Category Archives: Prison

Porridge Part 12

Porridge Part 12

One thing most people seem to be interested in when they find out I’ve been to prison is what the other people are like and what they’re in for.  We all have preconceived ideas about it, I certainly did.  I pretty much expected butch lesbians with prison tattoos, hard-faced cows (like the one that looks like Sam the Eagle from the Muppets that used to be in Bad Girls and is now in EastEnders and always wears skirts up to her armpits even though she’s well into her 40s) and meek quiet women who are scared of everyone else.  That was the role I had picked for myself.  Needless to say it was nothing like that at all.  I was amazed at how…normal…a lot of the women seemed.  There were people from all walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds and many different countries.  It isn’t quite as simple to say that all of them declared their innocence, the different crimes that were represented were numerous and it and what happened to me made me realise that criminal justice isn’t as black and white as everyone (especially those Daily Mail readers) think it is.  Assuming you could believe what you were told someone was in for, that is, which is not necessarily the case.  But I wasn’t the kind of person to ask others what they’d done, there were plenty of people about to do that, and most volunteered the information, desperate for you not to think they’d done anything bad to do with kids.

Of course, what might be deemed to be the stereotypes (thanks to such quality productions as Bad Girls) were evident but nowhere near to the degree I was expecting.  I did see prison tattoos.  They’re illegal.  And rubbish.  And there were obvious lesbians, at least one of whom looked like a boy and reminded me of Perry from Kevin and Perry, “Fank you, Mrs Paterson.”  I’m sorry if you think that’s lesbian-ist, but that’s how it is.  Yes, I know I made that word up.  There was also the odd hard-faced type, but that’s more my opinion than anything else, for all I know I was one of them.  I’m often berated by builder types as I walk down the street for not having a manic grin plastered across my face. “Cheer up love, it might never ‘appen.”  Oh do fuck off, I just have one of those faces.  I’ve already mentioned the methadone queue and it shocked me to the core.  But as these women are slowly weaned off drugs you get to see them for the people they might otherwise have been, albeit with a hefty dose of paranoia and occasional mania thrown in.

For the most part prison is populated with normal people like you and me.  Really.  And their crimes ranged from the seemingly minor like benefit fraud through the very popular drug importation all the way up to armed robbery and manslaughter.  Scary stuff.  I didn’t hear of anyone who was in for life where I was but they’re pretty rare in the female estate, although Rosemary West was supposedly resident in the segregation unit at Bronzefield.  There are people who would argue that women shouldn’t be in prison, that it doesn’t work for them.  Personally I think that’s rubbish, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you don’t know right from wrong, neither does it mean you’re incapable of doing bad things.  It is true that the incidence of suicide is greater among female prisoners as is that of self-harm but is that a good enough reason to scrap this system for women?  What about the men who commit suicide and self-harm?  Where do you draw the line of who to treat differently?

In looking at the statistics of re-offending rates amongst all prisoners you could easily argue that prison doesn’t work for anyone.  At least, not for the majority.  Approximately 67% of all prisoners re-offend within the first 2 years of release.  That is staggeringly high.  And why does this happen?  There are a number of different reasons for this, but the recipe for reducing re-offending has so many ingredients it must be incredibly difficult for most offenders to have them all.  The National Offender Management Service says there are seven pathways to reducing re-offending.  These are: accommodation, education training & employment, health, drugs & alcohol, finance benefits & debt, children & families and attitudes thinking and behaviour.  Obviously these seven items may not apply to all but it falls to the prisons and most notably the probation service, both within prison and outside in the community, to make sure that offenders address each and every one of those that apply to them.

But there are myriad difficulties in doing this.  There are only so many people working for the prison and probation services and they can only allot a small amount of time to each individual.  If you take education, training and employment as an example you should know that amongst prisoners illiteracy or poor literacy stands at 50% so before you can even start to look at the potential of an ex-offender getting employment you need to address that.  The problem is that the majority of people will have gone to prison with a short sentence, not long enough to help them.  A great deal more may not want to learn to read and you can’t force them to take part in educational courses. The final nail in the coffin for prison education is that it is poorly paid, where I was if you chose education you were paid £10 a week, but if you worked in the workshops and your productivity was high you could earn up to £80 a week.  It’s not hard to work out what most people go for.

With employment as well, even for those who do have an adequate level of education there are so many difficulties faced by ex-offenders.  The main one is, of course, disclosure.  By law if you have an unspent criminal conviction you must disclose this when applying for a job.  They advise you not to do this until interview, you wouldn’t want to end up in the situation I had with my university application, being judged without even being met face to face to state my case.  I’m not bitter.  Much.  But even then there’s no guarantee they won’t throw their hands up in horror and wrap it up quickly before hotfooting it out the door and running down the corridor waving their arms about.  You never know.

I think the biggest hurdle of all to overcome is to get the offenders to want to help themselves.    At a meeting of organisations who help offenders re-integrate with society I met someone who was a PPO, a Prolific and Priority Offender, someone who’d been in and out of prison their whole life.  Even though they were free their attitude was all wrong.  They were complaining that dole money was not available to them quickly enough on leaving prison (even though you’re given money when you leave) and that it wasn’t enough for them to buy the basics that they needed to attend interviews.  I begged to differ when you consider the low cost of basic smart clothing in the big supermarkets these days.  But as far as this PPO was concerned he could earn far more selling drugs and the sad fact is that that is probably exactly what he went back to doing before repeating the cycle with the revolving door of prison, again and again and again.  The fact that people like that think they’re owed something really galls me.  I never felt that way.  I knew that if I wanted my life not to be ruined by going to prison I had to do everything in my power to make sure it wasn’t.  I did all the courses in prison that were required of me, and more, to address my offending behaviour.  From the time I first got there until the time I left this was an important part of my life.  And my attitude completely changed over time.  At first I was angry and would not accept blame for any part of what had happened, despite the fact that I admitted the offence, up to a point.  But that changed and I realised eventually that I was fully responsible for a massive overreaction to a bad situation.  Although I still will never agree that there was ever any intent to cause harm, to my eternal shame it just happened.  Hey ho.

But I was very lucky.  I had an excellent support network, friends, family, probation (at home and in prison), the prison, Inside Job.  They all helped me to succeed in doing the things I wanted to achieve.

I was released from prison on home detention curfew on 5th January 2007 after serving thirteen and a half months.  Just a week or so before I’d been home for Christmas and had a lovely time with my family, feeling completely normal for the first time in ages and even spending Boxing Day with my lovely boys.  As arranged I met up with my old college friend, Adam, and several school friends and had a great time.  And, somehow, Adam and I got together.  It was completely out of the blue, especially as I’d thought he was still with his girlfriend, but it turns out they’d not been together for quite a while.  We’d been best friends at college but, despite the fact that he may have had hopes then, we both knew it would never happen so neither of us had any reason to imagine it would have happened this time around either.  But I’m very happy that it did, and the best part was that we didn’t have to worry about getting to know each other as we already knew each other very well.  Apparently he was attracted to my “cold cold aloofness”.  I’ve no idea what he means.  He moved back to Portsmouth from Exeter and we got married in December 2007.  Quick, maybe, but we both knew that it was right.  And that’s enough of that because there’s every chance I’m going to make myself vomit.  Let me offer my sincerest apologies if you, dear reader, have been forced to do the same.  But here’s a wedding photo, you’ll see that even 13 years later he was STILL looking down my top.  Shocking.


