Bleak house

The Dickensian image of Feltham Young Offenders Institute is slowly improving after years of suicides, brutality and government reports. But the scars remain. Life inside Feltham still obsesses this former inmate, who spoke to David Cohen. Photographs by Wayne Tippetts
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Paul steps out in his collar, tie and fake crocodile-leather shoes. He looks cool, sharp, sophisticated even, except for the piece of bloody tissue dangling from his chin. Shaving, he explains, stroking his smooth, pretty-boy face, is something he hasn't quite got the hang of yet. Paul is only 20, somewhere between a boy and a man, but he already has a criminal record. As a teenager, he twice did time for theft (14 months in all) at Feltham Young Offenders Institute in Middlesex, a prison for boys under the age of 21.

Since he got out, Paul claims to have gone straight. Well, relatively. At the Chinese restaurant where we meet, he steals the chopsticks and nags his girlfriend to slip them into her handbag. She refuses, and tells him off for being a child.

Civvy life, he admits, "has taken some adjusting to", and he can still get a little paranoid. We are 15 minutes into the interview which, as agreed, I am recording (my tape recorder is lying on the table between us), when suddenly, and quite bizarrely, he jumps up and starts frisking me and checking under the table. "I don't trust you, you're wired," he says wildly.

"But Paul," I reply, brandishing my tape recorder, "why would I need to be wired if I've got this?" For a moment, he looks confused. "I trust no one. I can't even trust myself," he says. "I need a spliff, man. Go on, talk, ask me questions."

So this is Paul's story:

"On my second night in Feltham, a boy got raped in the cell next to me. I could hear the sound of flesh banging on flesh, and he was screaming and whimpering like a girl. My cell mate was going, `Oh my God', and I was pounding the wall, shouting `What's going on?' I felt sick... frightened... my stomach was turning. There wasn't a screw in sight. I wanted to go home. I was 17 and no innocent, but I'd never witnessed anything as disgusting as that.

My mum and dad split up when I was eight, and I went to live with my dad in a one-bedroom council flat. The reason I lived with Dad is that Mum was always out working - she was a cleaner and started work at 3am - whereas I knew where to find Dad: around the corner, in the local betting office. He was a compulsive gambler, but otherwise he was an OK dad - he only beat me when I was bad. He drank too much, and now the doctors say he's too far gone and he's going to die. Which is too bad. We're not close any more, but when I was a kid I tried to be close to both my parents. I felt unloved, and turned to drugs to be a part of something.

I smoked weed from the age of 10, and broke my virginity when I was 13. Me and my friend fucked this 16-year-old fat girl. She had tyres and I had premature ejaculation.

After that, I was always on the make for drugs and casual sex. One day, I saw this man on the estate smoking and smiling and I thought: what sweet- smelling thing is making a man smile like that? I took a few pulls. I was 15 and I'd had my first taste of crack.

I started a business selling weed to my classmates during break. When teachers gave me a hard time, I smashed up their cars, stabbed their tyres, smashed the windows, cut the bodywork. I was never caught. The school sent letters complaining about my general behaviour and suspending me, but I tore them up before my parents saw them. When Mum found out, she was crying, and she said: `Oh baby, I trusted you. I thought you were a good boy'. I was crying, too. But by then it was too late.

I began breaking into fruit machines in order to pay for my crack habit. From there it escalated to house and commercial burglary. When I was 17, an unhappy customer must have ratted on me, and the police picked me up for handling stolen computers.

My parents didn't come to court, but I didn't mind. I pleaded guilty. They clapped me in handcuffs, locked me in a van, and drove off at high speed. When I got to Feltham, I had to put on a blue-striped shirt, grey trousers and grey shoes. Prisoner's clothes.

I was put in a four-foot-by-four cell with two single beds cemented to the floor, a toilet with a flimsy half-door covering it, a basin, a central fluorescent light and a pipe that ran through the cell. On the wall, there was a small, barred-up window, and on the outside more bars and a metal cage. I could hear ducks and geese through the window because Feltham used to be a farm. At night, inmates would kick their doors and scream and bang on the water pipe that ran through every cell.

My cell mate, a Pakistani boy in for ABH [actual bodily harm], was a safe dude and we got on okay. We were banged up for 23 hours in this cell, with 60 minutes out for what they call `association', to watch telly, play pool, shower, run around. That was our solitary hour of freedom, but it was double-edged - you had to be wary of some boys, like the ones who had done the rape.

Once, I fouled someone during football and he punched me in the face, so I punched him in the head and the screws broke it up. Another time, I caught a boy in my cell trying to steal my biscuits and drilled him. But usually I kept a low profile.

The food was terrible, and I got diarrhoea. Later, an inmate who worked in the kitchen told me that they did disgusting things to the food. He said that he shat in the soup and it just dissolved, and that others would piss, spit or put glass in it. I found stones in my food, sometimes.

After two months, I was let out and moved back with Dad. Friends and family told me to behave, but being inside had made me appreciate my freedom, and I just smoked weed and enjoyed life. I was still on the crack and needed money. Within a few months, the police caught me with stolen laptops worth about pounds 10,000, and I was back in Feltham, this time with a two-year sentence for theft.

They put me on a different wing and, because I was no longer on remand, I got two hours' association instead of one. During the other 22 hours, I did press-ups and read Donald Goines, one of America's best-selling authors - dead now - who wrote about pimps, whores and pushers. Being locked up for so long made me depressed and even more anti-authority and anti-society than ever. But there were enjoyable times, like when there were drugs on the wing and I'd go back to my cell, have my dinner and share a spliff. A lot of the screws are gay, and some would give us drugs if we did them favours. I was not one to do that. Other screws brought us drink, weed and hash in return for valuables like watches. They were totally corrupt.

We had one woman screw who used to fetch my food tray, and through her shirt I could see her breasts and tits, and shit. While I was lying on the bed, she'd lift the tray with her foot and I could see her knickers. The way she talked to me and touched me, and the smell of her perfume... nothing ever happened, but it wound me up, man.

My fellow inmates were in for everything from murder to theft. We all got on, except for the guys who had raped. Ordinary murder was all right because maybe it had been a mistake, but rape disgusted us because it could have been our mum or our girlfriend. The screws let on if someone was in for rape, and on the way to dinner everyone would rush them and beat them up. Our main topics of conversation were girls and crime. I learnt new techniques, like how to glide off door locks using a plastic bottle, and how to `creep' - break into houses while the people are in.

Some days, I got splitting headaches. The doctors were wary of giving tablets because some inmates ask for pills for the buzz, and once they're addicted, they're fucked. Every morning, the nurse would come round with a tray of little bottles of different colour juice and these guys would go nuts until they had had their medication. Then they were quiet.

After one year inside, they handed me back my civvies. I walked through the first reception gate, the next reception gate, and then the big, brown gate opened and - waa! - I was out. In the car park, and free. I'd never thought that day would come. I walked to the bus stop, caught the Hoppa to the train station, and that night I drank myself silly.

I was 19, and free. Prison had been good for me in one way: it had broken my crack habit. But life on the outside has been hard. After keeping my own company for so long, I lost my confidence.

I've had three jobs since I got out - barman, fork-lift driver and labourer. They always ask if I have a criminal record, and I always lie. None of the jobs have lasted. I get bored and start pissing about. My aim is to get my GCSEs, then do a managerial course and become a manager. I want to settle down, get married, have kids and live like a normal person. The stretch inside has calmed me. I have a girlfriend who keeps me on the straight and narrow. I still find it hard to trust people. Like, how do I know you won't stitch me up, and mention my surname in the article? Don't mention it. If you do, I'll kill you"