even if that meant getting into a bit of trouble.
They were all huggers. More than that, they were embracers. Two of them, it turns out, were criers. And every one of them were “You can’t leave”ers.
It touched my heart that so many people had warm words to say to me and even more so that those closest to me were so distraught to see me go. They’ll all be ok, I know they will, but it got me thinking about myself. I’ve been in jail for seventeen years now and every time I move from one prison to another there are more people than ever before turning out to tell me how much I mean to them. There must be a reason for that. Maybe more than one reason. I’d like to think that there are two. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that it is partly down to the fact that I am finding it easier and easier to let people in. There was a time when I just couldn’t do that. Partly due to the environment and partly due to my inherent shyness. Secondly, I think that part of the reason more people gravitate towards me than used to be the case is that I am simply a far nicer person than I used to be. Let’s get it right, I wouldn’t have come to prison at all if I hadn’t been a complete dick at some point — to put it mildly. But I came to jail at the age of 16. Now I’m 33. I have done more than a little bit of growing up, of changing, and of trying to better myself in that time. I can’t help but think that the number of people who turned up in my cell to say a proper goodbye, rather than just shaking hands in passing, is a good reflection that my efforts to be a better person are working.
And then they all had to go to work and I was left behind on the wing, alone, taking in the quiet and reflecting on the fact that soon it would be me leaving them behind. It is a strange thing, saying goodbye to prisoners when you get transferred. There is a kind of grief that comes with it. In jail you live in a very small world and, for me at least, it has become a coping strategy to keep my consciousness within that world with only a few exceptions made for family. Until you have lost your freedom you will never understand how dangerous it can feel to allow your mind to wander beyond the other side of the walls. To let someone or something on the outside travel into your consciousness is to allow yourself to think of all you don’t have. The only thing that hurts more than that is not to have that someone or something on the outside at all. And so, when you transfer to another prison and leave the only friends you have really known for so long, you know that most of them will head off on their own journeys soon and few, if any of them will ever cross paths with you again. In a manner of speaking, they are leaving your world forever and, if only out of self-protection, you will soon have to close them out of your consciousness. To you, they are dying, and for them, you are too. So you grieve. You grieve for the friends you have known. You grieve for their support. You grieve for the familiarity of their voice. And then you start over.
An hour later I was out in the open air, the harsh Yorkshire wind blowing hard in my face as I walked, flanked by a prison officer on either side, the twenty meters or so from the door of HMP Wakefield’s reception department to the awaiting transport van. Four bags of my property had already been loaded on, with the rest due to get sent on to me at a later date (due to the limit on property allowed on transport vehicles which is vaguely justified by the enigmatic phrase “It’s health and safety.”) and only I was left to get on and squeeze down a central aisle between two rows of cells down each side to an awaiting door. In I went to sit in my portaloo sized cell on a hard plastic seat (with no seatbelt, by the way — where is health and safety now?) where I would wait for the driver and escort to sign off their paperwork and get us underway.
I sat and waited patiently, my heart thumping in excitement as I tried to distract myself by reading the various names carved into the plastic window next to me.
There were two other prisoners travelling with me from Wakefield, but we all had different destinations. The first was heading to HMP Rye Hill near Rugby in the Midlands. The second was on his way to HMP Swaleside in Kent, but would have to stop off at HMP Bullingdon overnight due to the distance and I, of course, was going to HMP Grendon, just a few miles from Bullingdon. And so we set off and, as you might expect, my eyes were glued to the small square window beside me, taking in everything I could around me. The sky, the weather, the fields, the animals, the motorway, the cars, the people, the shops, the houses, the whole world. Taking back just a little bit of freedom as it seeped in through the cracks in my incarceration.
It strikes me now that I think about it, that I notice so much more about the world around me than I used to. For example, Did you know that the blades on wind turbines are not just bent around their length to catch the wind, they also have a kink toward the ends of each blade? I’m guessing it extends the length of each blade’s leading edge, maximizing the amount of wind that hits them and turns the turbine. I learnt that on my journey. Would I ever have noticed that before I came to prison? I suspect not. Perhaps that is because I, like most people, took so much of the world around me for granted. Now, however, I have been isolated from the world for so long that, when I do get the chance to see a bit of it, I soak up every little detail. You might think that is a good thing, but it worries me. It reminds me of a friend I used to have (and who I think I may have written about before) who was released from prison after a long stretch and found himself so overwhelmed by the pace of the world around him that he couldn’t take in everything his mind was trying to. As a result he broke down in tears in the middle of a shopping centre and returned himself to prison shortly afterwards. He was institutionalised. Are my observations on the design of wind turbines the first sign that I may be experiencing the same thing? I can only hope not.
Eventually we pulled into Rye Hill. A private sector prison run by Serco by what appeared to be an army of sixth formers. I don’t think a single one of the officers I saw was older than twenty. But we didn’t stay long. It was the single drop off and then we were off again and back on the road.
All in all it was about five hours from Wakefield to Grendon but then we arrived and drove through Grendon’s neighbouring prison (HMP Springhill — an open prison) where we saw prisoners out gardening in the unconfined open air, and through a small gate in a wire fence. That’s it. No wall.
For the first time in ten years I am in a prison with a fence rather than a wall. I can’t even express how strange that feels when you first drive through it.
I was welcomed into Grendon’s reception by three friendly officers and a red band prisoner (a red band is a prisoner who is risk assessed and authorised to walk around the prison grounds without staff escorting them, including up to the outside fence, and is issued with a red band to wear on their arm or leg to indicate this authorisation). They processed me in and I assumed that, as at every other prison I have ever been to, I would be sent straight to the wing and pick up my property in a few days when they have PAT tested my electricals to ensure that they are no fire risk. Not here. For the first time in my sentence I found that they were ready to get it done there and then. The red band set it up as two of the officers unpacked my clear plastic sacks of property, searching each piece and handing it to me.
I felt so overwhelmed trying, on the one hand, to express how grateful I felt towards the red band for what he was doing (even as he brushed it off as normal, unaware of how, to me, it was anything but), and, on the other hand, attempting to keep up with taking property from two officers at the same time, deciding if I needed each piece in possession, reporting what each piece was to the third officer to log onto my property cards, and pack it into a bag. At least half a dozen times I was asked a question which, somehow, my brain managed to filter out so completely that I didn’t even hear it until about a minute after it was asked, by which time it was too late to answer. And all that whilst, simultaneously, trying to make to make the best first impression I could. Of course, that probably wasn’t helped by a small quote I had been sent in which one of the officers found in my bag:
“Sometimes my mind wanders off to a happy place where I am allowed to punch people in the throat and there are cute puppies and free cake.”
The officer read it and then called his colleague over and showed him, one eyebrow slightly raised as if to say “How long do you think he’ll last here? I give it a week.”
I wanted to protest, to scream out about how it was only a slightly amusing quote, not a mission statement I intended to live my life by, but I knew it wouldn’t help. Far easier to let it go and not make a big thing of it. So I went back to juggling my many distractions. Then, once we were done, it was just a matter of loading it all onto a trolley to take it to the wing.
It wasn’t far, but the covered walkways between the wings and the various departments of this prison are far hillier than I’m used to and it took a fair amount of wrangling to keep the trolley under control. And then I was there, on the assessment wing where every prisoner starts their Grendon journey and ready to start my own. Still grieving for the familiarity I had left behind, but almost ecstatic that my ten year fight to get to a Therapeutic Community (TC) prison was finally over. I’m here. At last.