After my release  Inside Job helped me to secure a job as an editor compiling an e-bulletin on the seven pathways I mentioned above.  I was working again with Barbed in HMP Coldingley on the design and attending conferences and awards ceremonies, conducting interviews and all sorts which I would then write up afterwards.  As well as that I was editing contributions from other people for inclusion.  It would have been marvellous.  Yes, would have.  Sadly the plug was pulled after only a couple of months, it seemed there was a high degree of nervousness from the commissioning organisation and they decided to leave the idea, to my mind a bloody good one, in limbo for, well, you tell me.

I had to get a job, and quickly, as I had no other income.  I was incredibly worried about disclosure but realised that I would just have to bite the bullet and get on with it, expect some knockbacks and take them in my stride.  I didn’t have any other choice.  I updated my CV (very carefully), uploaded it to a job site and started looking for jobs to apply for.  I had decided that it would be highly unlikely that I’d get any media work anywhere other than London so thought it would be best if I tried to get a job as a software tester, something I had done some years previously.  I’m not sure what the thinking was behind this to be perfectly honest, but that’s what I did.  Very quickly I was contacted by an agent who had a job available locally and, without mentioning anything about being a violent criminal, I arranged an interview.  Strangely enough I was incredibly nervous.  I didn’t like the idea that I was going to give someone the opportunity to sit in judgement of me.  The interview went fairly well, the interviewer was very likable, asked me loads of questions to which it seemed I gave the correct answers.  Then he gave me a test.  On Linux and SQL.  I knew nothing about either.  But I was “willing to learn” (please give me a job).  Fortunately he told me that he’d offered jobs  to people who’d known none of the answers before, so that was a relief.  And then he asked me if I had any questions.  This was it.  I had to tell him about my conviction, and the fact that I was on tag.  I told him.  I expected a complete change in atmosphere, a distracted frostiness and a “thanks but no thanks”.  What I got was “Oooooooooh, what did you do?” and a request to see my tag.  You just never know what’ll happen.  And I got the job.  Unfortunately I hated it, but that’s another story.

Porridge Part 11

Porridge Part 11

I loved my job.  It was never boring and incredibly varied.  One day I could be in the office avoiding phoning people, the next I’d be lugging film equipment across London, then I’d be at a meeting going red when I had to introduce myself and the next I’d be at a conference taking notes on what employers are doing to engage offenders and ex-offenders (not enough).  I wrote articles and speeches, copied DVDs for distribution and printed labels on to them, I did so much.  For the first time in my life I had a job I looked forward to going to every day and didn’t watch the clock all day long.

I arrived at work every day at about 8am, at least an hour before everyone else and I usually used the time to catch up with my friends back home by sending emails.  My account was still active so for a week or two I was going through the backlog of mostly rubbish I had received over the course of 9 or 10 months.  There was a spam filter so very few of them offered me viagra or the opportunity to extend my manhood but there were a hell of a lot of emails from companies I’d subscribed to: CD WOW, the Book People and Tesco and, well, anyone you can think of.  So with all this rubbish coming in it took me a good while to notice that I had a genuine email from an old friend from college who’d sent me a message through Friends Reunited.  This was great, I hadn’t seen Adam since just after I’d had number 1 son when I was 21 and I’m not convinced he was particularly interested in my tiny baby.  Not many 19 year old blokes would be.  After that we may have spoken a couple of times on the phone but eventually lost touch as he was at university in Norwich and I was still in Portsmouth popping out babies.  When we were at college Adam was my best friend.  We sat together in Maths and Physics and were usually rather naughty, a bit silly and very cheeky.  We had a great laugh.  Of course, it was obvious to all and sundry that young 17 year old Adam had a bit of a thing about me, after all I was always catching him looking down my top, but as I was 19 that was NEVER going to happen.  And indeed it never did.  I was chuffed to bits that I’d had a message from him after all this time (9 years!) and couldn’t believe he didn’t seem to know if I’d remember him or not.  Silly boy.  I replied with an apology that I hadn’t responded immediately as I had been somewhat indisposed and that he’d NEVER guess what I’d been doing for the last year or so.  I was right, he didn’t.

Once he’d got over the initial shock and I stopped him doing the sympathetic stuff I’m not so keen on we eased back into the old banter we’d had in college days.  It seemed he’d moved to Exeter with work, bought a knackered old house with his girlfriend and spent ages doing it up.   He liked his job and appeared to have gone from being a bit of a nerd to a full on complete one.  And apparently if I saw him I’d point and laugh at his beer belly.  Well of course I would, that’s the kind of girl I am.  We sent loads of amusing messages to each other and it felt like we’d just picked up from where we left off all those years ago.  He mentioned that he might come and visit me in prison some time, which is crazy because Exeter’s a very very very long way from Sutton but I was touched that he was considering it.  In the end we arranged to meet up at Christmas when I was planning on going back to Portsmouth for a home visit, shortly before my release, and he would be staying with his family who were still in Portsmouth.  That was still a fair way off so we kept in touch regularly by email and occasional texts (day release prisoners are allowed mobile phones which are kept in lockers near the prison entrance and aren’t allowed to be brought in, they’re important in case you need to get in touch with the prison if, for example, you’re going to be late back).

One of the projects I was working on in the meantime was to create a booklet to accompany a DVD Inside Job had made for HMP Downview Resettlement.  The aim was to send them out to employers in the Sutton area in order to raise awareness of the work Downview was doing and to hopefully interest them enough to offer placements to some of the women in Resettlement. I was working with a prison based company, Barbed, in HMP Coldingley, who designed the booklet and I was really pleased that we got it to be something that looked really good, even if I say so myself.  I had to do a great deal of research because I needed to include an article that I hoped would cause people to sit up and take notice, I needed them to know that there is in fact a business case for employing offenders and ex-offenders.  I gathered a number of statistics too that would hopefully shock them into doing what I think is the right thing.  Things like: crime by ex-offenders costs the economy £11 billion a year but that those who get and keep a job are half as likely to re-offend; 25% of the working population has a criminal record yet it is 8 times more difficult for someone with a criminal record to get a job.  It’s all very worrying.  I must say, I really enjoyed this particular project, for most of it I was left to my own devices and I was really pleased with the result.  As was resettlement officer who had commissioned it.  Hurrah!

