A Cold Reception…
Preface: I must admit to cheating a little on this one; Most of what follows here is actually taken from my novel in progress, ‘Blue Murder’, but with a little editing and a few interjections here and there, I do think (hope) it makes for an interesting stand alone piece. Thanks for reading…..
Prison itself is not the problem, nor even the prospect of losing one’s liberty, even for many years. It’s the fear of prison, fear of the unknown, the uncertainty, and what we expect it to be like. There od course other considerations: separation from one’s family, loss of friends, career, and way of life, but for the man who has never been to prison such fears are secondary to the fear of what will happen to him, of just not knowing.
The ‘first timer’, more so when he spends time on bail, will torture himself with worry, picturing visions of his worst perceptions, convincing himself that every bad thing he’s ever been told or heard about prison is true, will come true; come the day of sentencing you think you’re about to enter the gates of Hell. No need to be confronted with the adage Abandon hope, all ye who enter these gates, hope will already have given way to despair.
And it gets worse long before it gets better. Even the strongest of men are broken by its prospect, separation from what they know, exchanged for what they don’t. The closest analogy is that of a child’s first day at school. He wonders why he’s being plunged into a strange new world, new surroundings, figures of authority, unfamiliar faces, and no one to guide him through the nightmare ahead, the horrors to come. It’s something we’ve all been through. But by the day’s end, that frightened child, his initial fears, that sense of isolation, will have all but disappeared, replaced by a lively youngster full of exuberant chatter, and new friends, reassured by gentle words of comfort from sympathetic listeners, his fears a forgotten memory.
It is here the analogy ends abruptly! The prisoner’s first day does not end, but carries on long into the night, surrounded not by those who care, but by those who don’t. And how different that first day is…!
It was a bit like my first day at school, old and Victorian looking, massive and imposing, frightening almost to a four-year old. But this was different. This was terrifying. Man a I now was, I knew the world I was leaving behind was one I’d be a long time in seeing again. The hug pair of wooden gates dwarfed me as I squinted through the tinted glass of the narrow slit windows of the prison van, or sweat-box as it’s often called on account of its tiny one-man .box like compartments. Moments later I was on the other side of those huge wooden gates. this was real, no one telling everything would be alright. Just a grim sense foreboding as the bus pulled to a halt. I tried not to think about what lay in store.
What hit me first was the age of the buildings, seemingly accentuated by years of decay and neglect, as evidenced by the vast tracts of chipped brickwork, rusty iron bars, and filth strewn pathways. But it was an impression, quickly replaced by something worse – the sight of several surly looking, powerfully built officers, screws as they later become known to me, going about their business, awaiting the arrival of more bodies, waiting for me…
With barely a word I was ushered out of the bus, my cuffs removed while one of the other screws unloaded the personal property boxes of some of the others who were arriving rom other prisons. How many years would it be before I too was the owner of such boxes I wondered, not that I was given much time to ponder the thought before ‘escorted’ along a short gravel path. I couldn’t help noticing how many pigeons there were; shabby moth-eaten looking creatures, fighting over a variety of scraps and discarded rooting bits of food thrown from out of the many cell bars I could see as we made our way to the reception block. what would that be like?… again I wondered…
It was too depressing . Nothing I could have imagined. The word ‘reception’ seemed an odd choice of name for it, implying a place of welcome, to help you settle in. At least that’s what I thought; I was wrong.. herded into a communal cell like so many cattle with no idea how long I’d be there, too afraid to ask one of the others what to expect. Twenty minutes later or thereabouts another screw came and opened us up, but only to ask if any of us wanted a meal and a cup of tea. Some humanity at least? I hadn’t eaten all day, and was surprised when most of the others refused. But I could see why when I saw what was being offered, a revolting swill, a mixture of over-boiled cabbage and potatoes, a meat pie that would have been greatly improved if the kitchen staff had bothered to cook it first, and finally, the traditional mushy peas, some sort of green slime reminiscent of something out of a ‘Spielberg’ movie. Now I understood.
Never have been to prison, the procedures and routine were all new to me despite the many well-meaning tips and bits of advice from mates and acquaintances, many of whom had spent the odd stint ‘inside’ themselves. But nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead, an ordeal which had already began from that moment I’d stepped off the prison bus… Walk this way, walk that way, wait here, stand over there… I might just as well have been an item of stock they didn’t have room for and weren’t quite sure what to do with. I was as though every last detail had been carefully worked out with me in mind; of course, I was wrong, I wasn’t that important. Nonetheless, a deliberate and systematic procedure to humiliate and degrade… it was a procedure I was only vaguely aware of from T.V. and other people’s accounts but this was real: first they wrote down my details; name, date of birth, marital status, dependants, and so on. Then came the doctor’s ‘examination’, a tersely word with a white-coat just to confirm I was still alive and well enough to cope with whatever else was in store – they ere making sure I wasn’t suicidal and likely to cause them all manner of laborious paperwork by going and harming or topping myself or the like closely followed the check on all my personal belongings before sealing them in a plastic bag. Then it was to be the final humiliation, the ritual and literal stripping away of everything that is you… in this case, me…
First it was my clothes they took, right there in front of whoever happened to be about; screws, other cons, anyone… shivering with cold and disgust, and fear, I removed most of my clothes and dropped them into a heap on the floor.
“And the socks,” a voice commanded.
I took them off and stood barefoot on the cold stone floor.
“Open your mouth…. Wider… Say ‘ah’… Again, say ‘a-a-h.. Now raise your tongue.”
