Genny took part in the RisingUp campaign Stop Killing Londoners: Cut Air Pollution. She, along with 3 others, were sent to prison on remand for a week in November 2017, after repeat acts of civil disobedience. Here’s her story…
After the decision to remand, I was held in court cells awaiting transfer. This period was trying. I was really tired after a few sleepless nights in prison cells and the court cells were grim. I felt isolated as I would be going to a separate location from the others. Waiting was to become a feature of the period, but this was the interminable one of two particularly difficult episodes –arriving and leaving. I didn’t know where I was being sent. At my request i was given an out of date leaflet about HM Bronzefield which I hadn’t considered when researching. I hadn’t thought to check out at the police station if I could retain a book to read from my belongings either. Reading broke the monotony so be prepared and research well!
After several hours the prison van arrived and for the first time handcuffs were used. As the court cell officer and I climbed the stairs chained together I asked her if this meant we were now formally married. Well, it got a laugh. Getting into the van, being locked into the individual closed unit and having the cuff removed was an elaborate procedure executed in a very perfunctory way. I felt I was turning from a name to a number. Then an interminable journey started, careering through the streets of London, bounced from wall to wall in my little metal box. The escort could be heard on the phone in an exasperated three way conversation arguing about organisation and lack of bed space with regards to me and I worried that I might be sent further afield. Then from another box someone asked if they could smoke. The escort refused this, informing her that the prison was now non-smoking and if she was caught she could get ‘seg’ (segregation); thus surprising the smoker as the ban was new to her. After about 30 minutes she lit up anyway. By the time we arrived I felt like a canned smoked kipper.
For any female arrested in London there isn’t a London prison. Holloway is no more and soon to be luxury flats, if the developers get their way. HMP Bronzefield serves courts in London and the south eastern counties. It is run by a private multinational company, Sodexo, (Justice Services) with private sector agencies affiliated to it e.g. Health services; and is situated in Twickenham, near Heathrow airport and Feltham – a male young offenders prison.
On entry into the reception area after giving basic details I was ushered into a room which looked like a torture chamber with a bolted chair and an electrical object beside it. I noticed the smoker getting dressed in a cubicle. When I asked if I was about to be executed the officer laughed and said it was a scanner to check for hidden objects. The smoker complained that they had appropriated her lighter but i didn’t enquire where from. We were processed (1) and (2) medically checked. Our belongings were produced, recorded and stored. Cash was banked (3). Anything you purchase is deducted from this amount and you are supposed to get the balance when leaving. I was allowed to retain some spare clothing, toiletries, flip flops (4 ), books and notebooks and the officer found some chocolate in my bag which I devoured before it was confiscated as a perishable item. Baggage was then stored until release. In exchange (5) we received toiletries, clothing, and a reception pack. I was allowed to make one friends family call of 5 – 7 minutes and enlisted the officer to let my buddy have the address. He clearly felt uncomfortable about this but I was experiencing information overload and finding it difficult to concentrate as the other inmates were distracting. Two were strung out and the other was returning from another prison. All had been at Bronzefield before.
We were put in a glass walled waiting area. A young mixed raced woman with an American accent and a red gillet introduced herself as my fellow peer support worker. She attempted to give me some information as a first timer such as using a pod to get information but it was hard to take in, she found her role difficult, didn’t know how to relate to me and she planned to visit me the next day anyway.
‘A’ came up to me to chat. She was very jumpy because she needed methadone and nicotine. Another woman gave her a spare nicotine vaporiser, one she had been issued with. ’A’ was also concerned about potential trouble from the previous occasion she was there (had been recalled to prison as had broken her license agreement) as had had been accused of grassing someone up. I noticed that she must be about 4 months pregnant and she told me her mum was caring for two of her children. We agreed that she could have most of the stuff that i didn’t want in my reception pack, all the coffee and sugar bags; plus most of the recreation pack. There was another woman who had transferred from a longer stay prison and another who had been sleeping rough and got onto an altercation. Her nose was bandaged up. They didn’t know what to make of me as I didn’t fit in their world, but enjoyed chatting with me and were a bit envious that ‘A’ got the goodies.