Around the same time as this my boss and I were invited to HMP High Down (the men’s prison literally next door to Downview) to attend a conference about reducing re-offending through offering employment to offenders and ex-offenders (sound familiar?).  Some local employers had been invited as had several people who were there to present the case for why this is a good idea.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar too.  I was there to chat about my experience and met a number of people who seemed surprised by me.  But….you’re not dragging your knuckles…and you have a good grasp of the English language, how can this be?  Sad to say the Daily Mail mentality (all prisoners are ignorant knuckle draggers so lock ‘em up and throw away the key!) is alive and well.  I met this kind of reaction all the time.  I enjoyed it, I liked seeing peoples’ misconceptions and prejudice called into question.  I spoke to one employer who said that obviously they’d take on someone like me but that they’d be very unlikely to take on someone with a fraud conviction.  Hmmm.  Violence is fine but fraud, not so much.  I realise I’ve simplified that ever so slightly, I am not by nature a violent person and what happened was an extreme one off, but still, it seemed an odd opinion to have.

A few weeks after that event I received a phone call from someone in the High Down kitchens on behalf of the catering manager.  They wanted to invite my boss and I to a gourmet lunch.  Bloody rah!  It seems that the catering manager has won awards for the catering course that prisoners working in the kitchens complete and every time they graduate they hold a “Gourmet Lunch for Jobs”, inviting in local restaurateurs, journalists and anyone else who might have an interest in what they do.  I’d noticed at the previous function that the food they had laid out for us (apparently the same as the prisoners’ food) was very nice indeed.  In fact I was rather put out about this because the food at Downview was pretty grim unless you are a fan of large amounts of fat and carbohydrate.  It really wasn’t fair.  Bastards.  But the gourmet lunch.  It was fabulous.  By describing it I wouldn’t really be doing it justice for I am no foodie but the quality of the food was amazing.  There was a starter, a fish course (I hate fish sadly and plumped for a lobster thing as I wanted to try it. Big mistake), a main course (guinea fowl, cue Homer type drooling…mmmmmm guinea fowl) and a delicious pudding.  We had a great time.  The catering manager told us that he had hopes of opening a restaurant within the prison and that it would be open to the public by prior arrangement of course.  This seemed a fantastic idea, especially as many people have a morbid curiosity about what prison is really like.  That’s why some of you are reading this, isn’t it?  I really hope that happens, it would be a great way to continue funding an excellent project.

As time went on I had to start thinking to my future.  I was hoping to be able to secure some kind of job before I left prison in January 2007.  I had been lucky enough to be granted the home detention curfew (which you will know as tagging) meaning that by the time I went home I would have served 13 and a half months and would complete a further 4 and a half on tag.  There were a couple of possible jobs in the pipeline but nothing was by any means guaranteed so I decided to apply for a university place and study what would essentially be a continuation of the BTEC in digital media I had done.  I found a course at the University of Portsmouth that was very similar to what I had already done and contained all of the elements I was really interested in, it was a good, practical course.  So I applied.  I had an excellent reference from one of my tutors, good qualifications (as well as the BTEC I already had 4 A Levels and 12 GCSEs. I didn’t include my gym qualifications despite my laminated certificates) and I could envisage having studying as an option should none of the potential jobs work out.  As part of the application form there is a question about having a criminal record and as I am a good, honest girl, I ticked the box and explained a little about my circumstances in the personal statement.  I am well aware of the importance of disclosure about my criminal conviction and would never keep it from anyone, be it a potential employer or a university to whom I am applying for a place.  When the application process was closed I received a letter from the university requesting further details of my conviction in my own words and was told that my case would go to a board who would consider it and decide if I would be offered a place or not.  A further few weeks later I received another letter stating that they would write to my probation officer essentially to find out if I was safe to be around other people and if she would recommend me for a place.  She replied explaining that my offence had happened only in the context of a relationship and that I was not a violent person.  As far as we were concerned that would be the clincher, the support of a professional who knew about these kind of things.  But they rejected me.  Their reason was that “on the balance of probabilities” I would pose too great a risk to their staff and students.  I was very upset.  I had naively believed that they would see past how a violent offence looks on paper, take into account my previous good character and see the person I am.  But since they didn’t even invite me in for an interview how on earth could they even begin to attempt it?  And this despite an excellent reference and the support of my probation officer.  I just supposed I would have to get used to prejudice wherever I went in future.

So a degree was out.  I really hoped a job came up instead.  Because I knew the statistics and they were pretty bleak.

Porridge Part 10

Porridge Part 10

After a first day that eased me into my new job it was time to start working properly.  There were so many things on the go there was no time to get bored.  My boss suggested that one of the first things I should do was keep a diary/blog of what I was doing and how it felt to be out in the community working.  I did it but I was worried it was going to be rubbish, apart from a couple of silly made-up articles I wrote for the media course I hadn’t written anything since I was at school. Aeons ago.  I wrote it with a light-hearted edge and, as much as I could be about something I’d written, I was quite pleased with it.

One of my main tasks when I first started working was to help with the organisation of the Inside Job Productions launch.  Nothing had really been started yet so we had a lot to do: guest list, venue, invitations, food, drink, find speaker….in fact everything you can think of when organising a company launch.  With a requirement for it to be a success.  And to be within a relatively modest budget.  In London.  No pressure then.  My main task was to help with putting together the guest list and I didn’t have a clue where to begin.  Luckily suggestions were plentiful and I was soon furiously googling hundreds of different organisations and prisons who might have an interest in what we were doing.

Within a few days I discovered I had a slight problem.  It was strange and slightly embarrassing but I had become really apprehensive about using the telephone.  This was ridiculous, I’d worked in call centres before.  So it seemed prison had had some effect on me after all.  Yes, it had rendered me a nutjob.  What an odd way for institutionalisation to manifest.  And this despite the fact I rang my children every day and my parents a couple of times a week.  Mind you, it might just have been that the office was completely open and I was worried people were listening in and hearing me say ludicrous things and that they thought me an idiot.  What a plonker I was.  But I got on with the task in hand, putting together an exhaustive list of people from all areas of business, mostly without having to lift the telephone.  God I love the internet.

The guest list was by no means my only task, however.  There was so much else to do, some related to the launch and some with our actual work, largely film making.  Like most people I’m sure I’d always had a passing interest in this sort of thing, I’d imagined it to be glamorous and exciting and I hadn’t been able to believe my luck when I’d had the chance to help make a film in prison and that I would be doing it a fair bit in my job.  So, what I learnt in prison was that I’m really shit at holding the camera, that people don’t do what they’re supposed to do and that total randoms just get in the way and ask stupid questions.  What I learnt when we were filming at the local train station was that I was still really shit at holding the camera, actors do do what they’re supposed to do but that prison officers don’t necessarily understand the concept of artistic licence and that total randoms get in the way and ask stupid questions.  And what I learnt on shoots out and about in London was that I thankfully didn’t have to hold the camera, but that I did have to carry the equipment and that it was very heavy and that I kept getting in the way.  I wonder how many shots of me scurrying away were edited out.  At least I didn’t ask any stupid questions.  But there was soooooooo much waiting and standing around.  Glamorous my arse.

