Tuesday, August 17, 2004

A life inside: Erwin James

This is my last prison column. After 20 years, I'm free. I just didn't expect it to happen with so little ceremony.

Mr Hepinstall - "Heppy" - had been a prison officer for 31 years when I first met him. He had spent most of his career in the high security system and was my first landing officer in my first long-term jail. He wasn't a big man and his chronic alopecia gave him an odd look until you got used to it, but prisoners respected him, mainly because he didn't take his job too seriously and always had time to talk to people properly. Normally it was bad form for "cons" to be seen having any more than cursory conversations with "screws". But whenever it involved Heppy, nobody seemed to mind.

I had only been on Heppy's landing for a couple of days when we had our first chat. His pleasant manner threw me to begin with as I had just spent a year on 23-hour bang-up, waiting to be allocated to that place, and my defences were still stacked high. Not only that, it was the end of the day and Heppy was locking us up for the night - hardly the best moment for a heart to heart with my jailer. I had been standing by my cell door, watching the final chaotic minutes of frantic wing activity which always precedes the day's last door-closing session (cigarette paper/tea- bag/newspaper borrowing), when Heppy approached.

"Lifer, aren't you?" he said, before I could turn my back on him. "Yes," I said. He told me how long he had been doing the job and that he was only months away from retiring. He talked about different jails he had worked in, infamous prisoners he had known and the swing of the pendulum. "Punishment, rehabilitation, punishment. Backwards. Forwards. They can't make their mind up what they want out there," he said. "But I've seen plenty come and go just like you. You're probably not thinking too far ahead right now, but the end will come eventually. And when it does the system will just spit you out," he snapped his fingers - " just like that."

I didn't spend too much time dwelling on what the old-timer had said, but I never forgot it either. Then a couple of days ago, almost 19 years after our little chat, I discovered that Heppy, bless him, had been absolutely correct.

I hadn't expected any special ceremony, but I did think that it would be the governor responsible for lifers who would preside over the formalities of my release. Which was why I froze momentarily when I went to ask what time he would want to see me and Taps, that day's house block officer, told me that he was off on annual leave. "Three weeks," he said. "But don't worry. I'll make sure you're down to see him first when he gets back."

Giving no indication of the devastating effect this news had on my earlier happy disposition I said, "Er, but I'm supposed to be getting released today."

Taps grinned and said, "I know. I'm just pulling your leg. They want you over in reception in 15 minutes."

It turned out that the governor had gone on leave, but that he didn't need to be around for me to be released.

All I had left were the clothes that I was wearing. When I walked into the brightly lit room the reception officer was waiting for me, with an SO (senior officer.) My file was on the counter, with the licence authorising my release on the top.

"Morning," said the SO. "This isn't going to take long." He passed me my licence. "Read this and sign it." It was the basic life licence: report to your probation officer at agreed times; if you change jobs, addresses ... etc. The only bit that made me wince slightly was the bit that said that the licence would remain in force "indefinitely". It didn't stop me signing though.

Once that was done the reception officer got me to sign off my property cards, acknowledging that he had nothing left in his store that belonged to me, and handed over an envelope containing £46.75 discharge grant. The whole process took no more than 10 minutes. "Right then," said the SO. "That's all we want from you. Goodbye and good luck."

"Thanks," I said. I offered him my hand and he shook it. "Thanks for your good attitude while I've been here," I said. "It was much appreciated."

"You're welcome," he said.

The gate man already had the gate open for me. On my way out I nodded at him and he nodded back. For him it was just another day. For me, 20 years of a life inside was over. And that was it. Spat out, just like Heppy said. - Erwin James will continue writing fortnightly. His column will now be called A life outside.

By Erwin James posted 17 August 04


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