Is a prison in the village of Lowdham in Nottinghamshire which recently I spent some time in.

Only as a visitor, I hasten to add, as I had a client who was incarcerated therein. Quite a juicy and legally interesting case is that one, but for confidentiality reasons I can't tell you what it's about.

Now when I noted that I was going to be visiting someone in prison, I had visions of Victorian red brick, big gates, and a scornful voice saying "Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have been found guilty of the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are a habitual criminal, etc. etc." I also had visions of white painted walls with green halfway up - that peculiar shade of institutional green - and screws in sharp black uniforms immaculately turned out like Warden Mackaye. Real Porridge stuff.

I was wrong. HMP Lowdham Grange isn't like that.

This is because it's one of the newer prisons built recently, and is also interesting in that it's run privately by a company called Serco (a ginormous conglomerate with their fingers in every pie imaginable, roughly equivalent to the French Sodexho Group except with less inedible institutional canteen dinners and more barbed wire) rather than directly by the Prisons Service. As such, the place seems less The Ballad of Reading Gaol and more at home in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Serco branding (together with their corporate slogan, "Bringing Service to Life") is everywhere - on the walls, on all the paperwork, and on the screws' ties. The nick also has a rather swish website for a slammer, to be fair.

The prison is vaguely octagonal in shape. I know this because I took a wrong turning when looking for the visitor's entrance and went round seven sides of it before finding the visitor's entrance next to the main gate. The walls are concrete and slab-sided, made of pre-formed twenty-five-foot high modules in a steep wedge shape with completely sheer and smooth exteriors and rolls of barbed wire halfway up on the interior. The actual buildings that form the prison are red-brick affairs with tunnels and wire fences between them, the wire fences being made of that particular sort of wire where the horizontal strips are about six millimetres away from each other so you can't get your feet in between them. Inside, the buildings have completely white painted walls all over, together with Serco branding, and posters advertising their various policies on every surface. The majority of these posters, other than one that mentioned some sort of thingie they have called "Story Time Dads" or suchlike, was advertising their "Zero Tolerance" policy on smuggling stuff in. These posters were not only all over the interior of the prison, but also all over the exterior as well, on signs on the road leading up to the prison gate. "Introducing our new tariff for smuggling mobile phone parts... 2 years inside and an unlimited fine." Or a picture of the drug dog saying "She doesn't like you, she's only doing her job... catching you." I can't help but feel that these posters explaining why stuffing wraps of cocaine up your penwiper and then extracting them to your friend or family member in the visiting room is a bad idea is not to dissuade people from doing it so much as to tick some sort of box or to help persuade t he Ministry of Justice to write Serco another fat cheque. Had the Prisons Service done it themselves they would have made do with a sheet of A4 saying "Don't smuggle contraband, or else" blu-tacked up by the entrance.

So, once you get in, you obviously have to be searched. Firstly, I had to empty my pockets and put everything other than what I needed for the visit in a locker. There was then a bunfight about whether this included my laptop because Serco had lost the signed authorisation they'd sent me and I had to show them my copy. It was around this time that I noticed all the screws had uniformly greasy hair. I mean, I know the East Midlands isn't exactly the most salubrious part of the country (Nottingham has, apparently, a bit of a rough reputation and is nicknamed "Shottingham," allegedly) but honestly, Warden Mackaye would have chewed them right out. Security consisted of me being patted down all over by an East Midlander who seemed to enjoy it a little bit too much, having my stuff x-rayed, and then being drug-dogged (which I was actually worried about, not because I do drugs but because I hate dogs and was worried it would mistake my canine anxiety for general dodginess and next thing I know I've got a stringy Brummie woman's fingers up my arse), and made to sit in THE BOSS CHAIR. If you've not seen this then you ought to. THE BOSS CHAIR looks a bit like Captain Kirk's chair crossed with a stage block and is designed to metal-detect your guts, face, and bodily orifices for metallic items. I made a mental note that if I wanted to smuggle in a weapon, I'd put a ceramic knife into a plastic charger and bung it up there. I showed a picture of THE BOSS CHAIR to a friend of mine and she said it looked rather dystopian.

