56 Days

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Chapter 2

The screw led us from the Induction Centre to Wing 1B. As he locked the gates behind us I took a deep breath and gazed at the imposing scene ahead. This place would be the place I called home for the next eight weeks — or maybe more. The wing was triangular; windows spanned from floor to ceiling on the near wall. The other two walls were lined with four floors of twenty-or-so bluish-grey metal doors. Each floor was connected by a wiry, grey metal staircase. A couple of pool tables in the far corner were the only glimmer of humanity. The dim lighting did nothing to disguise the fact that the place was dull and lifeless anyway. It was a menacing sight.

We climbed to the second floor and came to a halt outside cell 2-10 B. Two heavy clunks, the door opened and I was ushered in. Almost immediately the cell door slammed shut behind me, and the same two heavy clunks signalled the end of my induction. That would be the last contact with the outside world until morning — other than the occasional eye at the window of the cell door, peering in every few hours to ensure inmates were alive and unharmed. For now the metal shutter was closed making it impossible to see in, or out.

The cell measured twelve feet by six. To the right, a green curtain attempted to conceal a scabby toilet and sink. To the left; two wooden boxes, on one perched a portable TV. At the back of the cell was a small window with bars, beneath it a concrete ledge. A rickety set of bunk beds occupied half of the floor space. The top bunk was empty and presumably mine. On the bottom bunk lay a guy who looked roughly the same age as me. He was white, heavy-set, with brown hair and a scruff of brown stubble. My entrance seemed to shake him from his trance and as I stooped to catch his eye, he was already rising to his feet. He stood a couple of inches shorter than me, but much broader. He saw I was no threat and offered no threat of his own. He looked pleased to have company.

“Igor,” he stated firmly and offered his hand. His accent sounded Russian or Slavic.

“Julian,” I said, as I planted a firm handshake.

Neither of us raised a full smile, but there was enough warmth and honesty in our greeting to allay any immediate fears of murder or brutal ass-rape.

Igor’s English was good, he told me he was thirty-one (four years my younger) from Lithuania, but born in Russia. He lived in a town in the UK I knew well. He’d arrived earlier that day and this was his second time in prison; indeed his second time at Woodhill. His sentence on the previous occasion had been four months, this time he was also sentenced to four months, however, with good behaviour he hoped to be released after only two. Our initial exchange was reassuring. Igor was not a violent criminal, he seemed like a nice guy and he seemed a lot more comfortable in the present environment than I did.

Igor opened his pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette and perched on the ledge next to the window. I rolled a cigarette too. He asked me who I was, and why I was here.

I explained I hadn’t been sentenced yet, I was on remand and my trial was still 56 days away.

“Je-e-sus!” he gasped, raising his mono-brow in disbelief. “What did you do? Are you terrorist?”

His question made me smile. Did he really think I was a terrorist? My grin vanished almost immediately when I realised he wasn’t smiling back.

“No, no of course not!” I said, but Igor had already produced a pocket-sized Bible and was thrusting it in the air.

“I am Christian,” he declared — with a pronounced rolling of the ‘r’.

I assured him of my own Christian upbringing, then gave a brief overview of my arrest a month earlier, and the events that had led me to be sharing his cell. I told him about the adjournment of the trial and how I’d been refused bail. His look showed signs of sympathy. He told me he knew of two other inmates who had been in Woodhill for precisely the same thing. He told me I should have pleaded guilty. He reasoned I’d have got an eight week sentence — like the two guys he knew. That would mean ‘just’ four weeks in prison. By pleading not guilty I’d made things worse. I’d have to spend eight weeks in prison awaiting trial and possibly a lot longer if found guilty.

I thought back to the family court hearing a few days earlier. I’d waited so long for a Christmas with my children, now I could miss it. I could also miss the final family court hearing in early January, with it my parental responsibility and access to see my children. Things really couldn’t get much worse...

I finished my cigarette and tossed the butt out of the window. Igor looked at me with disgust.

“Don’t throw it out there,” he scolded. “Throw it in here” — he shook a yoghurt pot with a dozen butts in it in my face. “You’ll need them later.”

