"I hear that train a-comin'/It's rollin' round the bend/And I ain't seen the sunshine since/I don't know when/But I'm stuck in Lewes Prison/And time keeps draggin' on..."
I have a friend in Lewes Prison. It has been ages since I've seen him. By some Miracle I managed to get through to the Prison having tried quite a few times to get through by phone. As it turns out, as I discovered today, I could have just emailed them and they'd have sent me an appointment. We live, we learn. He is known to the parish of St Mary Magdalen because the prison chaplaincy team, ran by the SVP, go along to the Mass there on Saturdays and before he received his ASBO banning him from the town centre of Brighton and the majority of the seafront until 2012 for the terrible crime of irritating the good people of Brighton by begging and street drinking, he would ask for alms from parishioners of said parish Church after Mass. I was involved a week or two in the chaplaincy team but fell out of it because my life became hectic for numerous reasons.
I tried to get a picture closer up to the Prison but was told by a couple of guards outside that you can't take pictures of the Prison. I asked "Why?" and they said, "You just can't." You can't do something and there's no reason? Well, you just got to accept it! That's modern Britain for you! Clearly, I was planning my friend's elaborate escape...through, er, the front door.
Anyway, so I'm in the 'holding room' having had my frisking and everyone looks bored and naffed off. There is nothing to read but signs on the four walls about what you shouldn't bring in to the prison like knives, drugs, guns, cameras, tobacco and mobile phones. All in all, its a bit like being at an airport. A baby is on the lap of his father bobbing up and down and a guard walks in and sees the baby is playing with an unopened bag of crisps. He says to the father of the baby, "I'm sorry I'm going to have to take those crisps away. Nothing should be brought upstairs to the visiting room." Everyone else in the waiting room is looking at each other thinking, "He's joking, right?" But no, he wasn't. What better way to get drugs into prisoners but through a packet of totally unopened Wotsits, played with by a stubborn baby who refuses to relinquish them to the guard!?
We wait. The guard calling us up is about 15 minutes late. I strike up a conversation with the man next to me. He says, "They do this on purpose. They make you wait longer than you should to put you off from visiting. They're making it harder deliberately. You used to be able to come anyday, but now you can't come Mondays and Wednesdays. I remember once, before new rule came in I was here on a Bank Holiday and all the guards were moaning about how crap it is that they have to man the visits on a Bank Holiday. I mean, its not as if they're doing the job for free is it? They're getting paid for this job."
He, I and a room full of others walk up the stairs, passing the baby's savoury potato-snack snatcher and I show him my locker key, for the locker which I'd put all my drugs, guns and ammunition in before I'd entered the visiting area, having put my massive heroin stash in the 'drugs amnesty bin' situated in front of a CCTV camera. The key is small and the key fob is transparent, hard, plastic and huge. The place begins to feel quite comic. The guy says to me, "You see that key fob? All you'd have to do is snap it in half and you'd have a weapon."
So, eventually, I make it upstairs and my friend is sitting there. He looks well, he's put on weight and he shows me his new dentures. He's off drugs, has to take methadone but seems bright as a button. He doesn't have any tobacco and his trainers are getting old and worn, but he has a glow and happiness I haven't seen in him for a long while.
We talk, we eat Jelly Babies and chocolate, drink coffee with sugar (more lenten failure for me) and talk more. I don't want this to be an absurdly long post but I want to do the post 'justice', if you'll pardon the pun. So, we're talking. It turns out that my friend was put inside this time for a previous offense which, finally, 'court' up with him. Over a year ago, he had been on the London Road and a woman came up to him, shaking, with all the symptoms of heroin withdrawl that addicts understand is very painful. When you come off heroin you can convulse, vomit, go into sweats and turn white as a sheet. Every addict knows this. So, the woman comes up to him and begs him for a bit of heroin. My friend gives her, doesn't sell her, but gives her, a 'ten bag' because, foolhardy as it may seem to non-users, addicts understand that need for a fix. When you are in that state, they maintain, it is the only thing that gets you well again.
It turns out that the handing over of the tiny bag was filmed by undercover police and that the woman who came to him with the symptoms of withdrawal was undercover police. It was a set up to make my friend appear to be a drug dealer, when anyone who knows him will tell you he is a drug, or was, a drug user. Now, you can call this little 'operation' what you like but objectively speaking, it is what is commonly termed, 'entrapment'. It is a corrupt way for the police to pin a crime on someone and is in America, apparently, illegal.
Not so here it would seem. My friend had thought he was doing an addict a favour since that 'addict' was 'clucking', but in fact, the police had set him up. Why? Because, frankly, he is a bit of a nuisance and the Council don't know how to deal with the 'anti-social behaviour' which goes along with drug addiction among some of the homeless community of Brighton and Hove. So, the business/trading community, the police, the council, housing associations and anyone else who is worried about Brighton's 'reputation', which as you can see below from Gay Pride Day is impeccable, ganged up together to ensnare homeless addicts who are seen as unsightly and banged them up in HMP Lewes.
Along with my friend, there was, apparently, between 20 and 30 other prisoners who were there on the exact same charge. All of them were addicts, not pushers and nearly all homeless/hostel dwellers of Brighton. I remember trying to tell The Argus this by email, but strangely their Crime Correspondent, Ben Parsons, never got back to me. He couldn't see a story there. Funny that! I mean, The Argus team would never compromise their journalistic integrity on behalf of Sussex Police, the trading community and Brighton & Hove City Council, would they?
Anyway, the upshot is that my friend, naively, along with many others got stitched up by the Police and as a result got put inside for 18 months, 9 or now 10 on good behaviour. He was meant to be out mid-March but the prison guard found a mobile phone in his cell, which my friend says he doesn't know how it got there, and for this they added another month to his sentence. Nice guys, eh?! I've talked to a couple of guys on the soup run and they reported it had happened to them too. What is more, they all maintain that the actual dealers, the big guys are still out there and get left more or less untouched by the Police. Aren't our police force a funny old bunch? They get the addicts, sling them in jail for their addiction and leave the big dealers alone. Nevermind, Ben Parsons, Crime Correspondent of The Argus, I guess we all miss a story every now and then.
So, thats how things stand at the moment for my friend. He longs to get out, but he has been somewhat institutionalised. Always has been, since he was little and in and out of children's homes, foster homes, prisons and the rest. He finds it very difficult to cope on the outside. On the inside he is fine, gets meals and all that, but on the outside he falls into the same old habits. He says he wants to do cleaning, gardening, car boot sales (seems to know a bit about antiques), busking and stay out of trouble. He also wants to become a Catholic, which obviously is great news for him and the Church, since it means that the Prison Chaplaincy Team, many of whom are inspired by St Mary Magdalen's Church and the ministry of its Priest are indeed a Work of God.
Towards the end of the visit he pointed behind himself and said, "See that Chinese guy over there? He's in here for selling pirate DVDs." I say to him, "For selling pirate DVDs?! How long did he get?" My friend says, "Two years." He turns to a guard and grins and asks if she wants a Jelly Baby. She says, "No". He asks if he can give a Jelly Baby to an inmate friend 5 yards away at another table. She and another guard say, "No." He sees my Rosary around my neck. He says he would like it. I ask the guard. He says, "No," presumably because the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the World's most powerful weapon.
I went back to my car to find a parking ticket. Somehow, readers, I am now wanted financially dead or alive by two different local authorities. Lewes District Council and Brighton and Hove City Council. I don't know. Why do they end up always picking on the poorer, weaker ones?