Mahatma Gandhi had written his autobiography which he titled – The Stories Of My Experiments With Truth. I have not read the book; however, the title is fantastic.
A close friend and his employers certainly did perform several experiments with the truth. Unfortunately, someone else’s belief and perception of the truth prevailed and our friend has been incarcerated in the UK. His appeal challenging conviction is pending.
I am not getting into the rights wrongs and details of the “crime”.
The purpose of this post is to tell you of our visit to his prison to meet him.
We have never been to a prison. The closest I have been to a prison is driving past Arthur Road in Mumbai. This was going to be quite an experience. I had seen plenty of films and was rather influenced by the images of terrible prison scenes shown in the movies. It was not something I was particularly looking forward to.
Once our visit to UK was finalised we set about figuring out how we could visit our friend. Our friend was in HMP Highpoint North. We were simply staggered at the amount of information available on the internet. Her Majesty’s Prison Service is responsible for running prisons in the UK. They have a website. Each prison has its own website. The sites provide all manner of information on the prison. This ranges from the type of prison, its background, its facilities, how to visit and so on and so forth.
As far as visits go, you could make a booking online to visit a prisoner during visiting hours. Visiting hours for HMP Highpoint North were Friday to Sunday from 2 pm to 4 pm. The prisoner has to accept your request, and subject to some conditions your visit is confirmed. We were to visit him on Sunday. Once done we booked tickets on a train from London to Cambridge – a 60 minute ride, booked a local taxi to fetch us from Cambridge Station and take us to HMP Highpoint North and get us back. All this was achieved online except the taxi which we got the details online but reserved by making a phone call.
We arrived at the prison, and went to the visitor’s centre where we were processed. Our ID’s [passport and driving license] were examined and we were given a wristband like the one you get when attending Rock Music concert and were told to wait. Our pockets were to be emptied and watches removed. We could carry up to 10 GBP in coins [no notes].
While waiting, I read the various notices pasted on the walls. One caught my attention – kissing is allowed only during the start and end of the visit. I was staggered at the enormity of this statement on so many levels. Some that come to my mind, sexual tensions of being separated from ones partner [male or female], and how really different we Indian’s are from the Europeans in our behaviour. Kissing in India???
The desk in the waiting room had several copies of a publication called “Inside Time”. This was published specifically for inmates. I was intrigued and picked it up. After the first page I was hooked. The issue was filled with letters written by inmates on various aspects of prison life. One letter pointed out something that was so typically Indian that I smiled. Certain categories of prisoners have TV’s in their rooms where they can watch movies and TV channels that are free on air. They can also watch DVD’s. However DVD’s that are classified as 18+ are not permitted. Apparently on inmate ordered “Alien” on DVD to be told he could not have it as it was classified 18+. The irony was that “Aliens” was shown on TV. So he questioned the logic.
The gates opened at 2 pm and after a frisking we were led to a large hall with tables. On one side of the table was a yellow chair where the prisoner sat and on the other were blue chairs where the visitors sat. Everything was bolted to the floor. Friend was there sitting in a yellow chair. Hugs and shake hands and we started talking. Soon friend said that could we buy for him, from the snack counter that had opened in the hall, some chicken nuggets, an orange drink, a packet of crisps and Danish. He said that he craved protein. I got him 6 pieces of chicken nuggets which he devoured. So that is what the 10 GBP in coins was for, to buy treats from the snack counter.
Looking around it was indeed disturbing seeing the fellow inmates and their visitors. Prisoners are categorised from A to D, with A being those who are most likely to escape and D being those in an open prison. Friend was C and HMP Highpoint North is a prison for C category prisoners. Of course within each category there are several grades. Friend was entitled to a single occupancy cell, common showers and was out of his cell free to roam around almost all thru the day. He had a TV and a DVD on order. He could wear his own clothes and taught in the prison school. He worked out in the Gym every evening and could borrow books from the prison library.
We asked him who his fellow prisoners were. A large number were in for financial matters, ranging from insider trading, to typical Asian corner store owners who never paid taxes. Also in were two film makers who had done some sort of TDS fraud. Some were typical clichéd prisoners – black, young and drug dealers. Visitors were somehow clearly differentiated. The clichéd black drug dealers had a wife and several children visiting them – several children each! Almost all the clichéd black drug dealers were heavily muscled and bearded. The others had far older visitors and probably just one child – at least one came for the prison visit. Friend who teaches math [maths if you are British] at prison told us of how sad the state of education is for the blacks. These were the bulk of his class. Multiplication was incomprehensible to them. The metric system with conversion of millimetres to centimetres and meters was beyond them. They just could not get the concept. One student was 23 and had been in prison 21 times with his last sentence being 5 years of which he had completed 3 years. He wanted to learn math so he could be better at his primary occupation – drug dealing!
The high point of the week for friend was getting the TV Guide. He would mark up the good programs and then this marked up version would be shared by the other inmates who were too lazy to do this. The other high point was choosing their meals. They could choose one dish from a choice of 5. That night, he informed us, was the best dessert – Apple Crumble with Custard!
Despite all that I have written, life in HMP Highpoint is no picnic. Prison life is really tough, fine it may not be physically tough, but to be put away, out of reach from life and in the company of such a different group, 24X7 for years on end is horrible.
Of course things were not like this when friend was convicted. Initially, he spent 44 days in HMP Wandsworth in London. This is a notoriously bad prison where really violent and hardened criminals are jailed. Coupled with the bad fellow prisoners you had an old prison with consequently bad facilities for prisoners. Friend said sleeping at night was impossible because of the continual noise from inmates shouting and screaming. Violence was rife. One inmate jumped of a higher floor inside the prison and killed himself. Life was bad for those 44 days. Then Friend was shifted to relative comfort to HMP Highpoint.
Soon the allotted two hours were over. It was time to leave. We went out and the courteous prison guards, quite unlike from the sadist portrayed on film, almost all said goodbye to us. We said bye and thank you as we filed out of the prison. Out taxi driver was waiting for us to take us to the Cambridge Station.
The whole experience for us was unsettling to say the least and emotional, not burst into tears emotional, but emotional and deeply upsetting.
After we left and had some time to think on the 60 minute train ride back from Cambridge to London a few thoughts crossed my mind. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Do not commit a crime. Prison, however good, is no fun. Your removal from society is so drastic and can be for so long that it will definitely change you. The change in your life is really really huge. Not seeing anyone of friends and family, no photos, no computers no internet none of the things we take for granted are available to you.
2. Not referring to friend, but if you have committed a crime, a serious crime such as drug dealing, murder etc. should you be entitled to facilities such as TV, phone calls and so on? I am confused. A prisoner is a human being but, at the same time he is a criminal?
3. A prisoner, like you and me, may suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure or may be vegetarian or eat Halal food. Prison food in the UK is, by law, required to comply with such dietary restrictions. Can you imagine this in India?
4. Please do understand what we had done. We had booked our prison visit online from Mumbai, we booked our transport to and from London and the Prison also online and managed to do all this without a glitch and on time. Frankly, going to visit friend in prison was ultimately as simple as going to, say, Disneyland, albeit with a security check. We even bought food inside – chicken nuggets. Once again I ask, can you imagine this in India?
5. Seeing the number of Asian i.e. Desi shopkeepers incarcerated for tax fraud was shocking to me. If this were to happen in India, I cannot imagine how many millions of people would be in jail only for this one crime which we take so utterly lightly.
We have a long long way to go.