Austerity? Try telling that to Chris: Jim has been in prison for 10 years; here he recounts the realities of life inside

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AFTER 10 years in a variety of British prisons, I have been very interested to read that society is now contemplating making prison life 'austere'. I do not know who decided prisoners needed austerity, but I'm sure he or she has no real perception of what prison life is actually like.

I had a friend once, Chris, who was serving a life sentence for murder. He was about 30, with thick, dark brown hair which he always kept in a crew-cut (for reasons of hygiene, he said).

Chris's hobby was making soft toys and in this he was expert. Every toy was hand-stitched with double- strength cotton. He took great care to make sure any eyes or paws were safe. Most he gave away to charities as raffle prizes or as gifts to children's homes (in which he had spent most of his childhood).

I remember him telling me one day during the morning exercise period that he had given one of his soft toys to his probation officer because, 'she's a good lass and she comes all the way doon heea ta see me'.

I asked Chris about his family. He told me his 'Da was deed' and his 'Mam didna want ta know'. It seemed so sad to me that those he loved were not able to enjoy the pleasure of receiving one of his soft toys. He had made several for me, which I had given to my family, and asked only that I provide the materials and that he be allowed to keep any surplus.

Most prisoners live in quite sparse accommodation; Chris's cell was spartan.

He scrubbed his grey lino floor daily. He did not have a bedside rug, though they were allowed. His bed was always made long before the cell door was opened in the mornings. There were no curtains above his window. He liked the freshness of the morning light, he said. (His window was always open the maximum six inches, come rain or shine.) He had a wooden hard- backed chair and a small blue Formica-topped table on which he wrote the occasional letter to his probation officer and did most of his sewing. In the corner behind the cell door he had another table where he kept his toiletries neatly laid out on top. The shelf underneath held his grey plastic wash-bowl which he took to the recess each morning before breakfast and filled with cold water for his 'strip-wash'.

His daily working hours were spent in the prison engineering workshop. His work entailed turning pieces of metal into iron filings, but he was always conscientious and never late. He was resigned to his existence and I admired his rigid self-discipline.

We had some good talks during our walks around the exercise yard. I remember the day I told Chris I was being transferred to a dispersal prison (a high security unit for long-termers that tends to provide better conditions). His face lit up at the thought of my 'progressive move'. He said: 'I fancy that place meself, maybe I can come doon and join you there]' I said he hoped he would.

I always chose my associates very carefully, and since I'd had some military experience, I could relate to the importance that Chris placed on a disciplined life. I never knew any details about the murder he had committed, I only knew he was sorry and that he was living his life in the most decent way he could.

Anyway, I was transferred and spent the next three years in my new location.

I never wrote to Chris and I never heard from him. Prison friendships are like that. You get to know people in one establishment, then you are transferred and make new acquaintances. But I often thought of Chris, just fleeting thoughts; wondering how he was, hoping he had 'progressed' like me.

One lunchtime lock-up period, there was a banging on my cell door. I put down my pen and went to the door. A voice outside asked, 'Did I remember Chris X at Wakefield?' The voice then said he had a message for me: the previous week Chris had been found hanging from the bars of his cell window.

I thanked him for the message and then sat down on the edge of my bed. The image of Chris hanging from the curtainless window in his spotlessly clean cell with its grey scrubbed floor and blue Formica-topped tables was vivid in my mind, and my eyes welled. To die in such a way, in such a place, with contrition as your only companion, seemed so heart-wrenchingly sad and pathetic.

Chris died two-and-a- half years ago. His situation was not an isolated case. As the debate about the treatment of prisoners and prison regimes groans on, I would like to pass a message on to society: please, 'austere' does not work.