Friday, 2 October 2015

Prison Reflections: the End of Summer

Now that we are into autumn, I have been reflecting on the impact of the seasons on life inside our prisons. I went into jail in the winter months and experienced a few springs and a couple of summers in closed conditions, as well as one glorious spring and a summer in a Cat-D (open prison).  

Summer sun... can be hot in prison
Of course, our personal responses to particular times of the year – or anniversaries or public holidays – are often determined by our past experiences and memories. Sad or tragic occasions can be recalled even more sharply than happy times. That’s why the Christmas season, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (read here), can be a period of deep mourning tinged with regret and a sense of loss for many inmates.

I can only guess at what the passage of the seasons means for those serving sentences far, far longer than my own. I’ve known men who have been inside for over 30 Christmases – and that also means they've lived through a similar number of seasonal cycles. That’s why the sheer enormity of a true life sentence is hard to comprehend to anyone who hasn’t lived through one – myself included. And in many cases that’s also true for victims of horrific crimes and their family members, as well as for the loved ones of those who are serving time inside. 

Annual cycles of memory may take us one year further away from trauma yet the pain rarely abates, although it may dull with the passing years. Loss – of life, of loved ones, of youth, of opportunity, of future – is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the most serious crimes.

I don’t have a personal favourite when it comes to the seasons. I enjoy the springtime as much as I enjoy the autumn. My own memories of summers, in particular, are happy. As pretty much everyone observes in middle age, the summers of our youth always seemed so much longer, as if they could last forever. Now the few really hot days of the English year usually disappear in the blink of an eye and we are back to autumn, with winter just waiting around the corner. 

Time: waits for no man
How true are the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Time: “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” I remember first listening to those words when I was at school aged about 11 – and true to form – over 40 years have just gone by as if in an instant. I didn’t understand the real meaning then, although now I think that I do.

Inside closed prisons it can be difficult to keep track of the seasons, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be jobless and experience 22 or 23 hours per day of bang-up in your cell. Although I always tried to take full advantage of whatever opportunities I had to use the exercise yards and get some fresh air, I also noticed that many fellow inmates in closed jails rarely left their cells. I could name quite a few who I’d never seen on a yard over all the time I’d known them. 

Occasionally, the yard was almost empty even when 30 minutes of exercise was on offer (and not cancelled owing to staff shortages or security alerts). A few of us would agree between ourselves beforehand to go down and trudge together round the asphalt enclosure surrounded by the high mesh fence topped with coils of razor wire. In a few nicks there was a view of a lawn or even a small garden, although the worst were modern design prisons built around courtyards overlooked by cell windows. You were totally enclosed on all four sides, with only the sky above. Oscar Wilde accurately dubbed it “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky” in his Ballad of Reading Gaol.

On the exercise yard
Summer can be a mixed blessing in closed establishments. True, more prisoners do venture out into the sun, especially during weekend exercise periods when you might be allowed outside for an hour. In the scorching heat of my first summer in a Cat-B we’d sit on the hot ground around the perimeter fence and chat with friends and acquaintances. Some lads even took off their t-shirts and tried to get a tan, although in theory this was prohibited. Severe sunburn, like illicit tattooing, is regarded as a form of self-inflicted injury.

The downside of a hot season is that some cells can become baking ovens, particularly when the new type of security window has been fitted. These don’t open at all, being closed units with a tiny side vent that can be opened or closed using a knob. When the mechanism is broken, the air inside – especially when it is a shared cell – can become unbearably hot. Keep a dog in such conditions and the RSPCA would be round breaking windows and handing out court summonses for animal cruelty.

In these humid conditions, when even breathing normally can be an effort, some of us were reduced to living in our underwear when we were locked down. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that tempers rise with the temperature and, in some cases, violence can flare up between inmates or towards members of staff. Such situation can be made much worse when a pad-mate is on methadone or some other medication, let alone taking illicit substances, such as so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Black Mamba or Spice which continue to plague our prison wings. 

