The back of the vehicle was not the ideal place to hold a conversation. Not only was it noisy from the big diesel engines, suffocating with the taint of warming urine and rocking around like a ship at sea, but the guy I was talking to was locked inside a very small box.
‘Conversation’ was a bit of an exaggeration, though. The man was talking at me rather than with me and this was likely because he’d just spent a considerable amount of his life as a prisoner, apparently often in solitary confinement. He had a name but his file in front of me had for convenience renamed him as HN204.
“After 30 days I thought I was going ‘stir’”, he opined. I couldn’t have agreed with him more because I had been doing this job for only a few months and already I was beginning to wonder what I had got myself into.
I was a Prisoner Custody Officer and my job was incredibly simple: pick up prisoners from a either a police station or a prison and convey them to a suitable court or even a different prison, as with my prisoner today. It didn’t take a degree, just a bit of common sense and a lack of olfactory senses. It certainly did not require anything bordering on humanity and that was just as well because many of my colleagues were eminently qualified in this regard.
“Guv!” shouted the prisoner a bit later on from his little cell, one of four in this vehicle, each one just big enough to accommodate a hard, plastic seat bolted to the floor but not quite big enough to stand up in.
I sighed, untangled myself from my own little seat at the front and tried to make my way down the row of cells. This in itself was a precarious undertaking because there were no handholds to speak of, no rungs or even bolts that might become nasty ligature points.
I peered through the little piece of hardened Perspex surrounded by hardened steel which was all that separated me and HN204. Black eyes peered back.
He was a career criminal, which is to say that he made a living from stealing and drugs, sometimes even creatively combining the two.
“You OK?” I shouted above the noise of the engine.
“Need a piss, Guv.”
I nodded wearily and stumbled into the locker that contained our meagre supply of ‘sanitary supplies’ which was a suggestively shaped cardboard tube that contained granules of a liquid absorbing chemical. This I pushed under the small gap at the base of the door and then I escaped back to reality.
I have never been a prisoner but it seemed to me that one of the first things a person lost, apart from freedom, was dignity. You had to ask to pee, to eat, to smoke, to read something (anything, please!) because for the next few hours you have nothing to do except look at a grey steel wall or through a darkened plastic window at a world you no longer have a place in.
And the question was important because of all the things one can lose, dignity hurts the most. It’s not something that is ripped from you, like a tooth, but it no longer bears any relation to you, doesn’t apply – Sorry, the computer says ‘No’.
But, of course, that is part of the price, surely? They say that repaying your debt to society is there in the small print on your life invoice. “Crime = 1; Payment: Loss of liberty for x years; Credit terms do not apply. We look forward to your repeat custom.”
The prisoner is no longer part of the race – The human race, that is.
Duhaime’s Law dictionary defines human dignity as ‘An individual or group's sense of self-respect and self-worth, physical and psychological integrity and empowerment.’ I think I can attest that not one of the people under my charge possessed these for the simple matter that they were daily reminded of their absence.
Just being in a prison you are reminded of the fact that you are no longer part of society. The walls and barriers are huge, spiky-topped edifices routinely patrolled by dogs the size of small ponies and with the belligerence of a hyena on acid. And that’s just in the courtyard. Inside, cells are organised into ‘wings’ where individuals may spend up to 23 hours a day. Wings with no ability to fly; doors firmly sealed against the world.
And yes, of course some people need to be locked up, sometimes for ever, and it is not my purpose to question the basic right to protect ourselves against them. Indeed, in many cases we must.
Yet when we have achieved that objective, when the deed is done, there is little thought given to what happens next. What will happen when that person is released in years to come, assuming they will ever be released?
Because the system we have imposed to strip away every last shred of dignity from another soul may have an unexpected outcome and it is not a desirable one. The man, or woman, who deems themselves of little value is not exactly going to come sprinting out of the gates on a mission to save the world. No, what they are going to do is immediately splash their small prison stipend on a very big drink. Then, with no money, unlikely job prospects and very likely a fractured family, they are going to go back to the only thing that’s certain in their world.
And so, on we go.
So, when HN204, real name John (maybe), finally stepped off the vehicle, securely handcuffed to my left wrist and said, “Cheers Guv,” I wanted to tell him something:
“Don’t be so obsequious. It’s your basic right to go to the toilet in some kind of privacy and certainly not to have to ask. And another thing, I’m not superior to you – I am undeserving of the title ‘Governor’ or its’ shortened honorific. I’m not in charge of your life!”
Although to an extent, at that time and in that place, I was.
Of course, I didn’t say any of this to him because now we marched into the prison to which he had been transferred, to be processed – a kind of factory for humans that made sure each ounce of hope was amputated.
My last view - before I got back into the vehicle, before I went back to my life where I could eat or even go to the bathroom when I wanted - my last view was of John, holding his newly issued prison uniform before him like a shield and looking down the long, steel clad corridor of his future. It was harshly illuminated but there was no light at the end of that tunnel.
Then he bowed his head and was gone.