This week I visited one of Glasgow’s most notorious buildings with my partner in crime, the lovely Frank. Barlinnie Prison.
I booked this visit as a research trip for a fiction book I’m writing & when I told my contact that I am a Pet Bereavement Counsellor & have a book on that also, they were keen to get it into the library. I brought along a gift copy for a staff member who had suffered a pet bereavement in particularly tragic circumstances but obviously there is a process for the library. We’re also discussing a few other things I can do to support prisoners through this forced separation & indeed the death of their companion animals.
Everything in this hyper masculine environment is heightened so it’s important that support is available for everyday issues such as pet loss. It’s tough enough on the outside but imagine for a moment how it must be inside… This is a multi-faceted issue with added layers because of the situation, environment & culture. Imagine grieving in a place where you simply cannot show any weakness or vulnerability…
This was one of the most fascinating & interesting afternoons of my life. I had never set foot in a prison before & although I was keeping an open mind, my mind was indeed blown.
Driving up Lee Avenue, this building gives nothing away. It is of course an imposing structure but the modern façade is neither intimidating nor comforting which I suppose is a good thing. I still felt quite anxious despite the fact I was free to leave at any time.
My contact greeted us once we had shown our identification and passed through security. I really don’t think we could have had a better host or guide for our visit. We entered via the most solid door I have ever seen into a beautiful garden area with fantastic metal sculptures made by prisoners in their workshop, polytunnels and hanging baskets. The visiting area was much as you see on television but with a booth for teas and coffees, vending machines with snacks and chocolate and there is a separate brightly decorated children’s visiting area full of toys and colourful chairs. I was very aware of the brave faces that many of the prisoner’s partners were putting on and have nothing but respect for them. I saw the smiles and observed the exhaustion and pressure they are under to maintain the home, look after the children, maybe hold down jobs, pay all the bills as we face an energy crisis all while providing the things their partner might need such as new trainers or a radio. Albeit the prison does actually have it’s own radio station. I don’t yet know how popular it is or what the content is but I’m sure GBX is still a requirement for the younger demographic to keep spirits up.
As we entered the recreation area, I was instantly and pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere. It definitely wasn’t as grim as I was expecting. Both the staff and inmates were very welcoming, and I felt quite at ease walking past the rows of pool tables which were overlooked by some particularly good paintings by inmates created in the art area, including our beloved landmark of the Duke of Wellington sporting a traffic cone on his head. Onwards and into the library, I enjoyed a brief chat with the two prisoners who run the library and they honestly could not have been nicer. There was a great sense of pride from them and rightly so as they were incredibly knowledgeable, the library was immaculate and full of amazing books by incredible authors. Obviously, the crime fiction section was by far the biggest, but I think we’ll be in either the health or maybe the short reads section. As pleasant and gracious as my hosts were, of course there were the questions ‘What did you do? & Why are you here?’ lingering in the air that you just don’t want to ask. It could have been rape, murder or the same mistake/bad decision the rest of us have made but not been caught for… It’s really none of my business of course but the curiosity is always there.
My contact, who has worked at the prison for decades, gave a fascinating insight into their experience, how times and attitudes have changed throughout their eventful career and introduced us to other staff members who were equally informative & keen to share the positive aspects to what they do. I was really struck by the dedication to the provision of care every staff member showed and it’s great to see so much attention being paid to mental health and wellbeing. I was very impressed.
While there is a huge & welcome focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment and the prison is as nice as it possibly can be, it was B Hall that has really left its mark on me. Built in 1890 it really is from a different time. All those tiny little doors all the way along & all those floors high leading into tiny little cells was really overwhelming. All those hours, days, weeks, months and years in such a small space would be challenging for the most resilient of us. It might be ok on your own or with good company, but I imagine the experience would be entirely different if you were doubled up with someone you didn’t like or worse, were afraid of.
It’s taken me a couple of days to process everything I have seen & felt. I have had the tiniest glimpse behind those locked, solid metal doors and razor wire but this is how life is for a lot of people, not just here in Glasgow but across the whole country. I know how lucky I was to be born into my family & environment and raised with the tools to equip me for life. I have never taken that for granted. I’ve always worked hard to maintain that & live with purpose. This research trip has had a profound effect on me & made me so thankful for every good thing in my life. I have a new found appreciation for all of it. To say it was an eye opener & reality check is a massive understatement.
I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who spared us some of their time during our visit. It was hugely informative and helpful for my original purpose and intention, but it was also an unexpected exercise in personal growth. I have gained a new, real-life perspective away from the media/television and I definitely want to offer support in whatever way I can.
As always, be kind & be grateful.