By Chris Whitworth
“Handle your f***ing lag, loser”.
It’s just one of many phrases Gary learnt while serving his six-year sentence in New Zealand’s prison system. His last year was spent at Auckland’s notorious Paremoremo prison on the North Shore.
‘The lag’ is prison-speak for a sentence greater than three years, and with it bestows a certain respect, and obligation.
Each inmate must deal with his own lag. It’s your load to bear and yours only. Younger prisoners caught whinging and griping about their time get stern reminders from older prisoners – who are occasionally dubbed ‘old lags’ – to shut up and serve their time.
For repeat prisoners, who spend much of their life in and out of jail on small bids, the terminology is not so flattering. They are called ‘boob heads’. Gary says the term has been around for decades and was once used to describe all aspects of jail life.
“Years back everything was basically jargon. A guy that had done lots of jail was a ‘boob head’, the tattoos done in jail were called ‘boob tats’, your shoes were ‘boob shoes’, your clothing was ‘boob clothes’, the prison issue soap was ‘boob soap’,” he says.
“It’s always been there, it’s always been called that. They’re moving away from it nowadays.”
Gary was just released from prison last week, having completed his lag for aggravated robbery on a dairy using a hammer while on bail for setting fire to his ex-girlfriend’s house.
He’s looking to start anew, but prison diction is still fresh in his mind. Most of Gary’s stories are punctuated by expletives and I occasionally worry that young children are in earshot as we chat at a crowded ferry terminal in Auckland’s Viaduct.
“It really pisses me off because I didn’t have this vernacular when I came to jail, but you basically have to learn how to speak.”
Other jail yard jargon, he tells me, includes: ‘screws’ (guards), ‘seg’ (inmates under segregation) and the more disturbing ‘Jailhouse Suzy’ or ‘Love Glove’, which refers to a self-pleasuring device of perverted ingenuity.
Among other things, the phrases reinforce the fact that prison is a world of its own. Prison has its own language, rules and customs, ranging from the banal to the just plain bizarre.
The cell room television for example carries its own set of rules; prisoners must pay for their own individual set, as well as the wiring and the cost of having it safety checked, and inmates can watch TV as much as they like but volume restrictions must be observed.
Television also allows prisoners to stay up to date with current affairs and TV shows, and contribute to the wider jail discussion with inmates and guards on what channel is preferred, what show is best and what characters are liked.
And firmly at the top of prison television’s pedestal is TV3’s own Home and Away.
“It’s one of the most well-watched programmes in prison,” says Gary. “Guys will just grovel over it. They are involved in the story, the characters, everything.”
He says not only is the show a source of discussion and enjoyment, but also catalyst for the occasional scuffle.
“About three years ago when I was first in the special unit, I was in my cell and about three cells away from me I hear ‘she’s not a f***ing slut’.” *smack*
“[A] guy comes round the corner; I said ‘what’s happened to you mate?’
“‘F***ing Home and Away’.
“He had called one of the girls on Home and Away a slut so the other guy smacked him one.”
Books are another popular form of distraction for inmates, Jeffrey Archer, Lee Child, Wilbur Smith and Stephen King among Gary’s favourite authors. Although not all prisons in New Zealand offer libraries, Gary says the ones that do are quickly cherished by inmates.
“The amount of guys I met who had never read a book outside high school until they ended up in jail and some of them actually really discovered a love of reading.”
According to Gary, author Jean Auel’s Earth Child series is one of prison’s best kept secrets. Not for its insight or witty prose but rather the “steamy” sex scenes hidden within the novels.
But undoubtedly the most commonly discussed book is one that doesn’t even exist.
The hypothetical but deeply alluring ‘Sorry Book’ is a running joke among old lags. Each time a new prisoner arrives the myth of the Sorry Book is passed on, with fresh inmates told that simply writing in the book that they’re sorry will automatically grant them a free ticket out the door.
“There is a lot of humour inside [prison],” says Gary.
Prisoners will often prank guards over the cell room intercoms, pressing the talk button and then proceeding to place an order for a big mac, fries and a strawberry shake. “This is NOT McDonalds”, the guards will reply, the joke not always lost on them.
And then there was the time the inmates tried to trap a rare cockatoo, one of the many exotic birds Gary says can be seen flying around Paremoremo’s West Division.
“One of the officers said if you catch it I will hold onto it until you get out. So it was all on, it was a major operation, until one morning they looked out the dining room window and there was one of the cats eating the cockatoo. They cried. The officer cried. The inmate – the hardened inmate – cried.”
“I mean, we’re talking about a $2000-$3000 bird here. Guys had gone to jail for stealing things worth less than that.”
But even in prison’s lighter moments, the air of violence is always present.
“It’s something you have to be aware of at all times, it’s always underlining it. It’s always ready to explode at any minute,” he says.
Paremoremo houses some of New Zealand’s worst criminals, including RSA triple murderer William Bell, amputee Graeme Burton and until 2009, Antonie Dixon, the man who carried out two vicious samurai sword attacks and a murder all on one night in January, 2003.
Cell blocks B and C are the mainstream maximum security units in Paremoremo, used to contain the most violent criminals who are not under forced segregation. Gary says guards don’t dare walk down the landings next to those cells unless three other officers are accompanying them at all times.
In his final year at Paremoremo, Gary largely avoided the dangers of prison life by opting for voluntary segregation which confined him to a 23-hour a day lockdown. His three meals were slipped through his cell door and his only human contact was with passing guards and cellmates on either side of him.
Gary has “jailed” at prisons all around New Zealand including Dunedin Prison, Wellington’s Mt Crawford and Auckland’s Mt Eden Prison.
“I’ve been celled up with murderers, I’ve been celled up with rapists,” he says. But despite Gary’s stories of prison pranks and in-jokes, jail is jail and fellow prisoners are rarely friends.
“The whole time I was [in prison] there are only two guys who I have considered to be worthwhile having any contact with now that I’m out. Two guys in six years, and I’ve met thousands of people.”
It’s tricky fostering relationships inside, with many inmates out to manipulate and suck other inmates into their game. Prison is full of broken people, like a computer software programmer Gary met years back who used to cry every day in the showers because he couldn’t understand why he’d killed his wife, or the young Maori man who would swallow cell room objects and occasionally self-harm.
“There is a lot of sadness in there too. I’ve been in there when there have been a number of deaths – both natural and suicides. I’ve never seen anyone actually murdered but you hear of people being murdered.”
It’s not only difficult to make relationships in prison but also maintain the ones on the outside. Gary has an 8-year-old daughter who he hasn’t seen since she was two. His brothers and sisters don’t want anything to do with him and he missed his own mother’s funeral because he was locked up.
In the end it was his relationship with a few counsellors and prison staff that got him through, or as Gary would say “helped me appeal to my better side”.
“It was through a very, very small group of people that I was actually able to see what I was doing all these years to myself and the people I supposedly cared about. And guys can come to those realisations in jail, guys can do those sort of life affirming changes. Everybody has a different way they find it, some people the way they’ll find that change is to turn to God, other people it’s more self-investigation, self-awareness, which is what it was for me.”
Now Gary is enrolled in a small business management course, plans to open his own coffee and book shop and even publish a book he wrote on his time in prison.
Eventually he wants to reconnect with his estranged family but he says it must be in their time, not his.