Spending ‘time’ in HMP High Down Prison

By Sue Sowerby

To say that I was excited to be invited to HMP High Down Prison by an old colleague is an understatement. I love new experiences, new challenges and the older I get, the more intrigued I become. But this one was different. Not for the fact that I relished meeting prisoners who were doing ‘time’ and paying the price, but just because I experienced something a few years ago – and this was part of my ‘recovery’. Over a four-day period, our ad agency was burgled. Our offices were ram-raided and the burglars stole everything – computers, studio materials – they even cut all the electrical wires! Why? What had we done to them? We were just a normal business with a lovely team and we were all trying to earn a living. Too much to mention, too sore to be reminded.

So on Thursday 19th October, my colleague Armen and I met in the visitors’ car park at High Down on the Banstead/Sutton, Surrey borders. I was security checked a few weeks before, so with passport in hand, I stood at the reception desk, looked up at the camera and was validated through the security system. Armen is a regular visitor at High Down so no introduction was needed. In fact he often visits The Clink Restaurant and entertains clients and media, and of course this is where we were intending to have lunch that day.

About 40 of us were checked in for lunch and we were given a briefing by one of the prison staff. “No knives, no scissors, no nail files, no keys, no mobile phone, no bags and….no bombs!” she said. Our possessions had to be tucked away in a locker until our return. On the day we arrived, there was a recruitment campaign being filmed. This piqued our interest because Armen and I have a very long history in recruitment and that’s how we first met.

After even more security checks, one door opens and another locks, and repeat. We were finally escorted through to The Clink Restaurant. The place was fully staffed by inmates. Drinks waiter, food waiter. cashier. Cashier? We were in a prison so how does that work? Armen told me that 50% of the bill is paid in advance and then the balance is paid on the day with a cheque. So effectively no money crosses hands in The Clink.

A very polite young man came to our table with pencil and pad in hand. He gives us a warm welcome. Drinks ordered. Time to look at the menu. What a selection! Pigeon, black pudding, smoked bacon and poached quails egg for Armen. Gorgonzola tart tatin, fennel slaw and candied walnuts for me. Hardly prison food and that was just for starters! The main menu was vast and equally tantalising.

We talked to our waiters. Of course they were on their best behaviour. They had to be. They needed to impress the diners, play by the rule book, smile, respond to questions and they did, In bucketfuls. ‘Our’ prisoners were smartly dressed, complete with long waiter’s apron, courteous, helpful and above all customer service was the order of the day! But what holds for them once they leave the restaurant, go back to the shouting, the swearing, the bullying and the constant noise. The noise of sound, disruption and mayhem. Do they seek sanctity in their own cell? Do they weep inwardly for fear of being ridiculed? So many questions you just don’t want to ask. For a few hours, these guys enter the world of normality, try to be the best that they can be because on the outside, they all hope to secure a job, make a new life for themselves, make people proud and prove they can change. Help is on hand at the prison. The guys receive training, career counselling and even the offer of work, so when they enter the outside world again (‘our’ drinks waiter comes out in March). I did not ask what he was in for. Perhaps I didn’t want to know. Perhaps it would have blurred my appreciation of his good manners and his efforts to serve and impress. Throughout the meal, my eyes welled up. Tears fell down my cheeks like an annoying dripping tap. Armen called me “soppy”. I am. I always will be.

On the drive home I cried buckets. Uncontrollable tears. I called my mum and told her about my day. Explaining everything through my sobs. What will become of ‘our’ waiters when they are released? Will they reoffend or will they really try and make something of their lives and put a life of crime behind them? Were they incessant drug dealers, burglars, muggers, murderers? We will never know, but I truly hope that they reform themselves and do well. In the visitors book I wrote “Thank you for fantastic customer service by two great lads. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Let’s hope they don’t blow it.