This is a short-story which I wrote in 2008 for a writing competition being run through the Trade Union at work. It has a certain amount of autobiographical detail, far too much I think, but it suited the competition. I hope you like it too.
They really do make that noise you know. Doors, in gaols, go clang. It wasn’t a sound I was ever expecting to hear for myself, but then you never know what tomorrow will bring you. The other sounds in a prison are as you’d expect them as well, but they seem omnipresent in the context of being the prisoner yourself: especially the sound of the silence of your cell at night.
People like me don’t belong in cells, well not to stay in them anyway. I used to visit Young Offenders’ Institutes from time to time as part of my role with our county’s Children, Schools and Families’ Pupil Referral Service. It was young men I worked with mostly, boys really, with EBD or ADHD or CFA. Actually I made that last one up, CFA: Chronic Father Absence, but that always seemed the most ominous of the three. Sometimes it was young women as well, but they weren’t in YOIs so much as maternity units, and to be honest it was more often than not that Deborah or Amanda was sent to work with them.
I wonder who they’ll send to work with me.
I never realised that a bunch of keys could be so heavy. A wing officer carries keys which when dropped yank quite solidly on the chain which connects key ring to key pouch: but better that than the keys should hit the floor. Only last week one of the SO’s pulled me over to one side on D-Spur and asked me to drop my keys for her: I did so and she was pleased to see that they hang a good inch above the linoleum at the fullest extent of my chain. Still, with keys one side and the bulk that constitutes Mike Charlie Outstation: Echo-Three, my radio, on the other, I shall have to be careful that my trousers don’t fall down should I ever be detailed to answer an alarm and have to run the length of the establishment at the drop of a hat.
My first week on Thomas wing, Prison Officer Entry Level Training all finished now and as Officer Russet rather than POELT I proudly display the solid black officers’ epaulettes of IS-122 knowing that they are mine for keeps now.
Her Majesty’s Prison Isleworth: home for the next eight months depending upon so many factors that I’m not quite sure what will happen. What I do know is I no longer have a Christian name. I’m Mister Vine at best; and IS-5572 at worst. Mr Vine was what I was called when I worked for county, except for one boy, Michael, who called me “Miss Devine” as some sort of joke; his understanding being that Teacher is a woman’s job. I certainly showed him, or did he show me?
Michael has a point; this would all have ended so differently had I not been the only man on staff. Of course there was the maintenance fellow, but that doesn’t count towards discipline in the school. No, I believe it to be true that the absence of any other man, and the vacancy in the role of Deputy Head, lead to my tragic set of circumstances. What can you expect when called to do a man’s job in a woman’s workplace, surrounded by liberal feminists who exacerbate the difficulties experienced by boys with CFA in the first place? No, this would never have happened if I had not been left alone after Mr Taylor resigned.
He had been pushing it for a while, Michael. Arguing back at his form tutor, running through the football games of the older pupils and stealing the ball from the younger ones, making noises in class: it was all becoming a bit silly. I had called him to one side for a quiet word on several occasions, we had had a regular series of 1:1 Outreach Programme sessions using material provided by the county’s advisory bureau, (material which I had assisted to produce) and he had been sent home on Afternoon and Twenty-Four Hour Fixed Term Exclusion: nothing seemed to have much of an impact on him. So when he began barging through the groups of girls who stood in small circles to chat at break time I thought I’d try something new.
It all came to a head one Thursday in November when one particular group of girls turned on him. There was no spite in what they said, nothing like the usual Bitchkrieg this particular group of girls were known for, they simply asked him to please leave us alone Michael and turned back to their conversation. I don’t know what Michael saw in their firm politeness; but whatever it was its colour was red because he proceeded to kick two of the girls in the backs of their knees, dropping each in turn to the asphalt. I was immediately on the scene and took Michael inside with me for some Time Out while Deborah tended to the wounded. I went through my mental checklist: time out (been there, done that), short-term exclusion (b.t.d.t.), modified timetable to keep Michael out of the yard during Middle School break times (b.t.d.t.), interviews with mum in the Deputy Head’s office (b.t.d.t.), Man-to-Man conversation with the only male teacher in the school. That I hadn’t done, and since this had been an occasion where Michael had hit girls and had hit them from behind, I thought it worth the attempt. But what does one say in a Man-to-Man with a fifteen year old who isn’t your son, who indeed is no man’s son?