We had to design invitations for the launch and that was left to me too.  It was great that they were giving me the chance to do new things, setting me different challenges and I really hoped I’d be able to live up to their expectations.  And if not I’m sure they were ready to step in and, if not take over, push me in the right direction.  So one day I and one of the interns found ourselves heading towards the printers to see about getting some invitations designed and made.  I hadn’t rung ahead (phone phobia) and we pretty much waltzed in and asked to speak to the head honcho.  He was surprisingly accommodating.  It did help that they were already printing up some A4 folders for us so it was easy enough to get them to agree to make up an A5 invitation based on those.  We shook hands and headed back to the office.  Within a few days I had my first set of proofs back.  This was so exciting, I’d never done anything like this before but I was really relishing the idea of changing things to get exactly what I want.  Hey, I hadn’t been out much.  After much back and forth (email of course, phone phobia) the invitations were exactly how I wanted them to be.  Of course if I’d known at the start that this was what I wanted I could have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble.  But that isn’t how these things work, is it?

Launch plans were coming along apace but we hadn’t yet found a suitable venue.  There had been a few suggestions but some hadn’t been easily accessible, some had been too expensive and some simply didn’t offer the facilities we needed.  Then someone suggested a bar just off Fleet Street.  It had everything, the all important bar, the space we needed and we were able to segregate ourselves from their normal punters.  I had to ring them (gah!) to see if they were available on the night we wanted and I arranged for us to go and visit.  And for everyone else to have a wine tasting.  Everyone else, of course, because as a serving prisoner I was not allowed to drink.  And as you have to do random drugs tests and breathalyser tests on return to prison after a day’s work or a town visit you’d have to be pretty bloody stupid to take the risk.  Yes, loads of people are that stupid.  More fool them.  So, along we went to the bar and it was indeed perfect which was marvellous as it was the first place we’d looked at.  Apparently all the wine was very nice too, especially the champagne.  And the second glass that was had by some, just to make sure.

I hadn’t been there long when I was asked to write an article for the Women In Prison magazine about the course and the success I’d had and the opportunities it had led to.  It seemed my boss thought me a good writer (although I was less than convinced) and wanted me to get the opportunity to write as much as possible to build on it.  She suggested I write it with a light-hearted angle, though, because normally I was just quite factual and a bit “worthy”.  Fair enough, so I wrote my article, (which I seem to have now mislaid) and I was really quite pleased with it, a first for me.  Unfortunately other people decided what was required was a serious article and thought the tone of mine was a bit too light-hearted so they re-wrote to tone it down. They kept some of my jokes in though and that made me happy.  And I was published!  Sadly, “Women In Prison” doesn’t have a particularly wide readership, but hey.

By far the scariest thing I did while working for IJP (check me out using the initials) was have to deliver a speech to delegates at a conference about reducing re-offending.  I was terrified.  I had written what I was going to say (pretty worthy again) and practised it a couple of times and it seemed I was able to fill the 5 or 10 minutes that were required of me.  But that is a hell of a long time to be up there speaking and I was never a fan of public speaking.  Do I start with “Unaccustomed as I am….”?  No.  As part of GCSE English at school we had to give a talk.  I hated it.  My first subject of choice, for no reason I can think of other than the fact that we had a book on it, was bees.  We may have had a book but I knew nothing whatsoever about bees.  I wasn’t even interested in bees.  And I don’t like honey.  I did some half-hearted research, (did you know bees are stripy?) wrote a few notes, got up in front of the class and totally clammed up.  Brilliant.  I think the rest of the class felt embarrassed for me, and it was excruciating.  The second one was about bats.  We didn’t have a book about bats, but I like them, I think they’re really cute.  Half-hearted research.  Guess what?  Yep, clammed up.  Come the third talk, the one that was being assessed for the exam and the only one that really mattered, I decided I couldn’t take the humiliation again and spoke about my Saturday job at a bakery instead of animals or insects about which I knew nothing.  And it was a hit,  I got laughs and everything.  I wasn’t expecting any laughs at the conference though, I’d be happy if I just got out alive.  It was fine I suppose, but I was so terrified I just stood in front of everyone and read out what I had written without once looking up.  Not cool.  The fact is, I knew what I was talking about, I know my story and I could (probably) have relayed it easily and comfortably if I’d just taken a few prompting notes and ad-libbed it.  But I didn’t so I looked a tit.  I did the same thing the next time I made a speech as well.  And the time after that.  And the one after that.  I’d like to think that if I were asked to do it again I’d try to do it properly.  Who knows?

Back to the launch and the guest list ended up being fairly huge.  Once complete it was time to do a mail merge (bleurgh) and print millions of labels and send out all of the invitations and information packs we spent days putting together.  And further days lugging them to the post office.  Then all we had to do was wait some more days and see how many responses we’d get and how many people would actually turn up.  It was exciting but nerve-wracking stuff.  We’d also been trying to get some famous people to come along.  We wanted someone to give a short speech to our guests before I and my prison colleague (who would have joined me working by then) would say a few words (my favourite) but we were also looking for some minor celebs just to mingle a bit.  We were struggling a bit.  We’d tried Adrian Chiles (who no-one had heard of at the time, apart from me who’d seen Working Lunch), we tried Adrian Chiles’ wife but no joy.  We tried Evan Davis of Dragon’s Den fame.  Nope.  We’d been to an evening do at one point and my evil colleagues/bosses, call them what you like, had made me go up to Monty Don and Grayson Perry and give them invitations to our launch.  They looked at me like I was mad and I was fighting the urge to stare at Mr Perry who had come dressed as a little girl, his alter ego Claire I understand.  Whatever, it was mortifying.  At the eleventh hour we got Adam Shaw, also from Working Lunch.  Phew.

And at the very last minute we managed to book Liam Halligan from the Telegraph and Ed Miliband to speak and we could breathe again.  Except for me who had to do more public speaking.  No, I didn’t look up.  Got a laugh or two though.  The launch was a big success, I had been granted an extension to my licence and didn’t have to get back until late, the prison had organised a taxi for me and my colleague, the wine flowed freely (too freely in some cases) but not to us prisoners and we had a thoroughly great time.  A number of staff from Downview were there, governors, principal officers, senior officers and normal officers and one of the governors told me I should be really proud of myself.  And I was!  My friend and I were buzzing as we headed back to prison and without a single drop of alcohol too.  I was certain Ed Miliband had asked me during the evening what I thought the government should do to improve prisons, but I may have imagined it.

Porridge Part 9

Porridge Part 9

The day arrived for my first day at work in the big wide world beyond the walls of HMP Downview.  I would be working in Shoreditch and travelling there daily by bus, train and tube.  My first day was in September, a few weeks after my first town visits and by this time I believe I’d already had a home visit, a whole weekend back in Portsmouth, so I was feeling completely at ease with being out and about.  We’d already done a bit of filming down at the local train station for a film about the difficulties of leaving prison if there’s no-one there to meet you when you’re released and we’d used the bus to get there so I was happy enough to do that again on my own.  On my first day, however, I was accompanied by one of the resettlement officers as is the norm for people going to new work placements.  The resettlement officers are amazing, they work so hard to support the prisoners that they look after, tirelessly working to raise awareness in the local community and find more work placements than the ones that are already on offer so as to give more prisoners an opportunity to reintegrate into society.  This kind of work is essential in the fight against re-offending.  The officer that was accompanying me that day had won an award that year, Prison Officer of the Year or something, that’s how good he was and how much he cared about what he did.

