I saw Madame S with her son C walking by the grass verge on the approach to the wide avenue that leads to the prison entrance. At least she was walking and the boy was pushing along on a scooter, which was the craze that year for children.

My foot went down to the brake pedal of the car, instinctively, with the intention to stop and offer them a lift for the last half mile of their journey. Just as rapidly my foot shifted across to the accelerator and I passed close by to them without a wave or any acknowledgement. At that hour there were no other cars about and they most probably recognised me, particularly C who, I had learned, missed very little of what was going on around him. Madame S would understand. It was because of what she had told me yesterday that I acted now as I did.

From the prison visitors’ car park I made my way as usual to the main entrance of the Prison that had been opened 10 years previously where I produced my identification at reception. This was the rule even though I was well known to most of the prison staff. The search procedures were also a part of the routine through which I had to go each time I was here, from the first part of my entry into the complex to the final arrival at HSU (High Security Unit) the only prison within a prison in the Prison Service. I came here every Tuesday evening as an interpreter for the remand prisoner Ronaldo S when he telephoned his family and spoke with each one of them in turn, in Portuguese.

The exacting search procedures were the same today – clearing out the contents of my pockets into a plastic tray, removal of my top upper garments before stepping through the electronic detector to have  an electronic wand passed around the outline of my body and finishing with a manual hand search. Across the large square, along a cloistered walk, to another square, open and grassed, at the far end of which was a high wall with the door leading to HSU.

Through this door and across a courtyard was another door opening as my escort gave the requisite code reference into a wall microphone. Inside HSU another search awaited me and my escort; more exacting than the previous one. My shoes went into a plastic tray for x-ray and I lift my feet, one by one, so that the underside of my socks can be examined. if I am wearing a tie, probing fingers searched around the inside of my collar.

Because this was not the usual Tuesday night telephone monitoring visit I was taken by a warden to a small waiting room in a part of the prison I had not seen before. There was a drinks machine against the wall, a number of chairs and a low, centre table. The female warden told me to wait in the room and then left.

Because I had been coming to the prison as an interpretor for five months, I knew that hidden cameras would be focussed on me at all times. I had been in the control room and seen banks of CCT screens  with the human monitors seated around.

After a short time Madame S and C were ushered into the room where I was waiting. She and her son had come to England for a three day visit to see her husband, Ronaldo S. The visit had started yesterday and gone on the whole day. I had met them, unattended inside the prison building and also in the visitors’ cafeteria. She had approached me and we shook hands and chatted in Portuguese while C had looked on dubiously. It was clear that he considered me to be one of the enemy.

I found Madame S to be an intelligent and charming woman. She told me that my predecessor had been removed from the job of interpreter because he had given her and C a lift in his car on a previous visit. This information surprised me greatly because neither the agency through which I had this job, nor the prison authorities had given me any advice about what attitude I should adopt toward the remand prisoner’s wife when we were together, as we had been several times on the previous day. There had been waiting time while S was brought under escort to the family interview room; there were breaks for toilet or lunch when he was escorted away and she and I had chatted freely. How did this compare with giving her a lift in a car? I wondered. I would have done that too before her warning.

She came into the small room smiling, C behind, less responsive. He was ten years old and not prepared to give anyone in this place the benefit of his confidence. He had answered my comments addressed to him in monosyllables and with an attitude verging on hostility. A warden entered and asked us to accompany him to one of the interview rooms. There was one door for the visitors and a separate door for the prisoner, the warder and the interpreter, entered by another corridor so that we sat on opposite sides of the table that stretched across the narrow room, from wall to wall.

Immediately we were in our places a gulf of separation intruded into the ambiance and we no longer had any inclination to carry on our talking across the table even though we were left on our own. They knew that soon a warder would appear escorting her husband through the door at my back, and prisoner and warder would sit down on the other two chairs on my side of the table. The family reunion, under such conditions, would start off constrained until, as had happened yesterday, the flow of their talk would crowd out the unusual circumstances and the warder and I would be forgotten. I would follow the conversation while the warder would understand nothing that was spoken.

