Hard time: A life behind bars

David Fallow (not his real name) lay on his back, on a cardboard thin mattress, staring at the cold cell’s bare concrete ceiling.

David had been in the police cell for three days, and was still struggling to come to terms with how.

He did, however, know exactly why: he had been caught on video working in a Breaking Bad-style drug laboratory hidden deep in the Kent countryside.

There, he had – whilst wearing full forensic suits and face-masks familiar from the cult television show – helped press and package industrial quantities of ecstasy.

Now, he was facing 10 years in prison on a Conspiracy to Manufacture a Class A Drug charge. This wasn’t meant to happen.

Even by his own account, David was a wayward student, with a taste for low-level drug dealing and the money and buzz that came with it.

“I was young and reckless,” he says. “I wanted fast cash and didn’t care about the consequences. I’ve always been a bit dodgy. I started serving up a bit of draw in college.

But, unlike many other petty dealers like him, he didn’t stop there.

“I was at a house party once, getting messy with a guy I vaguely knew from Hammersmith. He was out of his face on 2-CB and told me he could get bits of Mandy” (MDMA,a psychoactive party drug).

“I was curious about the price, and did my calculations. The wholesale price was £250 for a half ounce (14 grams). So even if I sold 14 full grammes, I would be more than doubling my money – how could I resist?”

It was a quick calculation that change his life. David became a full time dealer.

“Before I knew it I had quite a few friends of friends calling me on weekends for MDMA and Mephedrone (another derivative drug).

“Through word of mouth I built up quite a successful line – I was doing alright off it. Yeah, it was my full time job. I was living a life of riley, eating the finest foods, smoking the finest skunk and dabbling in the purest ecstasy.

Then, inevitably, he progressed further up the ladder.

“A friend of mine who I had known for years was involved with older guys, who I knew were big time. They only dealt with kilos upwards. They were big money makers. He told me in confidence that they had a workshop and they were producing ecstasy tablets to be exported and distributed across Europe.

“I got a phone call one day saying ‘Right, you’re on the firm’.”

David started work a few weeks later. He was driven out of London to rural Kent – David still doesn’t know exactly where – and taken to a remote farmhouse.

“We followed a car for miles up the M25, to a workshop in the middle of nowhere. Fields surrounded us; it was very quiet and proper out of the way of any watchful eyes. We unloaded all the equipment and supplies and got cracking on.”

David was tasked, alongside his companions, with pressing and packaging 175,000 ecstasy tablets.

“My mate showed me how to use all the equipment. We had vacuum-packed kilos of MDMA that came directly from Belgium; it was very dark in colour and was some of the best I ever got my hands on.

“We had to crush this with a coffee grinder, down to a dust that was so fine that it was in the air and very irritable for the lungs, so we had to wear masks, overalls and other protective gear. We mixed it with cellulose, a food binding agent, then counted and packaged thousands of pills. It was quite repetitive.”

David claims not to have felt worried. But, in retrospect, one thing did stick out as suspicious.

“We had a radio. On a few occasions we experienced some interference, what sounded like scrambled radios. We couldn’t make out what it was, but we brushed it off as paranoia. That distorted interference we heard on our radio was the police officer’s radio.”

As David would later learn, the police were listening to – and watching – everything they were doing.

After working Monday and Tuesday, and pressing and packaging 60,000 pills, David went home, with instructions to wait for a phone call, as he was to start later on Wednesday.

“I remember waking up at 10am, checking my phone for missed calls, had none.

“Smoked half a leftover joint in the ashtray, and went back to sleep. I was awoken from my slumber to the sound of glass smashing, and a huddle of officers flying up the stairs shouting ‘POLICE!’”

None of David’s family was at home. However, the police also found 100 pills and £1,000 in cash under his bed. As David was whisked away, he saw another police van at his accomplice’s house, which was around the corner.

“It was then I knew I was in big trouble.”

At the station, David was met with a wall of silence. Then, he saw the photos.

“I saw the photographs of me wearing a full forensic suit outside this ecstasy workshop. I was praying this was all a bad dream.”

He was charged with Conspiracy to produce a Class A drug and Conspiracy to supply a Class A drug.

“I remember my solicitor telling me that anything with conspiracy in it is bad news.”

David gradually found out that the firm he was working for had been under surveillance for a year, with the operation finishing just two days after he had started working for them.

David couldn’t believe what had happened. He was a star pupil, having obtained 11 GCSE’s and a BTEC in Information Technology. While raised by his mother alone, he had a stable home life, and the world at his feet. Now he was standing in the dock, potentially facing 10 years in prison.

“I just kept thinking that I’m fucked.”

I ask David about sentencing and he goes quiet for a minute, staring blankly into the distance like he was suffering from shell shock. After a moment he blinks, stares back at me and continues.

“My parents were there. My mum was crying as they read out the details and depths of the case. I was stood next to one of my co-defendants, who I had never even met.

“My father was sitting with my mother, which was strange for me as I hadn’t seen them together since before their divorce when I was a little boy.

