Up betimes at 5.30am, to catch the 6.08am tube to Vauxhall and thence the 6.32am overland train, arriving at Ashford (Surrey) station at 7.03am. From there, a short walk brought me to Her Majesty’s Prison Bronzefield.
So began a chilly wait outside in a strong wind – positioned far enough from the main entrance not to freak out the prison authorities.
At first I tried reading Andrew Cornell’s excellent little book on the Movement for a New Society - a radical, nonviolent US group, active in the 70s and 80s - but before long my hands were too cold to hold it, and I fell back on listening to Hubert Dreyfus’ equally wonderful – but very different – lectures on Existentialism in Literature and Film on my mp3 player, hands thrust deeply into my coat pockets.
Struggling to get my head round the notions of lower and higher immediacy whilst reducing the wind chill to an absolute minimum (neither an easy job without a hat), I hadn’t spotted the approach of Martin Birdseye, anti-nuclear activist extraordinaire. Formerly an engineer, he’d cycled 8 miles against the wind to be there.
After more waiting, we received a phone call from Maya’s mum. Apparently, Maya had phoned her to say that she’d had no indication that she was going to be released that day.
This was peculiar, as I ’d rung the prison the previous week to clarify the matter and been told – in no uncertain terms – that she would be released on Monday.
Clarification was necessary because Maya had been sentenced to an odd number of days in prison, namely 13. A prisoner sentenced to anything less than 12 months is usually released half-way though their sentence, as long as they are well-behaved ie. they don’t burn down the prison or run amok. But half of 13 is 6.5, so would she spend 6 or 7 days in prison?
On 29 February, as Maya was being taken down to the cells, I had rung David Polden at London Region CND for advice. ‘Seven days’ he confidently told me – but couldn’t cite chapter and verse on why it was seven rather than six. PN co-editor Milan Rai was surprised – he was sure they would round-down to six days.
Feeling uneasy – and not wishing to miss her if she was released early – I had rung the prison the next day and been told that she would definitely be released on the Monday. The fact that the 2009 ‘Guidance Notes on the Commencement of New Sentencing and Licensing Powers’ for Northern Ireland explicity refers to “a custodial part [of a prisoner’s sentence] – up to half the sentence” seemed to chime with this (as seven full days would go over “half the sentence”). In retrospect this was a classic case of confirmation bias. After all, to paraphrase L.P Hartley, “Northern Ireland is a different country: they do things differently there.”
Mil was elated. “In other words I was right!” he texted me, or words to that effect.
Outside the prison, Martin and I were in a quandary. Leaving Martin to hold the fort, I retreated to the warmth of the visitors’ centre, from where the woman staffing the desk (actually a social worker, filling in for the usual staff member) made some phone calls into the prison on our behalf.
After some toing and froing – I even got to speak to the woman inside the prison who does the calculations - it transpired that Maya definitely wasn’t going to be released for another day. (“Bizarre” Mil responded when I gleefully texted him to say that he’d been wrong all along.)
After a piping hot coffee (Martin) and a plastic beaker of water (me) in the visitor’s centre, and a brief chat with the social worker - who was very supportive when we explained Maya’s case – we headed back to Ashford. However, just at that moment a third supporter – Iraqi pathologist and all-round peace movement super-hero Salih Ibrahim – arrived in his car. Salih lives locally, and had been into the prison to see Maya on Saturday. He’d set his alarm clock for 6.30am, but then fallen back to sleep.
The three of us retreated to the local café - highly recommended - for breakfast before agreeing to reconvene at the same time and place (7.30am, outside the prison) tomorrow.
According to Salih, Maya was in good spirits when he saw her, and has been proselytising for the peace movement during her incarceration …
When I got back to the Peace News office, I managed to locate the document that I should have looked at before: namely, Prison Service Order #6650 (section 18.2 is the relevant section if you’re interested).
Oh well, at least we’ll know next time!