14 years old and behind bars – the healing circle
On the 23rd January 1985 I was sentenced to Detention Centre, this was what was known as ‘Short Sharp Shock’ and the politicians at the time believed they could scare you straight, for some it had the complete opposite effect.
Let me give you some background of my story, before this date (that is permanently imprinted within my mind) I had grown up in a family that had a historic relationship with the care system, the dysfunction that existed was there way before I was born.
Growing up was a very painful experience (putting it lightly), I was a lost soul that felt disconnected from my own family. I spent time in care at 3 and 6 years of age and got a full care order at the age of 11.
I did not deal with this well and I became more reckless within my behaviour and had many brushes with the law, it was this that led to me going to Send Detention Centre 14 days after my 14th birthday, back then you had to be 14 before you could get a custodial sentence
I am writing this blog as I was fortunate to visit HMP Send that is now a woman’s Prison. The day was one of many emotions and also a process of healing, another circle completed. It was a pleasure to see that this Prison that created so much pain and trauma is now a place of healing and has amazing therapeutic programmes for those within their care.
It was a cold winters night when I was driven to Send in the back of a Police car, I remember the fear I felt inside as I was aware of the violence and intimidation that awaited me. Sadly I was already accustomed to this as I was in a home called Glen House, this was an old remand home that was very volatile, it was made up of both open units and a secure unit.
I remember seeing the gates for the first time, they were like the mouth of a beast and I knew I was not going to feel any peace.
I stepped out of the car and the Police officer takes off my cuffs and I look up and I see my first ever prison officer by a door. He is wearing black shiny boots, a crisp blue shirt and a peaked hat that dips forward and covers his forehead, he is very much the image of a sergeant at boot camp.
He looks at me and also right through me – he shouts “come here”, I look at the Police and they ignore my stare so I slowly walk over to a prison officer, I can see that he hates me without even knowing me. I get to him and he looks at me and says “when you’re in here you don’t walk you don’t run – you fucking fly” and with this he shoves me through the door and I stumble but don’t fall to floor.
I see another prison officer and instinctively know he is my next stop, this time I don’t walk I run to him. He looks at me and gives me a card and says this is your number, every time the door opens to your cell or an officer asks you shout out your name and number. He also tells me that every time I walk past an officer I need to say “excuse me sir” and you only ever reply with a “yes sir” or “no sir” unless asked a question that warrants a reply.
He puts me in a small room that has a table and a bench, he shuts the door and I hear his boots and keys clink and clank into the distance. I look at the card M33681 that is now me. I then look away and look at the walls and windows the walls are a gloss finish that are cold to the touch and that is my everlasting feeling of that place – cold, life did not exist in that environment.
The door flies open and the same officer grabs my card and screams “to attention” I jump up my heart racing “what’s your number?”. I stumble and stutter and he screams “if you don’t remember your number in future you will be sorry…” I still remember how that threat of violence dominated the environment and you were always aware that the officers had the power and could do as they pleased.
I never forgot that number and today 35yrs later I can reel it off my tongue without a thought, I was truly embedded as a number – ‘Gethin’ did not exist in that place. I was a quick learner and the next time the door opened I sprang to attention and in my loudest voice shouted “M33681 Jones Sir”. They had me I was theirs but this was not enough.
I was next taken into a room and was made to stand on a mat this was around 3 ft away from a table. There were 2 officers in front of me they screamed for me to take off my clothes and place them in a box next to me. I stripped to my pants and they said them too. Reluctantly I took these off too and was stood in this cold room stripped of my pride, stripped of my clothes, the officer walked around me noting my scars and home made tattoos on my hand and arms.
I felt scared and my mouth is dry ,I want to run and hide but there is nowhere to go, I am alone in a strange place with strange people shivering slightly. I am cold and alone. This is not the first time I have been in this situation I am accustomed to these feeling and I know how to survive. I will watch, listen, learn and adapt. I will show no fear survival is my number one objective.
The officer marches me naked to the clothes store where I am issued with my prison uniform this is the final part of the process where my identity as Gethin Jones completely disappears and I become a con, a prisoner a number, a scum bag. I am nothing to these people in this place I am just another toe rag that was going to be punished.
