Reputations follow men around inside prison like bad smells.The 'gangster' often turns out to be plastic, the 'snitch' a reliable confidant and the 'screw boy' an affable and gregarious bloke who just sometimes forgets the invisible but nonetheless important boundaries between officers and convicts.

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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.

Prison Workshop. Source: Wikipedia

Reputations follow men around inside prison like bad smells. Some have reputations for being gangsters or hard men, others for being snitches or screw boys. One quickly learns that such reputations are not always warranted or even desired by those they have been foisted upon. The ‘gangster’ often turns out to be plastic, the ‘snitch’ a reliable confidant and the ‘screw boy’ an affable and gregarious bloke who just sometimes forgets the invisible but nonetheless important boundaries between officers and convicts.

That’s why I try not to pay too much attention to such reputations, preferring instead to rely on my own impressions of the person. That said, as with everyone else in the prison, I was well aware of Billy’s reputation for, shall we say, stretching the truth.

Bill had apparently credited himself with all sorts of fantastic endeavours from becoming a self-made millionaire at the age of fifteen to helping negotiatie Nelson Mandela’s release from prison by ‘pulling a few strings’. His stories had made him a kind of celebrity on the prison grapevine, a legend in his own life-sentence you might say.

Since I’d never actually met Billy I had no way of knowing whether he had actually told any of these stories or whether it was just malicious gossip. I often doubted he had; after all, who would have the audacity to claim that he used to be friends with Prince Andrew until they had a fall-out over a lap dancer called Ginger?

‘That’s him,’ a friend whispered to me with an almost reverent tone in our prison workshop last week.

‘Who?’ I asked, peering over at the new face among us.

‘Billy.’

Billy was a plump man with copper hair, bulbous eyes and protruding front teeth that were slightly bucked. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, give or take a decade or two. It’s not always easy to estimate a prisoner’s age. It depends on a number of factors; how long he’s been away, whether or not he smokes, how much gym and exercise he gets and so on. Prison preserves straight-members (those who don’t indulge in alcohol or drugs) but ravages indolent hedonists.

It was perhaps easy to see why Billy had earned himself a reputation, there he was in full swing, talking animatedly and gesticulating wildly. The several men listening to his discouse sat full entranced and captivated. Billy basked in adoration of his attentive audience until they finally grew tired and moved on to Manchester Mick’s table who, incidentally, is another good story-teller.

Poor Billy looked crestfallen. He began trundling around the workshop, pretending to be busy but really looking for someone else to share his stories with. With only a few dozen men in the workshop I knew it wouldn’t be long until he tried starting a conversation with me and, sure enough, in less than five minutes he had me in a position where prison etiquette dictated that I at least acknowledge him. I smiled as convincingly as I could and gave him a slight nod. That was all it took.

‘Billy,’ he said, pacing over and extending his hand towards me by way of introduction.

‘Danny,’ I said reluctantly offering him my hand.

With the he took a seat at my table, asked how I liked the workshop and somewhat pathetically tried to flatter me by telling me that I looked ‘far too intelligent to be in a workshop’. Having a natural aversion to sycophants, I could feel the groan working its way up through my sternum but I tried my best to smile politely. A heavy silence settled around us. I hoped that he might take the hint and move on elsewhere but instead he said, ‘This is almost as boring as being on the International Space Station.’

Instead of being jocular his tone was serious and sombre. It was a statement unashamedly begging for interaction. I glanced up at him and reluctantly succumbed, out of pity rather than any genuine curiosity.

‘The International Space Station?’ I asked.

‘Yeah,’ he said in a tone full of well practiced nonchalance. ‘I spent a couple of weeks up there a few years ago. When I was in the Royal Marine Space Engineers.’

Astronaut Piers J. Sellers, NASA's STS-121 mis...

International Space Station during the mission’s third and final session of extravehicular activity. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘The Royal Marine Space Engineers?’ I asked,tensing my upper lip to paralyse the smirk I could feel threatening to engulf my face any moment.

He went on to explain that the RMSE were a secretive government department protecting our nation interests in space. He regaled me with detailed and comprehensive accounts of the InTernational Space Station, his three separate space walks and the secretive launch site in Dartmoor that he regularly departed from but that very few people apparently knew about on the account of it being classified above top secret. By the time i next looked at the clock it was almost time to go back to the wing and it suddenly occurred to me why anyone ever bothered listening to Billy when his stories were so ridiculous and far-fetched that they couldn’t possible be true. In prison pity only goes so far.

People listen to Billy for the same reason people have always listened to storytellers: Billy offers people a temporary release from their abject reality. It doesn’t matter whether his stories are true or not, all that matters is that the listener is temporarily transported into a different world, a world of fantasy and make-believe. Perhaps that’s why Billy gets plenty of respect despite his dubious narratives. If the real truth be told people enjoy listening to Billy’s ttories and retelling them time and again. It gives them something to talk about other than prison.

Let’s just hope that the Psychology Department don’t get hold of poor old Billy. They make take a different view of his voyages into the land of fantasy and make believe!

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