To enter Greenwich Magistrates Court you must first go through an airport-style metal detector which squeals at the slightest provocation. The Court is a small Victorian building with wood-panelled court rooms that lead off a waiting area with a mosaic floor. A few rows of green metal seats are bolted to this floor and there is a drinks machine in one corner. To find out which courtroom you are appearing in, you have to look at the printed lists which are pinned up on one of the walls. There are no specific times given for hearings so when you get to appear in court is a matter of luck, persistence and whether your client (or lawyer, if you’re a client) turns up early or not. The atmosphere in an old court like this is best likened to that of an understaffed Accident and Emergency Department in which none of the patients wants to be treated.
I am here to represent a man who is already serving a custodial sentence for burglary. He is being ‘produced’ from his prison today to appear in court for the first time for another burglary, allegedly committed at around the same time as the one for which he has served almost a year. Forty minutes ago, I was sitting in my Chambers reading a novel, unemployed for the day. Now, furnished only with the above information which has been phoned in from Mr X’s solicitors, I begin a routine which is typical of many days in my working life.
Fifteen minutes of questioning various court officials establishes for certain that Mr X is actually going to arrive at this particular court on this particular day.
Eventually the list-caller in Court Number One, the woman who decides on the order that cases appear in court, comes to see me as I sit in the waiting area and tells me that the police officer in the case of Mr X is here. The policeman comes out of the court room. His head is shaved and he is wearing a shirt and tie and suit trousers. He is in his thirties and has the hard look of a Met CID man. Immediately he begins to explain that the reason this matter has taken so long to come to court (the point he thinks I’ll be raising in front of the magistrate) is that they have been waiting nearly a year for forensic evidence taken from the scene to come back from the laboratory. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard this one. It is frequently used by the prosecution as a catch-all excuse for being unprepared and it’s a sure-fire adjournment-getter. It just so happens, how ever, that Mr X has only two weeks of his current sentence left to run, so this fresh allegation, brought at this time, will ruin any chance of Mr X being released in the near-future.
The morning list of cases is almost finished. The CID man outlines the basis of the charge: the burglary, the threats to shoot (although he admits that no gun has ever been found) and the million-to-one chance that the DNA is not that of my client. I thank him and go to the cells.
To get to them I press a doorbell and am let into a small holding chamber. I identify myself to a guard who is sitting behind a perspex screen and another door opens automatically. I enter a waiting area with a reception desk. There are a number of guards standing around in their green shirts and trousers. They attempt to intimidate. They stare and smirk and make comments under their breath. The atmosphere is unhealthily confrontational and it seems that my client is in large part responsible for this. He is a violent man, I’m told. The staring continues and I try to make small talk as I sign the visitors’ book, in which I have to list my client’s name, the time of my arrival in the cells and the name of the solicitor’s firm to which I belong. (In a reflex act of snobbery I write ‘Counsel’ in the last column, an indulgence which will antagonise the guards who seem to have a Khmer Rouge-like capacity for hatred of anything they perceive to be too bourgeois.) My efforts are met with further hostility. A number of guards are chewing gum with an air of casual aggression.
It isn’t the same in every court cell area. Once, on a visit to another set of cells, I listened to the guard at the reception desk singing Irish folk songs that echoed down the corridors where the prisoners were being held and were painfully poignant. In another, one of my clients had been awarded the unofficial freedom of the jail. The guards did not lock him into his cell, allowed him unlimited use of the telephone and made sure he received enough visits from his fiancée and friends. Given that it was strictly forbidden to have any visitors other than lawyers this was quite an achievement. What had he done to receive such treatment? He was, I gathered subsequently, supplying the chief jailer at court with drugs that he was bringing with him from prison.
Here, at this court in a high crime area, dealing with all manner of ‘real villains’, as the argot has it, things are different and the cell staff have managed to perfect an ambience of barely restrained thuggery in an attempt, no doubt, to meet fire with fire. Incongruous in all of this, an island of oestrogen in a turbulent sea of testosterone, is a heavily made-up woman who is in charge of the signing-in book. In contrast to the short haircuts of her male colleagues, she sports a teased, hennaed, lacquered concoction and long varnished nails. Instead of their Doc Martens, she wears Cuban-heeled suede pixie boots and trousers tapered to lie flatteringly along the line of her leg. I am pleased to note, however, that she has not dispensed with the sneering unhelpfulness which makes theirs and everybody else’s job that much more difficult.
To her left is a whiteboard with the names of prisoners written in felt-tip against the number of the cell in which they are being kept. She writes my name up against that of my client. Then I walk further along the corridor to a wall of bars which fills the space from floor to ceiling. A number of guards stand on the other side of this obstacle and I shout: ‘To see Mr X, please.’ One of the guards pushes himself off the wall on which he is leaning like a schoolboy told to stop hanging about in the playground and get to lessons. He unlocks a section of the bars. They swing outwards and I step through the entrance, then it is locked behind me. He points to one of the cells but does not speak. The cells have small blackboards fastened to the wall outside them with the names of the prisoners chalked up. The wicket of Mr X’s cell is pulled up fully: I press the catch to release the plate covering the hole in the door, which is at head height, and it slides down. Mr X is pacing up and down his cell furiously.
