It’s why the opening scene from the BBC’s new and unflinching prison drama Time was so apposite. The look on Mark Cobden’s face (played by Sean Bean) as he sat on the bus perfectly encapsulated the fear I also felt. Because that’s the start of the prison journey which, I know firsthand, is a roller coaster of fear, misery, depression and hope. Emotions the show captures masterfully.
The chief protagonist, a bewildered English teacher caught in the maelstrom of incarceration in the UK, really mirrors the fearful incongruous prisoner I once was. I am the first banker to have been imprisoned in the Libor scandal. Recently released and still awaiting appeal, I was originally sentenced to 11 years in 2015. Of the five-and-a-half-years in custody, I spent over three years at the highest security level in the toughest establishments. From HMP Belmarsh and eventually on to open prison at HMP Ford for the final 18 months, I saw six prisons in total. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch episode two and three of BBC’s Time. The initial episode had evoked such emotions that I knew that the visceral realism of prison life would bring back my own traumas.
The show delves into the major elements of prison life, namely drug supply and use, prisoner hierarchy, marital breakdown and redemption. Time mirrors my lived prison reality to jarring effect. I was attacked in my cell, my marriage ended, and I witnessed hitherto non-drug takers descend into the pits of despair of addiction in attempt to escape the reality of prison life, then the subsequent deaths from overdose. Prison is indeed tragic.
Violence is everywhere and it’s cheap. A toothbrush melted with a lighter can have several razor blades embedded in it. Once a victim is slashed, the parallel wounds cannot be stitched. Scars from such attacks are a common sight in prison. “Snitches get stitches” is the refrain but those wounds cannot even have that treatment. Shanks, constructed from anything available, are common place and can be deadly. Several well placed blows are fatal. As shown in episode one of Time, kettles of boiling water mixed with sugar in order to stick to the skin and scar are thrown in the face—a quick but life-changing attack. Anything and everything can be a weapon. I recall the arrival of an air ambulance after an inmate had his throat slit with a tuna tin lid in the showers over a £20 cannabis debt. I will never forget seeing the blood as the officers instructed us to get back behind our doors. Then, of course, there are the old fashioned fists. I once lived next door to an inmate awaiting trial for allegedly beating someone to death in the showers of his previous establishment. When he commented to me that the noise from the BBC Radio 4 Today programme was too high, I turned the volume so low I could barely hear it within my own cell. I suppose some people don’t react well to the sound of Martha Kearney in the morning.
Sometimes the violence is random, but often it’s drug debt related. Violence can also simply be as stupid as saving face. Many times I would unintentionally cause offence thorough a perceived slight and inmate friends would subsequently de-escalate the situation without my even knowing. It was, I suppose, better that I remained oblivious to the potential danger.
Prison is a roller coaster of fear, misery, depression and hope
Occasionally the violence is related to your offence. Those convicted of sexual offences and offences against children and the elderly are usually kept separate from the general population as VPs (vulnerable prisoners) and incarcerated in separate prisons. Those who choose to brave normal prison are known as NONCEs (Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise). This is a perilous situation for the individual to find himself lest his true crime be uncovered. I witnessed the suicide of one such offender after his offence was uncovered and the subsequent and continual terror he was subjected to.
Sometimes the violence spills over from the “road” (outside the prison) and usually involves gangs and long held “beefs” (disagreements). I recall running on a treadmill in the gym with one such gang battle going on behind me. The adversaries were using dumbbells as weapons (which have on occasion proved fatal in prison). I couldn’t decide whether the safest course of action was to continue running or dismount and try to thread my way discreetly through the ongoing battle. I continued running until officers arrived, controlled the situation, and told me to move to a different room. I jogged along at 13 KPH watching the carnage in the mirror in front of me.
Finally, you are often subject to violence if you are a grass or an informant. This can be real or perceived. Rumours are rife in prison and quickly can assume a reality that bears no resemblance to the truth. As shown so accurately in Time, those given this label face continued and serious threat from other inmates. And so it was that I too found myself in this position when I arrived at a new prison three years into my sentence. The reality is that those who control the drug supply on the wing also control the wing. Ultimately, your protection comes not from staff but from fellow inmates. Upon my arrival at a high security prison early in my sentence I was assigned the protection of one such gigantic inmate by an officer on my first night. He knew then, as I do now, that the best way to keep me safe was to ensure the that the inmate with the most gravitas would be my protector. Quite why he agreed to look after me, I don’t know. My suspicions range from trying to curry favour with the officer to a more formal business arrangement that possibly existed in the form of drug supply lines. Either way, I had no problems whatsoever during the entirety of my stay there. A combination of my guardian angel, good friends and sensible management by the prison kept me safe. Therefore, arriving at a distant prison three years later, I was blasé about the dangers surrounding me. Becoming blasé in prison displays a heady sense of misguided hubris and so it proved.
It began when I was assigned an entirely unsuitable cell mate who ran a large scale drug dealing operation from the cell. I was instantly considered a threat to its continued operation. Accused of being an undercover “fed” (police officer) and of going through his belongings when he was absent from the cell, the situation continued to escalate. Unlike in my previous home, I had no one to vouch for me, no one to protect me and nowhere to turn. For the first time in my prison journey I was really scared. Things snowballed further when the rumours circulated the wing that I was a “rat”, fiction quickly became fact. I felt incredibly vulnerable, unable even to seek sanctuary in my own cell since my tormentor resided there. Now on a exclusively hostile wing, I felt I had nowhere to turn to but to the officers. As it happened this was a mistake. Asking to move wings I was accused of attempting to upgrade my “cell”. I was told: “this isn’t Butlins”. I was denied access to the safer custody team until I informed the officer of exactly what had happened. This was of course the exact thing I could not do, my status as a “rat” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sufficient tenacity on my part eventually led to a wing transfer that night. Out of frying pan and into the fire. The prison had moved me to the previous wing of my tormentor which was home to his county line gang members. Soon news of my status as “rat” made its way to my new wing and explicit threats were being made. I knew it was only a matter of time for the attack to come. Too afraid to even speak on the public phones to my family should I be overheard, I was stuck. As always my saviour came not in the form of the prison staff but rather a fellow inmate from my former prison who had travelled with me on the bus and I had seen in chapel on occasion. A Jamaican drug dealer with a formidable reputation, he witnessed the threats and dealt with the situation. I was safe. To this day I have no idea how he did it or what was said.
That I survived prison is a continual bewilderment to me
That I survived prison is a continual bewilderment to me. I bear no physical scars from my experience, but it left me with arguably far more problematical and irreparable damage. I missed five-and-half-years of my son’s life. The tiny three-year-old I left is now nine, still wrought with anxiety and in therapy because he is damaged too. The marriage I thought I would return to is gone. Very few relationships and marriages survive prison, mine was no exception. The hurt of the breakdown and the pain of knowing I missed so much of my son’s life, and the resultant impact on him, can never be undone regardless of my appeal outcome.
Time manages to capture this reality. Prisoners are not the only ones doing the time, those left outside are left with emotional wounds that also never heal. Thankfully, the show is ensuring the reality of prison in 21st century Great Britain is finally getting the attention it deserves, albeit in the form of a drama. Credit to writer Jimmy McGovern and the BBC, it was almost too real to watch.