BY BRIAN O’HARE
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
It was a soft prison, he had been told. Medium security overall, with low security accommodation for selected prisoners. His friend had tried to sound cheerful but the concern in his eyes was inescapable. The unexpected display of feeling, however, had pleased the boy, despite his dire situation. They hugged, the boy tearful.
“I’ll come and see you when I can,” his friend had promised, and again trying to allay fears, he added, “Keep your head down, Kevin. Stay out of trouble and you’ll serve only half your sentence. You’ll be out in three years.”
The words carried small comfort now. The young man stared apprehensively through the prison-bus window as Magilligan Prison came into view. He fought panic as his eyes traversed the bleak, lonely landscape, the seeming miles of fences surrounding low, concrete, H shaped buildings. His breathing began to come in short gasps. Deep breaths, he urged himself. Don’t lose control. The hard men are in the Maze . . .
To some extent the thought reflected truth. Prisoners convicted of scheduled terrorist offences had been transferred to the Maze prison, the notorious Maze where the most dangerous IRA and loyalist prisoners were held during “the troubles”, the prison where the IRA inmate Bobby Sands famously starved himself to death. This left Magilligan operating as a ‘normal’ prison, if normal was a word that might be deemed applicable. According to his friend, who had thoroughly researched the prison and its regime, the life here reflected its low security status. Sports, hobbies, library, education facilities, and excellent health care. “It’ll be a breeze,” his friend had assured him.
But as the bus passed through the huge security gates, topped by wire fences and frowned down upon by a dark, ominous watchtower, the young man’s resolution wavered, and dread clutched his spirit once more. Trembling, he followed the other prisoners out of the bus as they were marched in single file towards the reception facility to be registered and processed.
An aggressive guard shoved him forward as he fell some steps behind. “Keep up,” the guard snarled.
Hampered by the handcuffs holding his arms together, the young man stumbled but managed to regain his balance, almost bumping into the large, heavily tattooed prisoner in front of him. The man heard the scuffle and turned round to glare angrily at the slight, blond, blue-eyed prisoner who was struggling to remain upright. The anger dissipated almost immediately, replaced by a brutish leer. “Yeah, keep up, kid,” he rasped. “Feel free to bang into me anytime.” And guffawing coarsely, he turned back into the line.
“Shut it, McStravick,” the guard barked at him. “Move on!”
Unnerved by the lout’s crude interest, the effeminate young man was further disturbed by the fact that, given the guard’s obvious familiarity with him, this was not McStravick’s first time at Magilligan. God! He knows his way around. What if he decides to come after me?
The line of a dozen or so prisoners was efficiently dealt with by the receiving officers. Systems that had been in operation for some time were now smooth and effective. The staff knew how many committals were arriving and were prepared for them. Almost immediately the group was led into a stark, functional holding room where they were given a cold meal and some drinks. Most of them ate stolidly, heads down, not interested in conversation. McStravick kept staring the effeminate newbie, trying to catch his eye. Each nervous glance in McStravick’s direction earned the young man a view of misshapen teeth as the older offender’s lips curled in a lewd and knowing grin.
After the meal, the young man was subjected to a total body search, as, indeed, were the other prisoners, and after the necessary documentation to record his arrival had been completed, he was led into another unprepossessing holding room where there was a television but little else to offer distraction.
McStravick tried to get a seat near the young man, but the guard tapped him on the shoulder with his truncheon. “Sit over there, McStravick.”
The man glowered but did as he was told.
A Senior Duty Officer appeared at the door and called each prisoner in turn to a small outer office. When it came the young man’s turn, he perched on the edge of a chair in front of the officer’s desk, exuding extreme uneasiness. The officer looked up from the forms on his desk and stared at him with something almost approaching sympathy. “Name?”
“Yes, sir.” It was a croak in which the words were barely discernible.
The Duty Officer studied the young man’s file and his lips tightened. “Manslaughter?” His expression was stern now.
“It was an accident . . .”
The man glanced at him. “Of course, it was.” He studied the notes again. “You were sentenced to seven years?”
“You don’t list any next of kin here?”
