The author of this article is a life-sentenced prisoner serving a minimum tariff of 13 years, who communicates with Urban Times via letters which are transcribed to be published online. He describes Notes From The Other Side of The Wall as a kind of ‘Blogumentary’, offering a unique and topical insight into prison as a microcosm of society. Danny Cash is a pseudonym.
The pages of the monthly prisoners’ journal Inside Time are often brimming with correspondence from cons bemoaning some aspect of the prison system or another. Sometimes the issues raised by correspondents are valid, sometimes they aren’t. However, one thing they always are is susceptible to retaliation. Not necessarily retaliation from the correspondent’s fellow cons, or offended prison officers or even capricious parole boards, but from tabloid journalists with an axe to grind.
Recently, for example, there have been problems here with our evening meals being served at a sufficiently hot temperature. It may sound trivial, but trust me, it’s not good being locked in a cell for twelve hours or more without a hot meal inside you.
Tepid suppers irritated most of us, but they absolutely infuriated Rusty, who felt that he was entitled to at least one hot meal each day. He followed through the internal complaints procedure only to be told variously at each juncture that he was over-reacting about the problem, that he was free to use the wing’s communal microwave oven to reheat his food and that no one else had complained so perhaps there wasn’t a problem at all. In reality, everyone else was already complaining–through Rusty.
“What I’d do Rusty, mate, is put in a formal complaint to the Governor.”
“I’d contact the Ombudsman, that’s what I’d do.”
“I’d get your solicitor on it.”
Rusty became their champion, carrying the full weight of their collective expectations on his diminutive shoulders. After finally exhausting the internal complaints procedure, Rusty did indeed write off to the Ombudsman. As he saw it, his cause was just and the Ombudsman would surely have to rule in his favor. The Ombudsman, unfortunately, felt differently and did not rule in Rusty’s favor.
Poor Rusty was devastated. Disappointment hung in the air around him like a bad sell until late one night, frustrated and dejected, Rusty grabbed a pen and unleashed a torrent of ink, iterating his complaints to the Prison Reform Trust, the Prisoners’ Advice Service, and finally, in a moment of unadulterated catharsis, Inside Time. Between them, the PRT and the PAS do a lot of good work on behalf of prisoners. They wrote the Governor a polite letter, inviting him to take another look at the issue of serving evening meals at a sufficiently hot temperature, which the Governor duly did. A few days later the problem was solved and hot meals were once again on the menu.
Rusty had done it. Rusty was the man. The problem was sorted.
For a couple of days Rusty became a minor celebrity, a hero, our hero. Fellow cons would pass him in the corridor and give him the obligatory slap on the back. Rusty seemingly revelled in his newfound popularity, until the following month’s issue of Inside Time was delivered.
Rusty’s letter had made page five of the correspondence section. He had succinctly detailed the problem, describing in eloquent prose just how it felt to be locked up without a hot meal. He then moved on to other, wider criticisms of the prison until, eventually, his letter descended into little more than a diatribe against the whole prison system. He finished with what he no doubt felt was a reasonable and rhetorical question:
“Surely we have a right to hot, palatable food?”
His letter didn’t read well. Something told me that Rusty had just dug a deep hole for himself. I hoped against hope that I was wrong, but I knew deep down that I wasn’t.
“Well done mate,” I head one con tell him. “About bloody time someone stood up for us, got this lot told.”
Instead of basking in the adoration as he had been doing, Rusty smiled unconvincingly and just nodded his appreciation. On reflection it was probably more of a wince than a smile. Perhaps Rusty had never expected his letter to actually be published. Perhaps he’d been secretly hoping it wouldn’t be. Perhaps he knew, from the very moment he posted it, the fate that he had written with his own hand.
You see, precisely forty-eight hours after the publication of the said issue of Inside Time, one of the tabloids picked up Rusty’s tetchy letter.
“Evil Lag Claims Human Rights” ran the headline.
Rusty should have known better. In the tabloid equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, hacks trawl through the pages of Inside Time each month, hoping to find something to sensationalize for their readers.
Until that tabloid article, Rusty had been just another anonymous prisoner. In long term prisons, men rarely interrogate one another about their crimes; perhaps no one wants to upset a hornet’s nest. We usually take each other at face value, always keeping a comfortable distance from one another’s wrongdoings. As it turns out, Rusty has a dark past, suffice to say that the circumstances that brought him to prison read like a horror film script–according to the tabloids at least.
Rusty dropped from hero to zero in just three hundred or so words and one unflattering mug shot. He was quickly branded a “wrong-’un” and made the recipient of endless insults and threats. A few hours later and the men-in-black stepped in and carted Rusty off to the segregation unti for his own protection. He hasn’t been seen since, and rumor has it he has already been shipped out to another prison.
Some might say that Rusty brought all this on himself, either by committing his crime in the first place, or at the very least, by writing a letter that left him open to attack from the tabloids. Perhaps this is true, but I still can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Rusty. He was trying to do something positive. Perhaps he was just trying to be a better man.