At about half 8 the officer came to get me and we were ready to go.  He was going to drive down to Sutton where we’d get the train to London Bridge and then the tube to Old Street.  From there we would walk to the office of Media for Development, my new employers.  It was very exciting.  Fortunately he was wearing civvies so we wouldn’t attract any attention.  There’s something of a procedure involved when leaving the prison grounds, not surprisingly.  You’re given a licence which proves that you are entitled to leave and between which hours you are allowed to be out of the prison.  You have to carry this with you at all times and essentially it’s your ticket into and, most importantly, out of the prison.  If you fail to meet the terms of your licence then you face adjudication which could result in loss of privilege and the freedoms they have entrusted to you.  For the first month because I had no wages yet I was given the exact money by the prison to buy a travelcard every day.  They’re trusting you right from the start not to spend the money on anything you shouldn’t but the fact is if they couldn’t trust you to do that it’s pretty unlikely you’d be given the opportunity to go out in the first place.  I also got a prison packed lunch.  A sandwich, a choccy bar, an apple and a yoghurt.  I felt like a school child.

So off we went, we got to the station, bought our tickets and got on the train to London Bridge.  The train was pretty busy but we found some seats and made polite conversation for the 45 minutes or so that it took.  I got on well with pretty much all the prison officers I came into contact with, you may not believe this but I have something of a reputation for cheekiness (I know, it surprises me too) and they seemed to like me for it.  They certainly mostly took the mickey out of me anyway.  But that doesn’t mean to say that you can have an easy conversation with someone when you’re stuck in a confined space and don’t want to talk too loudly about prison matters so everyone can hear.  Still, it was fine and when we got to London Bridge we walked to the tube station.  It seemed really far, stupid massive station.  The train was packed and I must say I’ve never really been a fan of the underground, except maybe when I was a teenager and it was new and exciting.  I know it’s an excellent way to get from A to B but there are far too many people squeezed into the tiny space and I always inexplicably end up with my face in someone’s sweaty armpit.  Not by choice you understand.  Fortunately London Bridge to Old Street is only a few minutes on the tube so I never had to endure it for too long.  Still didn’t like it though.  Once we’d negotiated our way up steps and escalators to get out of Old Street station we next had the problem of which way to go.  There are about 8 different options all taking you in, well, 8 different directions.  Eventually we more or less found the right way and headed to the office.  Just around the corner from where Boy George lives, dontcha know.

We took the long way it seems as we had to go back on ourselves, but at about 10 we arrived.  Hurrah!  The office was on the second floor of a trendy warehousey type building, the only office as almost all the other floors and surrounding buildings had been converted into really expensive apartments.  East London is hip apparently.  We went up and were welcomed by the smell of fresh coffee and several people, all very friendly.  Having done the course I met quite a few meedja…I mean media…types and they were very, very enthusiastic, very friendly, incredibly pleasant, but so very enthusiastic.  I was always rather taken aback, but that will be the cynic in me, it’s not my most redeeming feature.  The people at MFD were all lovely, so welcoming and really believe in what they’re doing and it’s hard not to be buoyed up by that.  I was feeling pretty nervous and didn’t really know what to expect, my role there was as a Production Assistant but that’s an incredibly varied job and who knew what it would entail.  But when we arrived we had some coffee and a biscuit and a good old chat before the officer headed back to Downview and I felt much more relaxed.  There were a number of different staff working for MFD, several who were in the office most days as well as Project Managers who were based in the prisons and various interns.  I had seen most of them before when they’d come into the prison but was introduced to those I didn’t know.  And then it was time to work!  Well, sort of.  First and foremost I had to get loads of stationery from the cupboard.  I love stationery, it’s a bit weird.  There’s something lovely about a crisp clean notebook as yet unsullied by my tiny handwriting.  And post it notes.  And new pens.  And diaries.  Maybe that’s just me.  Although I’m rubbish at ever remembering to use my diaries, I use them for a week and never look at them again.  I got all of my stuff and took it to my new desk.  I had a desk!  It was huge!  I was shown a few things around the office then fired up my computer and tried to look Production Assistanty.  I had no idea what they do.  I had a look to see of my old email address still worked.  It had been 10 months since I’d used it.  Good grief, it did!  I had about 2000 emails though which I couldn’t be arsed to tackle straight away.  I thought I’d leave it for another day.  I was given keys to let myself in and the plan was that I would leave prison daily at 6:30 to make my journey.  The problem with going out every day to work is that you are affected by the officers’ shift changes.  You can’t come or go while they’re doing a handover so if you work outside you either leave at 6:30 or after 8:30.  If I left at 8:30 I’d get in much later thanks to the train times so it made sense to go in earlier.  OK, so I’d be the first there for at least an hour, but who cared?  Not me, sounded marvellous.  And I could read my email mountain while I waited for everyone else.

So, not a great deal happened on my first day, I don’t remember doing much for which I was thankful and in the afternoon myself, the chief executive and the executive producer all went to a meeting with one of the companies that funds the MFD projects.  This was a bit scary because it was a video conference and quite a few people were in attendance.  The meeting itself wasn’t scary, no, it was the bit where everyone has to introduce themselves I didn’t like.  It’s a strange thing, but I feel myself going bright red for no reason I can fathom when all I’m doing is introducing myself to a few other people.  But it happens every time and it both sucks AND blows.  I can only assume it is some kind of residual shyness, most of which I thankfully left in my childhood.  The meeting was…well…unutterably dull.  On the plus side they had provided the poshest sandwiches I’d ever seen in my life and lovely fruit.  I became addicted to the grapes.  In fact the only people that were eating the food were the MFD contingent, I was staggered at how much the chief executive managed to put away and not a little amused, he’s a slim fella.  But I also thought he might be a bit bored because he was making pretty patterns out of the garnish on his plate.  Most amusing.  Eventually the meeting was over.  I’d understood very little of what they were talking about but it didn’t matter, my first day of work was over and I could head back to the Big House for dinner.  You’ll be surprised to know I was looking forward to getting back and having a laze on my bed in front of the telly.  This working lark is pretty hard and it had been a long day.

If you’d like to know about Media for Development the website is

The particular part of the company I was involved with was Inside Job Productions which you can find out about here.

Porridge Part 8

Porridge Part 8

I like to think of myself as being in the business of doing things selflessly so my friends don’t have to.  I got arrested so my friends don’t have to.  I spent a night in the cells so my friends don’t have to.  I had a trial so my friends don’t have to (and also so they could watch and see what one was like, it’s not like that old programme from the 80s, Crown Court, that was rubbish).  And I went to prison so my friends don’t have to.  Not that any of my friends are likely to find themselves in a position where the outcome is a prison sentence, thankfully.  Surely “get arrested” is on one of those ridiculous 100 things to do before you die jobbies?  Yes, I did it for them.  A friend of mine remarked that in the year or so before I was arrested my life was a bit like a soap opera.  All sorts of bad things happened and it’s fair to say I was in a bit of a pickle.  That’s putting it mildly.  She reckoned that at the end of every day as I went to sleep the EastEnders drums were going.  Cheeky monkey.  But in truth she wasn’t far off the mark.

