‘Rattling around in the sweatbox’

I found myself led from the holding cells at Birmingham Crown Court, up three narrow stairs and onto the prison transport van, affectionately known as the sweatbox due to its severely claustrophobic and cramped cubicles which make up the secure, cellular vans prisoners are shuttled around in.  I was now one of the 4,374 female prisoners making up 5.5% of the total prison population in 2007, having been sentenced to three years and nine months for causing the death of my friend in a drink-driving accident, a sentence I welcomed in light of the damage I had caused.  As the prison van left the court, I found myself sliding all over the plastic moulded seats, exacerbated by the material of my cheap suit trousers and a worrying lack of seatbelts.  Luckily, or unluckily, because it was so confined, I was able to jam my knees up against the plastic bulkhead in front of me, securing myself a little more, whilst hoping that we didn’t stop suddenly, costing me my much-needed knee-caps in the process.  The anxiety I was feeling over this travelling situation and the danger I imagined it posed, was largely due to the fatal crash I had caused four months earlier and highlighted some residual trauma I was experiencing.  However, feeling this triggered the usual tidal wave of guilt inside me; why should anyone care about my safety after what I had done, it was, after all, all that I deserved… 

The 9” rectangular tinted window to my left meant I could see out, but no-one could see me inside the van.  Despite this, and as the snow-fall gained momentum and gathered along the roads causing grid-locked traffic throughout the city and beyond, passers-by who clearly knew the type of cargo the van was transporting, threw snowballs at the windows and with raised shoulders, seemed to question “what have you done then?”.  They knew we were looking out, directly at them and they were goading us, or maybe even just trying to connect with us, inside the depressing and closed off cubicle.  I was literally freezing, partly due to the weather and our lack of speed meaning the engine had not warmed up whatsoever, and my lack of coat.  Nobody had mentioned that whatever enters the dock with you upon sentencing is what you take with you to prison, and my family were still holding all of my belongings, including my coat.  I heard another woman talking from the rear, shouting out to the guards about the fact that she was ‘rattling’, and in my naivety, I assumed she meant that her bones were rattling due to the cold, however she soon informed me that she was rattling due to withdrawal from heroin.   I considered just how out of my depth I was and the unknown world I had entered and that which was yet to unfold; full of trepidation and subsequent guilt about my misgivings, feeling that I ultimately deserved nothing more than the hand that was now being dealt.  After roughly eight hours of traveling down to HMP Eastwood park in Bristol from Birmingham, and following excessive use of the single urine bag the van had, which I had been lucky enough to get, and which was brimming over by the time we arrived, I was desperate to exit the confined space and stretch my limbs.  As we were ushered out of the van, and into the waiting room in the dead of the night, we were offered a cup of tea by one of the officers on duty.  He bought me a polystyrene cup, and when I enquired after some sugar, he told me in no uncertain terms that I was now in prison and that luxuries like sugar were a thing of the past.  I knew he was telling the truth.  I was now a prisoner and life as I knew it had ended the moment I had entered the dock.  I didn’t cry that night.  I was where I belonged.

About Author: Marie-Claire O'Brien

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Hi, My name is Maz and I'm an ex-offender who helps people who have been to prison get into training and work through my business, the New Leaf Initiative. We provide support through this site, through 1-2-1 support and advice and through knowing some amazing people and the work based interventions we can offer. My crime made me want to help people, the rest is history... Good luck and feel free to get in touch if you need any advice, Maz

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