It was Thursday morning. I looked over to the alarm clock - 9:45 am - and I was still in bed. I had a doctors appointment at 10:20 am but was waiting for the last possible moment to get out of bed. I’d been off work for just over a month yet maintained the routine of waking up at 7 am each day. Today I allowed myself a lay-in. The previous two and half years had unquestionably been the worst of my life, but, for the first time in an age I awoke with unbridled enthusiasm, optimism and hope.
Three days earlier - Monday - I’d attended a family court hearing - the seventh court appearance I’d made in the previous two years. I’d felt nervous before-hand; the best I could hope for was to retain legal responsibility of my children and secure equal access rights. The worst: to lose my parental responsibility and with it all contact with my children for the foreseeable future. All outcomes were possible and I was acutely aware of that in the weeks leading up to the hearing. The day of the hearing was intense and exhausting. My ability to be a parent, my character and my mental health had all been called in to question - along with numerous other hurtful allegations. Representing myself was a challenge and defending myself was emotionally and mentally draining. Thankfully, it was decided that the children should continue to stay with me each weekend - at least until the final Family Court hearing some four months later. As an added bonus it was decided that my children could spend Christmas with me for the first time in three years. Under the circumstances it was a good outcome.
Two days earlier - Tuesday - I received a letter confirming I’d been awarded compensation for a mis-sold financial product I’d purchased over 11 years ago. An application I made over a year ago had unexpectedly bore fruit and the timing could not have been better. For almost three years it had been a constant struggle; financially. Despite a reasonably good income, the cost of living alone, paying a huge amount in child maintenance and paying to clothe, feed and entertain my children each weekend had taken it’s toll. My children never wanted for anything, but on a personal level I had lost over two stone in weight. No new clothes in three years, no nights out with friends or socialising, no car, no TV, no mobile phone. Since the end of 2012 I’d slipped from being an affluent father of two, to being a single parent living well below the poverty line. Despite my austerity measures the debt still grew each month and was beginning to reach a level that was starting to cause genuine concern.
The compensation meant I could clear all debt accrued over the previous three years. I’d still have money left over to improve my living conditions and treat the children. It also meant that I would be able to continue to adequately provide a home for them too - it made me a more credible proposition for shared parenting. It felt like an incredible weight had been lifted.
The day before - Wednesday - felt like the start of a new era. I also scheduled appointments to attend my daughters parents evening, meet with the Citizens Advice Bureau and meet with my solicitor - to prepare for the next child custody hearing. Finally, it felt like things were moving in the right direction.
As I idled in bed I reflected on how well things were going. Realistically I could return to work in seven days with a relatively clear mind. I could return to a normal life and get back to being a father. A thud at the window and a deep booming voice shook me from my joyful introspection..
“Julian.. Julian. Can you open up please?”
I leapt from my bed and looked at the video screen of the intercom. I could see two policemen outside. Instantly I felt my skin tingle and my heart rate quicken. My last encounter with the police had not been a pleasant one - I’d spent over 18 hours in solitary confinement. Despite being released relatively unscathed the episode had shook me considerably. The sight of two policeman at my door conjured up flashbacks of the isolation, the fear and the sense of helplessness I had felt less than a month before. I froze.
“Julian, open up, we know you’re in there.”
I opened the door and pushed the button to unlock the front door of the apartment block. The two policemen strode in and asked if we could go inside for a chat. My mouth was dry, I couldn’t find my voice for what seemed like an eternity. When I did it took the form of a nervous, barely audible verbal fart.
“Yes...yes...errr...you’re not here to arrest me again are you?” I nervously half-joked.
The policeman looked at me with what looked like a mixture of pity and disgust. “Yes Julian, I think that’s probably going to be the likely outcome.”
My heart sank and my mind raced. Why on earth was I being arrested? There had been no incidents of note since I had been released from police custody in mid-September.
“W-w-what for?” I stammered. “Breaking a Court Order” the policeman replied.
Surely there had been some sort of mistake? I rapidly delivered a summary of the last few months. I explained that I’d already been arrested and found not guilty of these allegations just a few weeks prior.
They went on to tell me the date of the alleged incident, I quickly counted back the days in my head...
“That’s impossible!” I said, as the prospect of this being just a misunderstanding suddenly looked completely plausible. On the date in question - Monday - both me and my former partner had been in court all day. Again I pleaded “There must be some sort of mistake, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The second policeman began to flesh-out the allegation with details. It dawned on me that the event he was describing bore similarities with an incident that had in fact happened on the previous Friday. This incident I was aware of, however, the version being paraphrased to me now was a long way from the version I remembered, in this alternative version I was quite clearly being typecast as the villain. I said that I remembered the incident but it had not happened like that at all.