But before Ronaldo S and his escort appeared a voice behind me called my name. Turning my head I saw a senior prison officer I knew by sight. He beckoned and asked me to accompany him. It always seemed to me that there is an element of a Kafkean atmosphere in this prison and each adopts a role in its peculiar circumstances. There is not a lot of information imparted, I had learned, unless one asks. And the asking needs to be done in a distant, almost remote manner as though one is merely making polite conversation. With the right note struck, clear answers are usually forthcoming. So I learned from my senior office escort that we were heading for the prison’s security offices.

There is a superficial camaraderie that exists amongst the prison officers I had found and there were many women in the top echelons and a fairly balanced mix of male and female staff, with all types of personalties, ranging from the idealistic to the covertly bigoted, or even brutal; and this veneer of good mate-ship must have been achieved through great diligence by good management amongst individuals dealing with some very hardened criminals as well as some pitiful rejects from the flotsam and jetsam of society and where everything was possible in a day’s work from the restraining of a violent inmate to cutting down a hanged suicide.

The security offices were some distance away high up in a small tower block and my escort and I chatted freely as we walked. He left me with an older man in a corridor outside an office and, after the other had gone, I continued to chat with my new escort as though there had been no transfer. When the door to the office eventually opened a young man in his twenties emerged and motioned for me to enter. He addressed me breezily, using my first name in what seemed to be an off-hand, almost insolent way as he ushered me into a large, modern office where a woman of about fifty years of age was seated at a desk. She was bright and brisk and asked me to sit down. She then requested the young man to close the door but remain in the office. When he had complied with the first part of the request, he leaned casually against a filing cabinet, very much at his ease.

The woman introduced herself to me as the prison’s chief security officer and began giving me an insight into the problems her department faced with some of the prisoners. ‘You are interpreting for Ronaldo S,’ she stated, ‘he is a man with great charm but is very manipulative. Some prisoners are capable of using their visiting relatives to smuggle messages or articles into or out of the prison. The degree of some of the deception is remarkable..’

She continued talking in this strain and I began to think, clear and effortless as was her discourse, it was a means to get me to break in with some observation of my own so that she could begin an interrogation from that point. I may have been wrong but, nevertheless, decided to say not a word until she put a direct question to me. As she spoke I nodded occasionally to show that I was following.

‘You were seen speaking to Mrs S,’ she said at last. It wasn’t a question but I took it as my cue. ‘Yes, and I was very surprised indeed at what she told me.’ ‘What was that?’ ‘She said my predecessor had been removed from the job for giving her a lift in his car.’ The security chief made no comment, so I continued. ‘Only this morning coming to the prison in my car, I passed Mrs S and her son walking and I would have stopped to give them a lift had she not told me what she did.’ ‘Had you not been briefed?’ ‘No one, either at the agency or in the prison told me not to speak with Mrs S. I would have had to be rude and turn away when she spoke to me in the visitors’ canteen, otherwise.

I sensed by the security chief’s demeanour that I was on the right track and continued to press home my advantage. ‘I am an interpreter, untrained in security matters such as the staff in this prison, and I rely on advice from those properly qualified in security when I am here. No such advice was forthcoming in the case of Mrs S.

There was a brief silence and then she came to a quick decision. ‘Mr Mason, we owe you an apology. This is not the first time that security directives have failed to be carried out operationally and, as with the other cases I will investigate to find out the reason. We do make mistakes and we try to keep those to a minimum. In this case you have been involved unwittingly and I can only apologise.’

I said a few flattering words about the positive atmosphere I had found in the prison. The interview was at an end. The young man who had been kept in the room as a witness for my sacking now accompanied me out into the corridor, borne along with the final words of a management apology, back to the interview room.

JULY 2001