Like some horse trader, one of the screws inserted two of his latex gloved fingers into my mouth, stretching one cheek, then the other until he was convinced there was nothing hidden.; then he checked my ears, pulling them back, checking my hair at the same time. Then I was told to spread my hands to show there was nothing concealed between my fingers, and to swing my arms as a final check that my armpits were equally devoid of contraband.
I felt self-conscious at first but the feeling soon passed, realising just how unimportant I was to them. There I stood, naked but for one small token to modesty, a towel wrapped about my waist. Then, in that same flat, irrefutable tone as before, he ordered:
“Take your penis in your hand..”
Stunned and further disgusted, I let the towel fall to the floor…
“Turn back the foreskin.. Move it up and to the left.. now to the right… Right, you can let it go now.” But the ordeal was not over yet:
“Turn your back to me.. Straddle your legs. Wider… Bend down and touch the floor… Legs wider…Stretch your buttocks with your hands… Right, now squat. Quickly! Again!”
It wasn’t just my body they were stripping, but my very identity, reducing it bit by bit, wiping clean until I was just one more flesh covered statistic with a number, my name serving as little more now than a cross reference to the past.. I was now RP 2019.
Having suffered and put up with every humiliation, I stood in dejected silence as the screw handed me another towel, nodding at me to proceed along the counter. It was frightening to feel that way, but even more disturbing was not only how easy it been to strip away the last remnants of my personality, who I was, but how completely powerless I was to resist…
“Reynolds RP 2019. Sign here, here, and then again at the bottom to state that your property sheet’s all correct.” I obeyed without question, not bothering with even a cursory glance to check if indeed it was correct. I no longer cared, and judging from his manner, neither did he.
“Through that door and get yourself a shower, then back here to collect your kit.”
Again I obeyed. The showers were a large open communal type, enough to accommodate maybe 20 men. Three other cons were also showering, some distance apart as you would expect. One of them briefly glanced in my direction, and then looked away again. The water was loop warm at best, the floor tiling grimly stained and cracked in in various places. I showered quickly. Ten minutes later I was back at the reception counter as ordered. My ‘kit’, as it was called, was the mismatched bundle of prison-issue clothing I’d be wearing from now on, along with some clean bedding items for whatever cell I would be allocated. I was then ushered to a communal cell for another twenty minutes being opened up again…
“Okay you lot, this way,” some other screw beckoned. We followed him in the direction of what I later learned was ;E; Wing., through dimly lit narrow passage way, until we reached what I suspected must be one of the main wings, a huge gloomy hall, again dimly lit but light enough to see that it reached up three or four levels with numerous cell doors on each, every one of which was shut.
There were a few screws dotted about, but otherwise the place looked deserted. It was a first and misleading impression though, knowing as I did that behind each and every one of those doors probably there a prisoner, each with his life and memories and a story to tell.. just like me…
Eventually we came to a circular, open area called the ‘The Centre’, from which I could see another four halls all radiating out from it like some satanic pentagon, each exactly the same as the one we’d just walked along. It was now that the escorting screw sternly emphasized that we were to walk round the Centre, never across it! Only officers were afforded that privilege. Yet another petty rule I couldn’t see the point of. It was a relief when we finally made it to ‘E’ wing and allocated our cell numbers. Mine was 1:34 on the ‘ones’ as it was called on account of it being on the ground floor.
At least I would be on my own and not two’d up with some homicidal maniac I thought with some relief, noting there was only the one bed in the drab twelve by eight foot cell…
“Well, this is it. You’ll find a prison rule book on the table. Make sure you read it!”
Before I could turn to reply the door slammed shut. The sound of the lock mechanism sent a cold, convulsive shiver throughout my entire body. I threw my kit across the bare mattress of the bed and stared at he four graffiti defaced walls, totally numbed for the moment. It was several minutes before my thoughts began to make any sense again. I wished they hadn’t… With a determined effort, I set about making up my bed, sorting my kit and arranging what few possessions I’d been allowed to keep with me, in a vain effort to personalize the empty vacuum that was to be my home. Vain indeed though; there was no disguising its bleak emptiness. I was tired and defeated, afraid almost to get undressed for bed, afraid of experiencing again the humiliation of the past few hours even though I was alone now. I’d been prepared to defend what I’d done, my life, my morals. Never had imagined anything so simple, so dull, and so irresistible as the cold hard reality of the past few hours. The people who’d received me were brutal, petty-minded low-grade officials: Little Hittlerites in the making, as uninterested in me as in my supposed crime, but alert and watchful for the slightest rule infringement, things I hadn’t even thought of and thereby unprepared for, watchful for the slightest sign of resistance. But what would resistance mean, I wondered, and what good would it do me? With every step I had taken, every screw I’d met, on a different context each time concessions had been required of me, so trifling compared to the long battle ahead that there seemed little point in making a stand – yet taken as a whole, the systematic procedure of breaking you down, breaking me down, was as effective as any you could imagine.
It was all too real. I didn’t want it to be. I switched off the naked bulb, hoping to extinguish the reality as easily as the light. At last I was able to muster the strength to undress and climb into bed. But even in the dead of night there was no escape from where I was. My eyes focused on the far side of the opposite wall. It was illuminated by a stream of light emanating from one of the external security watch-towers, casting a silhouette of the bars through the tiny window above my head, a shadowy, nightly reminder of my captivity for more years than I care to remember now.
I’ve heard it’s not so bad these days, that they try to ease the blow and not through you in at the deep end as it were. I hope that’s true, that your reception is warmer than mine…