Immediately I was read my rights. I was told I’d be going to the police station for a few more questions. I felt the blood drain from my face and my palms clam up. Recounting my previous ordeal in custody I asked if I could get dressed properly and collect a few things. Under supervision I nervously threw on some clothes, grabbed my wallet, my phone and my house key. As I picked up my wallet I thought back to the compensation I’d just received - still untouched - and now tantalisingly out of reach. I grabbed a few coins from the jar that looked like pounds and left the house with what turned out to be £5. I was spared the indignity of handcuffs as I was escorted to the police car - I’d presented myself with no resistance. The almost apologetic nature of the arresting officers gave me a fleeting sense of security. One that would prove to be short lived. As I got in to the back of the police car I reassured myself. It will be OK.. just answer a few questions and you’ll be home in a few hours.
Most of the way to the police station I gazed vacantly out of the window as the rest of the world carried on as normal. I tried to focus all of my energies on staying calm but my thoughts kept drifting to my children, they were due to arrive at my place the following evening. As always, I just wanted to hug them. The successful court hearing just a few days before made that even stronger than usual. Now on my way to a police station the longing for their hugs was stronger than ever. The journey must have taken about twenty minutes, I was then escorted from the police car to the same holding cell I’d graced just a few weeks earlier. I hoped I’d never see the place again, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it again so soon. My over-riding emotion was disbelief. Thirty minutes earlier things had been almost perfect - now I was under arrest for the second time in a month.
Unfortunately I was all too aware of the process that was to follow. I felt like a passenger as I was read my rights for a second time, then searched, then relieved of all of my possessions before being told I would be held in a cell until they were ready to interview me. On my previous arrest I’d waited for 12 hours before requesting a solicitor. I’d foolishly thought that the truth alone would be enough. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I asked for a solicitor and a phone call before being led through to ‘my’ cell. The officer allowed me a short phone call. I called a work colleague but got through to voice mail. I can scarcely recall the content of the message I left. Little did I know, that would prove to be my last phone call for a long, long time.
The rectangular cell had a raised bed-shaped platform in one corner and a small alcove with a “toilet” in the other. The only window was in the ceiling and consisted of sixteen thick cubes of strengthened glass that did their best to keep the light out. As the cell door slammed shut behind me I prepared myself for what I knew might be a long wait. With no phone or watch I can’t be sure, but I think the time was approximately 11 am.
There was a small pillow-shaped cushion - no more than two inches thick. I propped it against the wall and tried to find a position that was remotely comfortable. For the first hour I was poised. I expected the door to open at any second and me to be led away for questioning, but each time I heard the jangle of keys approaching they would continue past the cell door. By the end of hour two all poise had gone, I laid foetus-like trying to ignore each second. By the time the cell door eventually opened I had lost all sense of time. As the officer frog-marched me through reception towards an interview room I caught a glance of a clock. It was 15:37 - more than five and a half hours had passed since my arrest.
A professional gentleman in his forties sat at the desk with a clutch of papers laid out on the table in front of him. He ushered me to sit down and began to explain the process of being arrested and questioned and how I would then be charged or released. He detailed precisely the charges that had been made against me and showed me the statements which had been made about the incident. He was professional and matter-of-fact in his delivery. He advised what the likely outcomes would be depending on the pleas of guilty, or not guilty. It became apparent at this stage that either plea could lead to a custodial sentence if the court found me guilty. This would be seen as the second breach of a court order and that is a serious matter. There had been mitigating circumstances to the previous breach - a note sent via text message rather than via email (email being the only media of communication the order allowed). The mitigating circumstances had been acknowledged by the judge at that hearing and that was reflected in his closing statement and verdict. He accepted that I had acted in the best interest of the children but conceded I had broken the order in doing so. The fixed penalty fine was reduced in view of this. Nevertheless, if I was found guilty on this occasion it would count as breach number two - and as my solicitor pointed out that would almost definitely result in a custodial sentence - of anything up to five years.