I am double marched back to my small room, the door slam shuts, I want to cry but hold back the tears I must stay strong I can’t show any fear… I hear the officer shout “when you’re in here you don’t walk you don’t run you fucking fly” it’s another arrival who is about to get the same treatment as me. I sit in the corner of the cell looking at the door willing it to stay shut, I have already had enough I want to close my eyes and wake up somewhere else but I can’t this is real this is my reality.
The door flies open and up I jump my heart is racing as I shout “M33681 Jones Sir” the officers shouts grab your kit and get out here at the double, I rush out and have to jog on the spot. I am in a line there is one boy in front of me and I can sense some behind but I am not looking back I am too sacred. The boy in front is smaller than me and he is trying to hold up his trousers, jog on the spot and hold his kit. He loses the battle and both his trousers and pants fall to his ankles, the officer screams for him to pull them up the boy scrambles to do this I can hear his sobs but they won’t help him.
MOVE…. We are now jogging down a corridor and turn left onto a much longer corridor that is nick named the M1. It is spotless and lifeless as is the rest of the Prison. We turn left again and there are some cell doors open, we stop in front of the open door I can see my new home before me it is a cold bare cell with just a bed, a table and a chair.
We are now given our final orders. The officer bellows “when I say go you will run into that cell and make your bed, after that on the table you will find a pen a paper and an envelope and you are going to write to your Mums and say you are ok and you are sorry and you won’t do it again and that you will be good boys whilst here.
In your cell is a window don’t close this window it stays open at all times, when you are woken up in the morning you get out of bed and stand to attention until we open the door don’t sit on your bed and don’t sit on your chair stay standing…. Have you got it ? “yes sir” Now move… “
I run into the cell and jump as the door slams behind me, I hear the other cell doors slam. I put my kit on the bed and take in my surroundings. It is barer than I thought and it has a cold feeling and I sense that there has never been any love, laughter or fun in a place like this only misery, hate and despair.
I see the paper on the table and wonder what I should write, I have not seen my Mum in 2 years and up until now I have not wanted or needed her. To me she meant nothing, my resentment to her was huge and when I thought of her I feel the anger rise, I don’t need her.
I look away and make my bed knowing that soon I will get under the covers and there I will feel safe, I have slept in many strange beds in many strange places but under the sheets and covers I feel safe, I suppose it is my security my safe haven.
I go back to the letter and I feel the tears rise to the surface. At this point I start to cry, all of a sudden I am a boy – a 14 year old boy who should be at home with his family or out playing with his friends. He should not be in a place like this alone, frightened and scared. I start to write to my mum saying how sorry I am, I have this overwhelming feeling that I want and need my mum.
The tears fall down my face as I continue to write, I tell her I am ok and ask if she will come to see visit me, as at that point I realise I have no one else. If she does not come, no one will. At 14 I have reached a point where no one is there. My behaviour and lifestyle has led me to being isolated and alone.
Little did I know I had another 20 years of pain and suffering ahead of me. I sign off with a ‘love you Mum, Gethin xxx’ I get undressed and get in bed, I curl into a ball under the sheets crying softly so no one will hear. I squeeze tighter and start to feel the comfortable feeling of sleep drift over me.
I relax knowing I will soon be in that safe place where no one can hurt me. I think of my life up to now and how I got to this place… My Mum, my Dad, my Siblings, Wales, Paulsgrove, the Bus the Social workers, Police, Children’s homes, I start to drift off – peace at last – its time to dream of what could have been.
This is the reality of what happened to me and many other young people in the 70s and 80s, this is a reality of how the system treated those most in need. My mum never came and neither did anyone else, she did write and I remember getting the letter and feeling some comfort.
Today I am so grateful that I and a few of my friends have survived. I have many other friends and peers that didn’t make it. I would like to publicly say thank you to the current Prison System and to the many staff that are working to right the wrongs of the past.
I have been welcomed by HMPPS and they have given me an opportunity to use my past and present experiences to help and support both staff and residents.
Although visiting HMP Send was a hugely emotional day it was also a day where I connected with me and comforted myself in the knowledge that I made it, this is the power that comes from completing a healing circle.