Finally we made our way over the courtyard waiting for gates to be locked and unlocked and into the detox wing. It was late, empty and quiet. When we arrived prisoners were already locked up for the night. The wing was a typical design, all metal and concrete. The space above was high like a huge hanger and below rows of cells, single and double on two floors. Shower cubicles and baths (6) on the top floor with a walkway round a large well and two sets of stairs either end. More rows on the ground floor and down the centre was a dining table, a canteen for serving meals, a pool table for recreation, a laundry room and large gates at one end through which we passed. Four wings arranged like a cross with a large central hub in the centre of which was situated a round control and observation room. The large gates of each block faced into this. It acted as a reception area for prisoners entering and leaving. Attached to the gates of each wing was a guard room. There were several blocks and two other separate buildings over 500 prisoners in total.
Most were short stay but there were some notorious lifers there, as well as a mother and baby unit and young offenders unit. Many of the women I spoke to had mental health issues such as self harm, drug problems, and were repeat offenders.
There seemed to be a small percentage of racial minorities and ethnically quite a lot of eastern Europeans. I wondered if that was due to the proximity of London and Heathrow airport.
There was often only one officer on a wing at a time. The others were escorting inmates from unit to unit or watching screens. During my brief stay half the officers were male which I found very odd and doubted that it would be the same balance in a male prison. Approximately half of those males were black and some women were white European. Some of them really relished the control. For a few it was a vocation and within their remit they managed to spend time and show some humanity.
I was told I would only be on the detox wing for a short time and then would go to a more settled wing with sentenced prisoners. It was quite hyper when the strung out inmates were allowed to associate and there were little spats here and there and someone barricaded herself in her room. Several continued to smoke and I caught a whiff of wacky baccy a couple of times. . It was great to be in a cell of my own upstairs and felt very comfortable, detached yet surrounded like in a hive. It was a good space to be creative in.
Overall sound echoed and rattled around – hence ‘in the can’ or with the flow to and fro through the gates; ‘in the clink’ the chink of warder’s keys.
I had started Hunger strike as soon as I entered the prison in solidarity with my fellow activists placed elsewhere. I told the officer who didn’t believe me and I didn’t make an issue as I didn’t want the hassle. The women were quite happy with this arrangement, initially, because I gave them my food. When I was moved to another block; which held mostly sentenced prisoners; the women started wanting me to eat and commenting on it to the officers perhaps because they didn’t like me giving my food away. So on the Sunday the doctor (private sector agency) tried talking me out of it but I was okay when she checked me out physically (7). By this time though I wasn’t going up and down the stairs so much and had abandoned the daily walks going round in circles.
Shortly after my move a woman moved to join me from the health wing where she had made complaints; so I was now sharing a cell with another inmate. B had health problems, was in on remand accused of harassing her mother (a repeat offence) and was very uptight. I sat by the window to give her as much space as possible and did a lot of listening to minimise transference. She lined the sill with snacks and checked them regularly; kept the window air vent open constantly and insisted on watching endless food programmes. (Money is taken from your allowances for use of TV.) B seemed trapped in a negative circular lifestyle and unable to break free. B was very articulate but blocked. She spent a lot of time writing in a notebook and hopefully working out a way forward. It was okay that she commandeered the bottom bunk, but I did fantasise that it might become difficult eventually to climb up any more and might land on top of her. Sharing wasn’t easy for either of us. I’m not used to sharing my space. It can be a very intimate space so agreeing some ground rules like warning each other, if necessary, when using the loo, helps.
By Sunday once my medication was sorted I could relax and adjust. The washing machine on our wing had broken down but my cellmate and I finally got it done so I had fresh clothes for court. Check out wash days.
On the Sunday I had received some lovely cards which really lifted my spirits because there had been no other contact with outside since the first night. (8) Outside contact could have finished my hunger strike sooner and may have given me more time to socialise. What I observed though, was that few of the inmates sat to eat at mealtime. As in many care establishments food can be emotive and contentious so socialising around the meal table wasn’t part of the culture of the wing and most inmates took their food to their cells to avoid conflict. During activities there may be more scope.
Several of the inmates expressed interest in why I was there but their attention soon waned apart from a couple of women one who was an older inmate and another who was also pregnant but wanted to fight for a better life for her child and was determined never to return to prison once her sentence was completed. I will keep in contact with her.