I walked the solicitor through the events that had happened on the Friday previous. His eyes showed he was somewhat surprised by my level of articulation - both in terms of accuracy and clarity. It felt like my five minute oratory had proved my innocence. My solicitor believed me, however, he was cautious about how likely it was for the police to believe me too. With no material evidence it was essentially my word versus the statements made by two other individuals. Throw in my previous ‘conviction’ just a few weeks before and the odds appeared to be stacked against me. We ended our conversation and the police officer returned to take me back to the cell. I would be called for police questioning in a few minutes. This time a few minutes was just a few minutes.
In no time at all I was taken from my cell back to the same interview room. I didn’t glance at the clock in reception this time. The time was now of no concern to me, the imminent interview and my own desire for release were the only things in my mind. I entered the room, exchanged glances with my solicitor and sat in the seat beside him. Across the table were two female police officers and to the right an audio cassette system that looked more accustomed to home-recording the charts in the 1980′s than to an interview of this magnitude with such huge and potentially life-changing consequences.
The officers introduced the process and provided a few instructions. The record-play button was depressed and the questioning commenced. Occasionally my solicitor would interrupt and advise me that I didn’t have to answer particular questions. Other than that I answered honestly, confidently and comprehensively. After about an hour the interview ended. If it had been a job interview I think I’d have gotten the job. The police officers left the room and my solicitor congratulated me.
“You did well there Julian, well done,” he said, as genuinely as he could. “Thanks,” I said, “Do you think they will let me go?”
“We’ll just have to see,” he said as he pursed his lips, stood up and pressed a buzzer to call back the officer. “Good luck Julian, hopefully see you soon,” and with that he left the room. Moments later the officer returned and led me back to my cell.
Again the door slammed shut behind me, this time I thought it wouldn’t be long. The police would assess my interview then decide whether to charge me, or to release me. It was roughly 5 pm, if I was released straight away I could be home in time for the arrival of the children for the weekend at 6 pm. On the other hand, if I was charged I might not be going home for a number of weeks or even months. The uncertainty made the wait longer and more agonising. Time passed and I could see through the thick glass bricks that it was now dark outside. Finally the cell door swung open and a female police officer led me from my cell back to reception. It was now 8:30 pm.
When I got to reception things happened in a flash. Before I had time to compose myself I was told that I had been charged on two counts and I would stand trial the following day at the Magistrates Court. Not only that, I would be held in police custody to ensure I did not try to contact anyone who was involved in the incident. I pleaded for this to be reconsidered, all I wanted was to go home and be with my children. My plea fell on deaf ears. I asked if I could make a phone call to let someone know where I was, and that I wouldn’t be home. This time I was told no. Again I was led back to my cell and this time when the door slammed shut I knew it was for the night.
I decided the best thing I could do was to sleep. I wrapped myself in the rug I had been provided with, took my glasses off and rested my head on the flimsy pillow. For the next 5 or 6 hours I drifted in and out of a light sleep. Each time I surfaced I hoped I’d wake in my bed, each time I was disappointed. Every now and then I would hear footsteps and the jingle-jangle of keys but they never amounted to anything. The night dragged like no night had ever dragged before.
All of a sudden I heard a heavy clunk and felt a rush of air. I opened my eyes and the dark cell was flooded with electric light, teaming through the open cell door. In the door stood a silhouette, I squinted to adjust my vision but it was no use, without my glasses all I could see was a policeman.
“Smithy?!” said the policeman with a kindness and sincerity that completely took me by surprise. “What the hell are you doing here?” I scrambled for my glasses as the silhouette took a couple of steps towards me, not sure if I was actually awake or not. I wasn’t sure if I should pinch myself or be scared, this was all getting a bit too surreal. By the time I’d sat up the policeman was perched on the bed beside me and I could see his face clearly for the first time.
“Martin?! What the hell are you doing here?” I said, disbelieving. Me and Martin had played football together as children and teenagers. We’d always got on well, he was a lovely guy with a calm and pleasant demeanour. My shock at seeing him there was only just surpassed by his of seeing me. We man-hugged and for a brief moment forgot about the setting and circumstances of our chance meeting.
He explained that he was the Chief Constable of the police station and was doing an extra shift as a favour. I explained the sequence of events that had led up to my detention. We reminisced about old times and spoke about our lives since then. We talked about our children and our jobs. For a few fleeting moments it felt normal. He asked if he could get me anything. I said I’d love a cup of tea and something to eat. A few minutes later he left and returned with a cup of tea, a pot noodle and a cereal bar. We shook hands, said our goodbyes and the cell door closed. This time ever-so-slightly less menacingly. I feasted and slurped, it may have been about 4 am but I hadn’t eaten all day. I hadn’t even felt hungry, but now I senses awoke and my hunger was ravenous. I polished off the lot and laid back down. With a full belly I was soon asleep again.