This selfless act *ahem* of going to prison also meant that my friends got to see first hand what it was like.  Well, the visitors’ centre anyway.  And believe me, there were some sights to be seen.  I hope they enjoyed coming to see me, we certainly had plenty to talk about, not least the other visitors and some of the things the other prisoners got up to.  Visits for me were an opportunity to feel half way normal as long as I didn’t attempt to get out of my seat or take off my yellow sash, that is.  I was lucky too, lots of different people came for visits throughout my sentence, both friends and family.  On one occasion two of my friends’ husbands came to see me and on another the friend who said my life was a soap opera was supposed to be coming with her husband but she was ill so he come on his own.  Bless him.  I really appreciated the time and effort everyone took because it was a bit of a trek to get there.

One of the visits I remember most, though, is when my sister brought her new boyfriend to meet me.  Now, I’m not sure how the conversation went, but I suspect it was something like “Hi, my name’s Small Sis, what do you do?  I work in the pub, my dad’s an accountant, my mum works in the dockyard.  Oh, and my sister’s in prison for wounding with intent.  Do you want to the Big House with me come and meet her?”  Well done to him for not running away as fast as his legs would carry him while waving his arms about.  One of my prison friends had a visit on the same day and had already been called across so was there when I got to the visiting hall and sat in my seat.  When Small Sis and boyfriend came in we said hello and then I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  I’m not very good with knowing whether to hug or kiss strangers in social situations (for my previous blog about that go here) and decided to opt for the safe option of a handshake.  Gah!  He hugged me and kissed me on the cheek!  Now I looked a bit awkward and like a total tit.  Really, who shakes their sister’s boyfriend’s hand?  I’ll tell you who, red faced idiots.  We sat down and then were a bit more relaxed.  Apart from the embarrassing start the visit went well, my sister’s boyfriend was (and still is) very nice and he didn’t seem scared of me or the situation at all.  Even though I kept trying to frighten him by going “Garrrrrrrrrr” and pulling funny faces.  Not really.  Alas, when I got back to the wing after the visit my friend ripped me to shreds, she had witnessed the whole hug/kiss/handshake debacle and really seemed to be enjoying laughing at me about it.  For an entire week.  And to anyone that would listen.  Witch.

After 9 months inside it was time for my first town visit.  These took place on Saturdays and Sundays and you were allowed three or possibly four a month (I can’t remember exactly, it’s been a while now).  If you were working in the community you needed to spend one full day in prison in every seven day period so if you worked Monday to Friday you could have a town visit on one of the weekend days but would need to spend the other inside.  Because I hadn’t yet started my job I arranged two town visits on that first weekend on both Saturday and Sunday.  I was beyond excited but also strangely nervous.  It had only been 9 months but I’d seen The Shawshank Redemption and I feared that institutionalisation had set in.  What if I forgot my green cross code and got run over?  Remember kids, SPLINK.  “Oh my god, what does SPLINK stand for, I’ve forgotten?  I’ll get run over!”  Etc.  On the first visit my mum, dad and the family lodger came up to see me.  I was called over to the gate, searched and then….let out!  It was very odd.  Quite a few people go out each weekend so there were still a fair few milling about, waiting for the bus that goes from just across the road or getting into cars with their friends and family.  I’d like to point that most of the women go to the local hotel on their first town visits.  For…er…..conjugal stuff.  But there was no man in my life so that wasn’t an option.  I could have gone there and watched TV I suppose but that would have been not unlike being in prison anyway.  I got outside the gate and there were my parents with the family Berlingo!  It was gold.  Sahara gold.  Lovely.  Off we went.  We stayed in the local area, my mum had made a picnic and we didn’t do anything overly exciting just in case I might explode or something.  But it was a lovely day.  And everything seemed so….normal.  I’d expected there to be some kind of discomfort or weirdness but it was like I’d never been anywhere else.  Hurrah for not being institutionalised!  The next day my friend and her whole family came up to take me out.  I really do have the most lovely friends.  This was a very exciting day because they were going to take me to London, hurrah!  From the prison in Sutton to London isn’t a very long drive so we were there within an hour.  We parked on Waterloo Bridge as there’s free parking on Sundays, or at least there was then (don’t tell anyone), and they took me on the London Eye. Yay!  I really enjoyed it.  After that we went to Covent Garden and had a mooch about, not quite sure what to make of the street performers, tried loads of clothes on and had a spot of lunch.  It was a great day, I was absolutely beside myself, I just couldn’t believe what a lovely time I was having or that it was allowed.  I had to be back in the Big House by 7 at the latest otherwise there would be big trouble and no more trips outside the prison walls.  By about 4pm I started to get a little…..anxious.  I fully trusted my friend and her husband to get me back in plenty of time but my mind was working overtime and presenting to me numerous scenarios that might arise to thwart us like tons of traffic (in London? Surely not!) and make us late.  Stupid brain.  As it happened we were at least an hour early.  And I was on a high, I’d had the most fantastic weekend.  While in prison!  Amazing.

Porridge Part 7

Porridge Part 7

I was having a lunchtime kip one afternoon midway through the media course to sleep off a migraine when there came a knock to my door.  I’ve suffered with migraines since my 13th birthday, usually at times of stress, and though I was pretty relaxed most of the time in prison the general situation of being incarcerated probably isn’t one you can be completely relaxed about.  The knock was an officer telling me I had to pack my stuff up for I was being moved to D Wing.  Hurrah!  This was something of a surprise, although I’d heard a rumour that I was high up the list as far as I knew I wasn’t yet eligible, but I wasn’t going to argue.  Eligibility to be moved to a resettlement unit, which is what D Wing was, is usually at the quarter point of your sentence, although this only counts if you have less than 2 years (I think) left until the halfway point of your sentence at which time most prisoners expect to go home.  Or at least hope to.  The quarter point of my sentence wasn’t for a full 2 months after I moved to D Wing but from what I gather there was something of a lack of prisoners suitable for resettlement at the time.  They were all far too naughty.  The thing is, resettlement isn’t just about living in the place where you’re not locked up any more, have the key to your own room and have an ensuite shower.  It’s so much more than this.  Because if you live on D Wing the chances are you’ll be allowed back out in society before you go home.  Exciting stuff.

