Prison courses

Time was flying by and I was now into the final third of my sentence. Although my tag hadn’t yet been officially granted, I was quite confident I’d get it as I’d proven myself to be a trustworthy character over the past few months. My personal officer had also assured me that if I maintained my good behaviour, I was well on track to be home a few weeks before Christmas.

I had been mentoring and helping out with wing jobs for quite some time now and although I’d enjoyed my time doing this, I decided it was now a good time to take on some new challenges and apply for some courses.I still had at least 12 weeks or so left and what better way to spend them than to broaden my knowledge and learn some new skills. I’m not sure how other prisons compare but Oakwood offered a wide range of courses to enrol on, from gardening to personal training. I’d recently been interested in applying for a barbering course but for the dates I wanted to do it was booked up and so I was only able to complete the induction. As I couldn’t continue with the rest of the course, I instead spent some time watching the wing ‘barber’ doing his haircuts and learning some skills and tips from him. The wing barber isn’t an official job title given by the prison, the wing actually had it’s own barber shop with workers in. However, some lads who had completed the extensive barbering course would buy some hairdressing clippers on their canteen and offer their services at a weekend, obviously at a cost. This could be anything from a vape cartridge to a packet of biscuits so it’s not a bad little side job. If you have the skills and offer the service then you become known as the wing barber.

With Oakwood being a big prison, there is plenty of space for outbuildings and open areas for courses to take place, whereas smaller prisons may not have the space or facilities available to enable them to provide as many options. I’m aware that this presents some unavoidable barriers but I really believe that all prisons, especially cat C, should provide as many courses as possible for prisoners. They give those serving sentences a focus and an opportunity to gain new skills and qualifications in subjects they may not have been able to access previously.

Furthermore, the apprenticeship schemes which are offered in some prisons are invaluable and can provide prisoners with the opportunity to completely turn their lives around. Other courses provide a qualification upon completion, such as an NVQ, which is amazing and something which I’m certainly not knocking. However, in my experience and of many people I’ve spoken to, upon release from prison any education, skills or previous work experience seems to be overlooked once that tick box declaring a criminal conviction is ticked. This was something I found soul destroying and was actually the reason I first joined twitter and began my blog. I spent hours upon hours applying for jobs I was more than qualified to do, only to be rejected or, even worse, ignored. I will discuss this in more detail in a later post but I can’t stress enough how beneficial the apprenticeship schemes can be in helping prisoners move on with their lives once they are released. Struggling to obtain employment and not being offered a second chance can unfortunately lead to people reoffending but that cycle can be broken with these apprenticeship programs where the induction is completed in prison and, if passed, you’re offered employment upon your release.

One company who do amazing work with people serving prison sentences and who I can speak very highly of (alongside my employer Timpson of course!) is RMF, a training and construction company based in the midlands. They began their Fresh Start employment program in 2014, with the aim of assisting disadvantaged people through training and into employment, including those in prison. Currently, they have links with 17 prisons nationwide and provide training and support to prisoners both pre and post release, helping them to secure employment within the construction and rail industries. This is beneficial for both the employers and employees and has proven to be successful in unemployment and crime rates. It’s actually unbelievable to me that more companies haven’t followed suit after seeing the benefits of being a socially inclusive employer.

One Friday afternoon I went to the kiosk and opened up the courses menu to see what would be available to me. I had heard about an RMF rail track course throughout my sentence but it hadn’t been available to me due to having too long left of my sentence. By this point I had around 12 weeks left and I was pleased to see that it was now available! I instantly got my name down and, along with Andy, we were enrolled to begin at 8:30am on Monday!

I was up early that Monday, showered and sat waiting with a coffee, anticipating unlock and movement to work for the first day of my rail course. Unlock arrived with the smash of the bolt on my door and the voices of lads leaving their cells filled the wing. For the first time in a long time I had to leave my cell instantly and follow the crowd of lads moving off the wing. After months of sauntering out of my cell at 8:30 ready for a game of cards and a coffee with the other wing workers, this was quite a change! Myself and Andy had been told we were to head to the ground floor of a big building we’d previously attended the library in and as we arrived at the green gates of the building, were met by a line of officers doing rub down searches. Once we were cleared, we headed in and walked to the room we had been allocated. As we reached it we saw around 10 lads stood along the white wall of the corridor and realised the door to the room was locked behind an iron gate. Nobody spoke a word as we all stood and waited, but a few glances and nods went between us all as we realised we’d all be on the course together. It wasn’t long before a friendly looking lad with a bag and clipboard began walking up the corridor towards us. He wasn’t an officer but clearly not a prisoner either and wore a blue tracksuit with RMF on the shoulder. As he approached us, he smiled widely and introduced himself as our course tutor whilst he unlocked the gate. I couldn’t help feeling slightly anxious as this was the first time I’d been in a group environment with lads I didn’t know for months, but I knew it was just because it was another new experience and it would soon settle once I’d got stuck in.

The room was small with bright white walls and tables were positioned in an arch facing a white board on the back wall with a desk underneath it. I chose a seat next to Andy and the tutor asked us all to take turns standing up and introducing ourselves to the rest of the room stating our name, age and job history. For me this meant my name, age and a big fat lie! There were some brilliant job histories that came out, from a Chemist (drug dealer) to executive driver (drug runner) with some legit jobs thrown in and I stuck to my story of joiner. I was so glad I had used a job I was knowledgable in as when we got further round the room one lad said he was also a self employed joiner and of course he began asking questions about it! It really panicked me knowing I was lying but thankfully, as my title wasn’t exciting, I went under the radar.

The introductions helped ease the tension and awkwardness in the room and we were all ready to get started. The tutor began explaining the premise of the course, what would be expected of us, what we would gain from it and also the prospects after completion. It all seemed very interesting and promising and I felt like I’d really enjoy it, I just really hoped I’d pass! We were also told that RMF accepted lads on the course who, 1. have passed mandatory drug tests, 2. have enhanced status and 3. have between 12 and 20 weeks left of their sentence. So, in my mind, I was in here with decent lads who had chosen to attend and so would hopefully take it seriously and not mess around. The next 10 weeks would involve me spending each morning in this classroom and each afternoon on the on-site prison rail yard being taught the practical skills. This was the first of many interesting days on the rail track course!

Contraband, debt and realisations

Over the next month or so my daily routine pretty much stayed the same. The nightly cell workouts, and visiting the gym 3 times a week, were really beginning to pay off, both mentally and physically. One big positive that came from my sentence was that I got myself into the best shape I’d ever been in! I’m sure this applies to many others too – having more free time than you know what to do with leads to many hours of press ups and sit ups and team this with the small meal portions and no alcohol it’s bound to have an impact on your physical appearance. It was a complete life style change for me and I felt, and looked, good for it.

I was still ‘working’ as a mentor which I enjoyed much more than the workshops. Each afternoon I was assigned to a classroom where a teacher had asked for a mentor to help support any lads who were finding the workload difficult. The classes ran from 2-4pm and consisted of around 10-15 lads, but I’d generally work one to one with somebody who was struggling to keep up. From this, I’d often build up good relationships with the lads and would help them outside of the classroom with things like letter writing or reading legal letters for them. I wouldn’t have ever wanted anybody to feel embarrassed and so never pushed my offer of help on anybody, nor was I ever bullied into helping, I was just happy to if they wanted to ask me. I actually made some pretty good friends from doing so and whilst helping we’d enjoy a coffee and a chat. There was one particular lad who I’d often have a game of chess with and, despite my best efforts, I lost every time. I always thought I was alright at chess but I just couldn’t win a match against him – he was like a male Beth Harmon!

As my mentoring usually began in the afternoons, my mornings were often pretty mundane. From around 8:30am the wing was pretty dead with most lads either at work or in a classroom. There would just be a couple of officers walking the wing or popping in and out of the office and the handful of lads who had jobs on the wing including 3 cleaners, the store worker (Andy) and the laundry worker. Anybody who didn’t have a job was generally banged up during this time but as I had a pretty good relationship with the staff, and was always willing to help the wing cleaners, clean the staff office or help Andy with jobs, they were pretty relaxed about having me out of my cell. I was extremely grateful for this as the 12 hour bang up was long enough without adding another 4 hours to it. Quite often the jobs would be done quickly and we’d have time to sit playing cards or monopoly on the upper landing, whilst the smell of bleach filling our nostrils from the freshly mopped floors.

Although I generally kept myself to myself, I did have a small group who I often hung around with, especially during those mornings as we all had our enhanced status and worked on the wing. Andy was my best mate in there and we got on really well. He’s actually the only person I’ve met up with since we’ve both been out. Then there was Ben who was only 23 and the wild one of the group. He didn’t mean any harm and was a nice guy but liked to keep himself amused by playing pranks on us. Lastly there was Matt, a pleasant, more mature guy in his late 50s who came across as intelligent and a proper family man. Each morning the four of us would gather at the end of the wing on the upper landing where there was a large round table with chairs placed in front of a window overlooking the exercise yard and fields beyond the razor wire fencing. We’d have a coffee and a maybe a game of cards whilst chatting about general day to day things, such as our routines or lives outside. Amongst the general chit chat we had a few good discussions surrounding issues in prison and what we felt worked well or what could be done better. One such chat was about mobile phones.

I have spoken of mobile phones and in cell phones quite often on Twitter. From my time working nights on the wing as an OSG, I obviously knew mobile phones were used in prisons. However, I had no idea quite how many there are around or what they can look like and my eyes were opened massively during my sentence. For those who don’t know what a “prison mobile” looks like, imagine a car key shell without the key blade, thats how small they are. Obviously they are illegal and if you’re caught with one you’d be in serious trouble. However, I’d say 50% of the prisoners in my wing had one or at least access to one and they can be really difficult to find. I used to think when officers spun a wing of cells and found 3 phones they’d done really well. Now, from my experience as a prisoner, I’d think finding 3 phones would be a small percentage of them. That’s not saying the staff are lax at all, it just seemed that the lads, certainly the ones on my wing, were always a step ahead. For instance, if Intel comes in that Barry in cell 5 has a mobile phone, by the time a search is carried out the chances are that the phone is no longer with Barry and nowhere to be seen. How they seem to disappear so quickly I really don’t know, but I did learn a few things whilst serving my sentence.

Whilst working as a night OSG I learnt quite a few of the popular hiding places, such as in the bins, the pool table pockets and in dirty laundry bags. I’d say the majority were hidden in cells though and some of the places were quite frankly ingenious. I saw one hidden inside a TV, the back taken off with a makeshift screwdriver and the phone hidden between the wires and chipboards. Another clever one was inside an original source shower gel bottle where the opening was sliced vertically to allow the clingfilm-wrapped phone to fit through to be submerged in the shower gel. The original source brand was the preferred choice as the liquid is opaque! I’m sure there are many more brilliant and inventive ways to hide mobiles, not to mention the obvious place, inside yourself. It really did make me wonder how many phones were actually hiding in the cells.

There are obviously pros and cons to mobile phones in prison but I do sway towards the cons. I get the argument that if they were to be allowed it could be beneficial to the mental health of prisoners as they could keep in more regular contact with loved one. However, I also strongly believe it would cause unnecessary trouble in prisons. People get slashed for things as insignificant as not paying back a packet of £1 noodles, imagine what trouble it would cause if people were lending phones from others and using their credit. People will end up in debt they can’t pay off with their minimal earnings, and the debts can double each week he fails to pay before it will end in worse than a small slash. As brutal as it sounds, these situations happen over much smaller things than mobile phones and I sadly witnessed this a couple of times.

One Saturday, in late summer 2017, I had a pile of laundry and as people didn’t work on weekends, everybody did their own on a first come, first served basis. The laundry room was located on the upper landing by the gate which lead you off the wing. It was like a grubby little sauna, only around 3m x 3m, and housed 2 huge industrial washing machines, a large dryer and a big steel sink, all stood on a permanently damp, brown tiled floor. Behind the sink was a heavily steamed up window, the constant condensation build up blocking any views of the yard outside. As you arrived at the room with your washing, you’d place your laundry bag on the floor to hold your place in the ‘queue’ and hope that everybody waited their turn. It was then a case of keeping your eye out on the person in front of you going in so you’d know it was then close to your turn. On this particular day, there was a situation between two guys as one had taken it upon himself to jump in front of the other in the queue, apparently due to this guy owing him a vape cartridge. This obviously got his back up and so, in retaliation, he took the TV from the other lad’s cell. The acts were undertaken discreetly as there were officers around but the rising tensions were quite obvious to us all. I was stood by the pool table later that day when an argument broke out in a nearby cell. I saw a lad leave and thought it would be the end of it but a group of 3 followed him into his own cell. I can’t say exactly what happened in there but it was quick and the guy ended up with some nasty looking slashes across his face, so I can have a good guess. All of that basically started over a £5 item. It absolutely mortified me that this was the mentality of some people and I was suddenly reminded of my fragile position in here as ex HMP staff. I’d managed to keep this underwraps so far so I just had to hope that I could continue that for my last few months.