I awoke with a start as the first flickers of natural light struggled through the thick glass ceiling. I could hear keys jangling and activity outside the cell. I reckoned it was about 7 am, that’s the time I usually wake up alarm unassisted. I knew the Magistrate hearings started at 10 am, my trial could be any time from then onwards. There were still a few hours to wait but I was awake now. With the trial now in touching distance there was no chance of a return to sleep. The exact time of my trial depended on how many other people were to be tried that day, and whether mine would be first, second or even last. I could make out at least two other people in the adjacent cells, maybe three or four.
Time slowed down for the next few hours. I played through the trial in my head and tried to imagine what verdict the Magistrates would deliver. It was a constant cycle of fear and reassurance, the reality was I had no idea. I could hear people coming and going outside the cell door but still no one had come for me. The morning passed and the colour of light filtering in to the cell made me think that it was now early afternoon. Was there a problem? Had they forgotten about me? Of course not! The long wait was broken abruptly by a heavy clunk and the opening of the cell door.
I scanned the officer’s face for any clues about my impending fate, it was just stern and blank. “The court is ready for you now” he declared and led me from my cell to a waiting area adjacent to the court. In the waiting area sat a member of the Crown Prosecution Service. At this point my detention now passed to them from the police. The CPS officer had heavy tattoo’s on both arms and a goatee that had clearly taken quite a while to craft. He pursed his lips and forced an awkward smile as he firstly secured my handcuffs, then secured me to him.
“You’ll be going in at any second mate” he said. We had a brief exchange, the contents of which escape me. I was there in person but my mind was all over the place. I was scared but took some comfort in the fact that whatever the outcome, at least I would know it soon.
The officer led me in to the same courtroom I had been in several weeks earlier. He unlocked my handcuffs and sat me behind the perspex screen that separated me and him from the main court room. On the far side of the room sat the prosecuting solicitor, on the near side sat my defence. Behind them were several other people, presumably people in training I thought. At the front of the court were three empty seats. At the back of the room was a heavy wooden door. The door swung open and in walked the Magistrates - three regal looking women who must have been in their 50′s or 60′s. As they walked through the room everyone stood, as they reached their seats they nodded and signalled that everyone could now sit down.
I was asked to stand and step forward to the microphone set in the perspex screen. I was asked to confirm my name, address and date of birth which I did with a couple of barely audible verbal nods. I retired to my seat in preparation for the trial to begin.
The prosecution read out the charges and delivered a scathing summary of my character. With each passing word I felt worse. The person they were describing wasn’t me. All I wanted was the opportunity to defend myself. I thought of all the people I knew outside the court room and wished any one of them could be there to defend me. My hopes were in vain. By the time the prosecution had finished I had almost been convinced of my own guilt. I didn’t dare guess what the Magistrates must be thinking.
My solicitor rose and addressed the court. For about ten minutes he spoke calmly and articulately in my defence. He pointed out that other than the current dealings I had lived my life as a law-abiding citizen. He spoke of my love for my children, and the fact that I had worked for the same company for the last fifteen years. With regards to the incident in question he suggested that the CCTV should be able to prove without doubt the events that took place on that fateful Friday. The Magistrates agreed and adjourned the trial until such point the footage could be viewed. The next date available in the court calendar was November 28th - almost two months away. I felt my spirits lift. I knew the footage would exonerate me and assumed I would be released on bail until that date. That assumption was quickly stamped out.
The prosecution requested that I be remanded in custody until that date as there was a risk I would try to contact the two witnesses. The truth was I had no intention of doing that - I just wanted to go home. That wasn’t going to happen though.. The Magistrate upheld the prosecution’s request and declared that I would be remanded in custody until November 28th. Following that I would then face trial in the very same court. My mouth dried up and my head felt light, the voices in the court room faded in to the background. I was devastated. I counted up the days until the next trial date....56...I was going to be locked up for the next 56 days. I couldn’t believe it. The court room emptied, the guard ushered me from the dock to the cell. As we left the court room he turned to me and said “You were unlucky there mate.” His words were of little consolation to me, I was numb and vacant.
Back in my cell there was a prison officer waiting to greet me. This officer had a friendly face and as I entered the room he asked me if I was OK. I informed him that I really wasn’t OK at all. I told him I was scared and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. In hindsight he probably hears that kind of thing every day.. no one is ever guilty.