“I am isolated from my family.” The young man’s voice remained tremulous. “I suppose you could say they have disowned me. I don’t really have any next of kin.”
“Have you been living on the streets?” The officer’s sympathy began to surface again.
“For a while, sir, but I’ve moved in with a very kind friend who has been helping me.”
“Can you give me the friend’s address?”
The young man hesitated. “It was only a very temporary arrangement. I don’t think his address is relevant.”
“If you say so.” The officer regarded the young prisoner speculatively for a moment. Can’t see this kid causing any bother. “Okay. You’ll be going through an induction process shortly, so I won’t go into detail about what’s going to happen, where you’re going to be put, and so on. All I’ll say is that if you behave yourself and strictly obey our rules, you can cut your seven years detention to a little over three. Got that?”
The shaking young man nodded and stuttered, “Yes, sir.”
The officer kept staring at him, his head nodding constantly as he tried to figure out how this effeminate young man’s tenure at Magilligan might turn out. Eventually he breathed heavily through his nose and said, “Okay. You can go now. We’ll chat again from time to time to see how you’re progressing.”
A couple of hours later saw Kevin Lane located in a cell in Foyleview where he had access to showers, toilet facilities, a television room, games room and a telephone. He was subject to another interview by an older, world-weary officer whose role was basically to make him aware of what to expect during his first twenty-four hours in the prison, wing routines, night sanitations arrangements, and details of the five-day induction course that all newcomers would have to attend.
“So, how are you feeling now?” the grizzled official asked him. His initial appearance, large, no nonsense, tough, had almost given the young man apoplexy, but as the interview progressed, he had sensed a surprising aura of warmth in the man, and now here he was, asking him how he was feeling.
He opted for the truth. “I’m scared, sir.”
“First time, son. To be expected. You’ll settle down.” He waved at a form on his desk. “I’m expected to note any immediate concerns you might have. You worried about anything? Is there something you feel you want to draw to our attention?”
McStravick’s evil grin and bad teeth flashed into the young man’s mind. He considered the pros and cons of mentioning his uneasiness about the man’s odious intentions, but the thought of what might happen should McStravick ever hear of his complaint gave him pause. He simply said, “No concerns, sir. Everything’s fine.”
“Okay. The guard will take you back to your cell.”
That Kevin Lane had been allocated a cell in Foyleview was pure happenstance. His location there had not been part of some sinister ploy. It did not spring from someone’s evil intent. It was nobody’s fault. It just fell that way. It was also an accident. New prisoners were generally allocated cells in the more rigidly guarded H blocks. Perhaps someone felt sorry for the timid new prisoner. Perhaps the person working on the allocations had been distracted in conversation with another guard and made a mistake. Whatever the reason, Lane was settled, on the first and only night of his time in Magilligan, in the comfortable surroundings of Foyleview.
One singular difference between the arrangements at Foyleview and the H blocks was that while prisoners in the H blocks had only restricted daytime access to showers, with guards accompanying them at all times, prisoners in Foyle had unrestricted twenty-four access to showers and toilets. These facilities were, of course, monitored, but only by a single guard whose supervision, at best, tended to be perfunctory.
Under normal circumstances, this would have mattered not a jot. Circumstances on the first night of Kevin Lane’s incarceration, however, turned out not to be normal. Lane, as fastidious as he was slight, felt sweaty and unclean after a day’s dusty travel to the prison in the August heat. Shortly after his evening meal, he made immediately for the showers where he proceeded to soap himself copiously in the warm, soothing water.
The fact that McStravick, with an equally huge and brutish companion, arrived at the facilities just as the young man was showering, may well also have been a happenstance. Or it might have been a coincidence. Or it might have been the result of a vibration on the grapevine that somehow reached McStravick’s ear and led to his decision to seek a shower at that particular time. Whatever the reason, it was never discussed in any of the prison records. Nor was there indication in any subsequent report that either McStravick or his friend had been present in the facilities at that time. The only reference in later reports to the presence or absence of any other individual at the scene was a note that the supervising guard had “. . . unfortunately and regrettably . . .” chosen that moment to avail himself of the staff toilet facilities.
