PT. 1 – Bridges & Personas
Flashing lights, some beams bright and others a little more relaxed, indicating the driver is close to home, to family and the end of the day’s journey. From the strong light blue painted steel bars of my prison cell, watching these vehicles go by, my humbled heart beat for the moment to be free from this 8ft x 6ft space where my naked toilet served as my unwanted roommate.
I was incarcerated in the 1300 inmate Category B privately run Rotherham Prison facility, located in a very quiet and rural area of North England in the United Kingdom. I arrived here 1 year & 9 months to the day, and the uphill fight to dealing with a painful & stupid decision of associating with a ‘known’ criminal alongside putting off dealing with my immigration status, left me charged and pleading to an illegal drug conspiracy and fighting for my right to remain in the one place I felt safe as a young gay male fleeing certain death from a birthplace that would have me dead for breathing & being Me.
The prison was spread across some 200 acres and looked after inmates facing trial as well as those convicted with short to medium sentences. In the midst of dealing with the terrifying shock of never even being locked up in a police cell, to being a convicted inmate, I managed to carve out a plan of survival to cope with what was now my reality.
I was up at 6:00am each morning and left the ‘Wing’ (designated block of cells where a fixed number of prisoners are housed) and my single cell to go to work in the Prison Officers Canteen as a Trainee Cook/Chef studying for my NVQs in Kitchen Portering and Hospitality Quick Service. I needed a focal point to tie my pain and suffering to, and this very sought-after form of prisoner employment was just that. This lasted from 6:45am – 1:45pm each day.
I then went to my afternoon employment which was working for the ‘Prison Buddy Service’; a prisoner-to-prisoner counselling/outreach programme that helped new inmates deal with the fear and confusion of being locked up as well as those inmates who were incarcerated but struggled to cope and needed someone to talk to about family problems or just help preparing for release from the facility, be it applying for housing or a grant to get resettled. I did It all and was very sympathetic to each case as I knew that would be Me one day, when I would be getting out of this place.
Both these jobs carried me through 5 days a week and then on the weekend I worked in the Prison’s Main Kitchen, preparing the only dish on the Prison’s menu for inmates of the Black ethnic minority group, Baked Chicken & Rice n’ Peas. A year and six months into my time, the Catering Manager for the Prison approached me and asked if I could do this monumental task of making a dish that would meet this Unique Selling Point (USP) for the prison’s agenda, and I said yes. I cooked for the over 600 - 800 inmates every Sunday and this dish became the most popular on the Prison’s Menu, even feeding some of the Prison Officers who worked on a Sunday. I was up at 10am on a Saturday, showered and had my coffee and cake while reading my newspapers, then left my cell at 11:30am to be taken to the Main Kitchen which was located on another block, to begin my preparation of the dish for Sunday.
Once the Chicken was cleaned, seasoned & set to marinate, with my entire set-up for an early start on Sunday morning done, I went back to my Wing and had the rest of Saturday to socialise with the very few inmates I had chosen to associate with, and then study as well as read over documents and solicitors’ letters in relation to fighting for my ‘right-to-remain’ in the United Kingdom. This was my life.
In order to survive I had 2 personas in the facility; the strong confident and grounded prisoner others could look up to. He made the hard decisions like choosing to shut his Family out while dealing with this life-destroying tragedy. I didn’t know where to begin to explain to my religious devout mother and strict heterosexual father that their precious, bright educated son, who was in University studying for a Law degree and working hard to pay his way was locked for a serious drug-charge and had pleaded guilty to it.
He did this only because as a young black man in a foreign country where systemic racism was rampant he did not stand a chance of mounting a ‘not guilty’ fight and succeeding. Plus had he listened to the very wise words his Mom had taught him and avoided mixing with people whose motives and means to living were questionable to say the least; this would not be his situation. But here he was staring at the speeding cars, motor bikes and trucks hurrying to their destination with free men and women in them.
His 2nd persona was the true him; the One that cried nightly into his pillow after being betrayed and used by the most disgusting of criminally manipulative souls, and then left to try and piece back together his wrecked life as a soon-to-be free convicted criminal that would need to rebuild from scratch, what once was a happy enough existence. He cried so no one would hear, know and understand, that he wasn’t as strong as he made out. He cried because the very real truth of him was still to be confirmed to his Dad, and he would have to explain to his Mom this whole mess and he wasn’t sure they would forgive him, still love or even still own him as their child.