‘All right mate, all right mate. Let’s go to the interview room, let’s go to the interview room, let’s get into that fucking interview room.’
Mr X’s eyes are wide open with annoyance. He is a small man with a lean face and a wiry, strong frame. He has the instantly recognisable look of the incarcerated, an inner shadow which shows through the pallid skin of the face and flickers in the eyes. It is strange to be part of a prisoner’s world, for however brief a time; to have to ask whenever you want a door opened or a petty request granted, to have to beg repeatedly for a light for a fag or to use the toilet. It is disturbing to witness an adult reduced to a state of dependence which we are used to seeing only in young children and the elderly. I turn to the guard.
‘Can we use the interview room?’ He shrugs his shoulders and unlocks the interview room door across the corridor from the cell. Then he unlocks Mr X and stands aside to let him go by, rather like a matador allowing a fresh bull to charge past his arched body.
The interview room is ten feet square. There is a table bolted to the floor and fixed benches on either side of it. One of the benches runs the length of the wall, the other is smaller, extending no further than the edge of the table. The smaller of the benches is for the lawyer. There is a panic button at shoulder height on the wall next to this seat. The guard locks us in. Mr X holds an envelope stuffed with papers, which he immediately spreads on the table. He sorts them into well ordered piles with the precision of a croupier dealing out cards in a casino. ‘The cozzas tried to take these off me this morning.’
Again, it is difficult to imagine just how hard it must be to keep a collection of belongings together in prison, especially when those belongings are documents compiled in order to assist one’s defence. The fact that he has these papers here today signifies a triumph over random searches, sudden transfers and beatings – all the harshness of prison life. Mr X has been a heroin addict, it was the fuel on which his offending ran. But here is a certificate to show that he has passed random drug tests, correspondence with drug counsellors and, most important, a letter stating that he has been accepted onto an intensive treatment programme which is due to start the week after his release from prison.
Mr X also has a notebook in which he has painstakingly recorded the chronology of his case. His handwriting is like that of a six-year-old. Each one of the characters in that notebook must have been a source of immense effort to Mr X and he is determined to vent his frustration. He is not aggressive. I feel no threat because he is not communicating with me: he is reciting a piece that has been rehearsed over many months. It is a litany of delay and obfuscation on the part of the prosecuting authorities: Mr X suspects that they have allowed this matter to lie dormant until now so that his dreams of liberty will be dashed, and the drug placement that he has gone to such lengths to arrange will be lost.
When he has finished, he tells me that he would like a bail application made on his behalf so I take some personal details about his wife, his children, the fragmented home life of the professional criminal; then he thumps the door and the guard unlocks it. ‘See you up there, mate,’ he says to me and is locked back in his cell.
The prosecutor crosses the deserted waiting area holding his packed lunch. I call him over. He is thin with a wispy beard, black-framed spectacles and a dusty, ill-fitting pinstripe suit. He reminds me of a rabbinical student. From behind the front-of-house information desk, he fishes out the prosecution file on Mr X.
‘He’s a nasty man,’ he says. ‘He dangled a policeman by his legs over the side of a multi-storey car park.’ The prosecutor produces Mr X’s previous convictions. The list runs to four pages dating back to 1995. All the offences are either for violence or theft. ‘I haven’t got his entire record.’
The prosecutor tells me that if we are successful in winning bail today, which will of course be merely technical until his release on the other charge, he is going to appeal the decision. End of conversation. The prosecutor walks off. I realise that Mr X is correct, that his attempt at redemption will not be allowed to succeed.
‘Anyone here for Mr X?’ I call out in the waiting area. Sitting near the entrance are two women and a girl of about fourteen. I know that I have seen the girl somewhere before.
‘Yes.’ The younger of the two women raises her hand. She is dressed in a black leather jacket, trousers and cowboy boots. Her skin is taut over high cheekbones and she looks a little like Billie Whitelaw. This is Mr X’s wife and the older woman is his mother-in-law who is to stand as surety for him this afternoon. I tell them that he’s bearing up and Mrs X says: ‘He hasn’t done this. He always puts his hands up to anything he’s done.’ She asks me whether I’ve heard about the police-dangling incident, and when I express surprise at how lenient the sentence was (he received six months in the Magistrates Court) she tells me it’s because they had photographs taken of Mr X chained to a hospital bed after being beaten senseless by the cozzas.
‘Of course,’ she says, ‘he was on the gear at the time so he looked even worse.’ The photos had been shown to the magistrate, who had sentenced him there and then, rather than sending the case to the Crown Court. She says that Mr X’s bark is worse than his bite and how he’s always (well, almost always) managing to give Old Bill the slip.