Something which would offer a safer alternative to mobile phones and that I strongly believe should be mandatory in all prisons is in cell landline phones, which I have spoken about a lot. Back in 2017, when I was inside, there were no more than 20 prisons in the UK that had phones in cells and I was so lucky that Oakwood was one of them. I know there was a drive in 2018 for phones to be introduced in many more prisons but I can’t be certain of up to date figures, although I’m sure it is nowhere near all of them. As previously mentioned, I feel there are many benefits to having them including the positive impact they could have on the mental health of prisoners and a reduction in arguments and bullying. Whilst having phones in cells would decrease the use of mobiles, I came across so many during my time at Oakwood so can only imagine how many are in use in all those prisons without the luxury of cell phones.

Another extremely popular, yet prohibited, item found amongst prisoners is a UBS stick, which seem to get in really easily. One Sunday Andy asked if I fancied a brew in his cell and to watch the fight. It was only around 10 hours after Floyd Mayweather had fought Connor McGregor and there I was, sat watching it with a coffee. We didn’t cause any harm in doing this, we knew it was “illegal” but us watching the boxing didn’t ruffle any feathers. However, I couldn’t believe how it was possible, how did the USB stick get in so easily? I was told that somebody had been passed it from a visitor during a Sunday morning visit and Andy bought it off him. How simple that is seems quite scary doesn’t it. The stick was a standard USB, easily big enough to have been a pen knife or a hollowed USB casing full of whatever substance you want. In this case it was a USB stick with a boxing fight and a football match on it but what It could have been and how easily it happened was frightening.

Obviously contraband in prison ranges from phones to USB sticks to drugs, each dangerous in their own right and all rife in the environment I was living in. I was still very vulnerable in a dangerous place with a few months to go. I just had to focus on my tag date but at the same time keep my wits about me.

Life in a single cell

It was my first afternoon in the single cell and my first job was a deep clean. It was a big job after the fire, but I was granted permission to stay on the wing for the afternoon with my door open and given free access to the laundry room, where an industrial sized sink stood. Back and forth I went, refilling my water bucket and ringing out my grimy mop, and after what felt like forever, I was finally done!

Oakwood, like many prisons I know of, have single cells on the upper level of the two level wings. As you go up the stairs, there is a walk way right the way round the floor, about 5ft wide with the cell doors on one side and a 4ft high railing on the other, overlooking the ground floor. More often than not this will be covered in damp towels and t-shirts hung out to dry, giving the wings that generic damp smell all too familiar on wings around the country.

Inside a single cell at oakwood the layout is basic, as you would imagine in a prison. Standing at the doorway looking in you would see a single wooden bed frame, which is bolted to the wall and floor, topped with a blue plastic mattress. Next to the bed on the far back wall is a square window, around 2ft x 2ft, covered in 2 layers of shatterproof plastic with a strip that could be opened via a vent down the right hand side. It didn’t do much but I guess it let a little bit of fresh air in at least. Next to the window, and running along around half of the right hand wall, there was a desk and shelving unit. This was made up of 4 open fronted shelves for your clothing and then a 3ft desk area. I personally used this for my TV, as a dining table and also an area I could sit and write at, it was pretty adaptable!

Finally, in the bottom right corner theres was a wet area which was blocked off from the rest of the cell with a shower curtain. Here the floor tilts slightly to a central drain and directly above this, there is a shower head mounted to the wall with an ‘on’ button. The temperature is set and cannot be changed and although I wouldn’t say it was freezing, it’s certainly below what most people would have at home! Once you press the button, the low pressured water will stay on for around 3 minutes before having to press it again, but as I found out, there’s a limit to how many times you can press it before you then have a long wait for the water to begin flowing again. So you may be stood with a body full of soap for a good 10 minutes if you’re not quick.

Directly facing the shower was a seatless white plastic toilet which was moulded to the wall so that nothing can be hid in the cistern or behind it. Alongside this was the sink, made from the same hard plastic, with two holes in the wall for hot and cold water, each activated in 10 second bursts by the press of a button. There are no taps present for a number of reasons; they could be broken off and used as a weapon, they could be used to flood a cell and finally they could provide an object on which a ligature could be tied. Another safety feature in the wet area was the mirror above the sink was made from a hard reflective plastic backed paper rather than glass. This obviously didn’t give quite the clear reflection you get from traditional mirrors but it did the job.

The room was lit with a strip light which was housed behind a reinforced glass fronted cut out in the wall near the ceiling. It was a bit of an eye sore to be honest and gave off that bright white UV light which was awful! Often lads would get t-shirts, bedding or cloth and stick it over it to dull it down whist still giving off enough light. Depending on what colour material you covered it with, you could give your cell and nice colourful glow. I actually managed to get my hands on a spare blue pillow case and so my room had a nice ocean vibe to it, very swanky indeed!

So that’s a generic cell, I hope it’s given you a good picture. When you first arrive, they are beyond basic but you can buy things from the canteen in order to personalise it a little. It does sound weird but some lads had some pretty smart cells! You can buy things weekly from the canteen such as bedding, magazines with posters, stereos, fans, rugs, curtains..quite a lot really. It will obviously always be a prison cell but you can at least make the best of your personal space. By the end of my sentence I was actually quite proud of mine. I’d even given it a feature wall using some blue paint which Andy had managed to acquire from stores.

Out of all the purchases you can make, I’d definitely recommend buying your own bedding. The beds are unbelievably uncomfortable so if you manage to get your own bedding you can wrap your mattress in the prison issued bedding to make it slightly thicker and more comfortable and have your own new bedding to wrap up in – luxury! I would also recommend buying a fan, particularly if you are serving a summer sentence. The cells in oakwood were heated on a timer which fired up twice daily regardless of the weather outside. So on a hot August day when the sun is blazing through your window, that heating will still come on and you’ll definitely want a fan.

All in all my time in a single cell was fine. I quite liked my own space after a day on the wing or mentoring, so I often found it a welcome relief when my door locked and I could chill out on my own. My days, as you can imagine, were repetitive. Prison is run on routine, you get told what and when to eat, get locked up when you’re told and follow instructions throughout the day. You’re regimented from unlock at 8am until you’re locked back in your cell at 7pm. This is something that can have a huge affect on prisoners after they’re released, getting used to not having that structure and routine can be so difficult. I did a relatively short sentence but even I struggled in some aspects, something I’ll talk more about in a later post. Whilst I liked having my own space in the evenings, being on your own in a cell can be excruciatingly lonely and some lads really struggle. If you have a pad mate who you get on with, you can have a chat or play board games, anything to keep your mind busy. Being on your own with your thoughts for 12-15 hours, in a tiny cell without any escapism can be really difficult, particularly if you already suffer with your mental health.

I have spoken a little on Twitter about having a personal routine whilst alone in my cell and how much it helped me. It may not be for everyone but it certainly made the hours go by faster and stopped my thoughts from wandering too much. I mean, I can imagine lads are happy to sit hour after hour watching TV and that’s amazing if that works for them but it just wasn’t for me. I remember one particular Saturday around mid July, it was roasting hot and the sun was pouring in through my cell window when the lock snapped shut on my door at 5pm. I was locked up for 15 hours that day and all I had on my mind were my friends back home. I could just imagine them sitting in a beer garden, having a laugh, not even considering me whilst I sat alone in a stuffy cell. The majority of the time I I didn’t allow these thoughts to take over but sometimes it became too much and I couldn’t help it. It was crushing and so hard to snap out of. Im sure we can all think of a time when your mates have made plans or gone on a night out but you have to work? Well multiply that by 100. It was a horrible feeling. Keeping busy and to a routine was what stopped me having the time to overthink and helped keep me from falling into a depressive episode.

My general routine would differ depending on the day. On a standard Saturday evening I would get my food and return to my cell before an officer would come and lock me up at 5pm. I’d have my tea with the radio on then after tea I would read for an hour to let my food settle before getting my shorts on and doing a pad workout until around 7:30. After a quick shower I would write a letter to somebody back home. I had quite a few family members and friends who wrote to me so I would try and write one reply each day as part of my routine. There is usually some decent tv on Saturday night so after unpacking my Saturday canteen, I’d settle down with a fizzy drink and some crisps ready to watch whatever was on. There was usually some generic game show or chat show I could watch until my highlight of the week which was Match of the day! Before I knew it, it was 11:45. and I’d get to sleep, ready to start over the next day. For an evening in prison, it really wasn’t too bad. I had no choice but to spend my time here but there was no fighting or causing trouble so I just had to deal with the best I could. I’m not saying I didn’t find things tough, it was hard knowing my friends and family were enjoying days out and holidays and telling me about them in their letters whilst I was stuck behind bars. I just know that I was able to get myself up again each day with a set list of things to do to fill my time.

If a loved one is in prison, please recommend they get themselves into a good daily routine, it honestly got me through night after night. It sounds easy to do but trust me, after a day in prison its much easier to get in your cell, watch mind numbing TV and cry. You just need to force yourself to find things to do, no matter how small, that can keep your brain busy and it keeps you going.

Generally my life by summer was pretty calm. Through being a mentor I had met lots of the lads on the wing in a classroom capacity and helped them with work so i think I was generally well liked on the wing by now and in a way respected. The lads and staff knew I was a decent lad and generally kept myself to myself. My circle consisted of 3 or 4 like minded lads and we honestly got on great! I had no issues with any prisoners until one August day.

I remember it being a warm morning and I hadn’t been assigned a mentoring post so I was ‘off work’. As I didn’t want to be locked up in my stuffy cell, I asked the wing staff if I could help Andy with stores. As I was now also a trusted prisoner, often carrying out jobs such as cleaning the staff office or handing out canteen they had no problem in me doing stores. The job that morning was to hand out 1 bleach tablet per prisoner. The tablets are diluted in water to clean your cell and are limited to 1 per prisoner due to them being used as a trade for things. They are even known to be crushed up and snorted. I know, crazy! As we finished handing out 1 bleach tablet per cell, Andy and I went to the end of the wing with a coffee for game of scrabble. Around 20 minutes later my new neighbour, who had arrived on the wing that week, bounced up to us. He was about 6ft 4 and from what he told me on his first day he was 21 and had been in a young offenders institute from being 14.

“Give us another bleach tab!” he grunted at us. “Sorry mate, we get an allocated amount for everyone so we have none left” Andy said. He didn’t like this and started shouting then, “You’re a pair of fucking jobs worths! Fucking pricks!” as he booted our table. I told him that there was no need to be a dick and if he was desperate for another tablet then he should go and see an officer. He really didn’t like this and lost it, swearing at me some more and saying he was going to ‘lay me out’. I really wasn’t expecting this reaction but he certainly looked game! Andy nudged me as if to say ‘go on, ill back you up’ but strangely as I looked him dead in the eye, he broke the gaze and walked off.

Around an hour later Andy wanted to ring his kids so I headed back to my cell to watch a bit of mid morning TV. I was sat on my chair watching a bit of homes under the hammer when out of nowhere I felt an almighty crack on the back of my head! As I jumped up and turned around, I saw my gobshite neighbour was stood in my cell in a boxing pose. He was stood between me and the door so I knew I couldn’t get out of my cell but I also didn’t really want a fight! This guy seemed pretty serious though, and it was all over a bloody bleach tablet! I went to reason with him but I didn’t even get chance, as my mouth opened, he stepped in and threw a right hook. Before I could even think I just went into full control and restraint mode, using the training I’d had whilst working in a prison. Unfortunately for him, a right hook is a dream punch to control. I caught his arm, twisted it up, pulled him towards me and swiped his legs. There was a bit of a bang as he hit the deck stomach down and I held his head down, twisting his ear and kept my knee in his back – not hurting him but ensuring he couldn’t get up as I spoke to him. He was shouting at me to get off and calling me every insult you can imagine. I was scared but kept my cool as I told him “Ok mate. you have 2 options – if I get off you, you leave this cell and I won’t tell anyone I’ve just put you on your arse. Or if you want to get up and go for me again ill do the same again but break your arm next time, ok?” He stood up and stepped away from me cradling his elbow. He was staring me down as he backed off, looking like he was contemplating having another pop. As I stood looking back at him, hoping he wouldn’t throw any more punches, he turned and left shouting ‘prick’ on his way out.

