I hadn’t been at Downview long before an opportunity to take part in a “Children’s Day” arose. Places were limited but if you were lucky enough to get one you could have your children with you for almost a WHOLE day rather than the usual hour to an hour and a half that you got in a standard visit. As far as I know they do these special visits in most prisons but at Downview it appeared they had more than others, one every couple of months. Children would be dropped off in the visits hall by their carers, then go through the prison to the gym where lots of activities and lunch were laid on. It was a fantastic opportunity to just be normal with your kids rather than be stuck in a chair you weren’t allowed to get up from while wearing a silly yellow sash jobbie to easily identify you in case you fancied walking out of the door when all the visitors leave. As if it would ever cross a prisoner’s mind to try and escape. That NEVER happens. And it also helped to allay any fears children might have had about what prison was like because they got to see it with their own eyes. All in all it was a big win for HMP Downview as far as I was concerned.
My kids came to three of these visits and we all had a great time. We played rounders, basketball, jumped on the bouncy castle, and generally just enjoyed each other’s company in a much less restrictive setting. We made scoobies (erm, lengths of plastic string knotted together to make, well, key rings and not much else). Sort of. I could only do one way. We ignored some of the other people’s brats (there seemed to be a very high incidence of ADHD) and stopped ourselves from cuffing them around the ear or kicking them up the bum. I imagine that would have been ill-advised. There are birds of prey (owls, harris hawks and, um, possibly some other kinds) kept at Downview and on one of the visits they got them out for the children to see. They flew one of them over us while we lay on the astroturf. This was scary, I was afraid of either being pecked and clawed at like Tippi Hedren in The Birds or shat upon. Mostly the latter. Unfortunately the bird in question decided when it had finished showing off and pretending it was going to crap on people that it would try and make a bid for freedom and flew up to the gym roof. And there it stayed for the rest of the day, flicking the birdy Vs at the keepers who were trying to tempt it down with tasty morsels like bits of chick. Nice.
I absolutely loved the children’s visits but was always utterly paranoid that although my ex had agreed to bring the children to them he would forget and wouldn’t turn up. But he did. Every time. And I’d go back to my room after they’d gone on a high which would last for ages.
These special days were relatively few and far between and most of the time there was just the standard prison routine. After only a few months of being there the gym course would be complete so I needed to find something different to do. I toyed with the idea of gardening. Downview’s grounds are lovely, very well kept and beautifully planted all year round and all maintained by prisoners. I like a bit of gardening and am always very enthusiastic for the first week. And then quickly lose interest, forget to water everything and wonder why it’s all died. If I could learn properly maybe this would bode well for my future plants. I didn’t fancy working in the kitchens as I didn’t want to be responsible for producing any of that high fat high carbohydrate rubbish we were subjected to every day. I didn’t want to work with the birds of prey either as I just didn’t know if I’d enjoy chopping up frozen chicks to feed them every day. And then one day a sign went up for a new course called PRIME or Prison Media. Now that sounded interesting. In the middle of the prison grounds there’s a house. As I understand it this house used to be used for teaching prisoners practical skills such as plumbing and decorating, but that this applied more to when it was a male prison which it was before they re-rolled it as a female one. One for females, that is, I’m not saying the prison itself has gender. Oh, you know what I mean. I also heard a rumour about why they stopped doing the practical courses for female inmates but I’m not going to share that in case it’s wrong. ANYWAY. The house which had been standing empty and unused for some time had been done up and was going to be the site of this new media course. How exciting!
I applied for a place, had an interview and got in. Hurrah! It was due to start before I finished the gym course but that didn’t really matter as I already had a surfeit of wipe clean certificates and if I successfully completed it I would have a BTEC in Digital Media, equivalent to one A Level. This one actually sounded like it wasn’t for morons. I couldn’t believe my luck, I’d never in my wildest dreams imagined that I’d get the opportunity to do something this interesting while in prison. On the first day the 20 new students (myself included) arrived at the house and were shown round. It had all been decorated neutrally and was bright and really nice. On the ground floor was an office where the project manager and the prison officer that had been assigned to the project were based, two IT suites with a computer for each of us, a classroom which doubled as a TV studio and a gallery with lots of exciting looking TV equipment. Upstairs was a common room for the students, a couple of empty rooms and a radio studio. This was so exciting I thought I might burst, I hadn’t expected there to be ACTUAL equipment with all complicated looking knobs on. I suddenly felt very nervous. I was going to have to learn how to use this stuff and it looked really hard. We met our tutors who were based at a university in London, one of them used to be a VJ for Radio 1 apparently but I’d never heard of him. He was American and kept referring to us as “y’all”. I really wanted to titter behind my hand every time he did it, but I behaved. Just. And he was just one of many tutors who came and went to teach us different things. What I loved about this course was that we did so many different things, mostly practical rather than theory and for a lot of it we were just thrown in at the deep end. It was scary but exciting. One of the first things we each did was a radio interview. I freely admit to being terrified. There were only two of us in the studio, myself and the interviewee but absolutely everyone else was on the other side of the glass. Looking. But once I got going it was fine, I’d prepared my questions and stuck to them and it went pretty well. According to the tutor my style was “conversational” which I took as a compliment. The bits I’d struggled with were the introduction and the wrapping up. Not much then. But hey, I’d never done this before. If I’d thought radio was scary, though, imagine how it feels to be looking down the barrel of a TV camera, all thoughts miraculously gone from your head. At first I simply couldn’t string a sentence together, most embarrassing. And even when I had managed to say words that made sense and were in the correct order I found it excruciating to watch myself back. I absolutely loved it and despite the terror I felt every time I did it I made sure I volunteered to do the presenting every time we made a TV show. I even created a character called Fifi la Bouffant, a snotty film critic. Nothing like me at all, guvnor.
TV and radio weren’t all we did. A lot of our work was computer based and ranged from creating magazine style pages to websites. We learned to create simple animations, how to write screen plays and, my absolute favourite, video editing. I loved the precision of it, I’d never done anything like it before and it really appealed to me. We were assessed on each different area of the course and I was delighted to get a distinction for every assessment I did. Not that I’m bragging. OK, I am. But I was so chuffed, here I was doing a course I really enjoyed AND I was good at it. And I was in prison! Pinch me, cos I just don’t believe this is happening. For the final project we had to choose a subject and produce something from each element of the course. The main part had to be a multi page website and it needed to include a film, interviews, information, all sorts. I was nominated as the leader of my group and we decided to do diet and exercise in prison as our subject as this was something I was very interested in. Being the leader of the team also meant, in their eyes, that I had to be the spokeswoman too. Bastards, I really am not a fan of public speaking, especially in front of people I know. But I did it. And it was…OK. Our project was a success, we interviewed a gym instructor on camera, hilarious because he kept really playing up to it, we filmed a body pump class (very badly, I may be good at some things but I am a crap director), we did lots of research about healthy eating, and one of the girls even created a flash animation of how to correctly do various exercises. Even if I say so myself it was a really good project, I was very pleased with it. And overall I passed the course with a distinction. Happy days.