I had four outstanding fines for a contravention of the Glasgow drinking byelaw. I had stated clearly in court at the time of sentencing in each of the cases that I would not be paying a fine for 'peacefully enjoying a drink outside, infringing upon the rights and freedoms of precisely no one in any way, shape or form, actually or potentially.'
I think the justice of the peace, the court officials, and the police thought I was just posturing and that I would pay up in the end. People I know seemed to think that when the threat of jail became a reality I would see sense and capitulate. Even my husband offered to pay the fines for me. All £370 worth. And this is a man who would normally complain about buying me a creme egg. On my birthday. But, in case I changed my mind, I had been given 28 days to pay. Now I had been given 28 days. To pay. Hmm.
As we passed the sign at the entrance which said 'HMP & YOI Cornton Vale' I still didn't quite believe I was actually here. There have been several documentaries made about it down the years and my preconceived ideas of what it might be like were not remotely positive ones. That is not meant to imply that I would be likely to have a positive impression of any prison, but Cornton Vale had once upon a time become synonymous with self-harm and suicide and had, therefore, some years ago, acquired the unfortunate moniker 'Vale of death.' I have seen it on news reports so many times that it was like walking on to the set of a TV show. Only this is real. This is actually prison. Why am I here again? Court now seemed like a long time ago and I was not sure I could remember how it had come to this.
I was booked in and became prisoner number 144840. Catchy. I wondered if they were going to ask me to stand on a line and shout at me to recite my prisoner number. Maybe I have watched the film 'Scum' too many times. Thankfully, no such thing happened and they were unnervingly nice. It all seemed fairly informal and relatively friendly. I was then assessed by a nurse. 'Drug problems?' 'No.' 'Alcohol problems?' 'No.' 'Mental health problems?' 'No.' 'Self-harm?' 'No.' She said to me, 'You don't fit in here.' I thought to myself that she may in fact be surprised.
What about social health problems? Arguably, I wouldn't be on the wrong side of the law if I wasn't at least somewhat socially maladjusted. As well as insisting on drinking outside in public areas I also dogmatically refuse to be on Facebook. Some people believe this to be anti-social, although it's not actually illegal. Yet. The prison officers at the admission desk couldn't understand why I just wouldn't pay the fines and clearly thought, therefore, I was a bit unstable. Told you I fit in.
I was anticipating a strip search and was steeling myself for what I thought was an inevitable part of the prison admission process, but it didn't happen. I wondered if they had forgotten. I wasn't about to remind them. Instead, I had to stand in a body scanner which I have since learned was introduced at Cornton Vale to obviate the need for actually stripping-off to be searched. I was then taken over to Ross Hall which is one of the few parts of Cornton Vale still open.
Everyone stares at new arrivals as you walk up the stairs and wants to know who you are, where you're from, and what you're in for. 'Hi, I'm Shona. I stay in Glasgow and I'm here for peacefully enjoying an alcoholic drink in a public place and then refusing to acquiesce with the subsequent imposition of financial penalties in respect of same. The judge gave me 28 days. Nice to meet yous.' Perhaps not. Might make me sound like I don't fit in here.
That first night I shared a cell with a young lassie who 'knew the score' (one nil to the law some might say) and it was a relief to have someone to ask about what I could expect. I found out what to expect later that evening: there was a woman in the cellblock down the stairs who decided to test out the robustness of her cell door by continually banging it for about an hour. At a time. Cell door banging does sound like a rather exhausting process and so I suppose she needed to rest between bouts. I suspected it might have been a woman I met at Glasgow Sheriff Court earlier that day who had told me that she had been in and out of Cornton Vale for 29 years. Wow!
Tragically, like so many women in the prison system, I think she has serious and long-standing mental health problems. Prison had clearly not worked for her. She shouted and swore continually and didn't respond to requests from prison officers to desist. Eventually, and probably through sheer exhaustion, the fight with the cell door ceased, although I couldn't actually be certain who had won.
Another woman I met in Cornton Vale candidly stated that she had a long-standing alcohol problem and thought also that she might be suffering from PTSD following a serious attack some years before. She had been in trouble with the police so many times that ultimately she had been remanded to custody. Transpires she was a GP. Again, this was a woman who clearly needed psychiatric help and not to be put in prison.
Ross Hall operates as a triage and so after two nights there I was transferred to HMP Greenock. When I arrived I was told by a prison officer: 'This is a proper jail.' What, you mean it's rife with drugs and legal highs, assaults are commonplace as is self-harm and suicide, and the place is run by the inmates and not the officers? I don't think that's what he meant. And anyway, it's run by the SPS, not G4S. I am not actually sure what he did mean but to me it looked more like what I imagined a 'proper jail' to look like.
Darroch Hall, which is the women's wing, has a very high ceiling and two landings with cells down the sides, the full length of both. In the middle part of the bottom landing there are some fixed tables and chairs, the obligatory pool tables, some old fashioned pay phones on the wall, and a desk where the officers sit and watch the CCTV. Or possibly just TV. I couldn't be certain. The banging shut of cell doors and the rattling of keys reverberates throughout the hall, as do the voices of the prisoners and of the officers barking out instructions to the prisoners. Consequently it can become very noisy. And this time I was
strip searched. Welcome to 'proper jail.'
That first morning at Greenock I caught up with the lassie I had been transferred with from Cornton Vale. By her own admission, and in her own words, she was a 'thieving junkie.' Stole from her own family. She was relatively young but years of serious drug abuse had clearly taken its toll. She was so painfully thin she reminded me of anorexics who have so little fat on them that their face resembles a skeleton with skin stretched over it. Within a week of being in jail, however, she had put on a stone in weight and looked immeasurably better. Arguably, jail was doing her good. She alternated between recognising this – stating that she might actually ask for a jail sentence – and telling me exactly where she would go upon her release to 'score'.
Surprisingly, the worst thing about prison was not so much being locked-up for long periods but rather the tedium of the same daily routine. At least there was an outside period in a yard; a space just about big enough to run around in but small enough to remind you that you are not free. The high walls and fences with barbed wire atop allow a tantalising view of the hills beyond but remind you starkly that you are in prison.
When I was locked-in I contented myself with catching up on some reading: 'The Trial of Henry Kissinger' by Christopher Hitchens. Now there's someone that should be in jail. Kissinger, not Hitchens. Obviously. And he's still alive. Kissinger, not Hitchens. Obviously. Shame.
On a Monday morning, two weeks after arriving, I was released. The first thing I did was to have a bottle of beer outside in a public place. Not really. I waited until the weekend for that.