I sat on my bed and began shaking as the adrenaline wore off. I had no idea what that was even about but it made me realise how you can’t get too complacent in here as things can escalate quickly. As I sat there I was thinking all sorts…would he come back with a blade, bring people back with him or would he recognise that I’d used my training and work out my past job? Thank god, none of these situations arose but I did have to live next to him for another 4 months.

Life at HMP Oakwood

It was my first day in the workshop and my stomach was churning with anxiety. I hadn’t yet heard back about any of the jobs I’d applied for or if I’d been accepted onto any courses, so it was mandatory for that time being to attend the assigned workshop. That first morning Dan and I had woken early and had a coffee and a chat as we waited to be unlocked. We had no idea what to expect and I couldn’t control my anxiety, mainly due to this being another unknown experience but I also had a slight worry that somebody may recognise me.

As unlock came around, lads slowly arose from the dark cell doors and the bright, airy landing was soon filled. It was around 7:45 so there was still a 15 minute wait until movement to work was called. All I knew at this point was my assigned workshop number, I had no idea where it was or what I was heading to do. Aiming to calm my racing mind, I made small talk with Dan, who had been assigned a different workshop number to myself. As we pondered over what we would be walking into, I observed for the first time how the prisoners all separated into small social groups who didn’t seem to mix with each other. It was similar to what you’d expect really, stereotypical cliques, some looking more intimidating and dominant than others. Currently our group consisted of myself and Dan and we kept to ourselves for now as we tried to suss the others out, wondering where we’d fit in.

8:00am soon rolled round and the shout of ‘movement!’ bellowed out from the gates where a male officer stood, clipboard in hand, and ticked people off as they left the wing. Oakwood was huge and as I looked round I saw some lads in hi-viz jackets, some in blue raincoats and others in jumpers printed with the word ‘mentor’. I had no idea where I was going so I followed the crowd out of the block. Once outside, there was the option to turn left or right, any other direction was blocked off with giant fences of razor wire. A few lads took the left turning whilst the majority went right so I took my chances and followed them. The path was packed with lads all shouting and being rowdy, way more excited than you’d expect them to be since they were about to spend the next 4 hours in a dirty workshop!

At the end of the path we reached a large green gate and were met by 5 officers stood in a line doing spot check searches of us all. We were then cleared to pass through a concrete yard which led towards the big metal doors at the entrance to the workshops. The inside was pretty much what I’d envisioned, it was huge, long one story building with breeze block walls and high ceilings. The floor was red concrete plastered with black and yellow hazard tape and white arrows directing you down its full length of around 100m. It felt very much like your usual builders workshop, lined with wooden pallets and boxes with the smell of oil and freshly cut wood filling the air. There were doors every 20m or so and as I got to the first set I asked an officer if he knew where I was meant to be. After checking his clipboard, he informed me I was in his workshop and to go in and find a table.

As I went through the doors a metallic smell, which I can only describe as like old pennies, hit me. There were 9 big steel tables standing around 4ft high and 6m long and they were filling up with lads leaning against them. I spotted one which stood empty so I went and took my spot and was soon joined by 2 other lads. I was quickly spotted as the new guy and so the generic questions began. Whenever you go somewhere new in prison somebody will always want to know your name, where you’re from, what you’re in for and how long you’re serving. I guess it’s to find some sort of common ground but it can feel quite intimidating having a group around you throwing questions at you. You soon get used to it though! Once they were done interrogating me, we got chatting and they told me a bit about themselves; they were both my age and doing 2-3 year sentences for drug offences. They then explained to me that our job in this workshop was to dismantle industrial sized computer printers, like the ones you get in schools and offices, and separate the metal, plastic and other materials into 3 big blue containers at the end of each bench. Once you’ve finished with one, you do another, and another…it was absolutely mind numbing.

Over the course of the next 4 weeks this was my daily routine and I can honestly say it was the worst job I’ve ever had..and I’ve had some pretty rubbish ones over the years! It was more boring than you can imagine and everyday I’d return to my cell looking like I’d been at a paint party, covered in powdered ink. I was desperate to get on a course to get out of that workshop.

Alongside the job, I was finding my way in other aspects of my new life too. I was finally on the visits list, my clothes parcel had arrived and I was no longer the new lad who was stared at and questioned at every opportunity. I’d also managed to find my own little group, a few like-minded, decent lads on the wing and best of all I’d got through the hardest bit of my sentence trouble free. I was actually feeling pretty settled. I mean, obviously it was prison and I wouldn’t chose this life but I was coping well.

One Friday afternoon, as I was stood on the wing doing my kiosk orders, I was approached by a teacher from the education department. She had been directed to me by wing staff after she had received my application to be a mentor. As I had easily passed my education tests and with the officers now knowing I was a decent lad, they had put my application forward to the education department as a recommendation. The role of a mentor in prison is to attend classes and assist individuals who are struggling with maths and English to help them reach the required level. I was told I’d start on Monday afternoon in the education department on my block and I was elated. I no longer had to attend the workshop!

Monday arrived and, as I didn’t have the workshop that morning, I was asked if I could help with stores. This role includes stocking up cells with necessities such as toilet roll and bedding and is a job usually given to a trusted prisoner, on our wing it was Andy’s job. I’d become good friends with Andy over the past few weeks so I was more than happy to assist him. For our first job we were asked to attend a single cell on the upper landing to remove some items. As we arrived at it, a maintenance man was taping a large red and white X on the cell door, deeming the cell a safety hazard. We found out that the previous night a prisoner had attempted to harm himself and had started a fire in his cell, so Andy and I were removing some burnt bedding and a shower curtain. I recognised who the cell belonged to and from what I knew of him, he had never struck me as a trouble causer or a dangerous guy. It seemed to me like he needed help rather than a punishment but as I witnessed a lot over my time in prisons, people with mental illnesses are sadly often without the support they need. It certainly seemed to be the case with this individual.

Our next job was performing a stock check in stores before lunch and so myself and Andy, along with a female officer, headed to the store room on the bottom floor of Cedar block. The store room was a 4m x 4m windowless room stacked floor to ceiling with bleach bottles, bedding, cleaning equipment and basically all essentials prisoners need for day to day living. Our job here was to get the allocated amount of cleaning equipment and products for each cell to hand out at the weekend so for the next hour we loaded bleach tablets, toilet rolls and shower gels into plastic bags, all under the watchful eye of the officer, before transporting it all back to the wing.

It was now approaching lunch and the welcome smell of food from the servery flooded the wing as hoards of bodies rushed past us. As I approached my cell I could hear blaring music coming from it which I thought was strange since we only had a TV and no stereo. As I got to the door I was greeted by a pile of big bags packed full to bursting and a huge stereo stood where I once ate my dinner on the desk. My bedding was also off my bed and bundled up on the chair. What was going on? Where was Dan and who was now in my cell?! I went out to find an officer and was told that Dan had moved that morning due to him having children he was eligible for the family wing and a space had become available. I was a bit sad that he’d left as we’d gone through a lot together in those first few weeks and I’d miss him but I completely understood why he’d take the offer. I was more worried about who I was now in with though! Me and Dan were similar; fairly quiet, laid back and inoffensive. Judging by this blaring music, I already had my suspicions that my new cell mate would be slightly different.

I went back to my cell to get my plate and stood in the servery queue scanning for any new faces, wondering if it could be any of them. Unable able to pick anyone out, I quickly chose my lunch and headed back. I was still on my own when I heard the calls from officers to get behind our doors and just as they approached to lock my door, in walked my new pad mate.

The door slammed and the lock snapped as my new pad mate stood in the door way. He was tall and looked like he was in his early 30s and straight away he was standoffish and his attitude was terrible. ‘Are we going to have a problem?’ he said. I looked at him puzzled, I was shocked that these were his first words, no greeting or introduction. I replied ‘not unless you start one’ and he just looked away from me and went to sit on the bottom bunk. He then proceeded to list off his ‘cell rules’ such as how he was to have the bottom bunk, he has to have music on to fall asleep and he gets up and showers at sunrise which was 5:30am! Also, as he was a muslim, he would pray 5 times a day and during this period I was not to have the TV on. Now, I respect people’s religions and beliefs but this was going to impact on my whole times here and it wasn’t even like he’d spoken to me nicely about it, he’d come in and tried to tell me what I would have to do. This wasn’t looking good. I cut him off at some point to let him know what as we were in prison, I might not make the rules but neither does he and I really didn’t appreciate his attitude. He did’t like this and stood up, squared up to me and said ‘we will have problems then, what are you going to do about it?’. To be honest, my first instinct was to deck him, I was in no mood for this and I wasn’t afraid of confrontation. However, I thought better of it and told him that as we were locked up for the next hour, we couldn’t sort anything right now so we should just keep ourselves to ourselves. That next hour was tense though, I couldn’t get over how he’d spoken to me and I knew I couldn’t share a cell with him. Finally unlock came and I went straight to the wing officer to see what I could do. The only response I got was that it was prison and I didn’t get to choose my room mate. I understood that I wasn’t in a hotel with my friends where I could choose who I wanted to share with but I also knew that there would end up being trouble if we stayed in that cell together and so I asked to see the wing manager. Officers do try to avoid putting people in cells together where it would cause trouble as it also makes their life easier so he agreed and as the lads all piled off the wing to work, I went to wait at the office door. Eventually the manager answered and invited me in.

I calmly explained the situation, how I’d been given a new cell mate who was not only a devout muslim, which I could already see would cause conflict due to the disruption it would cause to each of our daily routines, he also smoked and so shouldn’t be sharing a cell with a non smoker like myself. The manager just looked at me and said ‘and how do you know what I should do?’. I explained my knowledge of risk assessments being performed on every prisoner who is sharing a cell and with me being an ex HMP member of staff there were additional safeguarding policies to follow. At this point, he looked puzzled and started questioning me on which prison I’d worked at and what my role was. How did he not know?! At Hewell I was well aware that the staff knew of my risky position due to my paperwork and I’d assumed that this would have been handed over but this guy seemed totally clueless about it. I’m not sure if this was down to a mix up, if he just didn’t believe me (you always get told as an officer that you should never trust a prisoner!) or maybe it was just laziness and he hadn’t read my notes but either way, it didn’t sit well with me. We went back on forth on it with me pointing out the amount of paperwork that will need to be done if we stay in the cell together as it was definitely going to erupt and all the while he was scanning over my notes. I noticed his face and demeanour change as he told me to go and get my stuff and move it upstairs to pad 19. I quickly realised this was the burnt out health hazard cell and as it was the only single cell available and he wanted me in there quickly, I had to clean it up!

I’m not at all saying I was too good for a share or that I deserved preferential treatment but I didn’t feel safe being in with somebody who had straight away been looking to cause arguments and trouble. I had letters hidden under my mattress from court and my solicitor with my previous role stated on them and they would be easily accessible to a cell mate if they decided to search. In a weird way, I’d trusted Dan and never worried that he’d do such things but I really didn’t trust this new guy. I’m well aware people could argue that I should have registered myself as vulnerable from the beginning, but as I’ve previously stated, I really didn’t want the stigma.

So I grabbed my belongings and made my way to my new living quarters. As I opened the door, it was bare, black and covered in soot and grime. It would be a big job but, with the help of Andy and his cleaning supplies, I set to work on making it my new home.

Cedar block 2C

Just a quick note to state that all names and identifying details mentioned in this blog have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

My third morning at HMP Oakwood had arrived and it was moving day. My pad mate Dan and I were up early in anticipation as we knew now that when they wanted to move you, you’d get a maximum of 5 minutes to pack and be ready. It was around 6:30 that we got up, both showered and then sat patiently on our beds surrounded by the heavy duty bin liners containing our belongings. At 7:45 we heard the familiar jangling sound of keys before a loud clank as the door was opened and a stern voice told us to leave our cells and wait on the landing. It filled up quickly as each of the lads left their temporary cells, bags in hand, and we all waited to hear where we were to be moved to. We were stood on the landing for at least an hour as 3 or 4 different officers were rushing around to get us moved quickly whilst the other lads were at work. Soon two big 6ft crates had arrived to transport our bags and we were provided with paperwork to label them before loading them on. Once each bag was on the crate, we were instructed to line up behind them in single file and follow two officers off the induction wing.

