I’ve been here, B4.

A buzz word within the prison system, not just in ours but across the world, is resettlement. Like most words, it is has several definitions. In searching the Googles, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that resettlement is ‘the act or process of helping people go and live in a new country or area; the act of going to live in a new country or area.’

How do we help those being sent to prison for the first time, to therefore, resettle in prison after a period of living in the relative freedom of society?

I have been through many induction processes as I entered a new, or revisited, prison and to be honest not one of them was worth the effort. Even the ones I attended as part of my role as an induction orderly. But that is induction, and there are several procedures and processes to go through before getting to induction.

I also have experience of working in a busy B cat local reception area. Monday to Friday (and the odd Saturday) new prisoners would be sat in a chair (following a full strip search), some close to tears and some crying but most putting up a front.

Emotions, thoughts and feelings in turmoil, and that is in the court cells following sentence. You still have the ride on the sweatbox to go through, and that is hit and miss to who your fellow passengers are. By the time you arrive at the prison, you may have had questions answered by those you are travelling with, or you may dread what is to come even more. What some may see as banter, myself included until I got wise, could be traumatic to those listening, especially to those who may have asked a question. What would you want to know or ask about your new residence that you are being chauffeured to? The journey from court to prison in a sweatbox is something you cannot describe or predict. Looking back, I don’t think, in fact I know, that two journeys in a sweatbox were never the same.

I recall one such journey from prison to the local magistrates whilst on remand in custody, where at the court we found out I was also due in the crown court that same morning. My magistrate’s case was over in the blink of an eye. They sent it up the road to be tied up with the case I had in the crown. They put me straight on the sweatbox and drove me the short distance to the crown court whereby hearing a case was on its way from the magistrate’s court; they adjourned it. I was back to prison before they served lunch at 12. Two court docks and the only time I spoke was in the magistrates where I had confirmed my name and date of birth. I couldn’t have spent two minutes in the two courts combined. As I was being loaded back up to be driven back to the prison and having a little grumble, one of my escorts turns to me and says, “at least you’ve had a day out”. He was fortunate I was handcuffed and to someone else. A fucking day out? Picked up from my cell between 6 – 6.30 am, stripped searched, then stuck in a room listening to the same old stories until the local sweatbox is ready to go, bear in mind we had the shortest distance to travel so were usually last to leave at around half eight. Stuck on a dingy sweatbox, driven into an underground entrance or a loading bay around the back, handcuffed and escorted to what is one of the most boring of all cells, the court cell. Then the same thing in reverse. Fucking day out, I’d have rather stayed at ‘home‘.

The sweatbox ride, where you can scream as loud as you like but the box ain’t stopping nor will it slow down or speed up on your command. You’re not at the fairground now, my old son, which is something you realise when sat in the prison gatehouse’s dark recess as one gate closes behind, trapping you in as a mirror on wheels is skirted around the underbelly of the sweatbox. (Not sure how many people have tried breaking into prison under a sweatbox?) A good philosophy to adopt for your stay is to always expect the unexpected in HMP. You’ll find the unexpected happens more often than the expected, so expect it. Another quick tip, never ever utter the phrase “seems quiet today, guv”. It’s like saying Beetlejuice in the mirror three times, a whole host of shit then follows.

Sweatbox numbers confirmed, no one hiding underneath, and like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the gates open to a world of wonder. As in wondering how the fuck you ended up in this shit-hole as they escort you down from your transport and into the waiting arms of the prison reception team.

How can you prepare for that? In all honesty, you cannot. It is an experience that everyone sent to prison has no other option than to deal with it. The cubicle, box, cell (or whatever they are called) on a sweatbox is smaller than a train toilet. At six foot three, but 12 stone wet, it was a struggle for me to get comfortable. Tough. Find a way.

