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'Not my idea of a perfect day'

Regional press news – this story published 19.6.2000

Not my idea of a perfect day

One of the great privileges of being a journalist is that you can step into someone else’s world in the comforting knowledge that you don’t have to stay. Here, Plymouth Evening Herald journalist Martin Freeman reports from Britain’s oldest, most notorious purpose-built jail.

As I stepped into Dartmoor Prison I noticed a strange, rhythmic noise – inside my head.

I hadn’t been aware that I was humming under my breath and I’m glad that the prison officers and inmates – as far as I could tell – hadn’t noticed either, because the tune didn’t seem to fit the occasion and the place.

It was Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, the BBC’s favourite little anthem.

You don’t choose those little tunes of courage, the ones we whistle up to make us feel confident in uncomfortable situations. They just pop randomly into your head.

But even so… “Oh, such a perfect day; I’m glad I spent it with you…”

Here is a song about an unsettling attraction; an addict singing about the pleasure he gets from something with a very dark side (heroin).

Both my liberal side and the lock-`em-up-and-throw-away-the-key part of me wanted to see Dartmoor and be satisfied. I wanted to see punishment and suffering; humanity and rehabilitation.

I needed to know what Dartmoor is like, 10 years on from the riot in which one inmate died and the Prison Service was left with a repair bill running into millions.

My guide was Michael Long, chairman of Dartmoor’s Board of Visitors, the independent eye on conditions in the jail.

Inside I quickly got used to the sight, sound and feel of metal and the jangling of keys. Everywhere is a locked iron gate and a locked, reinforced door shutting you off from everywhere else.

But then came the first shock – an achingly beautiful garden. Prisoners working there dashed for cover from a short, sharp shower as we moved into a workshop where inmates with convictions for violence were… painting gnomes for a Devon firm.

They, and others assembling furniture for a Somerset company, were earning cash (up to £7.50 a week) for luxuries such as tobacco, and at the same time helping pay for their own incarceration.

The prison’s workshops, which also include micro-electronics and garment-making, have another two purposes; keeping idle hands busy and helping them pick up skills that could lead to a job, and away from crime, on the outside.

Some come out with GNVQs, others with City and Guilds certificates. “But for some it’s progress if they can learn to write their own name,” said Mr Long.

The shower over, we caught up with the garden working party. Suddenly I was aware that, an hour into my visit, I hadn’t spoken to a single one of the 650 inmates. Why? I knew I wouldn’t know what to say. It goes back to that song again, part of that Perfect Day spent feeding “animals in the zoo”, because that was how it felt. Part of me had come to gawk.

I bumbled out a question: “Um…ah…I…um, was wondering what you’re doing here…” (Time, mainly.)

Jason, from Plymouth, looked up and spared my blushes by answering an unasked question. “I’ve never done gardening before,” he said. “It’s all right. Gets you out in the air.”

Through more locked doors, down a long, echoing corridor and there was A Wing, one of the accommodation blocks – and another surprise: all was slick, sleek and clean, with shiny plastic and metal, and not a piece of granite in sight.

E Wing, the segregation unit, looked more like I expected the inside of a cell block in Britain’s oldest purpose-built prison to look.

And yet of the seven wings only “C” is yet to be refurbished and does not have in-cell sanitation. Even in C Wing there is no slopping-out – the ancient indignity of a bucket instead of a lavatory. Instead, inmates have access to toilets outside their cells 24 hours a day, something some prefer.

Next stop was the gym. Dartmoor also boasts an astroturf all-weather outdoor pitch and a volleyball team in a local league (yes – they only play home games). Senior Officer Paul Cowell explained that exercise was a right for all prisoners, but that good behaviour or getting on to a PE-related training course earned them more.

But it was difficult to concentrate because the smell of prison food was wafting down the corridors. And it smelled good.

That day prisoners could choose between lasagne, chicken cordon bleu, liver and bacon casserole and poached fish, followed by steamed sponge and custard or fresh fruit. There were meat or dairy-free alternatives for the prison’s 40 vegetarians and two vegans, and food conforming to the laws of Islam for the 30 or so Muslims.

Here the flog-`em-and-throw-the-key-away side of me finally trampled all over the liberal. “How much does this cost the taxpayer?” I demanded of the kitchen chief, Senior Officer Mike Hooper.

“£1.37 per prisoner per day,” he said with pride. “for three meals a day, plus a supper snack, and a fried breakfast on Saturday.”

The cost is kept low through competitive contracts with outside suppliers and because prisoners provide most of the canteen labour.

But still, “pampered prisoner” came to mind – until I was told that food was a major grievance leading to the 1990 riot.

Like that song says, “You’re going to reap just what you’ve sown.”

There was time for a look at the chapel (the inmates’ Christian behaviour can’t be trusted to extend to the sex offenders on their two wings – they have separate services).

Then, as I walked back towards freedom, I went past the gardener-prisoners and out of the corner of my eye I saw Jason look up at me. I should have glanced back as I walked through the gate, but then what? A carefree wave as I step back into a world of freedom?

I kept on walking because I thought I would hurt his feelings if I acknowledged his move but did not respond. But in reality it was my own feelings, my own humanity, that I was protecting: I couldn’t handle the expression on his face.

For me, one of the worst things that you can do to a human is to take away their liberty. In a few short hours in prison the liberal and reactionary in me were unsettled at times but both satisfied in the end.

A Perfect Day? No way. But, Dartmoor, like the song says, “I’m glad I spent it with you.”

Reproduced courtesy of the Evening Herald

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