Just before I begin, my friend Mark insists he wasn’t going to cry when he came to visit me. This is a lie. He also wishes me to point out that he gave me a nice hug. There you go, Mark, you big girl.
Righty then. Induction. We have inductions for lots of different reasons, when we get a new job, when we join a gym, and apparently also when we go to prison. Not so we don’t hurt ourselves when we do tricep dips on our prison bed but so that we know all about the smooth running and most importantly the rules of the Big House. At Bronzefield the induction process was a week or two long and very, very dull. First stop the chapel where they told us some stuff about….something…prisony, maybe the privilege system. I can’t remember, that’s how interesting it was. I think I had to fill in some forms. They talked to us about prison jobs like wing cleaning, working in the kitchens, servery or the laundry, all good menial stuff. Or you could do “education”. There were a variety of highbrow courses available, English and Maths for morons, Basic IT for morons, and a gym course. Bingo! I’d already decided as soon as a custodial sentence looked likely that I would use my time wisely and, not knowing much or indeed anything about prison, for me that meant getting fit in the gym and reading lots of lovely books. While I was on bail, you see, I hadn’t bothered my arse about staying fit at all, as a rule I like to run, but thought it made more sense to eat, drink and be merry like there was no tomorrow. Just in case there really was no tomorrow. Which there wasn’t. So the fact I could get fit AND get a basic gym instructor’s qualification was marvellous news.
Another part of the induction process involved seeing a doctor to make sure you’re healthy. And for the 99% of women who’ve said they’re pregnant because they thought it would stop them getting a custodial sentence (I’d like to point out that I was not among their number) to have their pregnancies confirmed or otherwise. It’s somewhat pointless to do that these days anyway because several women’s prisons have mother and baby units, Bronzefield included. The Healthcare* area of the prison was in the main building where the kitchens, Education, gym, segregation unit (aka the Block) and Admin were all situated. And it was while visiting Healthcare that I saw my first ever methadone queue. It was not a pretty sight. I’ve mentioned my naivety previously but I’m not sure I emphasized enough quite how far this goes. I’ve never taken drugs, I’ve never even smoked normal cigarettes apart from trying them once or twice when I was 16. I didn’t like it. I do like booze but have never been in the habit of getting so blind drunk I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. Oh well, maybe once or twice. I’ve had friends who have smoked pot, know of people who’ve taken things like ecstasy or acid, but have never seen it with my own eyes. And I’d never known of anyone who’d taken anything harder. But the methadone queue! I was deeply shocked. They looked DREADFUL. Drawn, pale, painfully thin, but with weird pot bellies, not pregnancies thankfully but apparently the result of going from eating nothing to three square meals a day. And their teeth! Where the fuck were most of their teeth? I hadn’t known losing your teeth was an outcome of serious drug abuse. I knew nothing about drugs. In fact even now I’m pretty clueless. I made a mental note not to make friends with anyone in the methadone queue.
When I saw the doctor, although I most definitely wasn’t pregnant, I did have a dirty secret to impart. I had head lice. I had caught them from no. 1 son. Bad no.1 son. In normal society head lice is not a big deal, your head gets a bit itchy, you realise the little buggers have been biting your head and neck and when you’ve stopped shuddering you go to Boots and buy a comb and some smelly insecticide. Job done. It’s not like that in prison. People have a really odd attitude to it. It’s like it’s the most disgusting thing ever to happen to someone. They’re less bothered about some skank who fails to wash than a clean person who has a few bugs setting up home on their bonce. I was terrified of getting found out. I knew I had it but I could tell no-one and neither could I risk scratching in public areas. That sounds really rude. I mean scratching my head, put your filthy minds away. Thankfully the doctor prescribed me some Full Marks or similar and I was able to get it back to my room without anyone seeing. But not before I’d had to live with it for 2 whole weeks, all the time knowing it was there and all the time desperately keeping it from everyone else. Yes, prison healthcare is rubbish.
After the induction process was over, normal prison routine began. Every week day is the same, you’re unlocked, you have breakfast, you go to work or education, you have lunch, get locked up for a while, go back to work, come back for dinner, have open association (i.e. you can hang about in the communal area) until 8 then are locked up for the night. You can choose not to work at all but if you don’t you’ll spend the whole day locked behind your door and won’t get to earn the princely sum of £10 a week or slightly more for some jobs. There are several roll checks in between times and the next day you get up and do it all again. Amazingly it makes the time fly. Weekends are different in that you’re locked up for the night much earlier, and unless you work in the kitchens as a wing cleaner or on the servery you don’t have to go to work.
10 days into my sentence it was my 30th birthday. I was feeling a little bit depressed, this wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be. Not in my wildest dreams or nightmares. But it was OK, in fact it was as good as it could be. A few days after I arrived at Bronzefield I started receiving letters from friends and family. At first they were a bit, I don’t know, negative I suppose, sort of “I really don’t know what to say, this is awful, I hope you’re OK, try and look on the bright side etc etc.” I think they were scared that if they told me happy and nice things that were happening in their lives that this would upset me. But once I’d had the chance to write back to them and tell them that I was fine and it was all OK and to PLEASE send me happy letters, I beg you, things were greatly improved. That said, at first writing letters was somewhat difficult. I hadn’t brought a pen, the prison officers wouldn’t lend me one and all the inmates were very protective of theirs. It was one pen between 5 of us most of the time until I was able to buy my own and if you wanted it you had to prise it out of whoever had it’s fingers. You know what they say about friends, that in times of trouble you find out who your true friends are. And I did. It seems I am an excellent chooser of friends. I was overwhelmed at the support I had from them throughout, and of course from my family (that goes without saying), and the letters I received from them meant so much. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t write for long or often, it was the sentiment that really counted. I don’t think I’ve ever really properly thanked the people who went out of their way for me, writing weekly, visiting regularly, but I hope they know how much I appreciated it. But anyway, back to my birthday.
The day started quietly enough, I think we were still in the middle of induction with nothing to do on that particular day apart from watch TV and read. And then I got 2 homemade cards from my friends on the wing! I was touched. And then at lunchtime I received FIVE bouquets of flowers! FIVE! I was chuffed. I also had a stack of cards when the post was given out so all in all it was as lovely a day as it could be. I stuck my cards on the wall next to my photos with prison toothpaste (as you do in the absence of blu tak or drawing pins) and the whole room looked lovely, even with my makeshift vases made from the bottoms of soft drinks bottles. Good times.
A couple of weeks passed. People came and went. I spoke to my parents and my children on the phone on alternate days and I was getting used to the routine and realised I could survive it. I had visits with family and friends but the one I was most looking forward to was the one with my sons. My ex had agreed to allow me a monthly visit and the visiting order had been sent and the visit booked. I absolutely couldn’t wait, although I knew that on this one occasion I might struggle a bit with my emotions. Christmas was just around the corner and everyone had started making decorations and putting them up around the wings. Unrolled tampons and opened up (unused) sanitary towels make excellent fake snow. Christmas was going to be hard but not unbearable and at least I was going to see my kids before. Except I wasn’t, because on the Saturday before the boys were due to visit I got a note under my door saying that I was going to be transferred to HMP Downview. On the day the boys were coming to see me. To say I was devastated would be understating things slightly. For the first time since I’d got there I cried, really properly cried and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to stop. I spoke to the staff and there was nothing they could do, I just had to accept that I wouldn’t see them.
*It’s an interesting point to note that many areas of the prison were generally referred to with a single capitalised word, Healthcare, Education etc. No idea why. Oh, and the dentist was referred to as the Butcher.