A Wing and a Prayer

Walking onto the assessment wing here at Grendon for the first time was unlike arriving on the wing in any other prison I’ve been in. The wing gate opened onto a wide corridor and, as I pulled my trolley full of property onto the wing, I noticed that there were only half a dozen people around and there was no noise whatsoever. In most jails I’ve been to it is very different. Most are beyond loud. The sheer chatter of between 30 and 200 prisoners (dependent upon the size of the wing) all talking to one another soon mounts up into a cacophony of voices that feels like a wall of sound, separating you from the various established groups of prisoners who each stare down at you (usually over the rails of a higher landing) as you struggle on your own to heave multiple bags of heavy property behind you. But not here. Here it is different.

HMP Grendon is dubbed a Therapeutic Community. On my arrival I learned that the emphasis is on ‘Community’.

A prisoner was sitting at a cluster of low chairs around a coffee table in the corridor and no sooner had I walked onto the wing than he stood up and gave me a smile, a little sign that I was welcome. He headed over and introduced himself as Derek (all names are changed on this site), shaking my hand.

“Are you a lodger or are you here for therapy?” he asked.

I didn’t know what he meant by lodger, but I replied with certainty that I was here for therapy. It wasn’t until later that I found out that the open prison next door (HMP Springhill) sends prisoners to stay here if they do anything to have their Category-D Open Conditions revoked. They then have to wait here until a transport can be arranged to another Closed Prison. Hence, lodgers.

Derek didn’t stick around long, but he’d welcomed me, which was more than I’d ever had from a prisoner in any of the other nine prisons I’ve been to. I looked to the escorting officer who directed me to the door of the wing office. There I was welcomed again, this time by a pair of smiling wing officers who told me that my cell was number 503 as they handed me a cell key. It’s years since I had a key to my own cell. Not a key like the officers’ ones though, mind. In most jails the cell doors have just one keyhole for the officers’ keys, but in some there are two keyholes. One for the officers (which locks you in) and another for the prisoner which will only let them in and out if the officers’ one is already unlocked. It shows an increased level of trust which is ironic since the main use of the prisoner key is to ensure no one else can get into your cell to steal your belongings. Were it not for these secondary locks, the doors would likely be unclosable for most of the day, as they are in many prisons, putting your property at risk of theft or damage.

As I took my key I questioned where cell 503 was and was met with a similarly enigmatic answer. “It’s up on the fives,” replied one of the officers.

After reading my blank expression, the other officer offered to show me so I grabbed one of my bags of property from the trolley and followed him to the end of the corridor where two staircases rose from the ground floor on either side of a pool table.

`I might have to get back into pool,’ I thought. It had been over a decade since my last game and I wondered if I could still play at all.

The officer led me up one of the staircases to the next floor and then we turned off onto a very dark spur, through a little gate, and past half a dozen cells to cell 503; the last on the left. The last one left.

I walked into my new prison cell and was struck by how small it was.

The bed is the standard length of a single bed, but around a foot narrower. However, I was used to such beds. What I wasn’t used to was that the cell walls came into contact with both the head and the foot of it. The cell can’t be more than seven feet square and the only things it had going for it at first impressions were that it appeared to have a decent paint job (quite rare in older jails), there was an abundance of cupboard space attached to the opposite wall to the bed, and there was no toilet within sight and smell of where I would be laying my head for the night.

Unlike any prison I have ever been to, Grendon operates a ‘Night Sanitation System’. In short, during hours of lock up you press a button in your cell to enter the queue for unlock. Only one prisoner per spur of the wing can get out of their cell at a time (approximately half a dozen prisoners are on each spur). Once you are first in the queue, your door opens electronically and you can go out onto the landing (locked onto your spur by the little gate I had passed through en route to my cell) and into the toilet. Sadly, you are no longer allowed to use the shower during such periods since someone here had previously used the shower room to hang himself. After his death the coroner ruled that the showers should be locked off during the times that Night Sanitation was activated. However, I can’t help but wonder how anyone could have used the showers even before this incident since the time limit for excursions on the Night San’ are limited to eight minutes before the officers downstairs start asking questions. Over by a few seconds and you’ll probably get away with it. Over by a minute and you might get your Night San’ turned off for a while to remind you how to time keep. Off by more than five minutes and you’ll likely find a couple of officers on your landing demanding to know what you are playing at.

The view through the bars of my window redeemed the cell immensely.

I say bars, in truth they are the most covert bars I’ve ever seen. Where my previous cell windows have all been around a metre square and divided into five vertical strips by very obvious bars (with only the two most outer strips opening — if any), this window could easily have been mistaken for a classical window frame comprised of sixteen small panes divided into a four by four grid by nothing more than the strength of the metal window frame itself, the middle four panes opening outwards quite widely in a single section. What is more, whilst other windows had all been Perspex, this one was actually glass. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen actual glass. But nor could I remember the last time I had sight of a tree from my window, let alone the impressive silver birch which grows just a few meters or so away from this one, its branches waving in the wind only just out of arms reach.

I looked out and down into what I later found out is the Buddha Grove: A small garden enclosed by the wings in which there sits a golden statue of Buddha, cross legged and serene upon a plinth. A path leads from a gate to the statue between little shrubberies surrounded by gravel as the silver birch shades him from above. Though not a Buddhist myself, I appreciated the Zen of these surroundings and the proximity to real greenery and I truly felt like one of my many prayers had been answered. Only later did I realise how quickly a vast array of nature would re-enter my life here at Grendon.

After carrying all of my property back to my cell I grabbed my plate and headed down to taste the quality of the prison food.

There is a large dining room just off the corridor leading from the wing gate and an adjoining kitchen (dubbed The Pod) where the food for the wing is cooked and served fresh and hot. In most prisons the food is cooked in a central kitchen and transported to the wings for service, but rarely here.

It was dinner time and though I hadn’t had time to pick out a meal choice yet, they had ensured that a meal suitable to my diet (vegetarian) had been put on. I was more than shocked when they dished it up. It may only have been two vegetable samosas, some steamed veg, and some roast potatoes, but the portion was enormous. There were at least two handfuls each of veg and potatoes and the samosas sat precariously on top, threatening to jump ship at any moment. I tried to steady them with my hand, but this was the hottest meal I’d had in nearly twenty years. Food in other prisons is served lukewarm at best. So I simply tried my hardest to balance it all.

But then I was suddenly back at school, looking around the dinner hall for the right table to sit at. The one that wasn’t empty (a sign in jail that these are the reject or, worse still, the nonce seats), but that wasn’t too full either (perhaps an indication that an insular group owns the territory already. And then I saw the obvious table to choose. There was only one person at it but it no longer mattered because it was a face I knew. His name was Ray and I knew him from Wakefield. He had transferred here a week before me and as I walked up beside him and sat down without saying a word, just waiting to see how long it would be before he noticed, my ‘new boy’ feelings dissolved entirely. Then he looked up and said simply, “Hey, Adam,” before doing a sudden double take and smiling widely.

“When did you get here?” he asked with an enthusiastic grin.

And I grinned back because I had an ally and a friend to start the next phase of my journey with.

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