As I would learn, Igor had good reason to think I might be a terror suspect. He explained that 56 days was the longest period anyone could be detained without trial in this country. Recent anti-terror legislation had increased this from the previous limit of 28 days. He told me that Woodhill catered for prisoners of all categories. He and I were category B, our wing housed about 75 other category B and C inmates. He pointed at the cell window, to a heavily secured block less than 50 yards away.

“That’s A block,” he said, “also known as the lifers’ block.”

He named two of the countries most notorious criminals and scanned my face for recognition. The first, one of the men responsible for one of the most shocking and gruesome murders in recent history. The second, a man famed more for his string of violence in prison, than his crimes outside it. Their proximity reinforced the gravity of the situation I was in. All that separated us, from them, was a couple of walls, two electric fences, several metres of razor wire, and a handful of armed guards accompanied by the most fearsome and aggressive dogs I have ever seen and heard in my life. In the eyes of the law I was a serious criminal and I was going to be treated as such.

Igor’s impromptu induction was far more enlightening then the official one. Besides, the chat was making things seem almost normal. Next, he ran through the prisoners’ daily timetable. It didn’t take him long! The cell doors would be opened at 8 am for thirty minutes. During this time we could have a shower. We could also speak to the guards — to ask for razorblades, or replacement kit. If we wanted anything we would have to document it on the appropriate application form. These applications should be placed in the boxes on the ground floor. For any immediate requests we would need to speak to the governor directly.

Lunch would be served between 1145 am and 1230 pm, during this time cell doors would remain unlocked. The same applied to dinner — between 445 pm and 530 pm. However, at 530 pm cell doors would be locked-down for the night.

Every other day between 230 pm and 330 pm there was an hour of ‘social’. We could socialise with other prisoners, play pool, or go for a supervised walk in the yard outside. Further time out of cell could be earnt by working in prison, or attending a class of some sort. The application process for both employment and education could take two or three weeks, so neither Igor, nor I would be doing anything like that in the immediate future.

After an hour or so the conversation waned. All major topics had been covered and quite a few of the obscure and niché. The silences grew and conversation started to become an effort. I made up my bed — doing my best not to obscure Igor’s view of the television — and hopped on to my bunk. I settled back and fixed my gaze on the television. I remember thinking it ironic that I didn’t have a television at home, yet here I was watching Friday night television in a prison cell. TV or no TV, I would have given anything to be at home. I thought about my son and my daughter — fast asleep by now no doubt. I knew I wouldn’t see them for a long time now. I wished I had photo’s — I missed them both so much. As I lay back and looked up at the ceiling I couldn’t help but think back to the long nights of waiting for them to be born. How did I end up here?

A convoy of programmes came and departed, the likes of which offer no interest to me on a typical night in. This wasn’t a typical night though and I was more than grateful for the distraction. The lights, sounds and movements from the little set were comforting, the subject matter — largely irrelevant. I felt myself drifting away in the early hours of Saturday morning. I woke several times during the night, to the barks of prison dogs, the jangling of keys, or the occasional wailing of a fellow inmate.

The cell door clunked twice and swung open. It was morning and I could hear a buzz of activity. I opened my eyes and scanned the cell, as the realisation of where I was quickly crushed the brief respite of slumber. Igor was gone. Steam rushed in to the cell from the shower room next door. I hopped down from my bunk and freshened my face at the sink. I had no time for a shower, I had a call to make. I needed to let someone know I was here.

There was a queue of at least a dozen inmates outside the governor’s door. I joined the back of the queue and took a moment to look around. Careful not to eyeball anyone, but sure to return any nods or fist-taps offered up. Everyone had the same bluish-grey jogging suit I had. Some wore trainers from the outside world, the less fortunate ones wore black elasticated plimsolls. Suicide risks I thought. Prisoners were walking around; huddled in groups or talking to the two or three screws on duty. It was a hive of activity, in stark contrast to the desolate scene I had observed on my arrival the previous evening.

