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Laurence Inman’s Blog

THE INSIDE STORY

07-11-2008

Eye

Laurence reveals all about his time in Winson Green nick.

In the summer I left school and before going to university in 1968, I worked in Winson Green prison.

I didn’t go into the actual prison bit, where the slopping-out, banging-up and nonce-shagging took place. I worked in the office, writing things on bits of paper and then filing them away in metal cabinets. A temporary clerical assistant. I still had to sign the Official Secrets Act (1911) I suppose this article could land me back there, but I like to live dangerously.

The office, where all the other clerical people beavered away, was called the Discipline Office. I don’t know why. It may be that it’s called that in all prisons, for some reason going back to Dickensian times, or it may be a name only Winson Green has proper claim to. I just don’t know.

The man in charge of the office was called the Discipline Officer. He was a large man with a decidedly dismal outlook on life. His surname was Shirley. When he answered the phone the whole office went quiet so that we could hear him growl, ‘Discipline. Shirley here.’

The prison these days has a nice, roly-poly slightly Playschool feel to it. In those days the main gate looked like a Transylvanian castle keep and the outer walls had bits of broken bottles cemented into the top. I’m sure I saw a severed hand up there one day. With the oily canal alongside, on overcast days (and that summer was particularly grey) it was straight out of Eraserhead.

The work was boring, the journey to and from Longbridge endless and so at the end of August I tried to leave and get a job at Cadburys. They wouldn’t let me. (Cadburys, that is.) So, I was a prisoner in Winson Green for another two months. But then, so was everybody else, staff included.

Actually, being a local prison, two months seemed to be about the average length of sentence. That’s probably still true today. Longer sentences, anything over three years, are a rarity. In fact, most people in prison now will be out by February, to be replaced by the witless amateurs who are currently staggering into Lidl blind drunk and trying to nick a packet of bacon.

That’s the impression I carried away from by brief experience; cons are inadequate failures, the system is designed merely to keep nuisances off the streets for a few weeks and the places themselves are cramped, noisy and squalid. Try imagining the combined smell of disinfectant, cabbage, sweat and Old Holborn.

A couple of scenes remain stuck in my memory like old chewing-gum on the pavement.

Arriving for work one rainy morning, as I walked past the queue of visitors and knocked on the little door in the main gate, it flew open and a bloke tore out and sprinted away up Winson Green Road towards Handsworth.

'It's all right,' said the screw holding the door. 'He always does that on his release day. It's his idea of a joke.'

Another time, I was shown a report of an ‘incident’ which had taken place on one of the wings. It was a fight involving about twenty cons. The first screw on the scene wrote in his statement, ‘I first became aware of a disturbance when I saw a missile heading through the air towards me. It broke into several pieces against my head. It later transpired that it was a rock cake, but this wasn’t apparent to me at the time.

'I suffered a slight cut.'

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