|While the following article is not ostensibly related to miscarriages of justice, it does offer some insight into life in prison ....|
3 January 2000
Erwin James, who is serving a life sentence, on the dawn of the new millennium on the inside
In prison the prospect of a new year always generates a giddy sense of excitement. Whereas Christmas serves only to intensify the solitariness of it all - families missed, friends preoccupied - the advent of a new year brings new hope, and with it new dreams.
Everything good which never happened this year may just have a better chance of happening in the next one. And if nothing else it's another year over and we are still alive - still going strong. Well, most of us, anyway.
The days blend together here, all very much the same, but on New Year's Eve we were unlocked late, at 8.30am, to give the officers a lie-in. Lunch was the same as usual - boiled potatoes, steak and kidney pie - but we had exercise in the morning, rather than working or staying in our cells. The sky was fantastically blue and the sun glinted off the razor wire as we walked about in circles.
The highlight of the afternoon was a millennium quiz in the small dining room. It was won on the final question: 'Which Teletubby rides a scooter?' The answer, 'Po', secured five phone cards for Grede, the Open University student. Tolerance levels were high - lots of smiling, polite nods all around. Just before lock-up at 7pm the usual round of hand shakes and exchanges of goodwill took place.
So, then, to the real excitement. We were locked up alone in our cells at 7pm. I listened to my radio, tuned to Radio 4, 'the prisoner's friend', just waiting for the pips. At ten minutes to midnight every prisoner in the country must have been standing at the door to his cell, blunt instrument in hand. I clutched a coffee tin.
At midnight: bedlam. Chaos. Thunderous noise. Everyone banging on their doors together. It only lasts a couple of minutes, I suppose, but it seems to go on for an age. Someone somewhere was playing music - The 1812 Overture - though it was almost drowned out by the swearing, screaming and yowling. I think there were a couple of fires somewhere, as people burned their sheets.
On my first new year inside - in the early 80s - I promised myself I wouldn't do the banging. It seemed silly. 'But everybody does it,' said the man who lived in the cell next door to mine as we shuffled along in the breakfast queue. 'It's traditional,' he said.
I was in a London prison at the time: all steel gantries and prison officers who wore caps with peaks slashed low over noses. It was not an environment conducive to exuberant expression, unless of course you were being dragged kicking and screaming to the punishment block. And anyway, what if this chap was winding me up? After all we weren't exactly friends. Perhaps he was getting me at it - in the hope of providing himself with a smile at the appointed time. (Him: lying in bed chuckling to the chimes of Big Ben - Me: standing by my cell door waiting for 'the banging' to start, foolishly poised to join in.)
By 9 o'clock I was in bed. Sleep, dreams, respite - and then suddenly, noise - lots of noise. My eyes opened wide and stared into the darkness. I pressed the light button at the side of my watch. Twelve midnight.
I threw back the bed covers and ran to the door. Pressing my ear to the cold metal I listened in awe. The whole jail was vibrating as cell doors were battered mercilessly by all manner of blunt instruments. The noise was rising to thunderous levels as men by the score joined in.
With my heart pounding I rummaged blindly in a locker drawer, until my hand grasped a tin of pilchards. Within seconds I had launched my attack. Bang! Bang! Bang! Ignoring the shock to my hand and arm and using all my strength, I hammered harder. Bang! Bang! Bang! How good it felt. How liberating. How cathartic .
A couple of minutes later, save for the sporadic rantings of the more seriously disturbed, it was all over.
The following year I was allocated to a long-term jail where I was introduced to more exotic ways of seeing in the new year. Thus I discovered 'shrunken bread syndrome' - and its cause. Illicit homebrew. So much yeast was stolen from the kitchens during the weeks leading up to the end of the year that the bakers were only able to turn out feeble looking loaves barely half the normal size. 'Hooch parties' were all the rage in those days, and 'Hooch masters' paid handsomely for the yeast to make the alcohol. Up to 15 men at a time would squeeze into out-of-the-way cells and guzzle strange brews to their hearts content. No amount of booze could diminish the ritual door banging at midnight however.
New Year's Eve 1993 was precarious. The prison officers took the 'Hooch spin' (annual universal cell search) particularly seriously that year, and confiscated 24 gallons of 'Felons' Finest' from one wing. Uproar followed.
Eventually a delegation met with the wing governor and heatedly intimated that the wing might be destroyed if the booze was not returned forthwith. Clearly the message had been received, as when the wing was unlocked for evening association there in the corner of the games room, glistening with welcome, stood a wooden cart laden with every type of plastic container imaginable. The evening had been saved. (Of course cannabis users celebrated too, but their festivities tended to be rather on the quiet side, punctuated only by the odd giggling fit.)
The authorities have tightened up since then however, and substance abuse of any kind is no longer tolerated. But since the mandatory drug testing programme was introduced in 1994, the use of hard drugs has escalated. (Hard drugs stay in the body's system for a shorter time and so present the smallest risk of a positive test.) Consequently, sitting in a darkened cell with a couple of cohorts sniffing burnt smack (heroin) from the foil of a sweet wrapper seems to have replaced hooch-fuelled singalongs and dope induced catatonia as the most popular method of finding release from the pain of imprisonment these days.
But although some things may have changed, the end-of-year rituals remain the same. The same old resolutions are made: the gymnasium is always packed for the first week or so of the new year, but by the second week most aspiring athletes have returned to the safer state of lethargic apathy.
Smokers who want to give up bravely fail to buy tobacco on purpose knowing that the prison shop is going to be closed for two weeks. This is good news to their unscrupulous chums who buy extra, knowing that after the first week they'll be able to sell roll-ups for double the normal price.
It has to be said however: there seems to be no greater sense of excitement about the arrival of the year 2000 than there was about the arrival of 1999. The nation may be gripped by millennium fever but in here it's passed us by. People are disdainful of all the hype outside, resentful almost, as if it's been forced on them. On New Year's Day we had another late unlock at 9am, but when I came out five minutes later, there was no one around. People emerged slowly through out the morning. No sense of excitement.
During morning exercise, I walked with Stu, who we call the Guru. We had towels draped over our heads to protect us from the cold and from a distance we probably looked like a couple of monks. I asked him: 'What d'you make of this new millennium then?' And he said: 'Millennium. What millennium?' It summed up the prevailing attitude in here.
Still, a happy new year to you all. And OK, why not? I'll say it for the first time and the last: a happy new millennium to you all.