After five minutes the queue hadn’t moved. It was clear that in thirty minutes I would not reach the front. I wouldn’t be speaking to the governor this morning and I wouldn’t be getting a phone call. I left the queue, disconsolate and made back for the cell. I passed a screw on the way and asked about making a call. He told me that due to my charge I probably wouldn’t be able to make a call for anything up to 6 weeks — there were a lot of checks that needed to be made. My heart sank. I asked if there was anything I could do, in a desperate voice that surprised even myself. He said I could ask the judge for permission at my bail hearing next week.

“Bail hearing?” I asked him to repeat. I thought I understood but I wanted to be sure.

He explained that prisoners on remand, like myself, could apply for a change in their bail conditions at a bail application hearing. This usually took place a week or so after the initial trial. It’s not compulsory, but I could appear at court via video link and appeal to the judge for a change in my bail conditions. I could even appeal for my release. The disappointment of the phone call was rapidly replaced by a glimmer of optimism.

As I walked back to the cell I allowed myself a little smile. All of a sudden there was a glimmer of hope. Fifty six days of detention might evaporate in to just ten! I could be home within a week or so.

Igor could see I was lifted and asked me why. I told him about the phone call — or lack of one — about the bail hearing next week by video link and the possibility of an early release.

“What will have changed in seven days?” Igor grunted bluntly.

As I opened my mouth to respond I paused. I had to concede, he had a very good point. And the answer to his question was: nothing. Why would they change their mind?

Igor could see that his ruthless realism had shattered me.

“You never know my friend,” he said. “I wish you luck. Besides, if you can’t call anyone — you should write.” He pointed at the solitary pen and scrap of paper on the side. He was right, and I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me first.

For the next seven days — aside from meal breaks, health checks and an educational assessment — I wrote. I started with the reasons for my release. Then finances; monies I needed to pay — who to — and by when. I surprised myself by how much I could remember. Memory had long been my Achilles heel — or so I thought. Next the admin mountain from the outside world — messages for all sorts of people; my employer, my daughter’s teacher, my solicitor, my doctor, my friends, even a friend to babysit my fantasy football team. I had plenty of time on my hands so why not cover everything? These things needed to be sorted out and finding time was always difficult on the outside world. Here it was more of a blessing than a chore. Writing took away the frustration of being locked up for 22 hours a day and transported me to another place.

When the cell doors opened for meal times a frenzy of activity saw inmates firstly scramble to collect food at the servery, then barter with other inmates for a whole range of goods. Food was just one of the forms of currency that could be exchanged on the prison’s thriving black market; along with clothes, sugar, burn, paper and much, much more — including drugs of both the prescribed and recreational varieties. The rush to pitch, haggle and transact before time was called made it all the more intense. It was the perfect example of a barter economy.

No one was aware of my detention so there was no chance of me receiving any money to buy goods from the prison canteen. I knew if I wanted anything in addition to my meagre rations I would need to participate in this meleé. Through this process, and albeit briefly, I spoke to pretty much every inmate on the wing.

I struck a deal with a softly spoken chap two cells down. He was friendly and seemed as alien to the environment we were in as I was. I gave him my dessert; he gave me two burns and two sachets of sugar. He got the sugar hit he craved, whilst I could have a cup of tea and a cigarette in the evening and in the morning. I discovered some time later on that my bartering partner was serving 7 years for armed robbery.

The lunch time feed varied only slightly each day - typically consisting of a baguette, two hard-boiled eggs and an apple. The evening feed was only fractionally more enticing. Minced beef seemed to be the primary component of almost every dish — sometimes mixed with potatoes, peas and sweetcorn in a stew; sometimes with pasta, tomatoes and onions for a bolognese. To follow: a chocolate biscuit, some jelly, or an iced lolly. A breakfast pack was provided each evening, but this rarely made it to morning — usually consumed later on in the evening due to boredom, restlessness or good old-fashioned hunger.