He cried because for the 1st time in his entire life, he had to be his own Man, and but for the grace of God, he was now always in danger, and could do nothing but stand and face every challenge on his own.
So, he continued to cry that cool and breezy night behind the bright blue painted steel window bars of 8ft x 6ft prison watching the vehicles and their bright lights go over the motorways and bridges leading anywhere and everywhere he wished with all his shattered and sad heart he could be, free.
PT. 2 – Miracles, Fifteen Steps & Acceptance
Miracles were never something I thought real, and with all the pain and suffering the last Year and half had brought Me, I couldn’t foresee Me being entitled to a single one. Still unyielding faith is a powerful and emotional trait that even when all the odds are stacked ridiculously against you; God steps in and things you never thought possible start to happen.
Where there were tears of sadness, God replaces them with tears of joy and miracles. My last 3 weeks incarcerated were filled with just that.
It’s started with Me winning the ‘right-to-remain’ in the UK in an Immigration Court and ultimately winning my case for parole as well. Both things seemed impossible even by ‘miracle’ standards. So many people weighed in and said, ‘they won’t let you stay, what a convicted foreign national on a drug charge, no chance’.
But I read all the case files I needed to, consulted weekly with my Solicitors and did everything and more I needed to, to show that I was no career criminal, but a stupid and misguided young man who made some poor choices and who after this would do everything in his power never to end up inside any cell ever again.
Shortly after these 2 miracles happened, I made time on a warm Sunday afternoon to call my Mother. Our first conversation in 1 and half years still haunts me to this day; as when she heard my voice; she burst out crying. That cry where a mother has found her heart-beat again and the pace of it is so overwhelming as it eases and ends a painful torment is one of the most harrowing I have ever heard.
I started crying as she managed to say ‘why, why would you shut Me out at the point where You know I was needed Malley? Your wicked, to think that anyone could tell me anything about You, bad or good and I still would not love you and stand by You… Why? I was sobbing now and struggling to get words of comfort out as in that moment I realised that She had served every day in here with me, all because of my fear, and with everything in Me, I wish I could have spared her this.
‘I wanted so much to talk to you Mom, but I didn’t know where to begin, I felt ashamed and unworthy as if I had listened to everything you told Me, none of this would have happened’ I managed to reply.
We cleared the air and I shared with her my pain and she as any loving, kind and brilliant Mother should; used 30 minutes to return My whole life to One filled with promise, hope and happiness again, like only a Mother’s love could.
Miracle 4 came inside brown paper box that was posted to Me from my birth home in Barbados by my Dad. I was not expecting the box or its contents that Saturday morning, three days before I was due to leave the Prison Facility and move into a beautiful 3 Bedroom Town House that I had managed to get approval to rent from a Prison Officer, something that had never happened in the history of the Prison. All I was waiting for, for the last 9 days was a fax from the Probation Service confirming my release, and everyday felt like a year as I knew I was free but had to be so careful not to let a single thing take away that freedom until it was confirmed.
One of the Prison Officers called Colin, an older gentleman who had taken an interest in ensuring I was not harmed by anyone brought the box to my Cell Door stating, ‘Malley were you expecting mail today my son?’, ‘No I said, must be more legal paperwork I guess for my release’.
‘No…no, this one has come all the way from Barbados, and says Wesley Ford, is that your brother?’ he enquired. My heart fell inside my chest and I started to tremble. ‘No that’s…. that’s my Dad’ I just managed to mumble. He rested the box down on my bed and left, pulling the door up behind him.
I opened the Box which had already been checked by Prison Security for anything contraband and I can’t tell you the other items that were in it except for an envelope containing a hand written letter. I quickly opened this, and as I read I started crying. I cried for a day straight and the following lines from this letter have never left my memory:
‘You are My Son Malley, I’ve known who & what You are since they day You were born, and nothing in the whole world could see Me love You any less. You are my Pride & Joy Son, always.’
The fifteen final steps I took leaving the prison behind were the lightest and most blessed steps I would take in my life. I drove over one of the bridges that I used to able to see from my prison cell. I asked the Officer that was giving me a lift to my new home to put on Christina Aguilera’s soulful track ‘Cruz’ and as she sang ‘I’m finally free’; I embraced the peaceful and warm beginning to my new life.
About the Creator
Carlton A. Armistad is the pseudonym for Andrew R. Little. I prefer writing under this as it allows me to look at any body of work I complete separate to my personal day-to-existence, and safeguards my relationships and family.