40 Days in Mayfield Women’s Prison; Chapter 5 Teacher Diary: the job begins

My first day working at Mayfield. The weather was very bad: it was cold and pouring with rain. I got the bus to the train station and arrived at Mayfield just before 8:00 AM.  As before, I handed my mobile in at security.  Jasmin met me and took me up to the education area, where I was introduced to more aspects of the prison regime. I sat in on Megan’s class again and we then had lunch at the canteen. As I don’t have keys to any doors inside the prison I can’t move around freely and even have to ask to go to the toilet. The toilet is at the end of the education corridor and is kept locked. You have to lock the entrance door to the toilets when you are in there.  The women will go in there to smoke and if they are caught doing that they are they are sent back to their cells.

Apart from Jasmin and Megan I met some more colleagues: Mary, Richard and Cassandra. Cassandra is a very personable young black woman who is recovering from an injury and is using crutches. In the afternoon Jasmin gave me a tour of the prison and this was the most interesting part of the day. We left the education corridor and went downstairs. First, we went into the isolation unit which is, perhaps appropriately, behind a big red door.  The isolation unit is where prisoners considered dangerous are kept and is also used to isolate prisoners who have been involved in serious incidents such as fights. I learned later on in the week that Megan gives one-to-one tuition to a woman in this unit. The woman is considered to be so dangerous that she always has to be accompanied by three prison officers. When we went into the unit the woman was in the corridor with her three attendants.  I was rather surprised to see that this dangerous person was a very innocuous-looking middle-aged woman sitting in a wheelchair. I found it difficult to believe that the security measures were completely justified, but on the other hand, if I knew more I might well have changed my mind. 

We walked down to the end of the corridor and then came back.  The unit has a rather tranquil but clinical atmosphere. Next, we went over to the healthcare unit, which is directly opposite the isolation unit. The healthcare unit and is where ill prisoners are kept.  It also accommodates prisoners with mental health problems. As we went, in Jasmin advised me to walk close to the wall opposite the cells as the prisoners can throw things at you as you walk down the corridor. After a brief look around we left the building and went over to the house blocks. There are four house blocks called H1, H2 etc. and they are built around a large courtyard.  Houseblock 2 is where drug offenders are kept based on the idea that this will help keep the drug problem away from the other prisoners. H4 is where enhanced prisoners and long-term prisoners are kept. Enhanced prisoners have earned special privileges through good behaviour. H 4 is the best of the houseblocks. We went into H3 as Jasmin had to recommend a prisoner for enhancement. She did this by finding the prisoner’s file which was in a little stack of files in a storeroom. I had somehow expected to find a more sophisticated filing system.

While I was in the houseblock I saw one of our students, a middle-aged woman from Nigeria.  It felt rather uncomfortable to see her in this context, so different from the classroom: it was reminder that she was prisoner, which I found strangely disquieting. This was something I had obviously not yet become acclimatised to. We left and went into H4. The facilities here are better and there was a calmer atmosphere. The block was very quiet and I could see why prisoners would want to move there.

We visited the gym, which is very impressive. I can use it if I want to, though I doubt I will.  When I was there there were a couple of members of staff using it.  I noted that in this context there was no way to tell who as staff and who was prisoner, which was in a way quite unexpected. There is also a work programme called Get Stitched Up, where the women make handbags for sale. The customer is a company which no doubt appreciates the cheap labour. I was surprised to find that the brand is quite a posh one which commands premium prices on the high street.  I wondered what the consumers would think if they knew the bags were being made by cheap prison labour.  There is also a Chapel which is multi-faith. However, a woman in one of my classes said that prisoners don’t go there to repent, they go there to “associate” that is, to exchange drugs.

I observed another class in the afternoon and helped some of the women with their work.  I was now able to observe in more detail the level of literacy of the students.  The level of literacy I observed was in most cases extremely low, with many women struggling with basic reading and writing.  The level of teaching was obviously not going to be of itself demanding, but no doubt there were other aspects of the job that would be demanding.

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