Aside from feeding, cell doors opened only briefly. At 8 am inmates had thirty minutes to submit application requests, or take a shower — whichever they felt more pressing. Whilst, some days physical exercise was allowed for forty minutes mid-

afternoon. The opportunity to be outside seemed appealing at first, but an enforced procession around a concrete forecourt turned out to be anything but pleasurable. The back-drop of the ‘lifers block’ and a 20-foot border of electric fencing merely reinforced the feeling of captivity. A group of prison guards patrolled the session with dogs straining angrily at the leash. Despite the heavy surveillance presence I witnessed a brawl, and was offered drugs on the first — and final — physical session I took part in on day two.

The 36 hours I’d spent in police custody had been in solitary confinement and I was now forbidden from contacting the outside world, With my ability to communicate deprived, I soon realised how much I valued it. The privilege of another human being to talk to was one of the few benefits of the move to Woodhill. And with so much time to kill, Igor and I talked about everything. We spoke about a wider range of topics, and on a much deeper level, than most friends I’d known for years on the outside.

Igor was kind, intelligent and selfless; not a bit like I’d expected at our initial meeting, or from the stereotype his conviction and nationality might have suggested. He had an altruistic nature and was deeply religious. His depth of knowledge in a wide range of subjects was impressive — from history and politics, to music and sport, he even shared my passion for geology. He had children too and a girlfriend he loved very much. I found comfort in hearing him speak about the longing for his children. He felt the same way I did. When he spoke about his girlfriend I thought back to happier times — I remember how in love I’d felt myself. It also made me wish I had someone outside waiting for me. Despite a relatively high level of engagement between us, after the first 24 hours the silences began to outweigh the conversations.

The removal of distractions is intended to provide prisoners with time to reflect on their crimes; to consider the error of their ways and think how they will do better in the future. It’s the first step in the rehabilitation process. For me, the time for reflection simply accentuated the feelings of frustration, injustice and disbelief. I’d done nothing wrong and just wanted to go home. At the very least I wanted a phone call, just to let people know where I was and that I was still alive. I was plagued by the constant longing to see my children, to talk to them and squeeze them. I felt very low, close to giving up. I knew I needed to stay occupied; to pass the time, to prevent over-reflection and simply to maintain my sanity.

On day three I borrowed a book from the guy in the next cell. It was a novel; a thriller, the type of book I would never pick from the shelf. I was in no position to be picky and under the circumstances I was very grateful for it. I read the book in just a few hours — without pause. Never before have I been so engrossed in a book. The title and the plot, the theme and imagery all bore many ironic similarities to the environment in which it was being read. With no distractions it felt like I was there, I felt like an animal in a zoo. Igor mainly watched TV, whilst for me, writing filled almost every spare waking moment.

Every couple of hours we did a simple work-out routine: ten push-ups, ten sit-ups and ten reverse press-ups. It was good for the mind and good for the body, also good for dissecting dauntingly large periods of time. We reckoned if we kept it up we’d emerge from prison in tip-top shape. That was the plan, but with calorie intake at an all time low, I actually felt myself getting weaker and weaker with each passing day.

We read every single piece of graffiti in the entire cell — etchings that dated back as far as 1996. Some were funny, some were deep and philosophical, others were angst-ridden. Each tag evoked images of it’s author and their story — their crime, their pain, their humour, their advice, who they loved and missed the most. My favourite tag was etched in the paint on the back of the cell door, it read:

‘If you put people in cages, they’ll behave like animals.’

An entire day was consumed by cleaning the cell with nothing but two old toothbrushes, some toothpaste and four sachets of prison-issue shower gel. The toothpaste was used to polish the metal surfaces on the beds, the sink and the toilet handle. We folded the empty shower gel sachets into strips and tied the loose curtain back to it’s rail. We could finally go to the toilet without being in full view of each other. By the time we’d finished our compulsive clean the cell was completely immaculate. The sense of purpose, achievement and satisfaction derived from the task were strangely satisfying.

The television was our only link to the outside world and duly stayed on almost continuously. Getting temporarily lost in a programme or film was a welcome escape from reality and a good way to pass time. When I wasn’t lost in writing I’d watch. Igor’s viewing was pretty much constant and due to that he had free reign of channel selection. As someone who chooses not to own a TV, my dependency on it felt a lot like I’d imagine a vegetarian would feel who’d just eaten a load of bacon sandwiches..

