The day of moving arrived. Over the weekend I’d come to terms with the fact that my visit with the children would have to be postponed. I was learning to accept the things I couldn’t change, there really was nothing else I could do. Was I growing as a person? No, probably not. After all, I might be more accepting of things but I was still bitter as all hell. I packed up my stuff into my lovely HM Prison Service see through bag. Hmmm, it weighed a ton. In a few short weeks I’d already been sent enough stuff to make moving somewhat tricky and this is despite the fact that there are limits to how much stuff you can actually have. I also discovered that while cheap chalky toothpaste makes an excellent alternative to blu tak it also makes a bloody awful mess when you take stuff down. If they haven’t already fallen down, that is. After about an hour of serious dried toothpaste sweeping I was ready to go.
I dragged my bag to reception, approximately an 8 mile walk when you’re carrying a dead weight. I was glad I wasn’t a serial killer as I definitely lack the strength for regular body shifting. Those of us that were moving were shown into a holding cell large enough for several people and waited. After a while some more people joined us and I was relieved to see that one of my friends was among them and that she was going to Downview too. We sat and we waited and sat and waited some more. In prison the only place you’re allowed to smoke is in your room or outside, you’re not allowed to smoke in any communal areas and definitely not in the holding cells. So, what’s this? Some very naughty people, including my friend, were passing a sneaky fag around. Knowing my luck they’d get caught just as it was being passed by me and I’ll be implicated too. Did I say anything? What do you think? Fortunately no-one came in and it looked like they’d got away with it.
Then it was time to go. The four of us that were going to Downview were called first as our sweatbox was ready. But we couldn’t go before we’d had the obligatory strip search. Now, I haven’t mentioned these before but they are a regular occurrence when your liberty’s been taken away. Not one ounce of dignity remains for those languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And there are many occasions where a strip search may be necessary: when you first get to a prison, when you’re leaving a prison to go to another, when you have your room “spun” (searched), if you have to do a drug test (or piss test as we lovingly referred to them), if you need the toilet mid-visit, if it’s a Tuesday. You get the picture. It could be worse, though. There is no snapping of rubber gloves and “Bend over”. It’s a simple case of taking your top half off then putting it back on again and then doing the same with the bottom half. Still not nice though.
Into the sweatbox we went. Having learnt from my first experience I wasn’t wearing my coat. In fact if I could have got away with it I’d have been wearing a bikini and sipping a margarita. Margaritas aren’t prison issue sadly. And off we lumbered. Sweatboxes aren’t built for speed. Now, according to Google Maps the journey from Ashford in Middlesex to Sutton in Surrey is approximately 20 miles, depending on the route you take, and should take no more than 50 minutes. If this is the case then we must have taken the scenic route. Via Aberdeen. We arrived around lunchtime, and it took forever to get through the series of gates. Open one gate. Drive through. Stop. Close the gate. Open the one in front. Drive through. Stop. Close the gate. And repeat. And again. And again. It was like going through canal locks only slower. And more boring. Until finally we’d travelled the 20 feet from the first gate and were allowed out and into the reception area. Not the most inspiring of places. Somewhat…tired. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this place, not after the shiny newness of Bronzefield. Oh dear.
On the plus side, however, Downview is run by the Prison Service. This is a good thing. I’d come to realise that private prisons might not be the best run. The staff didn’t appear to know what they were doing, and while some of the officers were friendly, sympathetic and compassionate the rest were rottweilers who took themselves far too seriously and loved the authority. Give them a tiny bit of power and they go crazy. Right from arrival at Downview they seemed better organised. And their uniforms were nicer too. Oh dear, my friend was given an IEP (a sort of warning given for rule breaking) for smoking in the holding cell. They’d brought that all the way from Bronzefield and she thought she’d got away with it!
It’s not a case of turning up in prison and going straight to your cell. There’s a hell of a lot of admin to get through and most of it involves your property. Everything I had brought with me had to be gone through and listed, by hand onto a property card. Everything. The longer you stay in prison the more crap you accumulate and the more annoying this process becomes. This being relatively early in my sentence I guess it could have been worse but seemed to take an age. At least they were doing two of us at a time. Eventually it was over and I was shown to my new home. Dear God. Could this place have been more depressing? I suspect not. After being spoilt by shiny newness NOW I felt like I was really in prison. The walls were painted in shiny institution paint like we had at school. A dull sort of yellow. Unlike the bed at Bronzefield which was attached to the wall the one here was free standing, as was the wardrobe which had a door and everything. There was a desk with a TV on and a locker to keep your valuable possessions. I’m trying to think of something valuable I might have had but can’t. People kept their “burn” (tobacco) in them as I recall. The toilet wasn’t screened from the rest of the room like it had been at the other place apart from a manky shower curtain that supposedly protected your modesty. The mattress on the bed was strangely hard and after prolonged periods of sitting or lying on it you’d sort of sink into it. Most odd. The pillow wasn’t a pillow at all, it was a breezeblock. I get sore ears lying on normal pillows though I have no idea why so there was no way I was going to be using a bloody breezeblock. I stuffed my dressing gown into the pillow case instead. This room was shabby. Not shabby chic. Just shabby.
I was feeling pretty low and thought I was going to hate this place and I was stuck here until the end of my sentence. Who knew how long that would be? I’d heard of the possibility of tagging but that seemed unlikely and I had no idea if I’d be able to cope for another 17 months in such a dump. As I was unpacking my stuff I had a visit from one of the prison chaplains. I was expecting to hear all about how God could help me and some bollocks about letting Him into my heart and my sins would be forgiven so I was very polite and said I was sorry but I wasn’t at all religious. Translation: Please fuck off. Only she didn’t fuck off and instead said that she wasn’t there to talk about religion at all but was just there if I needed someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. She was so lovely and kind that I found myself pouring out the whole sorry tale of how I’d been moved there and I didn’t want to be and I was missing seeing my kids because of it. I was snivelling and probably not making much sense but she listened to me, hardly saying anything and let me get it all out. And when I ran out of steam I actually felt better. Wow, she was good.
We had to endure another very boring induction but because it was Christmas time it was spread out over a longer period. A lot of time was spent locked up because if you’re doing induction you can’t work yet and if you don’t work you don’t get to come out and play much. But TV and books pass the time. And when we were allowed out we played pool and chatted and, actually, had a right laugh. I made more new friends and started to settle in pretty quickly despite my initial misgivings. Most of the other prisoners were nice people, and the ones to avoid were screamingly obvious. After a couple of days of being there, there was a big Christmas lunch held in the gym hall. The whole prison was there and all the food, a three course meal, was handed out by the officers and even the governors. It amused me for some reason that I was given my cheesecake by the principal governor. Check me out. But what it did show to me was that here a great deal more consideration was given to the welfare of their charges by the staff and governors. They didn’t have to lay this big “gathering” on but they did, and it made us feel almost normal for a couple of hours. That’s worth a great deal for people who aren’t feeling much hope. They did other things too for Christmas, a silly quiz on the wing and a pool competition. I came second and won £5 worth of phone credit, a veritable fortune. But best of all I got to see my boys just before Christmas. I was a little emotional when I first saw them but soon pulled myself together and was able to put them at ease while my ex’s sister asked me questions like “what’s everyone else in for?” It had taken me a little while but I came to realise I was going to be all right.