The following blog is an intimate account of a sad experience within a prison. Unfortunately this blog provides an insight into the daily reality faced by prisoners and by the staff who work to care for them.
(Pseudo names have replaced actual names)
I received the call at around 7:10pm on a day that had been relatively quiet and without much issue. I had arrived home at around 6:30pm so hadn’t really settled into the usual regime of a family evening, where you hope for some normality and to catch up on the daily news.
I replaced my work clothes with something more comfortable and headed back into work. The call was the one I dreaded most, and since receiving the call my mind had raced, my heart beat had significantly increased and the feeling in the pit of my stomach remained the same intensity whilst I drove the relatively short distance back to work. Whilst I was driving I made the return call to work which in my view is even worse than the one I had received around fifteen minutes earlier. I needed an update, I desperately wanted good news, I spoke to myself in the car and even shouted and asked ‘someone’ please, please don’t do this, don’t let it happen.
As I parked up in the prison car park, I remembered thinking that the place looked calm, it looked ‘normal’. It didn’t project the utter turmoil that I felt. The gate staff had seen me come in and had automatically opened the electronic doors so I didn’t have to wait, the gate staff received a knowing nod, they didn’t expect anything else as they knew what was going on and knew that my concentration was elsewhere. I collected my keys and reported to the control room for an update. The staff there were in command mode and were following guidelines that were well practised. Their professionalism and attitudes made me feel proud of them, and I wondered quietly to myself about how they felt too. Most were relatively new to the prison and this was perhaps the first time that they had experienced something like this. One had been at the prison for a considerable length of time and I took my cue from her. Her efficiency and competence was impressive, her update was thorough, she knew what I needed, and what I wanted to know. I looked at her for hope and optimism, I searched her tone and body language but I didn’t get anything back, her professionalism was as expected, and the feeling in my stomach returned, even more determined than the dreadful return drive to work.
The walk to the wing was purposeful, and I noted there was hardly any noise. I usually receive the normal ‘Hi Guv’ from the windows, but there wasn’t any of that. The place was littered with quietness and a serenity that felt very odd in a place that is usually full of bustle and noise. At moments like this, you get a sense, you read the signs, and assumptions saturate your thoughts. You dismiss some, the ones you don’t like the sound of, but you hang on to others and then hope returns. As I walked through the gates of the wing my confidence increased, but I don’t know why.
One member of staff who was fairly new in service acknowledged me and said ‘Hi sir’. I asked him if he was ok and he nodded uneasily at me. I made my way further into the wing and noticed where the main group of staff were, I headed that way with feelings that I find very difficult to describe. One of the custodial managers (CM) noticed me and made his way in my direction. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say until he looked up and caught my eye. It was then that I realised he didn’t need to say anything, I knew that any hope that I had held for myself, the prison, the men and the staff were all in vain. All I felt now was despair, shock and misery. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was now a huge ache, my heart was beating out of my chest, it is simply the worst feeling ever. The CM approached me and simply said ‘sorry Guv’. I put my hand on his shoulder but said nothing. I headed towards the cell where there were more staff and a great number of paramedics, their faces told me everything. You could have heard a pin drop. As I neared the cell where John lived, I acknowledged the staff and asked if they were ok. One other CM told me that there was one member of staff who she was concerned for, who was new in service and was the person who had entered the cell first. We made sure that appropriate support plans were in place for him. Before I headed into the cell, the memories of the first suicide I experienced returned to me.
John was lying on his back. There was utter stillness everywhere, the incubator was still in his mouth and unfortunately this is the picture that remains today in my mind of that scene. There was no one else in the cell. The paramedics had removed all of their equipment, it was just John and me. I looked at him for some time then I said sorry to him. I just felt that I should. I thought about his family, did he have any children or a wife or girlfriend. I noticed a picture of a young girl of around 8 years of age on the wall and I wondered who she was, he was in the cell on his own. I assumed she was a relative, perhaps even his daughter and then I cried quietly so no one noticed.
I realised that I should update the senior team; we have a social media group and we communicate quite often on there. I left the cell and leaned on the landing railings. The message I later sent started off something like ‘I’m sorry, but I have to tell you that….’. Another member of staff was stood next to me, an officer and also the female CM too. This CM is part of the prisons care team, and she is well thought of and very professional. Tears welled up in my eyes, it felt awful to be the bearer of bad news. I felt the hand of the CM on my shoulder and I tried to control my feelings, but it was so hard to do so.
As a prison we had been progressing positively and performing well, and as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, a death in custody feels like a sledgehammer to the face, you simply don’t recover from these events. They always stay with you, and now and again something or someone will remind you about them, this provokes reflection and ultimately sadness returns. It is difficult to describe the wave of feelings that you experience when someone dies in your prison. Whilst there is a detailed process that you must follow, you have to deal with the effect and the feelings of everyone and the prison itself too, this is not practiced, and nor do I wish to practice it, the day I become numb to these events will be the day I would prefer to hang my keys up.
I returned home at around 1:30am after the police were finished and John had left the prison. I remember watching the private ambulance drive through the gates and leave the prison. Even that moment was full of feeling and desperation. During the drive home and after making sure all the staff were ok and looked after, I continued my search for answers; why had it happened, why was he so distressed that he decided not to live any more? I thought about his last few minutes before he died, it felt bad, really bad. I cried again in the car. I felt sad and responsible at the same time. I can’t remember the drive home.
A suicide in prison is an awful event, they are numbing and harrowing. They create atmospheres of despondency and misery. Everyone is always affected and they stay with you forever. The pains of imprisonment have been widely discussed and referenced for quite some time and they provide us all with encouragement to do things better, they also give me determination to be the best I can be. The pains of prison leadership should stir and provoke similar attention perhaps, this is a hard and sometimes lonely job, but we still do it.
As I sit at my desk at home writing this blog I think about John. I think about his family and I think deeply about his last moments alive. I feel sorry that he was feeling so low and so lonely. I wish we had known and that we could have done something about it, that we could have helped him.
My mother taught me and my siblings the significance of compassion and love – the way I work and events such as the one I have described only encourage me to be relentless in how I continue to use these strengths each day.
Rest in peace John.