I’ve had scores of journeys in sweatboxes (prison vans) and if you’ve been in jail, so, probably, have you. But for those of you who might read this that haven’t had the pleasure, here’s what it’s like.
First, a brief description of the vehicle: The sweatbox is a cellular style of transport in the form of a three-ton truck converted into 14 small lockable compartments, seven each side. Most people would recognise them as the white lorries with the seven black windows. I hope that whoever designed them spends his afterlife in hell being driven around inside one.
Each compartment is three feet wide, three feet deep and seven feet tall, with a forward facing moulded seat alongside a nine-inch square, deeply tinted window. The door has a twelve-inch Perspex window. There is a three-inch gap at the bottom of the door, which is used by the guard to pass a small container of water to a thirsty prisoner. Above you, in the roof, is a two and a half foot square trapdoor, which can only be opened by the guard or driver in the event of an accident. There are no seatbelts. Once inside it the fun begins.
You come out of the prison reception building – one prisoner at a time – and go up to the side access door on the left side of the lorry and climb the three steps. At the top of the steps on your left is the guard’s station, his seat and communication equipment. Turn right into the corridor and the guard will be stood waiting for you, behind the open door of your compartment. You go into the tiny cupboard like space and sit while the door is locked – two locks and a chain. The first thing you notice is whether it’s clean. Sometimes there’s phlegm on the window or the bulkhead, two foot in front of you. Some stink of shit and piss and vomit. Some have that plus blood smeared about. There’s always a good crop of bogeys stuck to the walls too. You only notice this, of course, once you’re in and the door is locked. So, you’re first thoughts might be ‘Hepatitis, AIDS, tuberculosis?’
The window can either be heavily or lightly tinted. If it’s a heavy tint, you can only see things in bright sunlight. So, in the winter you’re fucked. With the light tint you’ll see OK, but everything’s in sepia, like an old faded photo: trees, grass and bushes look brown and dying.
Once everyone’s on board, you’ll sit for another 30 minutes freezing your bollocks off for no apparent reason whatsoever. Finally, the crew will mount up and you’re off into the main gate air lock, where a prison officer gets on. He has a head count and searches the lorry to make sure no one’s hiding in, on or under it, (it’s been done). Finally, the outer gate opens and we enter the world outside.
Now you see normality: people at bus stops, people walking to the station or in and out of the shops, cars edging out into the traffic with indicators blinking, dogs pissing up walls. All this means nothing to a free man, but it’s the essence of life to a prisoner.
Once you’re on the move, you’ll feel every bump, swerve and stop. Your hand will rest on the, hopefully, clean bulkhead in front of you, because when the driver slams on the breaks (and if he or she is in a bad mood this will happen all the time) you’ll shoot forward and crack your head.
The only thing you can do in a sweatbox is look out of the window, as you’re not allowed anything whatsoever in there with you. No sweets, tobacco, newspaper, book or magazine. By the time you get to court – 30 or 40 minutes later – you’ve got a lovely sore neck through twisting your head 90 degrees. You’ll also be half deaf, as the guard will put on Kiss FM as loud as it will possibly go. I stuffed my ears with toilet paper but it was still torture. If you need a slash, the guard will shove a box under the door, if you need a dump – tough.
The journey to Snaresbrook Court was my usual one and I knew the route well. You go out of the Ville and through the back doubles to Holloway Road and Highbury Corner. Then down St Paul’s Road into Balls Pond and across Kingsland into Hackney. On to the A102 motorway, turn left and head for The Green Man roundabout at Leytonstone. We’re off the roundabout, 2nd left, with Whipps Cross Lake to the left and a quarter of a mile further on at Wanstead is the Crown Court.
The main building at Snaresbrook Crown Court used to be a public school, which closed down in the 60s; it was taken over by the government in the 70s and is now the main Crown Court for East London. It is a beautiful, old, grey edifice set in Epping Forest with a large lake – Eagle Pond – at the back. As you go round the inner perimeter in the sweatbox, you can see people on the huge lawn eating lunch and feeding the ducks in the summer.
We’ll then go into the secure loading bay at either the main court building (Courts 1-16) or to the annex (Courts 17-24). Once the electronic security shutter has come down behind the sweatbox, the prisoners are unloaded. You’re never in the loading dock for long as there’s usually a queue of trucks waiting to discharge.
The side door is opened and the court guards get on. First thing they do is take off the prisoners’ property. I usually traveled with four, large, plastic sacks. You take ALL of your stuff, because you’re never sure of going back to where you came from. You can quite easily find yourself that night in Birmingham, Leicester, Portsmouth, Norwich or Bristol. Furthest I heard of someone going from the Ville, North London, was to court at Snaresbook and then two days later winding up in HMP Armley, Leeds – some 200 miles away. Then, you’ll stay there until your next court appearance. If you just got sentenced, you’ll do your bird there; a mate of mine did his entire sentence, three years out of five in HMP Cardiff.
Once the prisoners’ property is off, they’re next. A court guard gets on with a pair of handcuffs and stands by your door. The sweatbox guard unlocks your door and opens it as far as the security chain allows. You put your hand through and you’re cuffed to the court guard and finally you’re out. The door is open wide; you get off into the cellblock chained to the screw. The cuffs are to stop you running off, looking for ways out – again it has been done.
Going back to prison after court is the same performance in reverse. Except, that when you get into the prison yard the crew will get off and disappear into reception and you’ll sit on that lorry for anything up to an hour – again for no apparent reason. The hour is usually spent in silence for the first five minutes. Everyone wants to get in and get something to eat – all you’ve had is one tiny microwave meal at court that wouldn’t feed a five year old. As you sit waiting, people start talking or shouting in the silence – Kiss FM was turned off when the engine stopped.
“Chas, ow’d ya get on?” (Charlie, how did you get on in court?)
“Free munce.” (Three months imprisonment.)
“Yeah?” (Are you happy with that?)
“Fuck it …” (Yes)
After you’ve been there half an hour people will start shouting for the sweatbox guard:
“Oi guv, I need a piss!”
“Oi guv, how much fucking longer?”
Then the rocking begins; this is an attempt to rock the lorry till it falls on its side. As far as I know, it’s never been done but we all have a go just the same. You stand up in your compartment, hands out on the wall and the door, and you start rocking – all 14 of you. The lorry starts to sway from side to side in the reception yard. I’ve been in them when it feels like a boat in a storm, but at the end of the day, it’s just something to work your frustration out on; it’s anger at being treated like cattle, when you know the guards are sitting in the warm, drinking tea.
At last, the lazy guard gets back on and lets us off one-by-one. He opens the door and stands, safely, behind it. You’re out, left down the steps and right into reception, after one of the worst days out that can be had – a ride in a sweatbox!