For eight days Igor and I repeated the same process. Each day felt like a life time. Igor counted down the days, but I didn’t know how many days I should be counting down from. It could be as little as 24 hours, or a further forty-seven days. If I was then convicted it could be considerably more. On the eighth day we were a given a brief escape from the cell and it probably came at a good time. With the bail hearing the next day neither writing, nor the TV could distract me.

Igor, myself and six other recent arrivals were taken from our cells to the Education Centre. As we left the wing and crossed the forecourt it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d been outside in five days. I squinted in the direct sunlight, the air smelt fresh and moist in my nostrils. The light drizzle felt wonderful on my cheeks. It was a reminder to my senses that I was still alive.

The purpose of the trip was to meet with a Relocation Officer, then on to complete tests in literacy and numeracy. These tests determined the education I would be offered, or what job I might be suitable for. This was good news for me on both counts — I had a pre-prepared list of 24 important matters that needed to be attended to that I had already written whilst in the cell. With my consent the officer could contact them all and do business on my behalf. My list contained instructions for the other court proceedings I am involved in, a message to my employer, payment to my landlord and a host of other bills, even things like a note to my daughter’s teacher apologising for my no-show at parents evening. The officer seemed both surprised and pleased with my clarity and level of detail, He responded by speaking to me in a way I had not been spoken to since speaking with my solicitor back in the police station. It was mutual respect, and it felt good. I agreed with the officer that I would give him consent the next day, but only if my appeal was unsuccessful. Knowing that everything was taken care of was a huge sense of relief.

The numeracy and literacy tests took place in a locked class room. We each had a PC and the tests got progressively harder with each level. A certain percentage of correct answers needed to be achieved to reach the next level. When finished, each inmate was given a print-out of their score, had a chat with the tutor and then was escorted back to their cell.

The early levels of the tests were simple, but as they progressed the questions became more and more complex. I hadn’t done simultaneous equations since I was at school. It took all of my focus and all of my memory to remember how, but it was incredibly satisfying. I got so engrossed I didn’t realise that everyone had left except for the tutor and a guard and they were both now peering over my shoulder.

“You’ll have to finish now, it’s time for lock-up,” said the screw.

“But I’m not finished yet,” I pleaded, and pointed at the unfinished sum on the screen.

“Let him finish this one,” said the tutor.

I completed the final maths question with an impatient screw breathing down my neck. I thought that deserved extra marks, but the screw didn’t seem particularly impressed. As soon as the question was answered he whisked me back to my cell. The tutor didn’t even have time to print off the results, but said she would send them on in the mail, I would get them later, or tomorrow morning.

Back in the cell me and Igor now had something to talk about. He talked about how it was hard for him to complete the literacy test in his second language, but did well in the numeracy test. Less than an hour later we were still talking it through when the cell door opened again.

The guard told me the tutor wanted to see me to give me my test results. I thought it was strange as she told me they would be posted to the cell, regardless I was pleased to be getting another outing. He led me back to the Education Centre and back to the same room where I had completed the test an hour or so earlier. This time it was just me and the tutor, and this time her tone was different; more welcoming, and smiling.

She told me I’d done very well in both tests and asked me what my job was ‘on the outside’. I explained I was involved in the planning of business development strategy. The tutor told me I had scored the highest marks she’d seen since the test was introduced in 2010. She was lavish with her praise and for a brief moment I felt valued and genuinely proud. She asked me how long my sentence was and if I would like to work in the Education Centre. I explained that I was on remand, but if my appeal was denied I would be glad to help — it would be a pleasure.

All of this took my mind off the impending appeal, it even offered some solace if the appeal was denied. At least I’d have something to occupy myself with. The respite was brief; within a couple of hours the cell door opened again. Again it was a screw. This time he simply said:

“Smith, Dagys - get your stuff together, you’re moving. I’ll be back to get you in five minutes.”

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