The walk was pretty grim and heavy rain poured down on us as we passed the skyscraper blocks of wings. The mood was sombre, it was grey, wet and well…it was prison. We eventually arrived at our new home, Cedar block, 2C. The 2 was representing the 2nd floor whist C referred to it being the third wing on the floor. On entering Cedar block I couldn’t help but notice that it had a slightly different feel, a feeling of ownership, maybe due to it being a housing block. Some lads may have lived here for many years and so as the new lads arriving, it felt like we were entering their living room, especially as groups of them hung around the stairwells glaring at us all intimidatingly. A few meters down a walkway stood 2 huge lifts and, as we had cages, we needed to use them to go up to the next level. As the lift ascended I couldn’t shake the overriding anxious feeling in my stomach knowing I was, once again, the new guy on the wing.

We arrived at level 2 and followed the officers round the crisp white hallways. For such a huge building it felt fairly quiet and as with the rest of the prison buildings, the decor felt fresh and bright, a stark contrast to other prisons I was familiar with. 2C looked just like the induction wing, 2 floors lined with the sky blue doors of cells, a dark blue floor and cream walls. The bottom floor again housing all the double cells whilst the single cells were up on level 2. The distinctive smell of bleach and damp clothes hit me once again as towels and tshirts lined the upper railings having been left out to dry. At this time there were just 2 or 3 wing staff walking the landings and 4 or 5 lads sloshing dirty bleach filled water around the floor, all glaring at us as we walked by. It was quiet now but I knew it would become much busier when the others finished work.

As the 12 of us gathered on the bottom floor, clutching our bags, we were addressed by a female wing officer holding a clip board. She informed us that we would be cell sharing and gave us all the number of the cell we would be in. At this point I spoke up and asked the officer if it be possible to share with Dan as I had done on the induction wing. With a puzzled look and probably wondering why I was so keen to share with somebody I’d known for just 2 days, she checked her clip board. “Ok, Get yourselves in number 7” she replied.

As we picked up our bags to go to our cell the overwhelming noise of shouting and laughter appeared out of nowhere and filled the wing. Whilst we’d been stood out on the landing awaiting orders, movement had been called and around 70 lads all returned from work ready for lunch and afternoon bang up. Again, all of them giving us a curious look as myself and Dan entered cell 7. Before we’d even had time to make our beds, we were swarmed by about 4 lads who had invited themselves in and they began to question us – “Where you lads from?”, “what you got for me?”, “do you smoke?”, “got anything to swap?”. From my very brief experience of prison plus what I had learned from my officer training, I knew we were being tested. When you’re one of the new guys the lads want to get a feel for you, see if you’re a push over or someone not to be messed with. It’s widely known as conditioning and is where a group will bombard you with questions to see how you react. If you show weakness or give in to simple demands, such as handing over belongings when asked, the next day they may be back for more and before you know it you’re the push over who they can ask for anything. Dan and I were answering their questions in a polite but to the point manner when suddenly a middle aged Welsh guy bounded in. He was clearly the ring leader of this group and seemed to be high on something. He was glaring at us menacingly trying to intimidate us as he said, “Oi lad, give us them biscuits and a few sugars!”. I knew I had to stand firm and so I told him he wasn’t getting anything from us and that if he didn’t leave our cell, I’d throw him out. The whole group silenced and just looked at us. I think it was quite clear now that we wouldn’t take it and they quickly left our cell. I certainly wasn’t trying to act like the ‘hard man’ of the wing, if anything I wanted to go unnoticed, I just knew that my time in here would be much easier if I wasn’t seen as a target. If I showed from the start that I wasn’t a pushover the word would spread around to not bother trying it on with me as I wouldn’t take any shit.

Once we had unpacked a few bits, put on our navy blue bedding and hung our curtain up, we decided to venture out onto the wing. Dan and I had agreed that whilst we wanted to keep our heads down and have a quiet life, if any trouble was to arise, we would have each others backs. We drew quite a bit of attention as we walked out onto the packed wing, lads stood staring but nobody said anything. As we stood at our door having a chat a male officer came over and told us to go up to level 2 and knock on cell 14 and see Andy who was apparently the go to guy for wing inductions. Andy had lived on the wing for 2 years and was now a trusted prisoner who had the job of helping new lads on the wing, providing them with bedding and toiletries from the store room and helping them get to grips with the computer system.

The computer kiosk system is used by the majority of prisons across the country and is like the personal prisoner hub used for everything from selecting your weekly meals to booking in your visits. It’s also where you apply any courses you wish to complete during your sentence, book in haircuts and shop for canteen. The system uses fingerprint ID which then brings up your photo and further to this you must enter your allocated prison number.

As we knocked on the cell door to get our tutorial we were greeted by Andy, a big lad with a friendly voice. He explained to us that the kiosk was always busiest at midday so it may be best to get lunch and he would ask an officer if they’d be able to unlock us later on so he could show us in peace. We agreed this would be a better idea and so we headed back to our cell. Before we had even got down the stairs, the shout of “servery!” bellowed out. The rush again was a manic stampede and I had to weave in and out of rushing bodies to get to my cell so I could collect my plate. As I arrived back I was met by an officer and a man in a hi-viz jacket. “Twigg?” he asked. I nodded, slightly confused but they told me they were just here to provide Dan and I with a key each for our cell. At Oakwood each cell has two locks, a standard Yale cylinder key lock and a dead lock. The dead lock was what the officers used, and where the loud clanking noise came from, but the other lock gave prisoners the option to lock their own door when they were out of their cells.

By now the servery queue was quieter so I grabbed my plastic plate and headed out of the white metal gate at the top of the wing, into the corridor and round the red metal posts to the servery. There were 4 servery workers stood in a row, each with a different role. The first you give your name to, then subsequently you are provided with your main, vegetables and dessert. As I gave my name I was informed I didn’t have a menu as I hadn’t filled it in via the kiosk and so my meal would be tofu and peas. I walked back to my cell with my unappealing meal and was greeted with an angry shout of, “mate, what the fuck is this shit?!”. As expected Dan, who was approximately 18 stone of muscle and had previously told me he ate up to two full chickens a day whist body building, had also been given tofu and peas. Sorry to anybody who eats tofu but as somebody who will eat almost anything, I have to say this was really unpleasant. Granted, I had a plain, unseasoned prison version but it was like eating a white block of sponge with no flavour. The only slight flavouring I could add to it was salt and pepper but it needed much more than that to make it even slightly enjoyable. I couldn’t wait to book my own menu in!

In our cell the desk was still clear, with just a 25″ TV in the middle of it, so for now we had just enough room for the 2 of us to use it as a table. As we sat eating we heard our door get locked for the 12:30-14:30 bang up so once we were finished we decided to try and set up our TV. The ‘trick’ in prison in order to get more channels is to strip the ariel wire and feed it out of your window via the pin holes in the ventilation hatch, securing it in any way possible. I’ve no idea why or how this works but we were elated when, after a bit of wriggling, we managed to go from around 8 to 20+ channels. As we were congratulating each other on our technical genius, the door opened and there stood Andy along with an officer. This added to my good mood as I knew that setting up the kiosk meant we could get some jobs booked in and more importantly I could choose my menu! Now it wasn’t exactly an a la carte menu but it was a huge improvement on ham sandwiches and tofu. The choices of pizza, fish and chips and bolognese felt like a luxury in comparison! After the important task of choosing my food for the week was completed, Andy showed me how to load phone credit and informed me I would receive my PIN number in my inbox. Whilst checking for this I also found another email which read, ’17th February, 8:30am WORKSHOP 1′.

As I hadn’t yet been able to enroll on any courses, I’d been allocated a mandatory workshop job. These jobs included things like dismantling computer printers and recycling cardboard, ran Monday-Friday 8:30-16:30 and you were paid just over £1 per day. It was boring, monotonous work and basically served as an incentive to push you to apply for courses to help better your future. I had a scroll through the list of courses available and applied for a few plus a job as an educational mentor. As I did this, I noticed some of the jobs were blanked out and marked as being for enhanced prisoners. For those in the dark about the tier system, every prisoner starts out as standard whereby you get to use the gym twice a week, have 1 weekly visit and can apply for regular courses. If you are seen to misbehave, you can be punished by being placed in the basic tier which takes away many privileges. You lose your TV, the ability to order canteen, use of the gym and worst of all for many, you aren’t allowed visits whilst in this tier. Your time spent banged up is also increased, sometimes up to 23 hours a day and this can last for 2 weeks or more. ‘Enhanced’ is obviously the best of the 3 tiers and you can apply for this after 12 weeks. A jury of officers who know you decide between them if you have been a ‘good’ prisoner and deserve these ‘privileges’ which include a bigger and better selection of jobs, an extra gym session per week and an extra 2 hour visit per month. It also seems to give you an easier ride with officers; if you’re enhanced you basically have an idea the wing officers know you’re decent so they don’t give you any hassle. Each tier can change with your actions though so you’re never comfortable. For now though, I was in standard.

Once we had completed our bits on the kiosk it was back behind our door and with around 45 minutes left until unlock, I had a lie on my bed on the top bunk staring blankly at the white ceiling. I’d not had much time to overthink until now but all of a sudden the reality of it all hit me. This was day 1 of a potential 400+. How was I going to do this? I felt sick to my stomach.

When we were unlocked at 14:30, swarms of bodies flooded the wing, along with a smell of gone off food rising from the bins. It was mayhem as everybody prepared for movement to work. There were just 2 officers stood by the gate of the wing, both awaiting the radio call for movement. Before I knew it the wing was empty with us new lads stood around not knowing what to do. As we didn’t have jobs until we went to the workshops in the morning, we were like lost sheep. Dan and I approached one of the officers to ask a few questions regarding routine and we were once again directed to the prisoner upstairs, Andy, who stood leaning on the railing of the upper landing, having a brew. I walked up the steel stairs at the end of the wing and along the walkway to where he stood. Due to him being a trusted prisoner, enhanced and having a wing job, he was granted a single cell. He answered any queries I had and we proceeded to have a chat about our offences and sentences. He also gave me a few heads up on the people on the wing, who to keep in with and who to keep a distance from. During my time at Oakwood I built up a good bond with Andy and I’ve even met up since we were both released.

The people without a job or course to do were now all being locked up, but as Andy had a job on the wing he was able to walk freely around the wing for the afternoon and he asked an officer if I’d be able to help him with jobs. I’m unsure if it was due to Andy’s good rapport with the officers or because they knew I was a good lad but either way, I was quite surprised when they agreed. There wasn’t actually much to do so we spent the majority of the time watching TV and chatting over coffee. We even had a quick game of monopoly! It felt good to meet somebody who seemed similar to me and even better that he seemed to have a bit of authority on the wing despite being a prisoner himself.

Before I knew it, it was 16:30 and the smell of the servery opening its shutters filled the wing but again I held back in my cell with Dan watching countdown. A queue had already formed at the locked gate with lads tussling to get to the front to be served first. A few scuffles broke out that day in the queue and it really got me thinking about how the mind changes in here; people really thought a logical response to somebody being served a dry pasta dish first warranted a punch to the face. Baffling!

Unfortunately, although I’d done my menu it didn’t kick in until the following day so for tea that night it was vegetable risotto which was more like a pile of overcooked mushy vegetables mixed with rice. The best part was the 2 slices of bread I got with it. After eating it was ‘free time’ where we had access to the wings pool and table tennis tables and free movement around the wing. Myself, Andy and Dan met up by the table tennis table and put our names down for a ‘winner stays on’ tournament with a few other lads. It was good fun, we all had a laugh and it passed the evening pretty quickly. I felt much better in bed that night, quite content even. Meeting some decent lads and actually having a laugh had eased my mind and I actually thought to myself ‘I think can do this’. It didn’t last long though as I slept pretty poorly that night. In prison, not do the small uncomfortable beds make it difficult to sleep, the constant sounds of footsteps, random shouting and gate banging mean a peaceful night is extremely rare. Lying awake at night is when its difficult to stop overthinking and becoming anxious and I couldn’t stop thinking about the workshop the next day. Would I be ok? Would a prisoner recognise me from working at Buckley Hall? I’d find out in less than 12hours.

From HMP Hewell to G4S Oakwood

In this post I will talk about my first days in HMP Oakwood and hopefully give you an introduction into the 2nd step of my prison experience.

