Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A conversation across a wall

Contrasts: local community festival and a Victorian prison
"Fenian bastard!" "Irish scum!" Such were the thoughts offered to me by a resident of HMP Wormwood Scrubs this morning as I jogged down towards the walls, coming off the Scrubs where I usually do two or three early morning runs a week. It's never happened before, and I just raised a hand (no, not like that) to acknowledge him. Don't know why, just didn't feel right to ignore it.

I've always looked at those windows and wondered what sort of personal battles lay behind them, what struggles for sanity were taking place amid what must be the relentless monotony, punctuated by sparks of violence. I had a glimpse of that monotony when we were using the maternity unit at next door Queen Charlotte's hospital - the delivery rooms overlook the prison yard, and all you can see are men with different coloured jumpsuits pushing what seemed like a lot of wheelie bins in different directions.

So back to this morning. I was running in a Celtic shirt which would account for the selection of insult, so full marks for observation from the prisoner, who clearly does not suffer from any vocal chord issues. He was still banging on at me as I ran off the Scrubs and down a street towards East Acton tube! A couple of the residents I passed just rolled their eyes in sympathy, they'd heard all this before.

And that was that. A brief bit of human interaction separated by high walls and security fences, not to mention barred windows and a very different experience of life. I couldn't see him but he could obviously see me. He might be eating breakfast now telling his mates, a piece of forbidden communication with the outside world that counts as a victory against the system. But I can't help trying to picture what his world must be like, and how he sees things. Did a prison officer bang on the door and tell him to shut up? Was a cell mate egging him on? Is he one of the many inmates in the prison system with serious mental health issues, but with no facility able to take him? And what goes through their heads when they see local people coming together and having fun right in front of them? Maybe the sight of me running where I wanted and when I wanted was what had really upset him. Or maybe he was just having a laugh.

It's a strange old thing to have on your doorstep, a great hulking Victorian prison, the insides of which you could have got a good idea of by watching Lifers on Channel 4 last night. You can watch it here online.

They're part of the Bush as much as you or I are, and we saw here how they have their own dramas inside too. In fact it's probably one of the most intense theatres of real-life drama for miles around. But it's all behind those imposing walls, and apart from a fleeting glimpse every now and again, it's all as if they weren't really there at all.

1 comment:

  1. I've been inside the Scrubs quite a few times and, say what you like, it's not as bad as Wandsworth.