Amazingly (or not) the migraine was soon forgotten and I started the usual rigmarole of taking my photos off the wall and cleaning up the sodding toothpasty mess.  It really is annoying.  I packed my stuff up into the three, yes three HM Prison Service bags it now required to contain all of my stuff.  So much bloody stuff.  And what was worse was that no bugger was around to help me move it all so I had to make three trips, each time dragging it a bit, resting it on my hip a bit, trying to haul it over my shoulder a bit.  I looked a right tit.  Eventually I made it.  At which point I realised it was canteen day and I’d have to go back and collect that.  So I stood outside B Wing, now locked, shouting “Officer….Officer…..OFFICERRRRRRRR” to attract someone’s attention.  The gate is at one end of the wing, the office is at the other.  Rubbish.  At least my canteen didn’t weigh a ton when I eventually got it, in spite of the fact I’d bought loads of chocolate.  The canteen’s a funny thing.  When I first got to prison someone mentioned it and I thought it was an actual shop you go to.  Not so.  When they’d stopped laughing at me for being an idiot they explained that you get a list of items you can buy and once a week you submit a form with what you want on it.  You then collect it a couple of days later.  Simples.  You’re limited to how much money you can spend each week: usually your wages plus a limited amount from the money that people have sent into you, if you’re lucky enough to know nice people that would do that.  I have a lovely generous family and lovely generous friends so I always had money in my account.  The amount you get from that account depends on whether you’re a standard prisoner or an enhanced one, i.e. a naughty person or a really good one.  I was, of course, a model prisoner and if I hadn’t been there’s no way they’d have been sending me to D Wing.  You can buy all sorts of stuff on the canteen: stationery, stamps, toiletries, tobacco, chocolate, crisps, cake, sweets, drinks etc.  No alcohol or narcotics though.  Most of my money was spent on phone credit so I could ring the boys every day and chocolate.  Lovely lovely chocolate.

So, I got to D Wing and moved my stuff in to my lovely new sunny room overlooking the birds of prey.  Hmmmm, I hadn’t realised how screechy they were.  Shhhhh birds of prey, you noisy bastards.  Someone else from the media course was moving into the room opposite me as well.  I didn’t like her much, she seemed a bit up herself although that was largely because of her infamy.  And further than that I can say no more.  But what’s this?  Could she have some of my chocolate?  Erm…I suppose so.  Cheeky bitch!  That seemed like a suitable time to shut the door before the rest of my canteen did a disappearing act.  While I mourned the loss of my mars bar I had a cup of tea, rearranged the room and toothpasted my pictures to the wall AGAIN.  This was the fourth time I’d moved in 6 months, I really didn’t want to have to do it again.  I looked around, and said “yay!” to myself.  I was ridiculously excited about this.  I rang my mum to tell her how brilliant it was.  I think she was a bit bewildered.  Then I rang the kids, they were definitely bewildered.  “But I’ve got MY OWN SHOWER!!!!” I protested.  Oh well, maybe I was being a bit over the top about it.  But there would be no more baths behind a shower curtain fearful that some pillock wouldn’t notice the flip flops I deliberately left poking out underneath it or the loud splashing I was doing and walk in on me.  That did happen once.  I was not pleased.

Back to the media course the next day and I was surprised to find that some people were funny about the fact I’d made it to D Wing.  Not my friends, though, they were as pleased as me.  Some people are just odd and jealousy is an ugly thing.  I didn’t care.  I was on D Wing.  I had my own bathroom.  And birds of prey.  Screechy harris hawks and a poxy eagle owl that goes “hoooooo” half the night.  But I had a bathroom, my very own bathroom, did I mention that?

Around this time the company that ran our course started talking about job opportunities they had planned for when the course was finished.  We were the first group to take part and although there would be new students when we had finished they also wanted some of us to stay on and work there making programmes for the prison.  The idea was that this would be rolled out as in-cell TV for anyone that wanted to watch it.  They also had two positions available for production assistants to work in the London office on day release.  As I was near the date where I would possibly be allowed out and already resident on D Wing I applied.  I REALLY wanted to get this job.  I had already applied for my very first town visit  (a weekend day where you are allowed out until the early evening and can go anywhere within a 40 mile radius of the prison…within reason) and had also applied for a home visit, essentially a weekend at home.  If approved by the board (which comprised various governors and principal officers and considered the opinion of the probation service) I could do these things once I’d passed the quarter point of my sentence.  I was overjoyed when both the town visit and home visits were approved, I couldn’t believe my luck.  It meant I could see my children at home for a proper overnight stay rather than sitting in the visits hall.  There was an application process for the job, a form to fill in and then an interview and when I had mine I was really nervous.  There were two people from the company asking questions, one of whom was quite involved with the course and the other who we hadn’t seen as much.  But they put me at ease and I’d done enough job interviews in the past to get through it.  I thought I did OK.  Then began the waiting.  And waiting.  And more waiting.  In reality it was probably only a couple of days but it seemed like forever.  Then one morning I got in and was handed a letter. I GOT THE JOB!!!!!  WOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!  I couldn’t believe it.  I was going to work, in London as a production assistant and I was still in prison.  I was even going to get paid.  More phone calls were made only this time there was less bewilderment.  I was very, very happy.

Porridge Part 6

Porridge Part 6

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.

Porridge Part 5

Porridge Part 5

With Christmas and induction over normal life resumed.  Well, it wasn’t normal at all, but the standard routine was back.  This was a good thing, it involved much less bang up.  I’d signed up for the gym course so started going to that every day.  At first this involved a great deal of sitting around because the previous course hadn’t quite finished, but all of the exercise equipment was available to us and the gym was very well equipped so I would spend my time alternating between reading and running/cross training/rowing/cycling.  Even though I hate rowing and don’t particularly like exercise bikes.  I could have spent my whole time exercising if I’d wanted to but since we were in the gym for several hours a day I would have run a serious risk of doing far too much and ending up looking like a skeleton with skin on.  Just like those women of a certain age you see in the gym, who I think look terrible.  They’re orange too.  As it was I did get pretty slim.  Skinny if you prefer, but still with great big boobs.  Very odd.  I felt good though, and over time it really improved my confidence.  A friend of mine said afterwards that I looked “athletic”.  I really like her.  And as I’m talking in the past tense I’m sure you’ve gathered that I’m not perhaps quite as slim as I was then, though I’m working on it.  I’m not bitter but pregnancy is not my friend.

Although I’d started the gym course at the previous prison we hadn’t got very far with it so starting again from scratch wasn’t a problem.  The one at Downview seemed to be more comprehensive, offering various different skills and a fair few different qualifications.  I really enjoyed it although I was ridiculously nervous every time there was an assessment and I had to demonstrate how to carry out various exercises on the machines or teach something to the whole group.  I’ve never been much of a fan of role play and felt like a right plonker.  Especially as the PE instructors were fond of a bit of banter and were always ready to take the piss.  And I mean ALWAYS.  But I got through it and passed the assistant gym instructor course with flying colours and was presented with a laminated certificate.  Erm.  Why is it laminated?  What possible reason could there be to laminate a certificate?  OK, so it won’t get bent or screwed up but is there some requirement for all of your certificates to be wipe clean?  That really doesn’t bear thinking about.

