Inside the Snow Globe (by Guest Blogger Farah Damji)
The voice of the female prisoner is seldom heard on the Internet. Therefore, I am particularly excited to be introducing today’s guest blogger, Farah Damji, the ever-so-eloquent author of the book Try Me, and the blog, London’s Most Dangerous Woman.
August 2006. My lost year. Sitting in a prison cell in northern England – HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire – I was very scared. This was month 15 of a 21 month sentence handed down for numerous counts of theft and perverting the course of justice. Basically, lying and stealing.
HMP Foston Hall also known as Costa del Foston is the old country pile hunting estate of the Broadhurst family. It was acquired by the Prison System in 1953, and run by an insane, wibbly-wobbly women in fake Prada heels who liked a tipple before lunch. Paddy Scriven, Governor, had worked her way up to the position. From being a lowly prison officer she now considered herself lady of the Manor, benefactress. There were a lot of lesbians at Foston Hall, both inmates and officers. The prison was run through a hierarchy of bull-dykes with warring pheromones and strange and uncomfortable alliances.
Paddy Scriven was known to be a nutter but in a prison, the governor is literally the law. Whatever they do and say goes, and, unsurprisingly Foston Hall held the dubious title of being the establishment with the highest rate of self harm and suicide attempts. It was a grim place in spite of the beautiful gardens, the petting area where Paddy used taxpayers’ money to fund her own little private farm, which she could watch from her wood-panelled office, as she lunched on food ordered in from the nearby village of Foston. No prison canteen meals for madame. An area of lawn which was kept pristine and green, no matter what the season, across which inmates were not allowed to walk as it obscured her bucolic view.
I had been hit on by inmates before. A lot of women turn “jail gay” and I understood that some women with marriages and children on the outside, in the real world needed the comfort of skin on skin and human affection. It’s a pleasant diversion, an antidote to clanging steel, the jangle of keys and the sound of long steps in endless corridors, but I hadn’t yet succumbed to the female seductions, so easily available within confined prison walls. A lot of the femme on femme affairs that flourished around me were about the sheer thrill of experiencing something “else” or just satisfying the craving for another human’s touch. I longed for the smell of my daughter’s hair, a mixture of sweat, Baby Shampoo and innocence, as much I longed to stare into my son’s almond shaped eyes, the colour of bitter chocolate, but all sexual desire seemed to have been stemmed since the gates at HMP Holloway slammed shut behind me over a year ago.
The Deputy Governor who decided on transfers was a lesbian. A modern, Sylvia Plath, lipstick-wearing lesbian . When I tried to ask her what had happened to my application to be transferred, she had greeted me with the chilling words:
“You’re the lass who absconded from Downview, aren’t you? We know all about you already.” Her slitty eyes told me that whatever she knew was the paranoid security department’s version of my exploits along with a pinch of tabloid frenzy. I felt uneasy. She was young, a good decade younger than me but I felt it was time to draw some boundaries, so that Miss Amanda Dobbs knew where we stood which each other.
“I am not a ‘lass’ and I didn’t abscond. The governor was well aware of the situation, and I have already been adjudicated for that issue. Do you have anything to add to that?”
She looked startled and stood up to her full five feet one inch in teetering heels.
“I’ll deal with you later, missy.” She spluttered and pranced off, like a chubby poodle, on her hind legs.
I went back to my cell, which was in one of four purpose built buildings, squat, double storied, each cell had its own shower cubicle and thirty women shared a communal dining room. The other women at Foston Hall were prisoners from all over the UK, the Prison Service didn’t care about shuttling women hundreds of miles from their children and families, it has no human face. If your number or your allocated time at a closed prison was up, you were moved. There was no debate to be had about it. There was no viable complaints process and nothing would be achieved by complaining, the usual answers about overcrowding and easing the population were trollied out.
I had applied to go back to Downview, where – in spite of direct intervention from the now-disgraced, former Prison Minister Tony McNulty to ensure I did not have access to computers, just in case I managed to hack into them and access the internet , although there was no internet available – I had felt safe. I no longer felt safe. The most recent move had left my emotions frazzled and I was continually nervous and upset. At least at Downview the contempt was mutual between prisoners and staff but there was a degree of respect and a sense that we all had to muck along and make the best of an awful situation. At Foston Hall, there was no consistency, rules changed according to whom was delivering the answer and how far up the food chain they were located.
I had showered and was sitting on my bed, waiting to be locked in for the night. Another day to scratch off my calendar. I was sat sewing when the cell door swung open, without a knock. This was a no-no in prison etiquette, no other prisoner would have entered my single cell without a quick rap on the metal door.
Amanda Dobbs came in and pushed the door back, behind her, into its frame, leaving it unlocked but with the lock protruding, so that I could not hold her hostage. I was always amazed how prison staff did this automatically as if hostage situations were a common occurrence. The atmosphere in a women’s prison is different to that in a male institution. Men would not put up with the way in which prison officers treat women, women just suffer generally or take it out on themselves, which explains the much higher self harm and incidents of suicide.
I had no idea why a deputy governor would want to come and talk to me. I had no idea why she sat down on the corner of my bed when there was a vacant chair just by the wooden table next to the bed. I had no idea why she edged over towards me, ruffling the prison issue green bedspread as she moved her heavy body a little closer.
My insides felt as if I was being churned, the way in which a child might shake a snow-globe, really hard, to see how long the tiny particles would stay aloft. For the first time ever, I felt completely powerless and not in control of my own fate or what might happen next. She wore a predatory look and her voice dripped with sarcasm as sticky as honey when she leered at me and said, “I received your application to transfer to Downview. It is a highly unusual request, but there are ways in which I might be persuaded to consider it…”
Click here for Farah’s book that details her shenanigans in The States that led to a stint at the notorious Rikers Island. A free downloadable chapter is also available. http://try-me-the-book.com/
"An autobiography that shocks, appals, sucks one into its consistently amoral world and then spits one out at the end dry-mouthed. Damji's book is intelligent, gutsy, full of paradox, and quite unlike any other account of the immigrant experience.” The Evening Standard.
As this is Farah's first guest appearance at Jon's Jail Journal, your comments for her would be greatly appreciated.
Click here for another female prisoner's voice: Lifer Renee.