Eyes closed, soaping himself with an almost sensual appreciation of the hot water’s cleansing properties, Lane was initially unaware that he was being observed by two hulking men, one of whom was the brute who had been seeking to catch his eye for most of the day. It was only when he leaned forward to shake some suds from his eyes that he became aware of the two men watching him. He became aware, too, with horrifying immediacy, that both men were naked and in a state of advanced arousal. Pressing himself back into a corner of the shower, he croaked, alarmed, “Wha . . . What do you want?”
McStravick gave him yet another view of his misshapen teeth and said, “What do I want? You’ve been teasing me all day, you little prick. Now it’s time to deliver.”
Both men stepped forward and grabbed the trembling Lane, attempting to drag him away from the corner. McStravick pulled at the younger man’s haunches, seeking to position himself behind his victim. Slender though he might have been, Lane possessed a wiry strength, and his struggles were making it very difficult for either of his attackers to overcome him. The two assailants moved further into the shower, clamping the young man with their thick, heavy arms, rendering his struggles futile. McStravick twisted the young man around and leaned over on top of him. Lane struggled violently again and, as the second attacker attempted to hold the young man still, he slipped in the soapy water on the shower floor and began to fall backwards. In order to protect himself, he clung to Lane but was unable, however, to prevent himself from falling quite heavily. As he did so, he pulled both the young man and McStravick violently towards the shower wall just behind him. Because of the momentum caused by the falling man’s slip, and the force of McStravick’s weight from behind, the young man’s head smashed against the wall tiles with a loud and sickening crunch. Blood immediately began to stream down the white tiles and the two attackers stared at it, rattled. They stared, too, at the prone body of Kevin Lane, temporarily dumbfounded. Neither touched Lane nor attempted to discover if he was alive or dead.
“Fuck!” McStravick swore. “We need to get outta here . . . now!”
Shortly afterwards, when the guard had completed his ablutions and was sauntering casually past the showers, he discovered the prostrate body of Kevin Lane. The shower was still running and washing away the blood that had by then become a trickle, oozing slowly from young prisoner’s head. The shaken guard, casting frantic glances around to see if anyone else was there, immediately sounded the alarm before contacting the warden and the prison doctor, both of whom wasted little time in getting to the scene.
The warden glared at the guard. “How the hell did this happen?”
“I went to the toilet, sir,” the guard said defensively. “But it was only for a minute. When I came out, I found the prisoner like this.”
“Did you see anyone else skulking about the place?”
“There was no one. I’m sure of that, sir.” The guard was determined to limit the damage to his status as much as possible
“You had no right to desert your post, even for a second. You should have arranged cover.”
“But we never —”
The warden waved an angry hand. “Move away from the scene. I’ll deal with you later.”
By this time the doctor was leaning over the body, having checked for a pulse but finding none. He was now studying the badly damaged skull.
“Well?” the warden said brusquely. “What’s the situation?”
“This young man is dead, I’m afraid,” the doctor said, moving the corpse’s head into the light to examine the wound more closely. “We’ll need a post mortem, obviously, but the prisoner has suffered severe traumatic brain injury. I suspect there has been bleeding in or around the brain, maybe in the brain tissue itself. I’m guessing, and the post mortem will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we’re possibly looking at an intra-cerebral haemorrhage.”
“Any idea how it could have happened?” The warden’s tone was brusque, almost angry. Clearly empathy was not a characteristic that overwhelmed him. Right now all he could see was a future filled with endless reports, useless enquiries, government agents swarming all over the place, and pestering from nosy reporters who sought to decry the prison at every opportunity.
“Obviously his head hit the wall,” the doctor replied, lips pursed, his words terse. A young man was dead and the governor appeared to be utterly devoid of concern. “Why he hit the wall is a matter for the investigators.”
“Could he have slipped and banged his head?” the warden persisted.
The doctor glanced around, saw the soap on the tiled shower floor, and said, “Soap and water on a surface like this? It would be possible to assume that, yes.”
“All right,” the warden said decisively. “The guard is certain that there was no one else around. Kid obviously slipped on the soap. We’ll register it as accidental death, fatal head injury resulting from fall in shower . . . or however you medical types word it.”