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Extracts from a COVID Prison Diary

Since 1974, Peter Wayne has spent more than 35 years in jail. Two months ago, he was released from a London prison after serving a three-year sentence. During this period, he kept a journal, from which the following extracts are taken

Extracts from a COVID Prison Diary

Since 1974, Peter Wayne has spent more than 35 years in jail. Two months ago, he was released from a London prison after serving a three-year sentence. During this period, he kept a journal, from which the following extracts are taken

23 March 2020

That’s it then. The PM has announced the whole country has to go into what he calls “lockdown”. How long it’ll last, nobody knows, but I can’t help feeling just a touch of schadenfreude. After spending over half my life on earth in a proper lockdown situation, I shall be interested to see how law-abiding folk deal with their predicament. 

Already, we are hearing disturbing rumours about how COVID-19 is affecting prisoners in gaols all over the world. 28 inmates died in an attempted COVID-19-related break-out from a prison in Colombia.

24 March 2020

The BBC has announced that all prison visits have been cancelled forthwith. For the many father’s as sons in here, this will be a painful blow, as visits are the only real let-up from the ennui of imprisonment.

I work in the visits hall, painting murals on the walls, trying to brighten up the otherwise monotonic colour scheme. As I work, I see the kisses and cuddles on arrival, and the tears on departure. Luckily (not sure if that’s quite the word) I have no family  and few friends who are not in prison with me, so the visits ban won’t affect me.

28 March 2020

Today I was told my services in the visits hall will no longer be required. Now there are no visits, there are no staff in the visits complex. I’m unemployed – at least for the duration.

Saw the governor about it. Explained how “essential” my work was to the mental health of the men and, by extension, the “good order and discipline” of the prison. She wasn’t having any of it. Apparently she already has “over 30 officers” off work sick or “isolating” at home.

29 March 2020

Local Notice NTS 044/20 reads: “You may have seen the Government’s announcements about reducing the spread of COVID through ‘social distancing’. In support of this, the prison chaplaincy nationally have instructed all prisons to stop public and group worship. Sermons will be delivered on National Prison Radio during this difficult time. PS: This decision has not been taken lightly.”

As I play the piano for all the Christian services, this is another blow to me personally.

1 April 2020

Much talk of early release of prisoners! Can’t see it myself.

Britain seems to have become a nation opposed to any measures that might in any way reduce sentences. More likely the gossip began as a perverse April Fools’ joke. Not a particularly funny one at that.

2 April 2020

I had always been of the opinion that, after so many years inside, I had learnt how to do my bang-up. I read, I write, I paint. In essence, I lead a civilised life in prison. But I’ve only been on “lockdown” for just over a week, and already the boredom of my own company is killing me.

Have been told they can only unlock essential workers, a maximum of 10 men per wing at any one time. Cleaners, storemen, litter-pickers, laundry workers and canteen delivery boys. No artists, writers or musicians included on their list. In none too good a mood about it. Neither are the 200 plus other lads on the wing in similar unemployed positions. Dissatisfaction is shown by thunderous rolls of fists banging collectively on locked cell doors.

We are out of our cells for only 20 minutes each day, which leaves 23 hours and 20 minutes to fill, seven days a week.

3 April 2020

As if to compensate for the lack of any purposeful activity, the Powers That Be seem to have decided that the way to a convict’s heart is through his stomach. They bring the meals round to the cells now instead of letting us out to the servers. What a lot of food there suddenly seems to be! This evening, we were given four boiled eggs (we usually get one), and a whole jar(!) of smooth peanut butter. Wasn’t complaining. Got through the lot in less than an hour.

To celebrate the forthcoming Easter festival, the chaplain delivered more eggs – this time Cadbury’s cream-filled ones, along with a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald’s powerfully tragic painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

4 April 2020

Noticed they are still putting prisoners straight off the street directly onto the wings. Surely new arrivals should be kept apart from those already settled (and presumably COVID-free) prisoners, who’ve been here for a time before the pandemic began to spread.

Staff are apparently being tested and having their temperatures taken before being allowed in to work. But no prisoners have yet been tested. So far, the virus seems to have circumvented the prison.

10 April 2020

To stop myself from going completely round the bend with boredom, I have decided to join the national effort and have begun to paint COVID-19 awareness posters (using the visiting hall paint, now redundant) in the cell.

The first one is based on an AIDS awareness poster from the 80s. ‘COVID: STOP IT HERE’ it announces in a red bordered triangular road sign. The second one, done in a filthy purple-green, is of the Coronavirus itself, with the legend “KILL IT” scrawled across the centre, 8 feet by 3 feet, on the back of my in-cell noticeboard. Unpleasant and shocking though it undoubtedly is, one hopes it might effectively hammer the necessary message home.

They have started a weekly nationwide clap outside to thank the NHS workers for all their sacrifices. Good to hear last Thursday that we prisoners joined in, albeit within these walls.

14 April 2020

News on TV is still solidly COVID, from Piers Morgan in the morning to Emily Maitlis last thing at night. They are asking for 100,000 volunteers to help deliver food parcels to those old folk having to “shield” in their own homes. Why don’t they enrol low-security prisoners? Surprisingly (some might think) nearly everybody in here wants to do something to help.

It’s good to see pictures of 99-year-old Captain Tom appearing on boards around the prison. One tattooist has done his face on his cellmate’s back! Now that really is getting into the spirit of things. 

19 April 2020

Word is travelling fast along the prison grapevine that we have a COVID-19 victim in the prison hospital. Worryingly too, there are several members of staff laid low with the virus. We’ve also heard that two screws in another jail have died of the disease.

Hundreds are dying every day outside. Why should it be any different in here?