I decided that all the sitting around that I needed to do so as not to be tempted to exercise all day long was getting a bit dull so thought I’d see if there was anything else I could do.  I didn’t fancy wing cleaning as I’m allergic to any kind of domesticity so took a mosey over to Education to see if they had any interesting courses that were suitable for people who weren’t morons.  I quite like the fact that I’ve implied there that you can just wander around in a carefree fashion.  What shall I do today?  Ooh, I don’t know, I think I’ll get up, wander down to breakfast, think I’ll go continental today, then I’ll pump a bit of iron in the gym then mosey on over to the library, maybe see a few people in Education.  This is, of course, rubbish.  It’s not a hotel.  It’s not even a holiday camp although if I’m honest Butlins at Bognor looks more like a prison than a prison does.  No, funnily enough the prison officers want, no NEED, to know your whereabouts at all times so if you want to take a mooch over to Education you need permission and a movement slip to prove it.  There were a number of different courses available; hairdressing (this was out as I can barely even put my own hair up in a successful ponytail, never mind anyone else’s so imagine how bad it would look if I was cutting it), basic literacy, basic maths (I think I’ve mastered these already), cooking, basic IT (I’d done internet support for years – have you turned it off and on again? – so that was pointless), art (no), some others I can’t remember and book-keeping.  I quite fancied that.  I’d started accountancy in the past and had enjoyed it but didn’t complete it because I’d timed it badly.  Number 1 son was only a few weeks old and I’d found myself nodding off in the less interesting lessons.  But no babies to wreck my sleep now, just other inmates and they were mostly quiet.  Book-keeping it was.

Even if I say so myself I’m pretty good at things like book-keeping.  My brain works in the right logical way and I found it easy.  Easier then everyone else I’d say.  Someone remarked to me that I must have been a boffin at school, like this was a bad thing.  I so nearly retorted that it was better to be a boffin and have some ambition than end up in prison until I remembered that I was in prison too.  Oops, that would have been embarrassing.  What a snob I am.  But the comment had annoyed me, there’s no shame in being good at something, no shame at all.  In fact, the only problem with the book-keeping course was the cooking smells that wafted in from the kitchen used for the cookery course.  The course took place on a Wednesday morning and that was the only day when sandwiches were served for lunch, the rest of the week saw a hot meal at lunchtime.  I was always completely dissatisfied with the sandwiches, they simply didn’t fill me up, even though had I been out in society they would have been fine.  It must have something to do with being locked behind that door at lunchtime for 2 hours, boredom causes hunger.  So delicious smells on crap lunch day were most upsetting.  Maybe I should have done cookery instead, I could have stuffed my face.  But I didn’t and just had to endure it and make do with the huge quantities of chocolate and biscuits I bought on the canteen.  More about the canteen later.  The book-keeping course was about 3 months long and at the end of that I passed and got more bizarrely laminated certificates.  Nice.

Book-keeping was just an extra and I was still taking part in the gym course at the same time.    We did badminton, volleyball, basketball, weights and a community sports course.  I absolutely hated volleyball, largely because of the group of prisoners who played it all the time, took themselves far too seriously (even though they were rubbish) and intimidated anyone that joined in, especially if they weren’t very good at it.  And the ball really bloody hurts.  I’d played volleyball at school and enjoyed it.  But I didn’t enjoy it in prison, not one bit.  I was crap at basketball too, like all girls in the UK I’d done netball at school and was taught that you absolutely categorically must not run with the ball.  And now they wanted me to.  Sod that.  I was really surprised to find that I loved weight training when I had expected to find it hard and scary.  I’ve no idea why it would be scary but I was intimidated by the idea of it nonetheless.  But that was before I discovered Body Pump and one of our instructors, happily, was a Body Pump instructor.  Body Pump just made me feel great, it’s really hard work but that coupled with all the cardiovascular exercise like running I was doing made all the difference to me.  And I loved the fact that when I first started doing it I could barely walk for a couple of days after.  I’m strange like that.  Badminton was great and a lot harder than I remembered.  It looks to be such a gentle sport, but it’s very hard work.  But even badminton wasn’t safe for me because somehow during my  assessment my bra strap became unattached and went PING noticeably.  Great.  I had to skip to the loo quickly to sort it while they all laughed at me.  Brilliant.  The gym course earned me many shiny laminated certificates.  You know, I think I still have them somewhere.

Time marched on and I’d already moved cells a couple of times.  This is quite normal, you start off on the induction wing and you’re only likely to stay there for the duration of your sentence if you get a job there as a wing cleaner or in the servery.  The vast majority of people go to C Wing which has a large number of landings, each accommodating about 40 prisoners.  I didn’t like C Wing even though it was a bit newer looking than the induction wing, A Wing.  They’re imaginatively named, aren’t they?  C wing was loud and busy and I didn’t like the atmosphere much.  Neither did I know anyone on my particular landing as all the people I’d made friends with at the start were elsewhere.  So I hid away, keeping myself to myself, avoiding all the noisy bastards and only coming out for meals and to go to the gym, library or for visits.  Luckily I didn’t have to stay there long.  I had put in a request to go to a “drug-free” wing and a space became available before long.  By drug-free what they really mean is that you do regular piss tests (such a lovely term) and if you fail them then it’s back to C Wing with you.  We all like urinating in front of relative strangers, don’t we?  But it was a means to an end, because from the drug free wing (B Wing, of course) you could progress to the ultimate prize, the privilege wing.  Yes, my friends, D Wing, the Resettlement Unit.  In my head I hear a harmonious “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh” like that we associate with angels and see D Wing lit by a single ray of light from the sun.  Perhaps that’s just me.  On D Wing there are no steel doors, there’s no bang up (although you are locked onto the landing at night).  On D Wing you have the key to your room and your own private shower.  On D Wing you don’t have to eat in the same room as a toilet.  It’s like a teeny tiny hotel room.  But D Wing was for the privileged few and I didn’t know if I’d ever make it.

So, in the mean time I had to make do with B Wing.  Nonetheless I liked it there.  There were good officers on that wing, I had friends there and we had an evening ritual of Scrabble or card playing.  One night we played hide and seek.  It was hysterical because there was nowhere to hide.  I still have visions of my friend trying to squeeze herself under the pool table.  Hilarious.  Quite early on during my time at Downview I had decided to become a Listener, essentially a prison Samaritan.  We were available day and night to go and see people if they were feeling depressed or felt they needed someone to talk to.  We weren’t allowed to offer advice, just listen.  I’d joined up because I’d been inspired by the chaplain who’d listened to me when I first got there and was feeling upset about being moved when I was.  She’d made me feel so much better and I hoped I could do the same for others.  We weren’t called out very often but regularly enough to justify our existence.  Other people joined up because we had a weekly meeting and the Samaritans that ran the initiative always brought in biscuits.  Very cynical.  I remember coming back to my room one night after a meeting and was surprised to see that only two of my friends were sitting out in the association area.  I got to my door and was a wee bit suspicious that my light was off when I was sure I’d left it turned on.  I opened the door, switched on the light and 4 people jumped out at me, one from behind the shower curtain, one from behind the wardrobe door, one from under the bed and the other had squeezed herself in the tiny space behind the wardrobe.  Bastards!  When we’d all stopped laughing we noticed that the girl that had been under the bed had some hair stuck to her (I told you I’m allergic to domesticity and I hadn’t swept the floor for a couple of days) and it looked just like a merkin.  It couldn’t have attached itself to a better place.

Porridge Part 4

Porridge Part 4

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.

Porridge Part 3

Porridge Part 3

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.