Because I spent trying to sort my medication it took up precious time when I could have been out of my cell experiencing some of what the prison claimed to offer; which meant that I missed wing induction orientation, gym induction (was looking forward to Pilates) education and getting out to another part of the prison to work and avoid being ‘banged’ up. Next time I’ll have that sorted and on my first day will head straight for the pod (who needs people when profit can be made by the reduction of staff) because that is where all the basic information is (9)
I expect warders will become obsolete soon. Staffing is minimal anyway with often only one warden to a wing. Control is made easier by the amount of time prisoners are locked up. (10)
The day before my court case was due the officers would not confirm that I would be going to court or when I would be escorted and my cellmate suggested I might not attend but have a video link with the court. Part of the reason for this may be for security, but it freaked me out a bit. I spent an anxious night. Finally in the early hours of the morning the door was opened and I was told to hurry and get ready but I didn’t need much time. I was packed and ready to go! I left a good luck note on prison paper for my cellmate and tiptoed out. The cell door was banged shut behind me.
It was an interesting introduction to a part of society that is hidden away but growing and is crying out for change.
(1) Photographed and issued with an identity card with your prison number which had to be kept with you when off your cell block. You are also given a unique 4 digit pin number which enabled you to access the pod!
(2) Apart from a quick check of your medical health and in my case to monitor my blood pressure it was also to check If medication was required. I had a supply of tablets for blood pressure and low thyroid as well as asthma inhalers but the problem was I had not kept them in the strips and so they weren’t able to tell whether they were narcotic and this proved to be a real problem for most of my incarceration. They wouldn’t accept my chemist’s details and insisted on GP details which I was reluctant to give them and anyway couldn’t remember the full address. I took to warning the staff that it wouldn’t look good if i had a stroke because of insufficient medication but i think they were more concerned about me OD ing! It finally got sorted by a doctor 5 days after admission. Take heed!
(3) Money you earn is deducted first and what you initially banked is only removed if no other source. Only when you are released but not if going to court so you have to arrange to collect it if released from court. This may also apply to belongings. You can request support towards fares from the court cell staff. In this case it would have meant a train to Ashford. Best to call first to Bronzefield finance section to make an appointment. You could also try requesting your valuables before your court date by request via a paper app. Became aware of this too late to try. (I am owed a few pounds but haven’t got round to collecting it!)
(4) I was allowed flip flops in the cell and shower units but not around the block. (Health and Safety)
(5) Two flasks, a mug, bowl, plate, knife, fork, spoon.
Towel, shower gell, shampoo, deodorant, cream. Pack ST’s
Night shirt, 6 pairs knickers, 3 pairs socks, two track suits, 2 tshirts
Duvet, cover, pillow and case
Colouring pictures, pack of coloured pencils, led pencils, word puzzles. Lined exercise book.
(6) There are no locks on the shower cubicles but bath flap can be locked. Check when free to use
(7) If on hunger strike don’t forget to drink plenty of liquids. Keep your flasks filled up! I added milk to my tea and also purchased some Vitamins.
(8) I was probably a bit paranoid about privacy issues. Some prisoners said I should just have made up addresses. I know that there are concerns about how items such as drugs, weapons, other items that can be used for trade; get into prison though. It left me a bit isolated. E.g. with the hunger strike I could have stopped sooner.
(9) There is only one pod in the wing and it can get monopolised. You can choose your own menu. Cab Appointments and visits by auxiliary staff are put up here too, so keep a regular check You can also check your balance and it shows what you have earned. I got about 50p a day for being there and you get a bit extra approx 75p if you are working. There is also a clothes shop which you can arrange to visit.
Keep your pin number on you. I put it on the back of my id card which I kept safe on me all the time. You hand back id card on leaving-no souveniers
(10) Lock up times
Mon-Thurs Fri, Sat, Sun mealtimes association
18.45-08.00 17.15-08.00 08.00 16.45-18.45 Mon-Thurs
12.45-14.00 – same 12.45 14.00-17.00 Fri
More if not working 18.45/17.15 08.10-12.45 & 14.00-17.15 Sat-Sun