21 April 2020

Anybody showing signs of COVID-19 is now being tested immediately and put into isolation cells at the other end of the prison. Their cellmates too are being removed from their normal location and being put into solitary for at least 10 days. There are now over 30 prisoners in this predicament. Not looking good.

28 April 2020

Communication under the door from Care UK, the healthcare provider here. It said: “We have reached a stage where the number of Coronavirus cases has increased, and in order to protect you, we can no longer see patients face-to-face. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”

Bang-up continues. It’s difficult to get accurate information on cases (and deaths) in HM prisons. Fed-up with the whole carry on.

Life is for living, even inside. Eventually we will all die. It’s only a matter of time.

29 April 2020

Lots of shouting from the “window warriors”. They rarely shut up – so many wild young offenders being moved here.

Will canteen (our weekly supplies of goodies) be delivered tonight? Nobody has so far seen the DHL lorry which normally gets here mid-afternoon. Woe betide if that doesn’t turn up eventually.

Oh, hang about. Here it is now. Emergency over (for the time being).

30 April 2020

Received an unexpected visit from the wing manager. As the prison library has been shut since the outbreak, he’s “worried” that prisoners don’t have enough reading material in their cells to pass the time. Would I be prepared to put together a temporary book room in an empty cell on the wing and to deliver the free newspapers they’ve arranged to be sent into the prison since the local newsagents had to close? Damned right I would! Just let me at the books, boys.

We’re fortunate in the prison to have a charity called I’ve A Book which has donated an extra 20 boxes full of ’em in many different languages. All I have to do is sort them out and distribute. This news has left me considerably cheered. I knew something would come along.

Tonight, I have spent two hours learning how to say out loud all 32 letters of the Russian alphabet, backwards. The things you can do with spare time!

2 May 2020

Pregnant women are to be released “temporarily” in order to “protect them and their unborn children” from the Coronavirus.

4 May 2020

All staff (but no prisoners) have been issued with full PPE, to be donned only when they are “in direct contact with suspected cases of COVID-19”.

Most of the screws have taken to wearing those horrible pale blue surgical gloves they use to do strip searches. Have always disliked them – the idea that all staff are clean, whereas all prisoners are dirty.

No sign anywhere on the wings of that special soap everybody seems to be using outside. Have been told they cannot risk putting alcohol-based fluids on landings, when so many prisoners are alcoholics. They have, however, decided we all deserve an extra £2 a week telephone credit. It’s just a shame that my in-cell phone hasn’t worked since the day after it was installed over a year ago.

Another 684 dead yesterday.

7 May 2020

In Northern Ireland, 100 prisoners have been cleared for immediate release. Here in the centre of London (apparently the epicentre of the pandemic outside), there have still been no announcements regarding the male population of prisoners in England and Wales.

Another shipment of books has arrived. One of them, published just a year ago, is entitled The End of Epidemics. On its cover is a map of the world. Have decided to paint this onto the wall outside the reading room I built.

10 May 2020

Free newspapers are still coming in as the governor has managed to negotiate a special deal with suppliers. They come a day late, but that doesn’t matter as long as the lads get them in order. Trouble is, there are plenty of copies of The Times, the Telegraph, The Independent and the Guardian. Suns and Mirrors though (most favoured amongst prisoners) are very thin on the ground.

12 May 2020

Without asking anybody’s permission (because I wouldn’t have got it) I took my pots of paint and did an oval shield in blue and white right outside the wing medical treatment hatch. Like those blue plaques English Heritage put up. It reads simply ‘2020 Our NHS Heroes’. One of the nurses was in tears when she saw it. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s done since I started to work here 10 years ago,” she said. She almost moved me to tears with her own emotions.

Can honestly say that this bit of time, since COVID-19 invaded, has been the most difficult I have ever served. And yet, miraculously, (and I don’t want to tempt providence) there have been no major disturbances. Whether this is through good luck or good management, I guess we’ll never know. And no deaths yet – here that is. Are we going to get through this with a completely clean sheet?

20 May 2020

News from a press conference at Downing Street. The PM tells us that he has a new “cluster-busting” operation all set to start up around something he’s calling Test and Trace. Says the pandemic is not over yet, but that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally managed to extract some COVID-19 figures for prisons from an article in The Times. There have so far been 18 deaths (staff and inmates) in all prisons in England and Wales, which isn’t half bad when you consider there are over 80,000 prisoners and maybe 20,000 staff.

28 May 2020

The lady who thought up the idea of the national clap has said enough is enough, and that next week’s will be the last one.

The “lockdown” outside is apparently going to come to an end very shortly. In here, there has even been talk of re-opening the visiting room, which means I’ll be back in a proper job. In the meantime, we have still not been issued with any masks and not one prisoner without any symptoms has yet been tested.

All being well, the PM reassured us, Christmas need not necessarily be cancelled. We might be back to “something close to normal” before the autumn leaves begin to fall. That sounds good. Especially encouraging for me as I’m due to be released in mid-November.

6 June 2020

Last clap tonight. The banging on the doors continues.

There’s a storm around every corner in here so we must all take care. Maybe now some of those judges and magistrates who send us down so often and for such long periods have experienced a bit of “soft” lockdown (shall we say) of their own, they might now show a bit more humanity and compassion when they have to do this to another man in front of them.

Looking back at these journal entries now, after being released into a world so changed, so darkened, so much less of a beautiful place to live in, I feel betrayed by my own optimism last summer, when we all thought the worst had passed.

Another 1,500 deaths again just yesterday. Let us hope, let us pray that the vaccination light will shine as brightly as it needs to. The news from inside the prisons isn’t good, and there is an urgency required to ensuring all those still in there are vaccinated without delay. What more is there to say?

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