After a relatively smooth journey in the cell van from HMP Hewell, we arrived at G4S run Oakwood, a huge cat C in Wolverhampton. The prison is no more than 10 years old and this was quite obvious. My first impression was how new it looked compared to others I’d seen or worked in. In total contrast to Hewell, Oakwood had a clean, well lit and modern exterior and this continued inside. As we all unboarded, one by one we were escorted into reception. It was area was huge with a long white desk along the back wall which was lined with officer after officer. It felt almost like a conveyer belt of prisoners and paperwork, as they were all working efficiently to get the security checks done and everybody checked in as quickly as possible. As I got to the desk, I was asked to state my name and hand in my belongings to be scanned. Once complete, the 6 of us from Hewell were taken through a large set of swinging blue doors where we were told to take a seat and await orders. It was only around 10 minutes later that I was called through to a small room and was asked the generic questions but this time without any concern or even mention of me being an ex HMP worker. It did strike me that it hadn’t been spoken about but I just assumed they had read my previous notes from Hewell and so had no reason to bring it up again.

Once all my documentation including my ID photo was completed, I was handed my prison issue clothing, all wrapped in plastic. Here the attire was a dark grey 3 piece consisting of some tracksuit bottoms, a jumper and a tshirt which thankfully this time were all in my size! I was given 3 lots which I would need to wear on rotation until my clothes from home arrived. I’d been made aware that my clothes had be sent and were now awaiting clearance but I wasn’t told how long this would take. I was now all set and so was escorted back to reception to where the other 6 lads I had come in with were sat waiting on the hard blue plastic chairs.

Minutes later 2 officers with clipboards appeared through a door behind us and shouted our names out one by one. As instructed, we all got up and followed the officers out of the reception area, ready to begin the next part of out prison journey. From memory, the prison is laid out over 5 large buildings with each building having 3 floors all consisting of 3 wings. So there are around 45 wings, all housing 80+ lads. Each large building was named after a tree such as, Cedar, Oak and Beech.

We followed the officers down a long pathway with gates every 50 yards or so and passed the wings on the right and healthcare on the left. We finally landed at the induction wing which was the last one in the row. Here you spend somewhere between 1 – 3 nights to be visually assessed, get used to the prison and it basically gives the officers an opportunity to get a good reading of you in order to make a decision about which wing you will live on for your sentence. As we walked onto the wing it all felt so familiar but at the same time, so very different. The wings around the country are pretty much the same, lines of doors with stairs at each end to the 2nd floor of cells and a pool table sat in the middle. Oakwood had this but had a much brighter, cleaner feel to it than I was used to. It was well lit, ventilated by a large window wall at the end of the wing and painted a sky blue colour with orange cell doors. It was still prison but on first impression, it felt like it was a ‘nice’ one.

As the 6 of us stood in the middle of the wing an officer came and said cells 7, 8 and 9 were free. They were all double cells so we were to pick a partner in 2 minutes or he would pair us up. At this point the only bloke not pissing around and acting a nuisance was the big lad I had spoken to earlier so I quickly asked him if he wanted to pair up and he agreed. We told the officer this so he opened up cell 7 where we went and spent the next 17 hours.

As you walked into the cell there was a plastic white curtain on the right covering a wet area which housed a toilet, shower, sink, and mirror. The bed was a grey metal framed bunk bed which stood against a wall parallel to a desk and shelving unit. Upon this was a TV and phone. The decor was nothing special but again, clean and bright with cream walls and a blue floor. The window was covered with a navy blue curtain which looked out over fields. In all aspects from the decor to the outdoor view it was much nicer and more inviting than Hewell but the obvious, unexpected enhancements were the private shower and cell phone.

I have spoken about both of these topics via my twitter and how I feel they have such a positive impact on the prison experience and the mental health of prisoners. Firstly the individual in cell showers not only help with people’s self esteem and reduce anxiety, but I also believe they could greatly reduce the violence and bullying in prisons. As you would expect, showering in prison is often in a group environment but it isn’t often during cleaning periods that trouble breaks out. Due to the shower rooms being a tough environment for officers to keep monitored due to slippy floors and no CCTV, they become a hive for organised wing fights. During my short time at HMP Hewell, I viewed the shower room in such a negative light as not only was it a particularly untidy place to get clean, it was also a place were violence, bullying and body shaming took place. Having an in cell shower, as the cells at Oakwood do, allows people to shower when they want, without fear and in a facility you can keep clean yourself.

The second topic I have spoken of a lot on twitter is the access to in cell phones. This is a subject I feel so strongly about as I truly believe there are huge benefits in having your own phone in your cell as opposed to shared wing phones. As far as I am aware, many UK prisons still have phones on the wing and usually only have 2-4 to be shared between everybody. This leads to large queues, no privacy and time restrictions due to others needing to use them or the simple fact you’re locked in your cell. I saw various arguments and fights break out over the phone use at Hewell and some people not really getting to have their turn at all. With the in cell phones, you can load credit onto it via the wing kiosk during lock unlock hours and then use it at your own leisure. During my time at Oakwood the maximum credit I could upload was £40 but I’m unsure if this will have changed at all. The fact that you could call loved ones and speak openly about anything you needed to without people listening in or feeling intimidated from the queue forming behind you. I believe this has such a positive impact on the mental health of prisoners. They didn’t have the dread of being locked up with nothing to do or having to wait until unlock and attempt to have a turn on the phone. They didn’t also the worry of if they’d be able to speak to their partner on their birthday or their children on their first day of school. The all round atmosphere both amongst staff and prisoners was nicer and I believe it was partly down to this. Whilst I understand the costs involved, I’m a real advocate for making in cell phones a mandatory component in all cells across the country.

The first thing we did when we got into our cell was to make up our beds. This was another improvement from my previous cell. Whilst the mattress was still the same blue plastic, it was much thicker and by that I mean it was probable 2 inches thick rather than like a crisp packet! It felt like a luxury.

As me and my new pad mate settled into our cell we got talking. I was glad I’d asked him to share as he seemed laid back and I found him really easy to talk to but he also looked like a good guy to have on side. He was an amateur body builder with a large muscular frame which gave him an intimidating look. I found out that, like myself, he was a first time offender but despite his exterior, I was shocked to find out that he was in for a violent offence. He didn’t come across as violent at all, he was 33 with a wife, children and a steady job and sounded like a real family man. The next few hours were spent getting to know each other and watching bits of TV just waiting for the day to pass. It was around 5.30pm when our door opened. As we were new, we hadn’t had time to order food and so we were brought a cold food pack each. The pack contained a ham sandwich, a packet of plain crisps and a bottle of water. Hardly enough to satisfy two big men but we were starving and it was something at least. With our food delivery we each got a letter stating that we would be assessed tomorrow on our maths and English skills. Unlike Hewell, Oakwood is a working prison and so you have 4 options for your daily routine. You can either get onto a course such as joinery or gardening, attend the mandatory workshops such as recycling, work on the wing as a cleaner or if you were to fail your maths and English assessments you have to attend classes during the day. These classes would be set much like a school day with the aim of get you up to a national level which is government set and increase your chance of employment after release.

The next morning we were unlocked at 8.30 ready to go to our assessments for 9am. As we walked out onto the wing it was now full of lads who had just had their first or second night. Although I was cautious I felt somewhat more comfortable here than I had after that first night at Hewell. Maybe it had hardened me slightly, introduced to the life of prison. I certainly wouldn’t say I was feeling at home but overall I felt ok. Whilst my pad mate and I leaned against the pool table having a coffee we were joined by 2 blokes from the cell opposite who both seemed like decent lads. As we got chatting I was to find they were both on short sentences for reoffending football violence. Both part of the infamous ZULU Birmingham City firm. I am not one for football violence but as a massive football fan I was happy to have a common interest in the game with them so we had a good chat and built up a friendship which I will speak more of in future posts.

Before I knew it it was 9am. An officer appeared through the wing gate from the office and shouted out around 20 names, mine included. We were instructed to come to the gate to be verified and then all followed the officer off the wing and down stairwell to the floor below. As we got to the bottom floor we were led around a winding corridor until we reached a classroom. On a red door there was a large poster reading, “Level 1 assessment in basic learning”. As we stood outside the door a lady came out to us and introduced herself as a teacher from Milton Keynes college. She then explained that we would be required to pass assessments in both maths and English to be able to get out of doing daily classes but if we had any evidence to prove that we already had qualifications, we would be exempt. As we took our seats each at a computer I caught her attention to let her know that I not only had GCSE’s in Maths and English, I also had a degree and so believed I was more then qualified. However, she told me without evidence I’d have to sit the assessment and so I just got on with it, there was no point arguing and it wasn’t a huge inconvenience. We were told that each assessment contained 30 questions and we were required to achieve 80% in both. After this briefing we were ordered to be silent and commence. At this point I must admit I was nervous, I’d been giving it the big’n with “I have a degree” and I could bloody fail now! Thankfully it was quite basic and I was confident I’d passed them both. The English assessment contained basic multiple choice spelling and grammar questions and the maths was all simple equations and multiplications. I can, however, fully appreciate that some lads have had no education at all, sometimes through no fault of their own, and passing these assessments would be a huge struggle to them. I will discuss more on this in later post as in the later part of my sentence, I actually became an education mentor!

After a couple of hours in the classroom we were finished but the classroom was locked until an officer came to collect us. It still seemed surreal to me still I was under complete restrictions, we were locked up even when out of the cell. Eventually around 11:45 the officer came for us and led us back to the wing. As newbies we didn’t have a real regime, we were yet to be allocated jobs in the workshop and until our assessment results came back we couldn’t apply for courses. Until either of these happened, our time was free, well as free as it can be behind our cell door!

When we got back to the wing we were each given our plastic cutlery, plate, bowl and cup. Once again we hadn’t picked our menu so unfortunately it was get what you’re given, but this time from the servery. Just like at Hewell, when servery was called it was a mad rush! The “line” snaked out of the wing gate around a metal railing (which was there in an attempt to control it) and right led directly to the serving hatch. As I snaked round and landed at the serving point I had 3 options; hot, cold or vegetarian. I decided on the hot option of chilli and rice, excited to finally have a hot meal. By this time it was approaching 12.30, bang up time, and so I headed back to my cell.

The now familiar bang and clank of the cell door hit and we were in the cell for the next 4 and a half hours until tea time. During this period, myself and my pad mate received phone pin numbers and were told we could load credit on tomorrow on our new wing as we would be moving to a permanent base first thing in the morning. The next few hours went by slowly with our TV the only thing to keep us stimulated. With the poor signal though didn’t have many options and I remember how we ended up watching a steady stream of come dine with me and homes under the hammer. To be honest when I was first told I’d be sharing a cell I didn’t like the idea at all. But now I was so grateful of it. Over those 4 hours or so we got to know each other more and became good mates, a friendship which was to continue for the remainder of my sentence.

When 4.30 arrived we were unlocked and told the evening regime. We had 30min to get food and 5pm-6pm was free time and yard exercise. This time I was one of the first to get food, I’d rushed because I was desperate for some daylight and fresh air! I quickly ate my dry pasta and watery tomato sauce and headed out for my first sense of freedom in over a week.

The yard at Oakwood was shared, so at exercise times you could mix with 3 other wings. It was held in a large concrete area about 30m x 30m on one side shaded by the wing and the other closed off from a large field area by 6m fencing and razor wire. Although the fresh are was needed it was pretty boring. It was also going dark as it was mid February and about 3 degrees. All you could really do was walk in a circle or sit on a bench. Hardly exercise or “free time” but it was prison after all. I strolled around with my pad mate and the 2 lads I’d met that morning basically talking football and how we were finding things. Although I knew all prisoners had a different story and were not all bad, these 3 lads really hit it home. Clearly all 3 liked a scrap but in general life, all be it in prison they were 3 normal lads, with normal lives and honestly, really nice blokes.

After 20 minutes or so we called it a day, went in and back onto the wing. As we stood chatting a call bellowed out from an officer, “5 minutes!” (Until lock up). We each said our goodbyes for the day and retreated to our cells to get our heads down in anticipation of the next morning and our relocation to our new homes. For me, for the next 44 weeks.

