We had come in collective grief to honour the memory of fellow inmate Ray Haarhoff. Outside, the sky was battleship grey. Every seat in the chapel was taken, every head bowed. After a while, the organ sounded. Bach’s Herzallerliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen broke our silence.
Ray’s was a popular face around the prison. He was 34, but having already served 16 years of a life sentence, he might have expected an earlyish parole. Had all other things remained equal, this would have happened. As it was, over the last five years Ray had drifted into drugs. He now swam in the self-deluding ocean of lethargy that usually accompanies heroin addiction. Languishing on his prison-acquired habit of ten to 15 bags a day, Ray was told: “Pull yourself together. We want you drug-free for the next year. Only then will we consider a move to more open conditions.”
The trouble was, nobody had shown him the way. He had dutifully enrolled on the Genesis Project, an under-funded drugs “rehabilitation” unit, set up in hurried response to the prison service’s “strategic priority” of creating drug-free prisons before the end of this year. The prison report of troubleshooter General Learmont had made some unattainable recommendations about the shape such units might take: “Programmes to help prisoners combat the drug habit… to include medical treatment based on the best international practice…”
If only the government had provided the finance and expertise necessary to turn such dreams into reality, Ray’s life sentence might have come to a different end. At the beginning of January, he joined another dozen drug-troubled prisoners, among them Darren, a mop-haired, open-faced young man, as mischievous as Peck’s Bad Boy. Over several weeks and many clandestine sessions hunched over little mounds of brown powder, Darren and Ray became firm friends. In the wake of “medical treatment based on the best international practice,” the “cockroaches” continued to run their course along strips of silver KitKat wrappers. There was a near fatal accident when Ray filled a syringe, jacked it into his arm, and collapsed, cracking his head on a porcelain toilet bowl on the way down. The resultant graze on his forehead brought the misadventure to the attention of staff.
After a short behind-closed-doors deliberation, they reached their own conclusions. Ray was not only regularly using heroin himself, he was supplying the rest of the group too. The latter accusation was never proved. Darren assured me it was without foundation. Nevertheless, the authorities decided to make an example of Ray. Instead of bringing his obvious problem into the open, they deemed him unsuitable for their brand of therapy, and transferred him to another wing where he was placed on a 23-hour lock up “basic” regime and forgotten about.
Less than 48 hours later, an ashen faced Darren crept into my cell and closed the door behind him. I knew something was wrong; he was almost in tears. He was biting his bottom lip. “He’s dead, Pete. Ray’s dead.” There was a pause. “The screws found him hanging from a bootlace tied to the window. I… I… he’s fuckin’ topped himself.”
Darren’s hand trembled as he took a drag of his hand-rolled cigarette. “Are you sure?” I asked. False rumours are rife in prison. “Look,” he said, pointing out of the window. The rear gate of the “basic” wing was visible across the compound. An unmarked dark blue transit van was parked outside with its back doors open. As we watched, two overalled men came out from the wing. They carried a stretcher upon which lay a lifeless body tightly encased in a black body bag.
“How did it happen, mate?” I heard myself asking. Darren wasn’t listening. In a flash, he’d opened the narrow window. “You murdering bastards!” he shouted at the top of his voice as the van reversed across the tarmac. “He was my friend. You fucking murdering bastards!”
Our community was engulfed in depression. Staff withdrew from confrontation. Meanwhile, Darren sat on my bed thinking, remembering, managing to draw on an inner resilience. He collected over 200 signatures on a large “Rest in Peace” card. He raised ?150 in pledges for the prisoner’s wreath. He cajoled a reluctant chaplain to give us the facilities we needed for the memorial service on Passion Sunday.
In 1989, 48 inmates took their own lives. In 1990, there were 50. Between 1991 and 1995 the death toll never dropped below 40, despite the suicide awareness packs thrust at prisoners during the induction process. Ray had been a prisoner since his teens and “knew the score.” None of us will ever know what was going on in his tormented mind when he tied the laces of his trainers together and made his decision.
I was down in Darren’s cell yesterday evening. He was peering at some papers Ray had left. “They’re songs he used to sing. I’m going to send them to his girlfriend,” he said. “Except this one.” Darren handed me a sheet. On it was written:
The game of life is hard to play. I’m gonna lose it anyway/The losing card I’ll some day lay, and this is all I have to say/The only way to win is cheat, and lay it down before I’m beat/And to another give a seat, for that’s the only painless feat/ ‘Cause suicide is painless, it brings on many changes/And I can take or leave it if I please.