Jane Corry on her night in prison:
I’d been working at a high security male prison for just over a year when the governor made an unexpected suggestion. How would I like to spend the night in prison as part of a charity fund-raising event?
‘I can tell you straight,’I wanted to say. ‘I don’t like the idea at all.’
But because the charity was me (in other words to help pay my salary), I felt I had no option but to agree.
It felt very odd to pack a bag for a prison sleepover. But on the other hand this is just what people on bail have to do. They are usually warned before a court hearing to pack a bag in case they are sent down. My case consisted of a book, clean underwear, a change of clothes, a torch and my laptop. After being examined by the sniffer dogs,was allowed to keep the first three. However, the torch was confiscated. In prison, all kinds of items are seen as being unsafe. Apparently illegal things can be done with batteries. Amazingly I got special permission for the laptop as it wasn’t connected to the Internet.
After the dog sniffing, I had to sit in a special chair which photographed my insides. This was to check I wasn’t carrying drugs. Then an officer I showed me to my cell. It was about the size of a university student room but the bed was quite high and very narrow. The pillow was as hard as a stone. I am not exaggerating. There were no curtains. There was a cardboard box under the bed for my belongings and, rather surprisingly, a rather useful desk. No loo or wash-basin. If I needed either during the night, I would have to press the bell. I got the feeling that this would be considered a great inconvenience to the officer on duty.
Supper was very early about 430 and I ate with the prisoners. Food consisted of sandwiches or chicken nuggets. I’m a horribly fussy eater and didn’t care for either. I knew some of the men as they were in my writing classes. They were all very charming and, I think appreciative of the fact that I could finally see what their life was like in the evening.
To my surprise, we were all allowed to watch television in quite a cosy lounge. However at 9 o’clock, we were told it was bedtime. There were a few jokes about where ‘Miss’ was going to sleep. (In prison all women are known as ‘Miss’, regardless of their marital status). I was led through a set of double doors, each of which was locked behind me and then into my pad (prison-speak for cell). I began to feel extremely claustrophobic.
Through the open curtains I could see lights ahead from another block. I desperately wanted to ring my newish husband but you’re not allowed mobiles in prison. You have to queue up for payphones during the day and early evening. It was far too late to try and ring out now. Nor did I feel sleepy.
So I did the only thing I could do. Out came my laptop and down came my experiences so far. When it got to about 1 am in the morning I heard footsteps plodding along the corridor outside. There was a knock on the door.
‘What is that tapping noise?’ demanded a voice. I explained I was typing. There was a grunt but the footsteps then went away,leaving me in peace.
I eventually finished and dozed off in a very restless sleep, unable to get comfortable because of the narrow bed and hard pillow. In the morning I could not wait for the door to be opened. I dashed to the loo but declined the offer of a shower. This was partly because one of my men had written about prisoners leaving razorblades on the ground. Intentionally.
All I wanted to do was go home.I don’t normally take very long baths but on that morning I sat in mine for over an hour. I felt I needed to wash away the night. Nothing horrible had happened. No one had threatened me. And everyone had been perfectly pleasant.
Yet I felt quite shaken. Why? Because I’d felt trapped. There is something very scary about not being able to get out of a room or not being allowed to speak to your loved ones when you want.
And that’s exactly why I’m glad I’ve spent a night in the prison. It helped me to understand what was in the minds of my students. I hadn’t, thank heavens, committed the crimes that they had. But nor am I perfect. As one of the officers said, ‘There but by the grace of God, go all of us.’
Still, at least I wasn’t locked up next to Lily, Ed, Carla or Joe – all characters in ‘My Husband’s Wife’. Now that really would mean trouble……
My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry is published by Penguin