It’s late at night, and so quiet you could be persuaded that the place was empty and not filled with hundreds of sleeping prisoners. The officer leads us through a series of metal gates into the medical wing, up a steep flight of stairs with a stair lift to one side, and onto a long, narrow corridor with cells off to the right and a duty desk and offices just to the left. A group of officers are chatting in a muted kind of way around the desk. It seems to me that they’re haggling over who should go with the prisoner, but they seem pretty relaxed and good humored about it.
The prisoner is lying on his bunk with his arms up over his head. He acknowledges us with a groan, but he certainly looks hungry enough to outrun any of us here, with or without a head start.
We back out of the cell whilst the officers move in to dress him in the special costume they have for high-risk prisoners – an extraordinary outfit, something like a Jester onesie, a garishly-patterned, yellow and green squared oversuit that only lacks a pointy hat with bells and a bladder on a stick.
‘It’s so he stands out in a crowd,’ says the prison nurse. ‘You’ll want to keep your eye on him. So just – you know. Be careful. Anyway – how are you?’
Whilst the other prison staff are pretty much who’d you’d cast for the role – thickset, powerful men, as no-nonsense as a knuckle of pork, the nurse seems able to flip from role to role, from homey aunt to gang matriarch. So although she looks at home in this brutal environment, the heavy locks and steel-barred doors, the peep holes and key chains, the cold and echoing corridors, I can also imagine her outside, nibbling sandwiches and laughing too loud at some garden party. She reminds me of one of those delicate birds you see on wildlife shows, riding between the ears of a rhinoceros.
‘My allotment’s doing well,’ she says, folding her arms and leaning back against the wall. ‘Tons out already. But I tell you something interesting that happened the other day. We had the archaeological society come over. They were asking us if we’d keep an eye out for anything unusual, any bones or whatnot. And funnily enough just the other day I’d pulled out a big old vertebrae and I wondered what it was, because it was bigger than any cow bone I’d ever seen, and they said Yep! That’s the kind of thing! A giant deer! Well. I must admit I was a bit disappointed because I thought it might be a woolly mammoth, but they said Oh well! Keep digging! You never know!’
Meanwhile, the prisoner is ready to go. He shuffles out in his extraordinary uniform, shackled with chains and padlocks, and we all make our way down to the ambulance.
‘See you later!’ says the nurse from the top of the stairs.
There’s not enough room for everyone to ride in the back, so one of the officers sits up front with me.
We approach a point in the journey where we can either cut across country or go through town. At this time of night it’s quicker to go across country, but it suddenly strikes me that if anyone were to set-up an ambush, the cross-country route would be the place. There are fewer people around, and the single carriageway would be easier to block.
I put this to the officer.
‘Nah. Take the country road. You’ve been watching too many films, mate,’ he says.