I awake but lie still listening to the sounds that come though the open window. I know it is night outside. It is December, but light streams in from the hundreds of orange and red lights that surmount the walls, fences and gates. It is cold. There are no heaters in the hut. Above me is the steel corrugated iron roof. I am in my room or cube on my own, a welcome change from being doubled up with someone for years. I have been here for over 10 years now. It is very quiet in the hut that has 20 men. There used to be over 30 men when sharing was a necessity.
It is 7.15am and the hut will be opened by the guards in 15 minutes. In the stillness I can hear them coming through the gates from far away. The clangs ring loud and clear as they have done since the Long Kesh /Maze prison opened in 1972 as hundreds of prisoners swamped the meagre prison system. I get up and put on my training gear. There are 3 or 4 people waitng to get out to go the gym or their early morning run. We wait in silence as the rest of the men do not need to get up until 9am. We hear the footsteps, the jangle of keys. Locks being opened and bolts being snapped back.
We get out. I go to the gym. The gym is a large Nissan hut divided in two. There are punch bags, lots of old rough free weights and some gym items such as parallel bars. It is a weekday and I have no visit. We get 30 minutes a week with our visitors. The gym routine is sit ups, press-ups and some light weights. Later I will go out for a run. After 3 miles I go back to my cube, get my stuff and go to the shower. It is primitive and spartan. Concrete floors, wooden roof and plastic sheets divide the showers. Other men are getting up. Those on visits usually get in early to get the warm water before it runs out. I find that exercising early warms me up and keeps out the cold that settles in with a vengeance. One year I had frost and ice on my window. On the inside.
After this I go and get breakfast. Tea, cornflakes and some bread; if there is any. We all have chores after 9am, the lights go on and the place comes alive. Men cleaning out their own space – their cube. Then the communal areas are cleaned. The central space running the length of the hut, the toilet and shower block. Outside the main huts men are picking up litter and butts. After this I go to the small square wooden study hut. I am completing my Degree with the O.U. Forward planning and a realisation that I’m not getting out of here for while yet. This is Compound 21 of the special category section of the Maze prison. Less well known than the big brother across and behind, the 20 foot high concrete walls of the infamous H Blocks. Prison life continues on inside and there is a sense of normality despite being in, it was claimed, the highest security prison in Europe. Men go to visits. A guard comes to the wire, shouts a name. Both men will go in a mini bus to the visiting block. Men also go to see the doctor or the welfare. It approaches lunchtime. Some men supplement their food from parcels that were left in by visitors. Others go to the canteen to see if it’s edible today. Stew is always a careful meal to eat after finding some things in it such as the mouse’s head, bits of a brillo pad, etc. There is time to talk to friends and engage in some craft or artwork. In the afternoon I get ready and go for a run or back to the gym. We run round the wire fence that surrounds us and becomes the first line of defence for the prison system.
We run 21 laps to cover 3 miles. It is a short section at the back of huts then turns left. Up the side of the gym, and turn left. Up to the corner of the compound and turn left. The long straight parallel to main concrete wall and turn left back in behind the 4 huts. And so on and so on. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Looking through the steel mesh of the fence I can see other men in other cages doing exactly the same thing.
I go in get my stuff and go for a shower. At 5pm dinner is served. Some men take it, some do not. People gather around the single black and white T.V. in the hut to watch the news for the day. Some days there is plenty of news about prisons, protests and releases. Those who had visits would receive a parcel from their visitor about 6 o clock. Its checked for smuggled items. A good excuse to mess up someone’s highlight of the week. Not all of the staff are sadists but there’s usually one there to mete out some injustice. Today there is nothing on the news. Many men wait for the increasing number of TV soaps to come on and live out lives in another place away from this concrete grave. Evenings are spent writing letters. By 8pm most men are out walking the wire. Groups of 2 or 3 men walk and talk. After 10 years of prison it difficult not to recover precious memories from a time of freedom that seems long ago and dream like. Much talk is about the troubles outside and what we will do in the future when we get out. Whenever that may be. Better to live in hope that wallow in reality.
At ten to 9 we see the screws gathering at the compound gate. They walk in and we know it is time to lock up. We go to our huts. They count heads. That’s it for the night. The hut seems bright and lively. Men get tea and toast on. It is warmer now. There is debate and discussion about what to watch on the TV. Films are a favourite. Some men go to a friends cube to talk the night away. To relive their war memories and some spoof the night away. Others are still writing letters or re reading one left in from a visit during the day.
Another day gone. Another day closer to getting out? Don’t really know. A lifer doesn’t have a date. Midnight and the lights are put out by the hut officer. Most men are in bed but the die hards can watch the TV in the dark as long as the volume is turned down. The fence lights shine all night. We have curtains to keep the light out. It’s quiet now except for the birds singing away. Fooled by the thousands of lights. I read for a while until sleep overtakes me.
I awake. It is 7.15am and the hut will be opened by the guards in 15 minutes. In the stillness I can hear them coming through the gates from far away.