“The first tear to run down my cheek was when I heard my solicitor say that my father had offered a surety of £10,000 and also offered to re-mortgage his house in exchange for my bail. This was basically offered to the courts to ensure my safe return on my court date.”

Unfortunately for David, he was denied bail as he was deemed a flight risk. After lengthy discussions with his solicitors, he pleaded guilty.

He was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison, a year more than the guidelines suggest, due to the gang’s intention to sell undercover police 250,000 pills.

“I thought fuck it, let me just do the time and get out. I wasn’t willing to risk being cross-examined in court by the police’s prosecuting solicitors.

By the time of sentencing I’d already served about 7 months on remand at High Down, which got deducted from my sentence. There is no trial if you plead guilty. You’re saving them time and money, so you get a third off.”

David was sent to HMP High Down, a category B prison. Sitting in the waiting room, amongst all the other men waiting to enter the prison, the sense of anxiety was palpable. This was it; he was going to be here for a very long time. Finally, a prisoner turned and addressed David.

“I remember somebody asking me ‘Is it your first time’? When I said yeah, he replied, ‘It’s a piece of piss’.”

Hindsight can be illuminating. He couldn’t believe how much of a relief it was for someone to talk to him in a humane way. He’d almost forgotten.

David looks at me and forces a laugh. “To this day, I’ve never found any words more comforting or soothing then what this guy had just told me. His words gave me some temporary relief.”

David was given standard issue prison clothes and toiletries, all plastic. He entered his cell, a face turned to meet him.

“My first cellmate was an old boy from Bermondsey. He was in for breaching a restraining order against his wife, who he’d lived with for years.

Turns out the police just wanted him away. A black fella had raped his young son, and he’d found out where the rapist lived and told me he was going to drop him off the side of a block of flats.

“These are the kinds of stories you see on television – this was real life mad shit. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was a nice fella, talked way too much though.”

David kept his head down and attempted to settle in to prison life, writing letters, reading books, watching TV and “making endless cups of tea with disgusting prison issue shit.”

It was here that David spent the next year, where he managed to snag a job at High Down’s restaurant “The Clink”, where prisoners cook and wait.

The atmosphere on the House Blocks, where he stayed due to a pre-existing condition, maintained an uneasy peace.

“You’ve always got to be on your toes and have your wits about you. I generally kept myself to myself. Without being big headed, I am quite a well-liked guy. Where I went, I made friends.”

However, out on the wings, the violence could be swift and brutal. David explains to me an incident whereupon a man had boiling hot water thrown on his face for refusing to give someone his doughnut.

After a fracas in the courtyard, a Somalian lifer then tried to stab the man who’d been “kettled”. I asked David about the response these sorts of incidents would get.

“In Cat-B when an officer activates their personal alarm you see a swarm of black and white uniform all sprinting to an area, locking all the doors behind them as they go.”

As the days went by, David began to ascertain the unseen allegiances and unspoken rules of the prison. He confirms that the Muslim Brotherhood maintains a heavy presence. I press him on allegations that prisoners are being forcibly converted to Islam. He seems torn.

“There are many converts, although from experience it’s more a gang culture thing. A lot of young black gang members convert to Islam for show, protection or to fit in, but who am I to judge, there is blessing in everything.

“Many also convert for the right reasons, as they have time to think and research. I remember when one of my friends converted in Cat-D. It brought a tear to my eye, because it wasn’t fake or for show.

“He’d served nearly 11 years and had not converted in higher security prisons, where the Muslim gangs are very prominent. He recently got released and I’m still in contact with him.”

Prisons are full of bad people. However, we like to think that they remain under lock and key, watched over by the resolute officers of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

I am unsure as to how receptive David will be towards revealing any impropriety on behalf of the authorities, but he is only too keen to express to me the levels of corruption, telling me that there were prisoners who had long standing agreements with guards, citing one story as an example.

One guy used to think he ran the wing, was always getting unlocked when we were all banged up and was very friendly with the screws. He had a decent job as a bio-hazard cleaner, going on call-outs to clean up blood, shit from dirty protests, and any bodily fluids.

“Got paid very highly for it. He’d buy the screws chocolate bars, tobacco and cigars in exchange for signing his time sheets, stating that he’d been on a call-out for more time than he actually was, getting more money for it.

“One day a solicitor must have let it slip to an inmate that his murder charge was a cut-throat case, meaning he was giving evidence against his co-defendants. He got dragged into a cell by a few Muslim boys and battered, then vanished off the wing.

“I saw him on the front page of The Sun later on, exposed for contraband in jail. He had a birthday cake, kebabs and smart phones. Obviously he’d got in with a screw.”

I’m surprised at this revelation. David can see and smirks with a devilish grin. Clearly, this wasn’t the only case during his time there. He doesn’t need much persuading to continue on his tell-all.

“There was one screw in the kitchens in Cat-C who used to bring parcels in. He charged £500 a go, regardless of what was inside. Imagine doing four of them a week. That’s an extra eight grand a month on top of your salary, in cash.