“Of course, you’re upset, that’s normal” he said; clearly he was trained in the art of counselling distressed prisoners.
“I’ve done nothing wrong, this isn’t fair” I exclaimed. “Am I going to be locked up here for the next 56 days?” I naively enquired. “Noooo!” he said, “You won’t stay here!” He seemed amused by my naivety. “You’ll be staying at Woodhill.”
“Woodhill?” I queried. “Yes, it’s a prison in Milton Keynes. You’ll feel much better once you’re settled there.”
Up until that point the concept of prison hadn’t really occurred to me. It was now almost 36 hours since my arrest but it felt like much, much longer. For the majority of that time I had tried to remain positive, anticipating a release at any moment. I didn’t dare consider being detained. Stupidly I thought I would be held in the police station for 56 days. In hindsight that was a silly thing to think. In hindsight I wished I had stayed at the police station.
I was held in the cell until what turned out to be 7:00 pm, at that point the same officer returned to my cell, handcuffed me and led me to an armoured police van. I’d seen vans like this before; often with convicted criminals being ushered in with blankets over their heads to protect their identities. A small part of me was genuinely intrigued to see the inside of one of these vehicles. A larger part of me was simply scared.
The van was lined with five mini-cells. At the front was one ‘open’ seat accompanied by a desk. On the desk sat a laptop and several phones - this was clearly the officers seat. Me and four other prisoners were placed in the cells. Once in the cell I couldn’t see anyone else. There was a small triple-glazed window to my right that allowed me to see out, but prevented anyone from seeing in. Through the darkened glass I could see that the sun was setting. I gazed at the sunset for the entire journey deliberately trying to empty my mind of all thoughts. The armoured van arrived at HMP Woodhill shortly after 8 pm and began a mammoth sequence of security checks in order to access the maximum security facility.
My possessions had been transferred to the prison from the police station. The prison officer documented these again and asked me to sign. I was led to a room for a health check - my height, my weight, any allergies and such like. I then received a full-body strip-search; the officer made sure I was not concealing any thing on (or in) my person. Next I was issued with prison clothes - a bluish grey jogging suit; my bed linen, a plastic bowl and some plastic cutlery. A photo was taken and I was issued with my ID card, complete with mugshot and prison number. The officer told me to keep it safe, he also explained that if ever went to prison again I would retain the same number. Finally I was asked if I smoked. I explained that I did and I hadn’t had a cigarette for almost two days. The officer chucked me a smokers pack - a small pouch of cheap tobacco, some papers and a lighter.
“You came with a fiver didn’t you Smith? Well, we’ll take for the smokers pack.”
I thought back to two days earlier when I had grabbed five pounds before leaving my apartment. Stroke of luck I thought... I was led from the prison reception to an area they called the Induction Centre. By now I had retained my composure and the reality of what was in front of me loomed large.
The Induction Centre was a cosy looking room, a large flat screen television hung on the far wall. The room had four rows of comfy red chairs, on the last but one row sat two prisoners in green t-shirts. The prison officer explained to me that these two men were listeners - long-serving prisoners with a wealth of experience to pass on to new inmates like me. If I ever needed someone to talk to, or I had problems I couldn’t deal with on my own - the listeners should be my first port of call. As we stood in the doorway the listeners glanced up, nodded, then flicked their eyes back to the television screen on the wall. It was a wildlife show and they seemed overly absorbed.
The officer left and closed the cell door behind him, had it not been for the railings at the back of the room it could have been any room in a leisure centre, university or library. I sat down in the same row as the listeners. We exchanged pleasantries. They told me their names - Jack and Kirky; their crimes, and how long they had been inside. I told them my name and my alleged crime. They looked somewhat disappointed. They asked me if I had been to prison before, I explained I hadn’t but I didn’t really need to, it was abundantly clear that I was uncomfortable. They did their best to give me an overview of what to expect and reassure me. They explained that a prison officer is known as a ‘screw’; your cell is your ‘pad’, a smoke is a ‘burn’ and a few other useful phrases.
“Great seeing a proper telly ennit Kirky?”
“Yeah mate, quality.”
I looked at the television on the wall, it wasn’t particularly impressive... smaller than you would see in most homes across the country. For about 15 minutes we watched the wildlife programme, occasionally one of them would offer up a witty remark, the other would chuckle back. I found myself joining in, even though I didn’t find anything even remotely funny. Soon enough the screw returned.