This was how it was pronounced – the shoe. “He’s in the shoe.” What they were really saying was SHU – which stood for Special Handling Unit. It was the part of the prison where the real baddies were and it had an ominous feel about it. You should feel nervous about entering here. The SHU officers had straighter backs, tighter shirts, highly polished boots and elaborate and colourful tattoos down their arms. They had body art. Let’s be clear – inmates had tattoos – the black blue bleeding lines. LOVE. HATE. That kind of thing. These guys had shading and three-dimensional imagery on their biceps. Smiling at them you felt like they might say back, “It’s no joke.” “There’s nothing funny about the SHU.” There were no female officers in this part of the prison. When we visited it, Warwick and I went together or else Warwick went on his own. I often didn’t go at all, after the first few visits. It really scared me.
We were escorted by an officer through some heavy locked gates and down a race and then into a further locked area where there were a couple of administrative rooms before we entered the prisoner area. Like going deep into the Russian doll. Layer after layer. If we had anything with us we had to put it in a locker. One room held the Santa suits – the orange outfits that labelled them as men of the SHU, as well as the riot gear that might be required one day. Before we could enter one side of the SHU where the ten or so prisoners were, the officers inside were told to put a certain prisoner away on the other side. He was not allowed any female contact. Not even to lay his eyes on one. He had once been in a medium security prison and armed with a knife had captured a female arts worker and held her prisoner, doused her in aerosol and repeatedly raped her over six hours. He had, in the years before the attack, gained people’s trust enough to become a cleaner in the Education Area, despite having twice assaulted female prison workers whilst in captivity. Caring people had been duped. From his position as cleaner he had tricked them into believing he had left the area, but had stayed behind to ambush the woman. She had been lucky to survive. Now he was never to be released and no one took any chances with him. His actions had deeply scarred the whole prison community. It pleased me to know he could not even see me. Once he was in his cell on the other side, we could enter.
But it was weird to know he was there. Adrenaline. “He’s away. Safe to enter.” Even behind the locks and the bars on the far side of the Unit I felt my heart speed up. This man was sitting in his cell. This monster. I had never really felt this way before about someone. Labelled them. It didn’t feel normal to feel this frightened of someone else. It turned them into something less than human. An essence of the fear he engendered hung everywhere. Monster. But having heard the story of his assault on the woman it seemed the only term for him. It seemed sensible too to be very afraid.
Men in the SHU didn’t usually put their names down on the flyer to see the prison visitor, but we went there anyway just to have it said out loud that we were there and able to hear anything they might want to say. Warwick seemed to think it important to make sure we had not forgotten them. The officer would announce us a little half -heartedly and stand in the back ground. “The prison visitors are here. Anyone want to speak to them.” If not in lock down the prisoners were free to roam the Unit. If they were in sight of us they might shrug and then turn away. Like they had boredom to get back to. Perhaps a “Morning Miss.” We would wander the corridor and poke our noses into their open cells and say Hi but mostly we were ignored. Mostly we chatted to the officers. Admired the body art. I positioned myself so no one could get behind me, just in case. Someone was teaching the drug cartel guy English and in return he taught them Spanish. Someone else was working out on the gym equipment. Someone else was doing the clean up in the kitchen. From the central area we were being watched by two unseen officers in the control room. It was that glass that you can’t see through. Each guy in the SHU had his own cell. There was no sharing in here.
One guy was in here for punishment. He was in lock down. Back in the Units when he had been doubled-up he had lost his temper and torn his cell-mate apart. The superintendent told me he had never seen a man so damaged by some one with no weapon other than his bare hands. The attacked man had had to have metal plates put in his face to repair it. This guy wanted to talk to me and was brought from his cell. We sat in a glass room with an officer outside watching us through the glass. The prisoner was in orange with shackles around his ankles and his wrists. Bare feet. The suits have no pockets. Nothing on their person can be hidden. The officer pulled the chair back for him so he could sit opposite me. He leaned forward to tell me his concern. I wrote down his complaint. I can’t recall our conversation now, but when he asked me what I did on the outside and I told him I was veterinarian he lifted his chin and said “and I’m a tiger.”
Another guy in the SHU was a serial self-harmer. He was in there for his own protection and perhaps because not many people could abide his strangeness. In the SHU he could be closely monitored and a kind officer was working hard to help him stop his self-mutilation. He had a habit of pushing razor blades up inside his urethra.
From within the SHU there was no view of anything outside it. Grey bars, grey walls, concrete. It was extremely claustrophobic and airless. The stainless steel kitchen was spanking. There was one exception; the small concrete exercise yard. If you looked up. Then you saw a patch of sky. Blue and pure and far, far away. Not a big dome of it like normal Western Australian sky. Just a smidgen. The exercise yard was bit like an old-fashioned Elephant pit. The concrete walls, spotty and black in places with fungi, reached to the sky, unscaleable. There were no windows out of the SHU. It was, and no doubt still is, very secure.