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A Shout From The Attic: From Castle to Dungeon and Out Again - 3

Ronnie Bray recalls the time when he was in prison.

Winchester

Those who have not been enclosed in the walls of a prison …
can have but little idea, how sweet the voice of a friend or one token of friendship is - Joseph Smith

Winchester Prison has little to recommend itself to the casual visitor. I say this from the point of view of one who was resident there for several months, and who had plenty of opportunity to take a good look at it literally ‘from the inside.’

Isle of Sheppey - A Brief Stay

I did not like the Isle of Sheppey because my fellow prisoners were puerile. The prison had served as an RAF camp for many years, and retained the huts and administration buildings largely unaltered. Only the guardhouse had been updated to house a more desperate class of criminal than the RAF ever knew. I was predestined to become intimately acquainted with the interior of the jail.

My introduction to the dormitory hut to which I was assigned, still bitter from my imprisonment, was like being back in infants school although none of my school fellows behaved in such adolescent ways as did my tormentors. Lying fuming on my bed in solitary musing at the unfairness of life that had consigned me to the life of a convict while the authors of my discomfit were not only walking around free and unblemished, but also enjoying the company of my beloved children.

Thwack! A wet sock hit me on the side of the head. I rose peremptorily and addressed the now hushed occupants of the hut from Never-Never Land, explaining to them with scarcely disguised restraint how unhappy I was to be amongst children and that if there was not an immediate and tangible improvement of their behaviour, some of them would wish they had been hanged instead of merely imprisoned.

Canterbury

Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee - Psalms 79:11

Put this fellow in the prison,
and feed him with bread of affliction
and with water of affliction -
1 Kings 22:27

Did the prisoner shudder as he heard the king pronounce his sentence? I should think so, because prisons in Old Testament times were no picnics, and the diet left much to be desired. All the same, he did know that he would get something to eat and something to drink even if it was only bread and water and not much of them at best. Perchance old-time jailers enjoyed seeing their captives waste away, possibly even starving to death if they were kept there for any length of time, for it was not uncommon for them to be forgotten except by those employed to throw in their crusts of bread and cups of water.

“Bread of affliction’ and ‘water of affliction,’ referred to the reality that both were very meagrely provided for inmates, and that scarcity caused hunger pangs to gnaw at the vitals of the unfortunates who were suffered to try to exist on them, and thus they were afflicted.

Finding myself enjoying seven days of solitary confinement in a cell under Stafford Gaol over a little misunderstanding at Sheppey Open Prison, I was visited with the bread and water of affliction for three days. Under the British penal system, a prisoner cannot be kept on bread and water for more than three consecutive days at a time, which is an advance over the system that imprisoned Micah and Jeremiah back in the Bad Old Days. There were other improvements besides this, but more of those in a moment.

I had a comfortable cell, as cells go. Mine was a single occupancy chamber measuring twelve feet by ten with a vaulted ceiling about eight feet at its crown, and having a small inaccessible window high in the wall facing the iron door, and a stone flagged floor that I was invited to sweep and scrub each morning, with Sunday not considered a Day of Rest.

The décor of my lodging was muted early ruffian. In the centre of the room was a circular rush mat that augmented the furniture suite consisting of a Boer War surplus iron bedstead, a mattress, of the same period, a small, scrubbed wooden table, and a matching chair. On the table was a New Testament and a well read copy of Caravan to Vaccarres, and under the rush mat was a copy of a glossy magazine that I carefully secreted and replaced each day for the benefit of the next fortunate occupant of my sought after accommodation.

In that dwelling place I languished for twenty-three hours of each of my seven special days, the odd hour was spent rambling around the exercise yard, thoughtfully emptied of other prisoners so that I could continue to enjoy my tranquillity.

Each morning I arose at 6 00 am, having been summoned by a man they kept just to see that I did not sleep too long and spoil my daily routine. A quick wash, I combed my hair (just in case I were to receive important visitors), dressed in prison blue, folded my blankets, carried my bed frame out of my room into the corridor, stacked the mattress against it, hung my blankets over them, swept my subdivision, and, after scrubbing it, was free to spend the rest of the time doing whatever I could find to do.

Three times a day my valet, resplendent in full corporate colours, but with scarcely a smile, brought in bread and water and deposited them taciturnly on the well scrubbed table, before leaving and locking the door behind him with hardly a word: not unkind, merely maintaining the emphasis that ‘solitary’ meant solitary. I did not feel to complain.

Perhaps I should explain at this point that I was delighted to be in solitary confinement after tasting the sociability of the inmates of the dormitory hut to which I had been assigned on my arrival at the former military camp on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, that had been converted into an open prison. Some of them played schoolboy games that included giving the new boy a hard time. Having been taught that newcomers should be cared for and welcomed, and feeling rather more than somewhat put out at being in prison at all, my paranoia was running very close to the level of self-preservation that it serves in otherwise normal people. I do not claim to have been normal, but I was sensitive to rejection and hostility and that may have been normal.

I was less than tolerant when some exuberant youth threw a wet sock at me as I rested on my bed, and I let everyone know that I was to be left alone. For the remainder of the evening and night I was left alone. However, as we lined up on parade in the morning, someone threw a pebble at me from behind that struck me on the ear. I immediately broke ranks, turned to face the parade, and demanded that the coward who had thrown the pebble step forward and take what he had coming. Typically, the coward remained anonymous, but a prison officer took exception to my display of independence, doubtless defending his position as my defender, and put me on report.

A train of events commenced as I was being marched into the presence of the deputy governor that culminated in my being shackled, threatened, having the life almost squeezed out of me by a prison officer whose sobriquet, Jumbo, was merited, and upon being represented in a more subdued spirit. I was awarded seven days solitary confinement, three days on bread and water, and immediate transfer from the nursery playground of Sheppey to the more secure and adult Canterbury Prison. It was a welcome change.

When Jumbo handed me over to the underground staff at Canterbury, he did so with the explanation that I liked to call prison officers naughty names, but no one on the staff at Canterbury seemed disturbed by this intelligence. I was pleasantly processed, given a taciturn cursory inspection by a medical man, shown to my suite, and given a sheet of regulations that would govern my seven-day stay in the basement splendour of Canterbury’s other palace - the one in which the Primate of the Church of England does not reside.

I had made a determination that I would drink the water but not eat the bread. Three days is not long, and then I would be back on normal diet for the next three days. I could last, I determined stoically. The first pound lump of bread that was delivered with my aluminium jug of water, I placed ceremoniously at the corner of the table where it fitted into the corner of the cell. I hardly noticed its presence, but occupied my self with reading the novel.

The next delivery came, and no comment was made of the fact that I had not eaten the morning lump. As taciturn as my provender, I stacked the second lump on top of the first and continued reading. By noon of the second day, I had five lumps of bread each weighing approximately one pound avoirdupois, stacked after the manner of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but this singularity evoked no comment from my uniformed entourage.

Caravan to Vaccarres is an interesting book with romance, excitement, and free adventure, and it is amazing how very hungry it made me as I ploughed through its pages! By teatime on the second day, the pile of bread looked like manna and I thought that I would pull a lump out from between the crusts and just eat a little.

When I had eaten just a little, the whole six pounds of bread was gone, and I felt replete. I had been biting off my nose to spite my face and it had only made me hungrier. I learned a valuable lesson, and I enjoyed the bread, even though it was the bread of affliction. Sometimes, if you have nothing else, even the bread of affliction can be very sweet indeed.

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