“I think eventually too many people knew, word traveled and somebody must have grassed him up, because he was suspended under investigation.”

David continues with relish, explaining how one of the prison officers, who had refused him showers, was convicted of sending love letters to an inmate.

He then goes on to tell me about another officer who purportedly had a fully blown sexual relationship with another inmate. I was fascinated but dubious, however a quick Google search leads me to the cases of Syndi Baker and Claire Stears.

There are hundreds of similar convictions for a myriad of offences across the prison system, and I was left in no doubt that his allegation of drug importation by corrupt prison staff was genuine.

The cost-benefit analysis still troubled me however. If dealing drugs was risky on the outside, as amply proven by our protagonist, surely getting mixed up inside prison was suicide? I put this to David.

“Look, you can earn big money in prison if you’re smart. The market value of drugs is more than five times what it is outside. A tiny zoot of English soap bar hash, which would barely line a single small Rizla, is worth half an ounce of tobacco inside. That’s a fiver. A prison gram of skunk, which came in a wrap, was £50. That probably weighed between 0.4-06 grams.

“Screws don’t get paid much, they were always moaning about being overworked and underpaid. Let’s face it; it’s a pretty grim job.

“Mentioning money to a screw when they’re alone could go two ways. Security will either come for you in the morning and ship you out somewhere halfway across the country, or you could both earn a nice little side income. It depends if they’re risk takers and if they can be manipulated.”

David is disturbed from his slumber by a sharp bang on the door. However, for the first time in a long time, he hears positive news.

He’s being moved down to a Category C prison, Coldingley in Bisley. It’s not quite the Category D ‘open prison’ that the prisoners in High Down can only dream of, but the progression is nevertheless a godsend.

However, when he got there, things seemed to get worse. The facilities were far below the standards of High Down’s. David distinctly remembers the lack of toilets in the cells.

“You have to press a button and wait in a queue after bang up to go for a piss or shit.

“You’re allowed out three times a night for eight minutes each time or the screws start calling your name over the tannoy and you get a warning.

“That must be against our human rights. I used to have to piss in a 5L bottle. Despite it being a filthy shit hole, I managed to get my Cat-D from here.”

The idea of Category D kept David going in these grim days. After two long years, he finally stepped on the coach and took the ride down the A283 to the promised land of Ford Open Prison in West Sussex.

David stepped off the coach and laughed to himself. It’s like being at Butlins, he thought. As he walked around, he noticed the lack of cells or metal doors, and absence of prison officers.

In many ways, Category D is a halfway house of sorts, an acclimatisation to society. However, you still have to be back before 8:30pm, although David is keen to stress that “you’re never locked anywhere.”

David soon realised that the risk/reward factor of Ford was significantly lower than anywhere he’d been before.

“People used to throw parcels over the small fence; we had it nice in there.

Alcohol, takeaways, protein shakes, steroids, mobile phones and pretty much any drug you wanted. I was high every night; it was like a holiday.

People were going out on town visits, home leaves, and even had jobs outside. Some people worked in gyms, charity shops, factories and labouring.”

This sounds more like the prison of Daily Mail myth I hear so frequently about. But still, David was confused. He had become so institutionalised that when he got to Ford he wanted to go back to Category C, despite everything.

The freedom and relaxed regime hit him hard and messed with his head, a thought both terrifying and alien to those of us who are fortunate enough to not have experienced it. However, time heals all wounds and soon enough David went out to nearby Brighton for days out as he began to acclimatise for release.

“It’s a feeling I cannot describe to anybody who hasn’t experienced it. Freedom. The thing we take for granted every day.”

Eventually, David woke up one day in August 2014 and walked through the gates, a free man.

“It was only the week building up to my release that it hit me, that I would soon be out and free. It was the best feeling of my life. The feeling of joy and happiness was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to be free. I missed freedom so much.”

David is a changed man now. He tells me that despite everything, prison sorted him out. Whether this is though fear or not I am unsure, but he seems genuine in his appreciation for so many of the things he missed out on during the best years of his life.

“Kindness. Gratitude. Loyalty. Respect. Love. Freedom. Everyday things, like walking down the road to the shops”.

He says prison made him a better person. He tells me that whilst prison teaches you how to judge peoples character and examine behavioural traits, it also teaches you tolerance, and patience.

I wonder if that’s true for many others. It’s impossible to say, but David ponders for a second, then declares that “it’s either going to make or break you.”

After moving back and forth between sheltered accommodation for a while, David is now in stable work, with his own place and a loving girlfriend. I ask him if the thought of getting back into the game ever crosses his mind. “Everyone gets caught in the end,” he says.

“You’ll lose your home, your relationship, your family, friends, but most importantly, your freedom and your rights. We all want to live well, but freedom is priceless.

“You can never put a price on that. Learn a trade, you can earn good legitimate money and never have to be paranoid or look over your shoulder again. If you enjoy taking risks, have nothing to lose and don’t mind the consequences then do your thing, and I wish the best of luck to you.”

 

 


Featured image by Sam Skinner.