My Shepton Mallet Prison Experience raising money for SOS Africa to send Mechline to school in South Africa
Having put on our orange Guantanamo Bay overalls and met my fellow inmates we were put in chains and in the drizzle marched to beat of a drum to the Shepton Mallet prison. The town was prepared and quite a few people came out of their shops to shout “Scumbags….Throw away the key” Great Fun!
On arrival at the prison the huge walls loomed above us and when we entered and saw the tall metal inner fence with barbed wire rolls on the top I think we all started to realise this was for real! We were marched to Block C where we were allowed to enter our individual cell. As I entered I was thinking “this isn’t too bad – bigger than I expected” when my cell door was banged shut behind me. I was really quite shocked – I think it was the lack of warning and the lack of consultation. It was a sign of the lack of control I would have over my own doings over the next 24 hours and it unsettled me.
The room paced at 7 by 5 and contained a loo (now defunct) and a very narrow metal bedframe with metal slats screwed to the floor. Silence descended and I settled down to read my book. However what surprised me is I couldn’t really be bothered to read, but I couldn’t really be bothered to think either! I just lay there – awake, but blank staring at the walls. For someone that rarely stops and is always plotting and planning this lack of mental activity and interest was bizarre. If I felt like this after just a morning you can really start to imagine how a prisoner would just shut down and give up after 8 years. This prison had quite a few “Lifers” and I was starting to get a very small inkling of how it might feel.
I was lying there with all of my 7 layers of clothing on, under my blanket and sleeping bag and I couldn’t stop shaking from the cold. The prison closed 4 years ago and there was no latent heat whatsoever. How on earth was I going to cope at night when it got even colder? It was only near the end of this cell session I realised my cell window was open! Obviously it was very high up and impossible to reach so as to stop anyone trying to escape. Later on I did manage to find a stick to close it and that did improve the temperature situation dramatically.
Hours later, and I can’t tell you how long as our watches and phones were taken off us, there was an order for us to leave our cell – only to find a paper bag with lunch in outside my cell door. I looked at my neighbour 8 feet away standing outside her cell and we were clearly both as horrified as the other. We tried to have a chat but got told off and had to go back into our cell and eat alone. I certainly felt ready for social interaction and my spirit really sank as I returned to my cell alone….Just imagine the effect on you being a lifer.
Another hour or so, (who knows!), and we were allowed to blow up our mattresses in silence and then ordered to go to a room where Matt and Claudia gave us a short presentation on the SOS Africa charity, in order to remind us in the wee hours of the night why it was worth doing.
To remind you the charity sponsors children to go to school in South Africa. Children are selected who have attended early learning and have good attendance (Ie they are motivated to learn), but from families who do not have enough money to send their children to school. It must be heart-breaking to choose which ones get a chance to improve their lives vs the ones that don’t. As well as the charity paying for the schooling they have also set up 3 after school clubs where the SOS Africa kids go in the afternoon. Here they are given a hot meal and helped with homework and their reading, as well as have time for some creative play and arts. Many of their parents are not schooled themselves and so are not able to help their children with their homework, and certainly would not be able to afford books for them to read, so this After Care really is a critical support for the children to learn and progress and start to change their lives.
The charity also has mini buses which transports the children to and from school as in most cases they would not be able to get there otherwise as there would be no money for a bus. So many things that we take for granted in our lives. Their latest aftercare club is actually in the grounds of a school and during the mornings during school time also offers dyslexia and learning disability support to all kids, so that the school also sees SOS Africa as a support for them as well. Apparently the children are only allowed to retake a year once and then they are pushed up to the next year whether they have gained the level or not. The children with learning disabilities often just fall further and further behind their school mates as they haven’t grasped the fundamentals and tend to drop out. Basically the system gives up on them. Whilst the charity only works with schools where the classes are around 40 in number, in other school the classes are up to 100 where if you are the last to arrive there is no room left in the classroom and you look through the window instead. So much for us complaining about our class sizes in the UK. In Africa 40 in a class is really good!