My week at HMP Hewell

The cell van pulled through the gate and into a covered area out of the rain on the cold, dark February night that I arrived at HMP Hewell. The van engine turned off and we were boarded by an OSG. From my role as an OSG I knew exactly what he was doing. At this point an OSG gets on board and counts the number of prisoners making sure this correlates with the numbers on the paperwork. At each door there is a small viewing panel which the OSG can look through to see who is inside. Upon him counting and giving the van the all clear after security checks we were then opened up one by one. The process to get us all off took around 20 minutes. I was the last off and stepped through the main doors of reception into a brightly lit reception area. On entry I was handed over to 2 officers who proceeded to walk me to an office which stood about 20 yards down a corridor from the reception desk. I was then put through general questioning..Did I have a drug problem? Was I suicidal? And so on, whilst I sat at a small folding table infront of the 2 officers still unable to comprehend this whole situation. After questioning I was told to stand and walk to the back of the room where behind a navy blue curtain which was on a rail at about 4ft high. I was then asked take off my trousers to be searched followed by my top once my trousers were back on and raise my arms. Although I knew the procedure and knew why it was done, it still felt very intrusive and degrading. Once complete I was handed a bundle of clothes in clear wrapping. As I was stood in my suit that I wore in court they advised me to have that bagged up and put into storage and to wear the prison issued clothing. Generally lads who know the system often take a bag of their own clothes or wear loose fitting tracksuits that they can wear on their wing. But as i had non of that, and my suit was all I had until a parcel of my clothes from home got sent in I was to live in 4 XXL sky blue tshirts and 2 XXL black jogging bottoms the officer provided. Apparently this was all they had available but more likely it was the first pack they put their hands on. As somebody with a tall slim build, I honestly looked ridiculous, like someone you seen in a magazine after shedding 10 stone! The tshirt drowned me and the bottoms could have fit 2 of me in them!

Once I was dressed I was lead away to a holding room where 2 other prisoners sat. The room was around 4m x 4m with no windows and was absolutely freezing! The floor was solid concrete with only steel benches to sit on and dirty white walls and a distinct smell of body odour filled the room. I sat quietly before one lad spoke up to start conversation, telling me how he was being held for 24 hours due to breaking a town centre banning order. The other man was in his 70s and he wasn’t much of a talker, just sat in the corner rocking and every now and again grunted and shouted, “corrupt system!” What we did get out of him was he had been given 6 months for repeatedly stealing meat from various supermarkets. I couldn’t help thinking about how of the 3 of us I was serving the longest sentence as a first time offender for a complete accident.

We sat in that room about an hour before we were called out one at a time. When my name was called and the door opened I was met by the 2 officers who proceeded to tell me the duty governor wanted to see me. I was walked to an office on the second floor in complete silence and was met by the duty governor. Firstly he welcomed me and ask how I was. He had a full background on me, knowing my role as HMP staff and clearly knew I wasn’t a bad lad. He knew it was a first offence, an accident and overall not a Cat B prison offence which HMP Hewell is. He then asked me with a hint of advice, if I want to go onto the protected wing. Here all staff would be aware of my previous role and I’d be kept away from violent offenders. What I did know is, no matter what your crime is, if you’re on the protected wing you get a certain reputation. Although this wing isn’t specifically for sex offenders or paedophiles it is often found a large proportion of the wing is and although I knew the rationale behind this offering, I decided against it. I said I’d rather take my chance in general population and stick to my story that I’m a joiner. He said that’s fine and my choice but any hint of danger I would be pulled from the wing. He then wished me well and said the staff would look out for me. From this meeting I was taken down a long concrete hall way and told to stand against a wall as an officer pulled my new property from a cupboard. All rolled up in a blue plastic mattress not much thicker than a shoe sole was, a plastic cup, bowl, knife, fork and spoon along with a plastic bag which contained 1 carton of milk, a handful of tea bags and coffee sachets, sugar and a small packet of biscuits. Once I was presented with this bundle I was asked to follow the officer. As we got further down the hallway it was icy cold and the further we got the eerier it felt. We walked for quite a while then hit a gate which covered a door saying, “C wing”. The officer opened the gate and the big steel brown door and on we went. The familiar smell of damp clothes and old food with a hint of bleach hit me. Now I wasn’t working in it though, I was living in it.

The wing consisted of 3 floors. The ground floor had a hard green lino floor and was centred with a pool table which was lined by cell doors. There was also a laundry room, a server and shower room which sat near the gate I’d just walked through. It was a dark dingy place, all brown cracked tiles with 6 open fronted showers each only letting out a trickle of warmish water. A single bath stood facing the showers. This clearly hadn’t been used or cleaned for quite a while as dirt was ground into it with specs of mould. It was something I stayed well away from. The drainage in there was also poor, with puddles of water sitting stagnant for days due to drains being clogged up, and blobs of dry shower gel splattered the walls. All in all, not somewhere you would want to go to to get clean.

I followed the officer down the steel walkway on level 2 of the wing and we walked past cell after cell in near silence, only our footsteps creating noise. We stopped at the end cell and I was told I’d be cell sharing no if’s, but’s or maybe’s. The officer opened the blue cell door and a stocky lad stood up from his bed. Before I knew it I was in the cell hearing the big metal door slam behind me and the clank of the bolt. It was real. I was a prisoner.

As I stood cradling my mattress and bag of bits and pieces the light came on and I was greeted by my new pad mate. To my surprise he was really welcoming and friendly. He shared with me that he was 26 and serving his last year or so of a hefty sentence. He helped me lay my bed out as we chatted about my day. Once we had done that I had a tour of my new home.

The cell in Hewell was bigger then I’d seen before at Buckley Hall. It didn’t have bunks as I expected. It had 2 single metal bed frames bolted to the floor, one on each side of the cell with about 6ft x 3ft of floor space between them. The walls were the standard magnolia colour you seem to find in prisons and a there was a hard lino floor which matched the wing. At the back of the cell by the foot of the beds there was a desk and chair which had a CD player and a TV on it. Just behind this was a square window covered by cell bars which could open around 6 inches to give us a bit of ventilation. Next to the door was a sink and small mirror and to its left was a wooden door which covered a toilet. All in all it wasn’t too bad for a cell and was actually very clean and tidy. I can imagine they aren’t all like that though!

By 10pm I was absolutely shattered! My pad mate and I went to bed with the TV on and had a chat about football, UFC and general interests with some tea and biscuits. Before I knew it I was asleep.

The next morning I woke up not knowing where I was. I was in a daze and felt panicky. It was around 7am and what had woken me was not only the sun through the paper thin blue curtain but also the cold. I was freezing! I got up and got my massive grey jumper on to warm up. By this time my pad mate was also up so he put the kettle on and we watched a bit of morning TV. He informed me that unlock was at 8am. Hewell, not being a compulsory working prison, meant the general routine was 8am – 12.30 you were open to mill around on the wing which included getting your dinner at midday. At 12:30 it was lock up so you were back in your cell until 4pm when you were unlocked and the yard was open for an hour until tea at 5pm. By 6pm you were back behind your door for the night. So, my first morning I was sat in my cell preparing for 4 hours of madness on the wing, this time as a prisoner not staff.

Before unlock my pad mate had told me to stick with him. I didn’t feel I was in any danger but I fully expected that what I was walking into would not to be too pleasant. A big Cat B prison is likely to be full of all sorts of ‘characters’ and as my pad mate seemed decent I assumed he hung around with the “good lads”. At 8am on the dot my door opened and a wall of noise hit me. Lads were shouting, laughing and charging around. One thing I noticed was the use of prison lingo. When I worked in the prison the main name you were called was, “guv” or “boss”. But now I was on the other side and the way people addressed me was like nothing I’d experienced before! It was like a new language ‘Blud’ , ‘cuz’ ‘co D’ being just a few names given to prisoners from other prisoners. I was baffled by ‘co D’ but soon found out it was short for codefendant, so it was kind of like a crime brotherhood name. It was a very odd culture but I soon became accustomed to it over the months. That first morning as I stepped out of my cell was mental. There seemed to be bodys everywhere, running in and out of cells and up and down stairs. 150+ lads going wild at 8am. I never though of it previously but it did strike me how little the officers could do if it kicked off. At any one time I don’t remember seeing more than 3 officers on the wing covering 3 floors. I did think if someone did take an instant dislike to me I’d be on my own for atleast 2 minutes before an officer could get to me.

I stood outside my cell leaning on the rail of the 2nd floor with a coffee, in my massive clothes as the new guy on the wing. Every 30 seconds I was questioned, who I was, where I was from and so on. Each time answering with a stern voice as I didn’t want to give the impression that I was feeling intimidated. It wasn’t a fear I felt, just an uneasiness and so a slight bravado in my voice took over me. I’m not intimidating by any stretch of the imagination but I can handle myself, I knew that. However, this was a different situation than I’d ever experienced before and I knew that if I was to get cornered by a group I would be vulnerable. I was aware how much I stood out too, I looked a right Wally in my clown trousers and XXL tshirts!

That morning I met a few lads my pad mate hung around with and they were all fine to chat to and have a brew with. They it seemed to be a small tight knit group of about 6 and I was happy to be included by them.

Around 11am I went to gather my things for a shower. I dreaded walking into what I had caught a glimpse of upon entering the wing, especially with the chance of confrontation over the use of 6 showers between 150 of us. I walked in with my towel and clean clothes and surprisingly the room was empty. It was as grimey as Id imagined from that first glanceI’d got, I’d actually say it was worse. I went to the far end and stripped off and quickly got into the shower. A trickle of room temperature water hit my head as I washed my hair and body with my prison issue shower gel and quickly got out. It was the shortest shower I’ve ever had but it did the job. I walked back to my cell through a crowd of lads all shouting and generally being a nuisance, barging up and down the steps without a care for anyone. In other circumstances I would have pulled them up on it but being the newbie and in a risky position anyway I thought better and put up with it.

The remainder of that first morning was pretty straightforward. I basically kept myself to myself, people watched, and kept answers short and to the point when I was quizzed by other lads. Soon it was midday and the servery opened. Honestly you’d think it was limited portions and the lads had never eaten! The charge and hustle in the “line” was insane. The so called “line” to be served was observed by one officer who watched over not only the servers but the line and the ordering system. Although not a necessity of a job it was a particular area that I first saw the system was understaffed. There really was no control. The lads who served were the only ones in control to a degree and they are prisoners! As I knew there would be plenty of food and was in no rush, I waited an extra 10 minutes until the rush had calmed and walked up for my dinner. That particular day as I hadn’t had chance to order I ended up with a cheese baguette. During being served I was spotted as the new guy and was quietly asked if i did spice. For those who don’t know, spice or ‘mamba’ as it is sometimes known, is a drug which is rife in prisons! It’s a “legal” high what is super powerful which causes hallucinations, black outs, fits and in some cases death. It is the number one drug in prison and has multiple ways of getting in and sold at a reasonable cost. I knew it was popular from my time working the extent to which its available and used behind a cell door is frightening. I would honestly say 2/3 of the prison population uses it if not more. In this first week I must have seen 2 ambulances a day attending spice victims. It was such a common reason for ambulances to attend that they were often referred to as “mambulances” between prisoners. Knowing this and having never taken drugs in my life I obviously declined this less than tempting offer and moved on with my food. Shortly after this the shout, “behind your doors” bellowed out. At that point most lads went into their cells as 3 officers locked door after door aswel as ushering the stragglers into their cells on their way round.

Afternoon behind the cell door was quiet. Again, I just watched TV and had small talk with my pad mate. Half an hour before unlock was due I was unlocked and called out being told I had a doctors appointment. I hadn’t requested this so I went no knowing why I had it. It felt strange getting to gate after gate with no key to unlock it and being questioned where I was going each time I reached one. It seemed surreal from being the one with the key just 10 months ago. Finally I got to healthcare and gave my name to the receptionist. I was lead into a doctor’s office soon after and sat down facing the doctor at his desk. The doctor was very welcoming and had been told of my past and my mental health. He was empathetic to my situation and showed concern which was refreshing although I assured him I felt mentally ok. It was like I had almost accepted where I was. Although the situation was awful, I knew no matter how I fought it in my mind I was in prison for 11 months regardless. After about 15 minutes I left and was met by a female officer at the healthcare gate for her to walk me back to the wing. En route i spoke to her and she knew of my situation as an ex HMP worker. She was very informative and told me I was to be recattagorised soon which would mean moving prisons although she couldn’t give me a day.