I decided it wasn’t what you said, but it was how you said it.
So I told him his conduct was unacceptable. I told him it was unmanly and cowardly. I told him it was not chivalrous. And I pushed him in the chest to punctuate each point: man-to-man we don’t hit girls and we don’t hit anyone from behind. He burst into tears and fled the room.
Seven months later here I sit in the Induction Wing at HMP Isleworth: one charge of Actual Bodily Harm (Battery) upon a Minor, to which I pleaded innocent before the court but was found guilty. I was both a test case for the Union, and an example to be made by the liberal feminist Baby-boomer magistrate. People like me don’t belong in cells.
Personal Alarm from Echo Six, Location Unknown.
The mechanical, feminine voice of Mike-Charlie burst through the radio. Echo Six; that was Officer O’Connor, and even if Mike-Charlie didn’t know where he was I certainly did. Kevin was here on Thomas wing, (all the Echoes are) and he would be in the TV room between B-Spur and D-Spur. I turned to run up the staircase as the voice of one of the Comms Officers came through the speaker: Personal Alarm from Echo Six, Officer O’Connor, Thomas Unit: acknowledge Oscar One. Mike-Charlie Out. I turned the corner and bolted up the staircase, taking three at a time. General Alarm Thomas Unit Bravo Spur, I say again General Alarm Thomas Unit Bravo Spur: acknowledge Oscar One…
I didn’t see him coming; like his boy he came from behind, but it was more than a kick in the knees that knocked me into my cell. I scrambled around on the ground but I was too close to my bunk to get up before a powerful kick crashed in to my ribs. I could hear the whoop of the General Alarm ringing down the corridor, and the voices of prisoners and officers outside my cell, but he had kicked the door shut behind him so it was only the two of us behind a locked door. He didn’t say much, didn’t even introduce himself actually; but I recognised from the emptiness of his eyes who he was, and he obviously knew who I was. I managed to scramble up the frame and onto my bunk, but with my elbows sinking into the spongey mattress I was unable to gain any purchase to move much further.
My first thought was one of relief, Kev O’Connor was unhurt. I could see him standing outside B27 madly trying to get his cell-key into the lock. Officer Buchannan was there as well trying to move a group of prisoners away from the door. Kev seemed to know I was there as he just began to speak, telling me that the new guy had been jumped and was inside the cell with a prisoner whose name I didn’t recognise, and that from the sounds of it the new guy was getting a right kicking.
Personal Alarm…personal alarm from Echo-Three, Officer Russet, Thomas Unit: acknowledge Oscar One…
“Russ, move!” I turned to see the Orderly Officer with the Wing SO behind me. Kev had had the door open and stood back as Oscar One changed in to the cell, to return almost immediately with the big prisoner in a restraint hold between him and the SO. Kev was calling for Healthcare assistance and behind him I could see Vine IS-5572 was in a bad way.
In the end it wasn’t as bad as it appeared, I’d lost an earlobe where it had been jammed between two of the wires on the bunk and my nose and lip had been spilt: more bloodied that bruised but I’m sure it made for a good deal of cleaning up. Three days in hospital was all it took, Officer Russet on bed-watch, and I was back in HMP Isleworth. My attacker had spent the evening in the Care and Separation Unit before being transferred out to a prison up north, apparently he had a reputation for aggression but he’d never jumped a fellow prisoner before.
Three weeks later I had my first VO, and the visitor was Deborah. She was allowed to brush my cut face with her hand, prisoners at Isleworth are not put behind glass, and she made the appropriate womanly sounds of concern. Wasn’t I sacred to be in gaol? Of course I was. Wasn’t it a shock to have been arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced for something most men would think little of in terms of socialisation of the younger generation: even if their wives and girlfriends wouldn’t understand? Of course it had been, but thanks to Deborah who even as a woman had understood. And wasn’t it so very alienating to be in a place of verbal and physical violence, where the constant sense of threat and danger made every moment a knife-edge of the unpredictable? Not at all, it’s just like school…but with smaller windows.