Claustrophobia is a condition I would not want to wish on anyone being sent to prison. Then again, I would not want to go to prison with any condition, yet, for many people in prison, they are there because of their condition. Seems a cruel usage of double jeopardy. Bit like being charged with an offence in prison, being put on basic for five weeks and then still receive punishment from the adjudicator. Even a not guilty sees most stay on basic, regardless.

So, possibly a court cell for the first time, along with a sweatbox, and now here you are for the first time inside the walls of the prison and whatever preconceptions you have of it. More than likely misconceptions, but until shown differently we believe what we believe. After embarking from the sweatbox you are escorted to whatever room the particular prison has waiting for you, some have rooms, cells, cubicles or whatever designed for one, not much bigger than the sweatbox cubicle but you’ll probably be with two or three others in there, but don’t worry, it is only temporary. You’ll be taken off to be strip searched and processed while having most of your belongings taken away from you along with your liberty, dignity and any medication you may have but can’t prove it’s yours until seeing the GP. Seeing a GP in reception is as hit and miss as who you travelled with on the sweatbox. There’s a lot of variables at play in order to get to see the GP. The time you arrive is one of them.

Next comes the processing part. The inquisition about you and your life. At this point you will also hear language and acronyms that may as well be in Russian, unless you are Russian, then it will be like hearing it in English, which you will be, of course. They might have a translation, if they have time to find it. Reception may still have 10 new prisoners waiting to be processed plus 8 court buses to return along with any new prisoners they may have on-board. They don’t care if it’s your first time, they’ll ask, but that’s about it, it doesn’t bother them if you understand either as long as you sign to say that you do and hurry up about it as they’ve plenty more to see so don’t take up all their time.

The reception process, along with being extremely stressful for someone sent to prison for the first time, and even for the well-travelled prisoner going through the reception process is a proper headache, can suck the life out of you and take forever to complete. The induction wing itself may offer some relief, again though, this has several variables attached. Land on the wing after bang-up and it can have somewhat of a calming effect, although no doubt your head would still be in a spin from your reception experience. Turn up too late and they immediately put you behind the door to be seen in the morning. “What time is that please, sir?”, “Don’t call me sir and it’ll be when they unlock you, also, see that button there, it is called an emergency bell for a reason, this ain’t a fucking hotel.”

Welcome to HMP.

It is almost impossible for anyone other than someone who has experienced it several times to not have your head up your arse during your first few days, and yet, it is in the first few days where you are bombarded with all the information you need to resettle in this new unchartered environment.

Another buzz word, well term, within the criminal justice system is lived experience.

If first impressions count, then on whose shoulders should that sit when entering a prison for the first time? The new prisoner who possibly has their head up their arse regardless of any other issues, or a system that has had 200 years to get its reception and induction process up to scratch? Why in 200 years have we not got a well established, purposeful and well-oiled machine regarding the booking-in, processing and induction of new prisoners, and the well-travelled prisoner?

Well, for me one reason has been the reticent of understanding the process from the perspective of the individual going through it, the prisoner, especially the well-travelled prisoner. Maybe I view things differently, but I would rather an experienced ex-burglar assist me with the security of my home than someone that just fits alarms.

For years we have wasted a resource which when you consider re-offending costs over £18 billion a year, wasting resources is not something we can keep affording.

I’m pleased to say that I have witnessed this changing. That those with lived experience of the criminal justice system are not only being listened to, we are also influencing decisions and policies. The next step is for those with lived experience deciding on and writing future policies.

One thought on “I’ve been here, B4.

  1. Ah, the sweatbox! First time I was in that and travelling from court to Pentonville having been sentenced it was like hell. The enclosed space and the noise of shouting and banging. Terrifying. Having spent a few months on the wing the noise in that vehicle rather pleasantly reminded me of 2 a.m. on C Wing!
    Interesting point about the attention being given to those with Lived Experience now. It is a very good thing, clearly sensible, and is this a benefit of social media that there are more outlets by which people can get their views across, whereas in those days in the dim and distant past when it did not exist it was a letter to the newspaper and no chance to react. Just wondering!

    Liked by 1 person

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