A Maverick Psychologist's Jail Diary - Part 3 of 4
A heretic inside
Word soon got around among the prison officers and inmates that I was a "Holocaust disbeliever" and this led to some interesting debates. The prison environment lends itself to some obvious parallels and my argument ran as follows: "Imagine this is the 1940s, and we are losing a war against Russia. The Russians are invading from the north, and all the prisons up there are being evacuated southward. This wing, designed for 300, is packed with 1,500 people, six to a cell instead of two, with people sleeping on the floors in addition. Moreover, the people coming in from the north are carrying fleas, which carry typhus. The Russians have control of the air. Attempts to bring food or medicine to the prison are frustrated, because any train or lorry is being shot to pieces by aircraft. That is what happened in the closing days of the war with Germany."
I have deliberately mixed the order and location of some of these exchanges to save possible embarrassment. One officer got a bit heated about the topic. "You can stick your beliefs up your arse! Three-and-a-half million people died!" he said angrily. I'm not normally very quick verbally, and usually only think of a suitable reply half an hour too late, but on this occasion I immediately retorted "It was six million last week!"
Many times I came up against a stock argument: "My grandfather was at Dachau/Belsen/wherever." Then I had to patiently explain, for the umpteenth time, that even in the orthodox version of events there were no mass exterminations at the camps on German territory. It was all supposed to have happened in the East, chiefly at Auschwitz. I sometimes told of the time I visited Dachau years ago, when I was still a believer. I had sensed that something was wrong. It had been brewing even before I saw the notice tucked away in a corner, along the lines of "This shower room was never used for extermination but was constructed after the war for demonstration purposes."
I noticed that a certain washroom-toilet always had at least one prison officer stationed outside. This apparently was for the sole purpose of stopping inmates having a sly smoke inside. When I realised what was going on I dubbed them "smoking guards" and told one that "the present regime makes the Nazis look like kindergarten teachers." A couple of days later I was passing off the wing, and had to give my name for the movement record. "Sheppard" I said, "political prisoner." "Jawohl" replied the officer and I walked off chuckling.
One of the prison libraries had a display about Holocaust Memorial Day. This prompted me to tell all within hearing that when the German administration at Auschwitz learned that the Russians were advancing, they offered the inmates the choice of staying and waiting for the Russian "liberators" or marching with them several hundred miles to another camp. Almost the entire camp chose to flee with the Germans and march. One of the few that didn't was Otto Frank, because he was in the camp hospital recovering from typhus.
On my birthday, 19th February, only a couple of days after I got access to a computer, my 'Appeal against Recall' was faxed off. The paperwork said there were "complaints to the Police by members of the public that he had distributed written material glorifying spree killers." I had given one copy to one male librarian, and the article had even been shown to Probation beforehand. My appeal said that on the basis of the information I had been given, I had not breached my licence conditions at all. I tried to contact my former lawyer to assist but learned later that his firm didn't have the necessary contract. Apparently firms need special Legal Aid contracts for matters of prison law and actions against the police. So I did the right thing going ahead with it myself.
What passes for work
In the mornings I was enrolled on a pointless computer course. I was able to skip most of the word-processing (not much to learn there, I've been doing it for decades) but reached new heights with Powerpoint. How can anyone ever manage without it? Scores of pointless print-outs had to be made, while at the same time the content witters on about recycling and reducing waste. The atmosphere there was okay however, and I was able to sketch some notes for a future article. There were some lively discussions as well; one young man said he believed in equal opportunities and I said that it was never about equality, only superiority. I quoted the survey I did in Hull in 1997, where 80% of the unemployed were male but 69% of the people working in the unemployment benefit offices were female. Then look here I said, with a huge proportion of probation officers and other administrators being female. "Do you think then that women shouldn't work?" I was asked. "Not while there are men on the dole" I said and continued, "Women are crooks who steal men's jobs." "You can't say that!" someone said. "I just did" I replied, to howls of laughter.
It was notable how the presence of even a single member of one of the "protected groups" stifled free discussion. I was sitting beside a Pakistani one day and said to him, "Do you know that the Nazis had a Muslim division?" Of course he didn't.
The worst part of prison is having a psychopath for a cell-mate, or sharing a cell with someone otherwise severely dysfunctional (into this category I include the large number of TV addicts, whose first action on waking is to turn it on). Fortunately I only had to endure this for a week or so. Hence the worst part, which I came to dread, was the work detail I had in the afternoons. This was billed as "Business Administration" but its primary purpose seemed to be keeping Manchester College in funds. Daily committee meetings, with minutes taken, pathetic "theory" exercises on how and why to give a presentation, mind-numbing minutae concerning health and safety and how to use a computer. The whole atmosphere stifled any initiative and ability. The obvious observation was that if this was how business at large was run it was no wonder the country was bankrupt.