Next up in the day we were making pencil cases for the African kids. We all perked up at that. ( I did suggest to Adam he might prefer to go back to solitary than listen to us women all wittering on whilst sewing but he game-fully stayed with us !). We were really quite enjoying ourselves, getting to know each other a bit and then suddenly we were told we had to go back to our cells. Again we were put out by the fact that we were not allowed to finish the pencil cases and had no say in it. Not being control of what we could do and when was not suiting us! The contrast of being with lots of people and then being on your own again was stark and we were glad that only after about an hour we were off to the chapel where a very quirky lady taught us some African songs, as well as letting us belt out Queen’s “I want to Break Free”!!! I’ve always loved singing so this was right up my street, great fun and greatly enjoyed.
I should have said that there were 2 landings of prisoners. The ladies, plus one man Adam, were on the first floor, and the men on the floor above us. We had seen glimpses of the men but not allowed to mix with them until the evening when we were allowed in the same room to have a baked potato dinner and watch a movie. As the movie continued it became increasingly dark outside and if I’m honest I started feeling a bit freaked out. Our wardens had “kindly” walked us through the execution room earlier where 16 American Soldiers had been hanged in the 40’s for rape and murder. The prison was established in 1625 and thousands had died there in the early years from disease rife in overcrowded cells. Being someone that believes in ghosts it started to play on my mind, especially, despite my grand old age, I am still scared of the dark!
We were marched back again to the cell and to my relief I realised that it was not going to be pitch black as I feared as light from the main area outside our cells crept through cracks. Then I was fine and actually slept. I’m not going to pretend I was snuggled and comfortable but it really wasn’t nearly as bad as feared. However others did not fair as well with one lady who kept feeling breath on her cheek and whispers, and spent the whole night clutching a torch checking if anyone was in the cell with her. Others hardly slept as they were so cold, and one lady even fell off her bed in the middle of the night!
I’m not sure how early the wake up vuvuzela call was – people thought about 5.30 am? Let’s just say it wasn’t a welcome way to start the day! We were marched out – always in the same order so you didn’t really get the chance to talk to people other than your neighbours either side of you – I had assumed we were going to breakfast, but no it was to the gymnasium for some warm up exercises. Not being a morning person dragging tyres on ropes, lunging, lifting weights and shooting basketball at 6.00 am before breakfast in the morning is not really how I would choose to start the day (Despite my new gym regime!).
After more cell time we finally were allowed some breakfast and taken a tour of the parts of the prison we hadn’t seen. On the dot to 24 hours we were marched again to a drum back out of prison and to freedom!
The things that really stay with me are :-
How apathetic I felt not being in control of my own destiny, and how utterly emotionally destroying it must be to be a long-term prisoner.
On the other-hand it was also wonderful not to be able to do anything and that therefore I could genuinely relax with no guilt. No need to plot or plan or use my own initiative – just wait to be told what to do. So much so that driving home afterwards I nearly reversed twice into other cars as I hadn’t started thinking for myself again yet!
How shockingly green the plants were in the exercise courtyard when we went there on the tour just before we left. Having been surrounded by bricks and walls for 24 hours likewise the fields on the drive home were so vibrant and colourful. When the sun shone through my cell window I moved so that I could feel the light on my face. Nature becomes all the more precious when you don’t have access to it.
How quickly the prisoners “bonded” and I felt very fond of my 2 neighbours. Equally I become bizarrely attached to my cell so that despite not enjoying being in there, I felt quite sad to be leaving it. (Twisted or what?!)
I have decided to do one thing a year where I get out of my comfort zone. I do think having different experiences which challenge you are a great thing to do.
Driving home I had to stop as tears started pouring down my cheeks. Matt had told me some details about Mechline’s life which would not be appropriate to share with you, but I can say that we are so enormously lucky in our circumstances and I am so grateful that we have raised enough money for Mechline to help her change her life forever. She has it tough and deserves so much better. We have raised £1,093 – enough to fund her to the end of her education, and to pay for her after school care and her school uniform and her transport to and from school for another year. I am so grateful.
For anyone interested in finding out more about SOS Africa please see the link below. It is a small family run charity. They keep 2-3 years worth of education per child in the bank so that if anything happens to them it gives time for a new team to form and the children not be forced to leave school. 100% of the sponsorship goes to the children’s education and they fund admin and their costs off gift aid. I believe them – they are a very passionate, credible and professional grass roots charity.