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How to make a jail

March 30, 2002
By Raffique Shah

THE telephone call came through early last Sunday morning, which was bad enough, given that most normal human beings reserve Sundays for sleeping late, which is what I was enjoying until I was shaken from my slumber.

But worse was to come. When I answered, at the other end was an ex-convict friend of mine, and if you’ve been to jail, or if you know most ex-cons, they are not the kind you’d relish disrupting your weekends, your early mornings, or worse, your late-night limes. You can never tell what they are up to, whether they are calling to have you bail them out of the slammer, if they are looking to “fence” some stolen loot, or if they are sure you have the $10,000 they desperately need “to seal a deal”.

“Ay!” Mr Man bellowed into my ear. “Look how long ah tell yuh we should ah write de book....ah mean, you shoulda write it! If yuh doh move fast, you go lose out big! Write de damn t’ing now!” Well, I was wide awake after being greeted in that raucous manner, my ex-con friend taking liberties, he and I having shared Her Majesty’s hospitality in an institution where one does not volunteer to be hosted by Elizabeth R.. The Royal Gaol, I mean, the one that Sparrow popularised in a song titled accordingly.

What book was he talking about? Well, many years ago, after we had emerged from 27 months in the stinking confines of the Royal Gaol, many of us had become experts at “beating the system”. We knew every trick about getting almost anything past those walls and guards, and that was in addition to beating the regular rules that prevailed. So we often discussed writing a manual, “How To Make A Jail”—for free issue, of course, the genuine aim being to help the ordinary Joe face his first day behind bars, and to prepare him for life-on-another-planet-right-in-the-middle-of-Port of Spain.

“Ay!” I attempted to remind my jail pal, “when we discussed that manual, we had in mind fowl t’iefs. “It go always have fellers who go need dat guide bad bad!” said Mr Man. “Fellers who ‘ent know ah t’ing about jail. Why you ent become ‘a convict consultant’ and make more money than Ian Fleming ever did.”

So what, really, could we teach people about jail? For starters, the ex-con put it to me (he had learnt that term during his many appearances before several ‘beaks’), we could teach them how to evade the “squat and open up” part of the “reception” by playing it right with the reception officers. They will see that the “reception” area in jail is a far cry from similar facilities at the Hilton. And the “receptionists” don’t really have to peep up your pooper, but it’s a way of humiliating the new prisoner.

Okay, I agreed, but that could be done through a phone call to anyone who wanted that advice. “So what about cell placement?” he bellowed. And given that he had more experiences in-and-out the slammer than I did, he had a point. If the “reception” officers are in cahoots with the sex maniacs who carry much weight in jail, then “sorf men” could find themselves at the mercy of some buggers who will have surveyed the incoming “guests” and requested those they wanted for company. That, too, is easy to beat—-if you know the ropes. You wipe the “sorf look” off your face the moment you know you are heading for jail, if only for a night, and replace it with the Mano Benjamin or Abdul Malik facial expression.

“How dey go make out wid de ration?” Jesus, I thought, with Holy Week on my mind, most people really know nothing about jail food. “Jail soup” could send their stomachs into deathly spasms. “Yeah, you have a point,” I responded. “Dey must know when de officer ask dem dey profession, say ‘cook’, not doctor or lawyer. You remember, Raf, de kitchen was the place to be...close to de ration!” he said.

And so he continued expatiating, this ex-con. Tell them about how to carry the “po” (chamber pots, for Ye Englishmen), the standard prisoner receptacle that is used at times for drinking water from, and urinating or defecating in. On mornings, when hundreds of “po’s” are gingerly borne from cells-to-toilets, the stench could be murderous. But wait. Why am I dishing out jail advice for free? Hey, not when attorneys are being retained for big money all over the world! For a fraction of that, I’ll prepare a nun to face jail. So any “arrestee” who feels he can afford my services and wants to steel himself mentally for what is likely to come, they can contact me at they-know-where.

• (Raffique Shah is an ex-prisoner, not an ex-con. If you don’t know the difference, ask the “po”).

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