A trickle of real work came though the door, but the important thing seemed to be completing the Manchester College forms. It had all the characteristics of a New Labour box-ticking scam. Prison when all is said and done is just a microcosm of wider society, although with added restrictions and exaggerations of policy. This afternoon work session came to epitomise the mediocrity of society at large. That is, a society replete with institutional incompetence, steered by people of doubtful ability, only a willingness to toe the party line. Some organisations go along with the dogma, having to adhere to the letter of the law, and of course there will be rationalisation (reducing cognitive dissonance, in orthodox terminology). The most insufferable however are those who wholeheartedly embrace this rubbish, and for whom box-ticking is a way of life.
One time there was a discussion about bullying, a poster was being produced about it and everyone was invited to sit around the table and contribute. I piped up from the far corner, "What about bullying by the state of people who refuse to go along with their dogma?" "We're not talking about that" was the answer. A few days later my frustration boiled over to an argument with the supervisor, at one point drawing a cheer from the other prisoners. "This is all to keep people like you in fancy salaries" I said. "I wish" was her response. "Well it's a lot more than I get" I said. The plain fact was that here we had large numbers of men working on these vapid courses, no doubt designed and marked by women, while the prison population is 94% male. We were paid about £1 per day for our contribution, and a large proportion of inmates are in prison due to being unemployed and having nothing to do except take drugs and commit crime.
The last day
It all happened on 5th March. In the morning I met a police officer who told me there would be "no further action" in respect of the Spree Killers article. This was a relief, although it might have been interesting to see how it played out. How would the media spin the trial? In essence, it is the case of a writer – indubitably in this context, a journalist – being tried for an article which had already been published after complaints by two librarians!
I asked the police officer for clarification about whether I would get into trouble for posting the SK article on the Heretical site. He seemed to be aware of my appeal against recall, but said I had little chance of release before the remaining six weeks of my licence were up. In the afternoon, the normal supervisor was on "maternity leave" (this is an approximation), some men were supervising instead and I actually got some work done. During a discussion of criminal matters one young lad said something of such naivety (he'd confided some incriminating information to a lawyer) that the laughter took a while to die down.
After work came tea, then a smoke then association. About 18:30 I was leaning against a radiator as usual when an officer approached and said "Mr Sheppard?" I was thinking, 'What trouble am I in now?' but said that I was. "Immediate release" he said, "You've got five minutes to pack your stuff." "You're joking" I said. I suspect he was enjoying himself. No, he insisted, pack your stuff. He eventually had to come and get me while I was giving things away to my shaven-headed friend and others who had got the word.
The corridor which led off the wing seemed much busier than usual, and maybe others had gathered to watch me go. As I was passing through I recognised the one who had dubbed me "Reader" and gave him my alarm clock. I'm afraid my last words to my fellow prisoners were "If this turns out to be a joke I want it back!"
At Reception something was said about this happening only once a year. It was like being in a Hollywood film, enjoyable but thoroughly implausible. I quoted a film I had watched a couple of nights before, featuring Sharon Stone as a sharp-shooting gunslinger. As if! "Why can't a girl be a gunfighter?" one of the officers asked, clearly another pc believer. The fact is that even the male ones are a Hollywood myth: their pistols were wildly inaccurate and I have seen a claim that bullets were very expensive at the time, making a mockery of all those trigger-happy shoot-outs. Whether this is true or not, handguns are still hopeless at distance even today, and the oft-repeated theme of shooting through ropes to free someone from the noose, hitting silver dollars in mid-air, or any of the other displays of astounding accuracy, are pure fantasy.
Then there was a walk to the gates with another officer, and we fell to talking about American prisons. I told him I much preferred British ones, and that the American justice system is cruel, quoting a case I had seen of a young black of 17 or so who had held hostage a group of college girls at gunpoint. None of the young women had been shot, raped or even hurt, but he got 50 years. "I'm not overly sympathetic to blacks who hold up college girls" I said, "but 50 years is a bit steep. We all do stupid things sometimes and anyone can make a mistake." "They would have been in fear of their lives" he said, adopting the opposing stance. "That's a fear crime" I replied, "it's impossible to measure and everyone is trying to scrabble to the top of the victimhood ladder."
Shortly we arrived at the 'lock,' the staggered doors which are the prison entrance and exit for vehicles. Normally all releases take place first thing in the morning; processing of departing prisoners is begun even before everyone is opened up for work movements. I was shown to a glass panel and run through a series of questions which were checked against the paperwork. Then a button was pressed, the heavy door slid aside a few feet and with a cheery wave to the officer behind the glass I stepped outside. I had a pint of bitter in a pub on the way to the train station, but it was not until I reached York and familiar territory that the realisation that I was free again finally struck home.