When I got back to the wing unlock had already happened so the wing was wild yet again. I walked into the ground floor level and again was watched by what felt like 1000 pairs of eyes. I was telling myself over and over ‘just walk and don’t make eye contact’. As I walked up the stairs to my cell somebody grabbed me in a head lock for no reason at all. I think it was him just showing off to his mates trying to “bully” the new lad. Wrong move! I shrugged him off, twisted his wrist and in no uncertain terms said, “do that again and I’ll fucking break it”. To be honest I began to panic as soon as the words left my mouth. Three or 4 of his mates were within punching distance and I fully expected one to be thrown. Surprisingly but fortunately, none were. What actually happened was quite the opposite! I was met with stunned looks and silence as I let go, shoved him away and continued to my cell. At that point I panicked more. Next time I’m out would they now stay well away or would I be targeted? I stepped back out and 2 of them came over. “Here we go” I thought, expecting the latter. “Sorry mate he was only messing about being a dick” one of them said. Better then what I expected! Once again though, I kept it short, “no worries” I said and moved on.

About half an hour before it was night lock up I wanted to use the phone but still didnt have a pin number so unfortunately I couldn’t. One thing I’ve spoken of a lot on my twitter page is the use of phones and the trouble having shared wing phones causes. At Hewell there are 3 or 4 phones per wing. Each phone is mounted on the wall at the back of the wing with no privacy and often a large queue. In the time I was there I must have seen 5 fights or arguments about using the phones and multiple times lads not having time to use them before lock up. I will explain more about the positive impact of having phones in cells compared to shared wing phones in a later post as I experienced this later in my sentence. The differences I saw in moods, anger towards prisoners and staff and the impact on mental wellbeing was unbelievable and It is an area I strongly believe should be reassessed. Especially in the current climate of long lock ups during the pandemic.

Before I knew it I was in my cell for the night with a lasagne watching Godzilla. I had survived my first full day and felt a sense of relief. I wouldn’t say I felt comfortable but I’d proved I wasn’t a push over, walked around the wing and used the showers with relative ease and most of all just survived the hardest day. All I could do now was take each one as it came.

The next 3 days where much the same as the first. I was settling into the routine and just keeping my head down. In the evenings myself and my pad mate watched films, ate snacks and would go to sleep around 11pm.

At 7am on my 5th morning at Hewell I was woken up by the clanking of my door opening. “Twigg, you’re moving. Pack your things and be at the gate in 2 minutes” I heard a voice shout. What? I hadn’t been told this. Still half asleep I bundled up my bits and pieces, said bye to my pad mate and strolled to the wing gate. The wing was still dealthly silent. In a way I was a bit gutted. I knew it would be like starting again with a new pad mate, new faces and new surroundings But then again, moving to a cat C could mean better conditions and a step closer to home. I walked to the reception area accompanied by an officer, down the cold brick hallways passing through white metal gates every 30 yards or so. When I arrived at reception I gave my name and was given a bag to put my property in which was tagged by a reception officer. Once I’d given my details I was taken to a holding room where 5 other lads sat in silence, clearly all tired after an early wake up. I was the last one in and we sat in that room for a good 2 hours in relative silence. We were all sat as far from each other as possible on the metal benches with our backs against the cold, drab cream wall. The only conversation to spark was between myself and one other. He was a big lad, built like Arnie with a bald head and tattoos. To look at he was very imposing but to talk to, a really pleasant bloke. After a bit of small talk an officer entered and told us we would be moving to HMP Oakwood in the next 10 minutes and a cell van was outside ready for us. This is where the next part of my journey began.

“You’re going to prison”

Once i was home from hospital life fell pretty flat. I was unable to do much with my injuries which by now were extremely painful. During my time in hospital I’d felt ok as I’d had a constant supply of morphine but now I was home I was in agony, particularly with my neck and arm. On top of this I can’t even begin to explain how weak I felt. I had lost almost 2 stone and was struggling to even walk upstairs.

Over the following weeks though I recovered well and my strength and appetite began to increase. I was improving physically but still really struggling mentally. Adding to this was the fact that I was being bombarded with emails and calls from work, insurers, the police and solicitors. I’d been made aware by my solicitor that I was to undergo a recorded police interview which would be held at home and he would be present and that was playing on my mind. A few days prior to this taking place I met him for the first time when he visited me at home. He firstly reassured me that my good background, job, education and social circle would all go in my favour in court. I accepted I had caused the crash so the guilty plea would also lower the sentence along with me addressing my mental health issues. The one factor that frightened me was the crime could carry up to a 4 year prison sentence and he couldn’t guarantee I’d get it low enough to be suspended but he did believe there was a chance.

A few days later a police officer attended my house along with my solicitor. We spoke briefly and I think (hope!) even the officer could see that I wasn’t a bad lad. A little later he got out a recorder and asked me questions about my whereabouts and actions that night. I stated everything I could remember, how I’d felt and where I’d been and then answered honestly that I had no recollection of the actions after having a suspected panic attack during a period of depressive thoughts.

After the interview the policeman shook my hand, wished me a good recovery and told me I’d get a court date in the coming months. Once he left my solicitor and I discussed how we will attack my case. He told me I came across well and there wasn’t much more I could do except attend court when asked and in the meantime I had to focus on getting myself in a better place mentally and physically.

Over the coming month I was recovering well physically. I still wasn’t 100% but I was well enough to start getting out of the house. My first port of call was addressing my mental health and so I booked in to see my GP. My options were discussed and it was felt that before trying any medication, the best option in the first instance would be a referral for therapy. The sessions would be held in a block of council offices in the town centre every Tuesday at 1pm and I was happy to attend to see if it helped. I couldn’t feel much worse so why not? During this 4 month period though I felt myself slipping into old habits. I once again turned to alcohol as a way of dealing with things. I’d wake up every day feeling awful, terrified of what the outcome of the court case would be. I’d been struggling with depression anyway but with the added weight of this impending court case, I just couldn’t cope. Day after day, I’d stumble out of bed late, shower, eat and then get the bus into town. I’d wander around with my thoughts tormenting me before hiding away in pubs to drink my feelings away. Alcohol had always been a weakness of mine, it was what I’d use as a coping mechanism when things were tough. Whilst I knew it certainly wasn’t the answer to my problems, I just needed something to blur out these thoughts in my head, to stop me feeling. I saw it as my way of coping with things but it just caused me to argue with my family, lie and generally be an awful person to have around. I would attend my therapy, have a 90 minute session speaking about not turning to alcohol to deal with my problems and then go straight to the pub and have 5 pints. Looking back I was just a complete mess but like I’d always done, I hid it and told people I was doing much better. This cycle continued for months. I didn’t think I could feel any lower than I had just before the crash but this was now my lowest point. I was jobless, depressed, awaiting a prison sentence and a bordering alcoholic aged 25. What had happened to me!?

During this period I received the letter I’d been dreading, my court date. I can still vividly rememeber the sinking feeling in stomach sank as I sat on my bed reading it. I was to attend Warwickshire crown court on February 10th 2017 at 10am.

I didn’t have much correspondence with my solicitor as he worked on my behalf getting my defence ready but I prepared a statement to be read in court along with references from colleagues who gave their personal view on me as being a good citizen, colleague and friend. The date came round much quicker than I hoped. The morning of my case myself and my dad set off from home at 6am and spent the 2 hour drive to Warwickshire in near silence. I think we both thinking the same thing, expecting the worst.

When I arrived in court I spoke for 20 minutes with a mediator who I believe are there to advise the judge on my manner and remorse. Obviously, I was remorseful and portrayed myself as well as I could. Shortly after whilst sat in a waiting area, my case number was read out. Myself and my solicitor went in one door and after a hug, my dad went into another. It was so daunting standing in a dock, it felt surreal and my nerves were through the roof. I was petrified to be honest but at the same time I felt numb. The judge entered and read the case out and asked me to state my name and my plea. I was aware with my plea of guilty I could get my sentence down to 3 years and then hopefully my background and my defences could get it to 2 years with the hope of the sentence being 2 years suspended. Throughout a hour deliberation it seemed to see-saw from me being a criminal to being a victim of depression. I genuinely couldn’t tell how this would end. With a bit of back and forward between the judge and solicitors it seemed the judge was in 2 minds. At this point he addressed the court. He wanted to suspend proceedings to reach a conclusion which was likely to land somewhere around 2 years suspended or 2 and a half years in prison. As I left to wait my heart was racing, it honestly felt like it could come out of my chest it was pounding so hard. My solicitor was still in with the judge but about half an hour later he came into my waiting room. His words were, “Jack. It doesn’t look good. I suggest you get any phone numbers you need now off your dad. I think you’ll be going to prison”. My stomach sank. What was I hearing?! This isn’t real! Before I could speak I was called back in. Again I stood in the dock completely numb. All defence for me had been said and a judgement had been made. The judge addressed the court, “Mr Twigg…..” he proceeded to read out a long judgement but the only words I heard were “imprisonment for 28 months with a minimum of 10 months 3 weeks upon good behaviour “. That was it. I was going to prison. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was actually going to prison. I felt sick but I couldn’t cry. I didn’t feel real, like I was in a dream and I’d wake up soon and be back in my normal life. I heard a voice tell me to put my hands behind my back and I was handcuffed and walk down some stairs to a desk underneath the court. Suddenly the mood of the staff changed towards me. I wasn’t Jack the prison officer anymore, I was now a prisoner. I stood infront of 2 guards emptying my pockets and I asked what happens now and where I’m going. A deadpan face gave a stern response of “prison”. I haven’t written this blog to slate the system or the staff but the way I was spoken to at this stage was appalling, like I was nothing. I’d never in a million years imagined I’d end up in this position. I was terrified, my whole world had come crashing down and although I understand they aren’t there to have a friendly chat, a bit of empathy wouldn’t have gone amiss. I was marched to a holding cell and put in the end cell in a block of 6. It was small, cold and stink of urine. As I sat on the concrete bed I asked when I’d be moving and where to. My answer was blunt yet again. I sat in that cell for 6 hours with the noise level rising as each of the other cells were filled. At around 5pm my door opened and I was ordered to walk towards the 2 officers to be rubbed down before being marched onto the cell van. What had happened?! Until this point it all seemed surreal but as I stepped onto the van reality really hit me. I was going to prison for almost a year. I boarded the van and was put in a small 2ft x 2ft cell surrounded by graffiti with the ringing sound of abuse in my ears that the other lads were shouting. I still at this point had no idea where I was going. Soon the van started and we drove into the unknown. I don’t know how long we drove for, I just sat in my own world still hoping it wasn’t real, I was going to wake up. Soon the van stopped some gates opened and in we drove to HMP Hewell. The beginning of my prison experience.

What happened?

I woke up in hospital in the critical care unit, my head spinning whilst strapped to a stretcher. I was surrounded by nurses and doctors who were all rushing to my aid. I had no idea what had happened or why I was in hospital but I couldn’t feel a thing. In the crash I had caused multiple skull fractures, fractures to my neck, broken ribs, shattered arm and elbow, dislocated my hip and had multiple cuts and bruises but I couldn’t feel anything. By the time I woke, my arm was already in a cast from my wrist to my shoulder. I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious for before I woke but I wasn’t awake for long before being sedated. They explained after that this was due to my body going into shock which could have caused cardiac arrest. I was in a bad way! Over the next day or so I was just lay in a comatose state, not really with it. The following day I came round slightly and was seen by a surgeon. He explained how I’d need surgery to rebuild and hopefully save my left arm before asking if I felt ok to talk to the police which I said I was. I can’t have been alone for 5 minutes before 2 officers walked in and stood over me as I lay, unable to move in my neck brace and covered in dry blood. They asked me my name and explained they had taken my wallet and phone to examine. They then proceeded to ask me if I had any recollection of the previous night. I wasn’t meaning to be evasive but I just couldn’t answer them. Through a fog of a severe head injury, hours after being virtually dead and enough meds to put out a horse I truly couldn’t answer them. When they realised this they went on to tell me what they believe had happened from their findings at the scene and witness statements from a truck driver.

According to reports, not memory, I had caused a head on collision on a main road on the out skirts of Rugby by turning onto the wrong side of the road at speed. “What?!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Why and how? My mind rushed back to my last thought. I was in a pub toilets feeling panicked and very depressed in floods of tears but how am I now here?

I have since had flashes of being in my car. Not feeling mentally well at all. Crying and having dark thoughts but how vivid these thoughts are is a weak perspective of the occasion. I still can’t remember the crash. One thing that still bothers me greatly is did I drive into someone at speed with the intention of ending my own life? I can’t say I did but I also cant say I didn’t. One thing I certainly didn’t intend was to injure anybody else and for that, although I’ve served my sentence I’m still very sorry for what I caused.

