A Five-Star Dungeon


The high brick walls are hardly noticeable. On all sides, they are dwarfed by skyscrapers that embrace the skyline and make up the bulk of the high-end offices and shops in this bustling city center of Cardiff, capital of Wales, in the United Kingdom. A smooth narrow road ends abruptly at the foot of the brick wall.

On August 31, the huge remote-controlled glass door slid open effortlessly to admit Newswatch to Her Majesty’s Prison, Cardiff. Hardly any black man at sight except Newswatch audacious reporter Anietie Usen. Even in the English spoken here is strange, a mouthful of accented intonation, akin only to what the evangelicals call speaking in tongues. That afternoon, there were 486 inmates locked up in three blocks of three stories built-in 1884. In the visitors’ hall, about 50 of them sat opposite their relations across a row of five long tables, trying to say as much as they could within the 30 minutes permitted each prisoner.

More than 200 were in the workshops busy with their trades. Another 100 were sitting or lying on the lush lawns enjoying their one-hour break, sun-bathing. Inside the three-by-five meter rooms, two or three prisoners sat on their beds, smoking. The walls were covered with pornographic pictures.

“What magazine’s that you are reading?” Alan Rawson, governor of the prison, asked as he knocked and stepped into the room with Newswatch. “Oh, what else?” the inmate replied, laughing as he displayed the center spread of the nude women magazine for the governor to see.

There were two eight-spring beds a small table and a locker squeezed into the room, leaving a narrow passage between the two convicts. The room was designed for one convict. But now some of them even accommodate three convicts, on six spring double-bunk beds. In mathematics, that is 200 percent overcrowding.

The prison governor was ready with an explanation. “A degree of overcrowding is expected in a prison-like this because we keep short-term prisoners not exceeding 12 months. Virtually all British prisons of this kind are overcrowded,” he said.

Of the 486 inmates, 152 were non-convicts awaiting trial. Non-convicts in Cardiff, however, do not await trial for nine years as in Nigeria’s Ikoyi Prison. They are taken to court every seven days until their cases are disposed of.

Rawson told Newswatch that Cardiff prison alone services 26 magistrate and three crown courts. At the end of the middle, the block is the prison kitchen. Bill Hendry, the officer in charge of the kitchen, supervised 20 healthy inmates as they prepared dinner. Five large containers were filled with creamed potato chips ready to be served. Rice was being cooked on several electric pots. Apart from rice and chips, the menu for dinner pinned on the kitchen notice board also included chicken curry, stuffed marrow, and macaroni. The menu register placed on Hendry’s table showed the next breakfast: bread rolls, cheese, sausages, bacon, fried and boiled eggs, tea, coffee and chocolate. “They (inmates) seldom complain about meals. When they do, it’s probably about poor appetite, in which case they may request for sweet or tea only,” Hendry said.

A part of the main block of the prison houses a well-equipped hospital. The hospital has three doctors and 13 nurses. All kinds of treatment except major surgery are undertaken here. Unlike some Nigerian prisons, deaths of inmates are rare in Cardiff. Said Rawson: “The last time anybody died here was about five years ago when an inmate committed suicide.”

To keep prisoners busy and useful to themselves and the community, Cardiff prison runs evening GCE classes and 10 trade workshops. Prisoners learn such trades as painting, plumbing, plastering, television and radio repairs, etc. But perhaps one of the largest rehabilitation centers in the prison is the tailoring workshop.

David Tyler, the head of the workshop, said that his men sew at least 43,000 pairs of trousers a year. A pair of jeans is supplied to the prison store headquarters in London at the price of £6.40. Said Tyler: “We in Cardiff sew the bulk of jeans worn by prisoners in the country. As you can see, they are as good as the ones you would buy at Marks and Spencer.”

Part of the tailoring workshop houses the laundry which is equipped with modern washing machines. Prisoners’ clothes and beddings are changed once a week and prisoners are assigned to wash, dry, and iron the dirty ones. For their jobs in the workshop, prisoners are paid four pounds a week. “This is actually pocket money meant for their cigarettes and sweet,” Rawson said.

During weekends, one of the large workshops, the metal recovery workshop, is converted into a cinema hall. Inmates are also allowed to watch television in groups of 50 in the night. Thereafter, they are locked inside their rooms and a chamber pot is kept in the room for toilet conveniences,. In the morning, the pots are “slopped out,” if you know what that means.
Chamber pots and “slopping out” remain a major criticism against Cardiff prison. “It is a very dirty practice and something just has to be done about it,” a female staff of the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, NACRO, said, although she told Newswatch, she had no authority to speak to the press. Rawson said “slopping out” will be eliminated when the building of the new prison with private toilet facilities is completed.

The prison governor works with some 290 staff, 206 of whom are uniformed men. The least paid warder earns £13,500 per year. That, as at now (1989) is well over N150,000. “I believe the staff are well paid and motivated. That is why they perform their duties very well,” Rawson said. That duty is explained by a poster on the wall of his office. “Her Majesty’s Prison serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the court. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.”

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