Cell windows that open... luxury
In one Cat-B it was a joy to be in one of the upper tier cells during the summer. This particular establishment was a grim Victorian pile, but did have one massive bonus: proper windows that really opened wide on each side. Plus there was a welcome view over the prison wall to fields and trees in the distance (if you overlooked the car park of the industrial estate next door). Those windows pretty much saved my pad-mate and me during one hot summer as we’d press our faces to the open frame and drink in the cooler air.

Of course, the winter months could also be pretty awful, particularly if the in-cell heating failed, as it sometimes did, and the pipes went stone cold. Strict limits on quantities of bedding, particularly blankets meant that cold cells were more like meat freezers. We’d huddle in our bunks wearing several layers of outer clothing.

Walking round the landings
Occasional flurries of snow meant that exercise was usually cancelled due to what was termed ‘inclement weather’. This is prison-speak for screws not wanting to be standing round in the cold or rain and is often the justification for not providing any fresh air or outdoor exercise. On days like these, if we were lucky, cells might be left unlocked for 30 minutes so we could wander round the landings instead, although when staff number were down we’d be locked back behind our doors again.

We certainly reconnected with the seasons at the open prison where I spent the last year of my time inside. Having arrived in late spring I was amazed at the amount of time we could spend outdoors at an establishment with not even a fence to keep us in, let alone a wall topped with razor wire. That year we had a particularly hot May and I volunteered to work on assembling a consignment of supermarket stock trolleys for a commercial contract the establishment had won. I spent five glorious days out in the sun working with a small group of fellow cons, including one lad I knew from a previous jail we’d been in together (which is, truth to tell, how I wangled such a cushy – and pretty well-paid – temporary job). 

There was no staff supervision whatsoever in that area and we just sorted it all out ourselves. It was almost like not being inside at all. Out in the warm spring air, in the sun, down by the prison vehicle sheds. Only a complete fool would have been tempted to abscond. 

A man looked out through prison bars...
That was the prelude to a memorable summer. We were free to spend free time walking round inside the ‘bounds’ of the jail, including the large sports field near the residential units. At weekends and after work we were free to lie on the grass, chatting or snoozing. We were even allowed to sunbathe (in moderation) and buy suntan lotion. 

When I walked on the field it was the first time I’d stepped on grass for a couple of years. In so far as prison life can ever be enjoyable, I suppose that was one of the high points.

Having now spent two summers out of prison since my unexpected release, I’ve certainly come to value the freedom and the fresh air much more highly than I did prior to being sent down. Whenever I look out of the windows at the sea or potter around our garden, I have a heightened sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

However, I’m still mindful of good friends I’ve left behind who are still inside, some facing many more years before they will get a chance to leave the confines of closed prisons. Sadly, some may never make it. I hope that they have at least a few happy memories of bright spring days, brilliant hot summers, mellow autumns or crisp winter days, when they were young and still free, to sustain them as we head towards the end of yet another year.


  1. Reading this reminded me of something I saw recently on Channel 4 news where refugees were being interviewed in Germany and on their way there. It struck me how similar the experiences are in so many ways with those of prisoners in that you are constantly at the mercy of other people and the "authorities" for absolutely everything; the sense of dislocation in terms of time and the seasons passing and the sense of pervasive hopelessness that anything better will come of the experience. The way many of the refugees are being treated by people is akin to the way many ex cons are when they re-emerge into society again. You are victimised, discriminated against and seen as "other", "different" and therefore not deserving of the perks of society.

  2. This time last year I was waiting to be sentenced. I was in prison from October - April so the seasons sort of fitted in with my time inside. I went in as it was going from Autumn to Winter - the darkest and most depressing time of the year and it was that in prison too. Then came Spring and my countdown to getting out.

    Like you I always wanted to go outside any chance I was given but the exercise yard was a depressing place. Looking around at the fences and the razor wire on top only emphasised that you were locked up and couldn't get out. I didn't mind the rain - it was just good to be outside and feeling the elements even if it did feel like being in a cage.

    Christmas was the worst time for me as you imagine family and friends having a great time. They probably weren't but the thoughts of wanting to be back home then was the most I had. I know exactly what you mean about the freezing cold cells.

    A year later I'm just happy to have got through it all and am back living a free life.