For some reason, the fact I was a solicitor actually got me a bit of a pass on the security. The person ahead of me who was just an average bloke also had to let them peer in his mouth, take off his shoes, and suchlike. Probably they were banking on me having more to lose if I were caught. But then again, a while back there was an incident where a solicitor was struck off after smuggling drugs into prison in special oversized shoes, so if anything I'd have thought they'd be just as mistrustful of me.

Inside the prison, there's more Serco branding and suchlike. I was reminded (remound?) of a bit from the 1999 adventure game "The Longest Journey" in which the protagonist, April Ryan, was told that since the Police in Newport were owned by a cola company, when you got arrested you were also read a catchy advert for soft drinks. I could imagine this in Lowdham Grange - if one of the screws catches you up to something naughty, you get hauled before the Governor who asks you to explain yourself, but first, did you know that Serco Group also runs the Manchester Aquatics Centre? Maybe when you're out you might pay us a visit. Serco. Bringing Service to Life. They also seem to have tried to make it look like something that isn't a prison. Rather than bars and gates with big chunky locks, they've got electrically operated sliding doors operated by Serco goons behind security glass with a perforation to talk to them through like they have in banks. Manual doors have pink stickers on them saying, "Lock it, Prove it," to remind the screws what to do exactly (Funnily enough, in the 1990s there was a bit of a thing at one prison where they kept forgetting to lock doors and someone got out as a result.)

The visiting area wasn't what I was expected. As a solicitor I got to see my man in a side room because of confidentiality rules but the rest of the visiting area was, well, it was designed to look as un-prisony as possible. Rather than being lined up behind glass with telephones like you see in films, you and your inmate crowded round little round tables, stuff for the kids, a creche, more like a community centre. The only sign that this was, in fact, a nick were the signs crowing about Zero Tolerance and the greasy-haired chaps in Serco ties and big keyrings standing about round the edges. I didn't get to see any of the cells but suspected they were not Porridge-like but somewhat more motel-room-like. Lowdham Grange is a Category "B" prison which means that the inmates are allowed to keep their own clothes (no arrowed suits here) and move around fairly freely but are fairly well restricted. I also know from both my client and from the prison administration that all the inmates have phones in their cells. Bloody hell, I thought when I heard this. Maybe the Daily Mail rage-pieces about nicks like holiday camps aren't all that unfounded. However, Inside Time indicates that yes, they have PlayStations and TVs and suchlike. Gnagh. So it's probably all very true. It's certainly not a case of cast-iron bedframes and honey buckets by any stretch of the imagination.

I suppose that's about it really. As a prison there's not much I can say about whether I approve; it's a purely utilitarian thing, is a prison. However I was rather concerned by the amount of Serco branding and PR guff that was on offer. Corporate Watch refers to this sort of thing as part of a "commercial-corrective complex" which tries to influence criminal justice policy, and to be fair it is a bit sinister. I did some reading around in preparation for this and noted that apparently Lowdham Grange often houses folks with long sentences (including my client, and also apparently Kenny Noye, one of the Brinks Mat lot) who have long enough sentences that the objective is simply to keep them occupied, but who are fairly inoffensive personally, since the real psychos and genuinely dangerous folks end up going to Belmarsh or Full Sutton. As such, they just have to keep the inmates occupied enough not to get bored, and when they've not got long to go they can bung them down to other nicks and let others take care of them. As such, I suspect it's for this reason that Serco got a "4" rating (the top one) from HM Inspectorate of Prisons in 2011 when they were last seen to, for Lowdham Grange.

Actually, let's go out on a bit of a limb here. Serco get paid a daily rate per prisoner for Lowdham Grange under a service contract. If they can keep everyone quiet and contented, then they won't be getting into trouble and won't be requested transfers to other nicks, which may not be run by Serco. So no wonder it's a bit of a soft option. And no wonder they make a song and dance about zero tolerance for smuggling, to try and deflect attention from all this.

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