When I was in my twenties, I spent some time in prison and I can honestly say it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life (that’s where the tenuous link to this ‘Education Issue’ ends). The first time I went inside the harsh grey walls of Oxford Prison, I was scared to death. As I waited outside the main gate I could hear the jangling of keys and the scraping of steel bolts as the prison wardens on the other side prepared to allow me and my group in. Finally, half of the huge double door that was the main gate creaked open and we were ushered silently into the secure area between the main gate and the second gate that led into the prison. Once we were all inside, the main gate was locked again and the wardens searched us and did a roll call to check our names. Then they counted us several times before the huge second gate was unlocked and we were escorted into the main prison courtyard. Once inside, we were completely in dark shadow and surrounded by high grey walls which blended almost perfectly into the grey sky above. We were marched quickly across the cold cobbled courtyard to the inner building while the prisoners inside shouted obscenities at us from their cell windows high up in the walls, those facing the courtyard glaring at us directly through the bars, the others straining to see us in the reflections of small mirrors they were holding out through their windows. They were on lockdown for our arrival and they weren’t happy about it. We were met inside the main building by the fearsome looking Chief Warden.
We were on-duty firemen and we were there to inspect a prison cell that had been set on fire by one of the inmates (what were you thinking?). This is required by law and an official fire report must be written even though the prison wardens are trained to be self-sufficient and fight fires themselves rather than waiting for the fire service to clear security. As the Chief Warden marched us through the cream-coloured stone corridors of the ancient building, I remember making myself a promise that I would never do anything that could possibly lead to me being incarcerated in a place such as this. It was cold and there was nothing soft or fluffy anywhere. Everything was made of stone or steel and as we passed some empty cells even the beds looked hard and the blankets looked coarse. As we approached the solitary confinement block where the fire had taken place we could smell burnt paper and cloth and we could hear the prison’s worst and most violent inmates yelling and screaming abuse. As our escorts unlocked the heavy steel door, the yelling and screaming got louder and my heartbeat got faster. After we entered, we were told to wait while other wardens “secured the block”.
As we watched, four very large men wearing white coats over their warden’s uniforms entered the block holding small white canvas bags with red crosses on them. Two other wardens opened the nearest cell door, the four large men entered and the door was closed behind them. The yelling and screaming got louder for a short while, then subsided, then stopped altogether. A few seconds later there was a knock from inside the cell, then the two wardens outside looked in through the peephole before opening the door. The four large men emerged slightly ruffled, then went to the next cell and repeated the procedure, then to the next and the next until the entire block was quiet except for one particularly noisy individual at the end. We were then invited to do our inspection of the cell where the fire had occurred.
We could see a few burned pages from a book and a piece of charred blanket on the floor of the cell. The Chief Warden told us the inmate had set fire to the items as a protest and asked if we would like to interview him ourselves – they were holding him for us in the next cell just in case. As soon as we said “GOD NO!” the four men in white coats entered the cell next door and the yelling and screaming got louder for a few seconds before suddenly stopping altogether. A minute later two of the burly men marched the now silent prisoner down the corridor by his armpits, his feet dragging behind him. The other two asked the Chief Warden if there would be anything else before following.
As the atmosphere eased I looked at one of the wardens and started to open my mouth to ask the obvious question, but before I could speak he fixed me with a cold menacing stare and shook his head slightly. Stay honest, my friends. You DO NOT want to go there.