‘That’s why they hate him so much.’ She laughs, the mother-in-law laughs and the girl laughs. Mrs X tells me about the time Mr X hid underwater in a stream to avoid being tracked by a police helicopter. To her he’s a hero.
‘Where do I know you from?’ I ask the girl. She is one of Mr X’s daughters.
‘You represented my boyfriend last week.’ She tells me his name and it comes back to me. I acted for him in the youth court, where he was charged with an offence of violence.
We are all in court. Mr X is in the dock surrounded by guards and his family are sitting in the public gallery behind him. I am sitting next to the prosecutor in the well of the court and the stipendiary magistrate is giving Mr X some bad news. He indicates that it will be a waste of my time making an application for bail because no matter how sympathetic he may be to the arguments advanced on behalf of my client, he is not prepared to grant it, even technically, because Mr X is a serving prisoner. His decision is expressed in fluent legalese with mention of statutory powers and sub-sections of the Bail Act and is muttered rapidly to his clerk, the prosecutor and me. Mr X, who clearly hasn’t understood or probably even heard a word of this, spits, ‘Let him do what he has to do,’ and eyeballs the magistrate like a gunfighter in a Western. The magistrate formally remands him in custody to appear here again in seven days’ time. There’s a momentary calm before the storm and then Mr X lets out a guttural, now wailing, now snarling, ‘Fuuuuuuuuuuuck.’ It is a call to arms, a summoning of strength. I turn round but the guards have already bundled him out of the dock and into the cells.
The magistrate looks embarrassed. For a moment, the ordered world of British Justice and the violent reality of the people who inhabit the system have collided. I bow and utter the stock response of the unsuccessful advocate.
‘I’m grateful, sir,’ I say automatically and walk out of the court. Moments later, the detective in the case comes for me, looking flustered.
‘He wants to see you.’
This time when I enter the cell area, all the guards are massed around the reception desk. The detective stands with them. It seems they have had a struggle and they are flushed and out of breath. No one speaks. They stare at me but this time without the studied arrogance. Violence is near at hand and it has concentrated their minds. It is very tense. I look around for some indication of what I should do but none comes. Eventually I speak. ‘I’d better go and see him.’
Two of the guards walk down with me to his cell. Before we reach it, one of them says: ‘Remember, you can speak to him through the wicket. You don’t have to go into the room if you don’t want to.’ And now, having lit the touchpaper, he stands well back and waits for the fireworks. I pull down the plate and, recalling the various horror stories about people leaning too far through the wicket hole and having their noses bitten off or turds stuffed in their mouths, keep my head well away from the opening. Mr X looms large. ‘I want to go into that room, into that fucking room. NOW.’
I am scared. ‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ is all I can think of to say.
‘Yes. I’m sure.’
I turn to the guards who have retreated up the corridor. ‘I’ll see him in the interview room.’
As he lets me into the room, the guard says: ‘Sit by the panic button. Use it if you need us.’
And then Mr X is in and the door is locked.
‘I didn’t even get a chance to smile at my wife,’ he shouts. ‘I didn’t understand a fucking word of that.’ I explain to him what has happened and his angry eyes whip over my features, sizing me up. In desperation I ask him about the dangling policeman. Suddenly he lets out a rueful laugh.
‘How do you know about that?’ he asks, chuckling despite himself.
‘I’ve seen your form.’ He asks to have a look at his record and I show him the four sheets.
‘Have they got my whole life here?’ he asks. I tell him they haven’t.
‘If he fucking tries to talk to me on the journey back, I’m going to punch his fucking head,’ he says about his police chaperone and because he seems to have decided not to punch mine, I agree that this would be a perfectly reasonable course of conduct. I tell him that he can go for bail next week – ‘when the position is clearer,’ I waffle. We don’t mention the drugs programme. There is a tacit understanding between us that it has gone and suddenly he seems diminished: where there was aggression there is now only a bitter acceptance of what has happened, and for the last few moments of our meeting he disengages from me entirely, as if pushing off from the shore on a long winter journey.
As I leave the cell area, the guards and the policeman once again stare, this time with curiosity. The CID man asks, ‘Everything all right?’ and as nonchalantly as I can, I reply: ‘Yep. He’s fine now.’ But my voice is shaking.
Mr X’s wife and daughter are the only ones left in the waiting area. A muted light filters through the windows. Mrs X is anxious to leave as she has to pick up her other children from school in half an hour. They will be back next week.
‘Say hello to your boyfriend from me,’ I say to the girl as they get up to leave.
‘He’s up for a burglary next Thursday,’ she replies and her mother laughs.
‘Don’t do what I did,’ she says. ‘Get rid of him.’ But her daughter isn’t listening. She is smiling with pride at the thought of him. Then the two of them walk under the arch of the metal detector, out into the full light, ready to stand by their men. Again.