I have followed Tyson Fury for years and read his book recently. His story, although coming from completely different worlds, really hit me. At one point in his darkest time he talks of driving his Ferrari at speed intending to hit something to take his life. He didn’t, thankfully, but I genuinely fear I had the same thoughts. I was in a similar dark place having turned to alcohol and thinking I had no way out. Now, I am truly grateful that I did survive but at that point of impact was that what I wanted? I’m not sure I did. And before I continue with the “story” I just want to say, anyone reading this with similar thoughts or struggling please reach out to someone. It’s ok to fail at something, just don’t quit on yourself. There is help before it gets too much to cope with.

During the police interview I had in my hospital bed I clearly wasn’t much of a conversationalist. The 2 officers explained what had happened then went on to tell me I will be charged with, “causing serious injury by dangerous driving”. I knew right away this was a punishable offence but at that time I just wanted to recover and then deal with the aftermath.

That same day my family had been notified. My parents arrived that afternoon having been told what had happened. I can only imagine what I put them through. As I say, I was that dosed up I was struggling to even see never mind talk so I basically lay there as I was talked to by them. Their fear of the outcome of the police interview was obvious.

For the next week or so all aspects of the crash were quiet but still questions were constantly going through my mind. What happened that night? How had I got from the pub toilets to the car? Where was I going and what were my intentions? The only restbite I got from being tormented by these thoughts were during sedated periods.

The week passed with a steady stream of doctors and nurses checking on me, running tests and taking care of me. The focus during this time by everyone was to keep me alive and well so all talk of the accident took a back seat.

By day 8 I had lost my hearing. I had severely damaged it in the crash but an infection had spread and I was deaf! I had to go to brain scans and x-rays not knowing what was being said and trying my best to lip read. I had started in a bad way but I was deteriorating. I had not only lost my hearing but my feeling was returning so all my injuries were agony! That also came with a flare up of mouth ulcers. Out of everything these were the worst. Eating felt like chewing glass. Strangely the ulcers and a small cut on my hip caused me the most pain. The cut was caused by my seat belt and was a deep gash about 2 inches on my left hip/groin. It must have caused damage because it still hurts now!

It got to the 2nd week of my hospital stay and they still hadn’t decided what to do with my arm. They were confident I was strong enough to have surgery but unsure if my arm was in a fit state to save. Meeting after meeting happened that week. Will I have an arm and if so, will it function. I was booked in for the following Wednesday but told the risks, one being I may lose my arm.

The surgery thankfully was a success! Although I now only have 75% extension in my arm its fully functioning albeit held together with pins, screws and plates.

Once I’d had surgery the following week was recovery. At this point I’d still not stood up I think for around 16 days. One morning a physio came to see me. They were happy my neck wasn’t detrimental to my ability to stand so asked a physio to help me get back on my feet. When he arrived he explained he was there to get me walking. I think I laughed and said i was fine walking and i hadn’t hurt my legs. He looked at me and said, “go on then”. I swung my legs round, put my feet down and went to stand up. Bang! I hit the floor. I genuinely couldn’t walk! I had a full morning that day learning to walk. 5 steps tired me out. I was weak and shaky but much stronger then previous days.

After I’d walked unaided it seemed they were happy for me to return home under, “home care” with nurses visiting me weekly. I was happy I was allowed home. But I knew this was the start of a long road to recovery. Mentally, physically and a time to face my demons. But I was not fully prepared for what I knew was coming. Police interviews, solicitor phone calls, court and an impending prison sentence. This is where my life was to change again!

OSG to Officer. Mistake?

I was now well into my 2nd year of service and I was pretty well settled into my routine as an OSG. The monotony of 2 weeks of day shifts, 1 week of nights followed by 1 week off was taking is toll physically and mentally. Although I didn’t really think it at the time, I was struggling. Struggling with my own thoughts, my confidence, and lack of routine on my weeks off. Basically, I was drinking my weeks away in a depressive state. But aged 25, I did what a lot of lads do and ignored it. Still being the same old Jack to my mates, laughing and joking and being the one who picked others up. Nobody knew that at night I often went to bed in tears. The impending officer training was on my mind but I tried to use it as a focus and took positives. The increased pay being the main one and the prospector better wages opened doors, or so I thought.

I had my shifts set out on the computer at work all under the title “OSG” then suddenly, week 4, “OFFICER”. It had finally arrived, my shifts started, 2 weeks in house training as a fully paid officer before starting a 10 weeks training course in Warwickshire.

The weeks leading up to moving on to officer grade were pretty routine. Still doing the set tasks to my best ability but I had noticed however, certain officers being a lot more chatty with me in the mornings when I was working the front gate. Although officers and OSG’s work hand in hand there is a certain cliques between officers, with some looking down on OSG’s as a lesser. Although this was apparent I always chatted with my soon to be new colleagues and got any information I could that might help me out in the very near future. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them were great who genuinely wanted to help me out.

Before I knew it, it was my last shift. It was a Friday early finish with a weekend off before I started on the Monday as a new C wing officer. 13:30 arrived, I was finished! No longer an OSG. I left work in good spirits along with my friend, a fellow OSG and we went for a “celebratory” pint. We handed in our keys and walked down the driveway stop to the car park and I felt pretty good! In all honesty it felt like I’d left the service entirely. I wasn’t really thinking in 3 days time I’ll be working the wing.

When the Monday arrived my alarm went off at 6am. I woke up feeling sick. Not fear just nerves. I thought instantly I had made a mistake. I couldn’t handle nights when prisoners were behind their doors. How would I handle a wing full of them walking about? I always backed myself with confrontation. I’d dealt with it plenty of times away from work. Never starting trouble but certainly not scared to defend myself. I’m by no means imposing but at 6ft, young, fit and with the ability to look after myself and being someone not to shy away from threat I thought with that and my training I’d be fine. Scenario’s ran through my mind all the way to work during my 40min drive from home. As always, I arrived about 15min before my start time. It was the standard procedure entering the prison but felt very different walking in as an officer. I entered the gate house, handed my key tag in to my good friend and OSG who was working the gate who handed me my keys and wished me good luck. Instead of going into the office I went to the control room and collected my radio, Then headed up the hill to the wings. It was only 7:50am so still quiet. I walk through gate after gate getting further and further from the comfort of my old role walking into the virtually unknown. My stomach was in knots. I walked onto the wing and met 3 or 4 of my new colleagues, each of whom I knew briefly but not in a true working capacity. They welcomed me and they let me settle into my morning in the office, having a coffee before prisoner movement. Although I didn’t know what it was like, I did know the set routine so the radio calls and voice overs were of no surprise. But movement off the wing was a totally new experience! at 8:00am I was told id be shadowing an experienced female officer for 2 weeks. Each shift I was in I would do the same role as her. So when movement was called at 8:15am my job was to take the register of lads leaving the wing, ticking them off to their allocated workshops. What is expected here is a single file line to get through a single door opening, politely saying your name as you leave. Obviously, this doesn’t happen! When movement was called 80 lads stampeded the doors. It was my first encounter with an active wing and it really was a baptism of fire!

In the following couple of weeks I really did think I’d made huge mistake. Nothing in particular had triggered this. I had dealt well with anything I’d done and had no scares or issues, just something didn’t sit well with me. I think it’s the first time I saw the “us vs them” mentality and it just didn’t suit me. I do understand not all prisoners have just made a mistake. I do know there are some truly nasty people inside with a disregard for all logic and reason. And I do understand the frustration of doing your job to provide for your family and all you get is shit. trust me, I know. But from that brief spell on the wing I heard lads with genuine complaints, questions and issues which didn’t get address and often not even considered. This then lead to the issues through frustration then often ending in violence or a “fuck you” mentality to staff. This just wasn’t me but I couldn’t help everyone and didn’t have the experience to so what was I to do? After 2 weeks looking back now I should have held my hands up and said enough is enough, it’s not for me and returned to being an OSG. No love lost, no hard feelings but I’m done. it’s only a job, but I was petrified I’d be letting people down or look like a quitter.

Week 3 arrived. It was the start of my 10 weeks of officer training. The national school for prison officer training is in Warwickshire. It is a live in training course which runs Monday to Friday with weekends off to return home. The option was there to return on the Sunday evenings so you could stay over ready to start at 8am on the Monday. So, one Sunday in May I set off to Warwickshire in my little Vauxhall Corsa, not really knowing what I was stepping into. The base is in a lovely part of the country, surrounded by little villages and fields. The main building is a huge grand looking building, surrounded by sports pitches and smaller dormitory buildings. When I arrived I was genuinely excited. I got my key and was allocated in C dorm. This was to be a block of about 20 bedrooms with the 19 others in my block making up my training team, ” C section “. with sections, “A” to “G” in other dorms and rooms spread across the complex. Once checked in, I met a few people and had a stroll through the main building to familiarise myself. There was an onsite restaurant, a bar, games room and 2 huge sitting rooms along with a large lecture theatre and classrooms. We were here to learn after all!

On arrival we had a welcome letter in our rooms explains our first day procedure. The generic big welcome, followed by what they expect of us and what the course will entail. The welcome was held in a big lecture theatre by a few of the senior trainers which lasted about an hour before we were put into our sections, all lined up in military fashion and lead to our classrooms which would be our base for the next 10 weeks.

I still had this feeling this wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a big fan of the classroom to be honest. I had just completed 3 years of University in a classroom. why did I have to sit hour after hour in one now? Obviously, you have to, so I did and did what was needed. But outside of the book work I found the structure and language towards the trainees pretty strict and quite military like. Especially in routine training such as radio training and Control and Restrain training. Old school “punishment” for getting things wrong in training didn’t sit well with me. Things such as walking round the building 10 times in the rain because 1 member of our team used the wrong wording on the radio, and being made to do a plank for 2 minutes for not knowing the prison officer motto. Some of you may think I’m being soft but what was walking in the rain teaching me about how to deal with a suicidal prisoner? I clearly wasn’t alone as a complaint went into senior staff about how we were being treated and our course leader actually got switched in week 5.

Throughout the weeks the feeling of dropping out got stronger and stronger. Being away from friends and family week after week, along with the pressures of the training, added to how low I was feeling. Exactly what was making me feel too down, I don’t really know but where I’d told myself I was just feeling a bit shit, I now genuinely think I was suffering badly from depression and anxiety.

Despite this, I carried on and 6 weeks into the course I actually passed the midway exam with 100%! This picked me up a little and I went home that Friday feeling slightly better. However, Sunday soon arrived and I headed back to the training base with that familiar feeling of dread and self doubt. On Monday I had a pretty rubbish day. I just really wasn’t feeling good and it showed. I hadn’t given my all in control and restraint training and I was pulled up on it. Later that day we were put into groups of 3 and given subject which were to research for 2 hours before delivering a 10 minute presentation in front of the rest of the group. This sort of thing had never panicked me before, I’d done plenty of presentations at university with no issue. This time, however, I just broke down. I was full of anxiety and panic. So, during our practice run I went to the trainer and made some excuse to get out of it. I left the classroom, went straight to my dorm and just cried. I just didn’t know what to do. I think I actually stayed there all afternoon until class finished at 16:00. That evening the plan was the same as always, eat in the restaurant between 5pm – 7pm then onto the bar until 11pm where we would have a few pints and games of pool before bed ready for the next day. But this one particular Monday I just wanted to get away. That night I went to Tesco, got a meal deal and ate it alone in my room. It was only about 7pm and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to sit alone in my room but I also didn’t want to interact with anyone. At about 7:30pm I got into my car and drove 15 minutes into Rugby town centre. That night West Ham were playing Man United so I parked up, got cash out and headed to a pub to watch the game. Im a massive football fan so I thought it would take my mind off things.I got a shandy and sat alone watching the game. As the night went on I had a couple of pints and then fully intended to get a taxi back. The hours went by and I still hadn’t drank a lot but I could feel my mood slipping and my thoughts started to take dark turn. By this time, the pub was starting to fill up and I suddenly felt overwhelmed with anxiety. My heart was racing and I couldn’t stop myself filling up so I ran to the toilets, locked myself in a cubical and just cried. I didn’t really know why, I just felt so depressed and didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t want to kill myself but I also didn’t care if I did die, I just couldn’t cope with feeling like this. At some point between this and 4am I got in my car. I don’t know why, I don’t know when, all I know is I was upset but fully functioning at 10:45pm. My next memory after being in that pubs toilets was being in the critical care unit at Coventry University Hospital after being revived roadside by paramedics. This was the beginning of the next part of my journey to becoming a prisoner.

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