The prison couldn’t look more like a prison. It looks like a picture of a prison drawn by someone who’d only seen Porridge and maybe some Victorian paintings of correctional institutions. It makes it very difficult to forget where you are.
One thing the staff love to do at the prison is show you their museum of confiscated weapons. It’s mounted on the wall at the entrance to the main wings, at eye level in glass cabinets. They’ve had to add another cabinet since I was last here. The weapons are improvised knives for the most part – melted toothbrushes with razor blades stuck in them, jagged bits of ripped metal lashed to pens with bits of bed sheets. There are also cudgels and knuckle dusters made out of screws, and a couple of fake wooden guns. One of the knives stands out. It’s a plain black, a rough but functional blade, obviously made on the outside and passed in. The handle is demarked by a wrap of masking tape. On the tape is written “Please stop him.”
I look at it for ages.
First, they take us through the main landing, where the prisoners live. They’re three stories high, the top two floors open in the middle, just balconies and cells, so from where we are on the ground you can see all the way up to the roof. There’s netting stretched above us on the ground floor, to stop the men getting thrown off the higher balconies, or jumping. We stand around a tatty pool table with a big rust-coloured stain in the middle, and the officers chat to us about how the prison runs.
This is a long term Young Offender’s prison, which means everyone here is young – 18-22 mostly – and they’re all in for a very long time. They have a lot of lifers, and none of these guys will leave here for home – they’ll all go on to an adult prison eventually. The officers refer to the prisoners as “lads” and seem affectionate about them. We’re told that staffing cuts mean their social time’s been halved in the last few years, and the officers seem properly sorry, and annoyed, about that. They’re acting like the kind of teachers you never gave any hassle to at school – really stern, but fair.
We can come through now because the lads are having lunch. I go up to a cell door and stare through the tiny window, only about an inch wide, and meet the eyes of a young man, sprawled across a bed that takes up most of his cell. I jerk back, mortified. I suppose I was imagining them all in a canteen or something – I’d forgotten that prisoners always have meals in their cells. Two lots of food per day – lunch at 12ish, and dinner and your breakfast pack given at 4:30.
As we stand on the wings, the officers start to tell us about spice. Spice is a really big thing in prisons at the moment. We keep seeing posters everywhere, of eighteen year olds laid out on hospital beds, covered in tubes. The way I understand it, spice is a bit like LSD and also a bit like cannabis, but incredibly dangerous and also not that fun. It’s cheap, and synthetic, and undetectable in drugs tests at the moment. It’s made to look like pot usually, by spraying chemicals onto plant matter, but they say it can come in on anything. They can’t check every letter to make sure the envelope’s not been sprayed. Besides, they only have two drugs dogs trained to sniff it out.
In the prison?
In the country.
They tell us they had a lad in here got taken to hospital because of spice, and stayed there for three weeks. He’s still paralysed down one side.
Today is a good week for fighting drugs in prisons though, because it’s just been made illegal to throw things over prison walls.
What, it wasn’t already?
The officers start telling us about the things people have thrown over the walls. Drugs, obviously, mobile phones all the time, and last week, two McDonald’s Breakfast Wraps.
Did they have drugs in them or something?
No. Just breakfast wraps. Still warm.
The other big thing is mobile phones. It is seriously illegal to bring a mobile into prison, and they are mainly smuggled in through serious organised crime – it’s a difficult item to get in. The officer tells us, it’s funny, the means to get them in are so illegal and complicated, but the lads who end up with them just use them to call their girlfriends and their Mums.
So they just use them perfectly innocently, then?
Well, yeah, but it’s still illegal.
One of the others asks if they have a vulnerable prisoners unit. Almost all prisons have a “VP” wing, which is in theory used for a number of reasons, and in practice is where they put the sex offenders. The officer shrugs. He tells us that they have a separate bit, but it’s not for normal VPs. He says that, because we’re so close to London, and they have so many issues with gangs, it’s quite common for a prisoner to be held in the same prison as, say, someone who murdered their brother.
Next, they take us to the library. They’re really proud of the library – apparently up until recently it was tiny and rubbish, but now it looks like the kind of thing you’d get in a smallish secondary school. I walk past shelves of Stephen King, Vampire Diaries and a well-thumbed army of Harry Potters. Later, I find Horrible Histories and Where’s Wally.
Horrible Histories? I pick up one of them and flip through. It’s been read loads. Eighteen really isn’t that old.
There’s a knock on the library door and the officers open it. A young man in a mickey mouse jumper comes in and introduces himself as Dean. He’s the library orderly – a really good prison job. He tells us he loves reading, and volunteers mentoring the lads with low literacy one-on-one.
The officers ask Dean about spice, and he pulls a face that suggests he thinks that people who take spice, or mambo as the prisoners often call it, are massive idiots. He says, the thing is, despite the risks, people are going to keep taking it, because it’s cheap, and you can’t get done for it.
Do you think the posters put people off?
Nah, they just think it’s the prison trying to scare us. They’ll take it as long as it can’t be detected.
How long has spice been around?
Five years. But a lot more since about Christmas. It’s exploded.
But don’t people know it can hurt you?
Dean rolls his eyes and tells us that you get special kudos if you can get the ambulance called out five times for you, from spice. It’s called the Mambulance Award.
One of the officers says, the ambulance crews only got trained to deal with spice last week. Before that there were no guidelines in place at all.
One of the others asks Dean if he writes any letters to anyone. He looks a bit startled. A few, he says, to family, maybe one or two friends. He doesn’t like to keep reminding them he’s in here. They know he’s safe. Anything else would just stress them out.
In the car on the way home, I think about that knife. “Please stop him.” Not “get him”, “stop him”. They only wrote three words, and one of them was “please”. I keep imagining someone’s Mum, someone’s sister, slipping it to them on a visit, giving them a look like, come on, you promised, and some lad reluctantly taking this little homespun weapon…
But I don’t know.
I don’t really know anything about it.