Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shiny Toilet Paper

My first cell was on the top floor of the hospital wing, facing across the front lawn towards the Gatehouse. This may have been because of my age, a governor tucking me away out of sight; Or it may have been the operation of the practice of the day, which was to put murder-remands on the hospital wing for some time. A large proportion of suicides are comprised of those charged with murder.

The cell contained what I would learn are the furniture staples - a metal bed, one chair, one locker, one plastic pisspot. A large room, ten feet in length, maybe six wide, and the window was thankfully tall. Barred, made of a metal lattice that contained small squares of glass. The door, like most hospital doors, contained a barred hatch which opened and closed with the temperament of the screw on duty. The cell was one of a row of half a dozen, one being a padded cell. Opposite was the Recess, the communal loo with slop-out sluice and bath.

Without realising it in the moment, each of these steps in the process - from entering the gatehouse to the shutting of the first cell door - shrank my horizons. Emotionally, I was severed from my previous existence by the shock of what I had done. Mentally, nothing outside of the perimeter fence entered my head. Physically, my eyes began to adjust to the reality of focusing only as far as the next locked gate.

Within the hour I had been swept up and dropped in another prison. The woman governor came to my cell and told me that she wasn't prepared to hold me in her prison because of my age and I was moved up the road to a large city centre local nick for adults. Avoiding Reception, I was allocated directly to the hospital and placed in a strip cell. This is an empty concrete box, a canvas blanket on the floor as a bed, a pisspot, and given a tear-proof canvas smock to wear. Within a few hours the hospital cleaner was opening the hatch in my door, trying to persuade me to expose myself for cigarettes.

I was left alone for a few of days, banged up 24 hours a day. Each evening a screw would come to the hatch and offer me a sleeping draught, which I always declined. Did they honestly believe that Largactyl would expunge the turmoil of guilt and confusion?

My age must have caused some minor problems, even if isolating me in a strip cell wasn't one that troubled the bureaucratic mind. They were obliged to ensure I receive a minimum number of hours of education and so for an hour or so each day a table was placed across the doorway of the strip cell, and a teacher sat on the outside. I sat there, dressed in my canvas smock - "monkey suit" - pretending to care. Not a single word or image from those sessions comes to my mind.

If only I had realised at the time, this situation held a profound insight into Prison Service mentality. It was illegal to hold a juvenile in that prison; it was unlawful to throw me in a strip cell. But despite this entire disregard for law, they took the time to ensure they complied with the Education Act. Perhaps all total institutions have this schizophrenia. After all, many of the people murdered at Auschwitz had a properly prepared death certificates, all nice and legal. Perhaps the bureaucratic mentality has a universal character, inevitably stripping away the humanity of the individuals who comprise the cogs in the machine.

After a few days, I was returned to the remand centre and back to the initial cell. At least I had clothing, a bed and a window. The rhythm of the day was simple and repetitive but contained no solace or barrier against its reality. A light was set into the wall next to the bed, and was left burning all night. At 7.30 we were awoken by a screw slamming the bolt on the door. Then slop-out; carrying the pisspot to the recess (communal toilet) opposite my cell to empty. Breakfast of porridge and toast was slid, vertically, through the barred hatch. Then you sit and wait.

For what? An empty room contains few diversions. For the next meal, the next head-count, the next... anything. In our case, it was waiting for the screws to switch on the radio. Being the hospital wing, a concession to infirmity was made by having a radio speaker set in the wall above the door. A single radio station was piped through from the control box in the office downstairs. Depending on age and interest, the day was made lighter or heavier by which station the screws selected - Radio 1 or Radio 2. At the other end of the day, huge anticipation was generated by the opening bars of the introduction to the John Peel programme. The radio was meant to be turned off at 10pm, and so if we heard the complete introduction it meant that the night patrol were doing us a real favour in leaving it on for an extra hour or so.

Such are the tiny events that become significant in the barren wasteland of confinement.


  1. This is a very moving piece and will make a brilliant episode in your autobiography Ben.

    There is currently a very determined campaign going on from parents of young people who get locked up in adult mental health wards, and it really is an unsuitable place for them to be. There certainly used to be places for minors but that does seem to have changed in recent years.

    The last time I was placed in a psychiatric unit myself, ( about seven years ago) there was a young sixteen year old girl there who came to my notice when I was having an almighty bust up with the deputy manager, she came out to help me fight him, bless her.

    I felt so sorry for her, I knew she shouldn't be in there, but I couldn't take on her injustices as well at that time while I was quite poorly myself.

    Every evening she would put on her PJ's and try to mix with us adults, it was a strain all round and most nights she would end up crying, saying that no-one loved or wanted her.

    I think about her often and just hope she feels better than she did seven years ago when she was so badly placed among us adults with mental health issues, and I would also love to thank her for helping me fight my corner that day ( although, dear girl just wanted to fight someone, anyone and I can't say I blame her with the way she was treated)!

  2. This is appalling treatment for a juvenile. It wouldn't happen today...would it?

  3. Funny thing is that in the private sector it isn't allowed to happen. Take nursing homes, a private nursing home is registered to take a type of patient, say elderly mental illness. They cannot take a 16 year old because the regulators will kick their arse and revoke their licence for breach of registration. Yet the public sector can stick anyone in the most grossly unsuitable place without so much as a whisper against them. What we need are independent private bodies to monitor sectors so that everyone has to comply with the rules and this isn't allowed to happen anymore.

  4. It is the starvation of funding into the public sector that is the problem. In mental health, it would be a fatal mistake to mix the young with the elderly, and to my knowledge this does not happen, although it has been talked about.

    Due to acute shortages in facilities for the mentally ill, there has been some mixing of juveniles with adults, which as I have said is provoking a very angry reaction from the parents of the young people having to endure life on adult wards.

    Just having private sector provision would be a complete nightmare, as it is already with many people unable to afford the cost of the private sector and councils and such like refusing to foot the bill for care needs.

    Also, wages and conditions are undermined in some places, making the delivery of care sporadic.

    Public services are generally better all round if they were not grossly underfunded. There is more consistency and wages and conditions can be properly negotiated via the unions.


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