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Former Inmates Tell Us About the Weirdest Things They Saw in Prison

"A pillowcase full of severed pigeon heads had been discovered in the inmate's cell."
Illustration by Joel Benjamin

Illustration by Joel Benjamin

Prison seems to provide an almost infinite source of bizarre stories for the press. Throughout the last few months, we've had inmates reportedly fight each other half-naked armed with toilet brushes, attempt to blow their up rivals using liquid explosives, and squeeze naked through the food hatch on a cell door. Suffice to say, a lot of stuff goes on behind bars that you'd be unlikely to encounter in everyday life.

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The notion of prison being like another world might be a cliché, but it stands to reason that the rules of mainstream society aren't likely to apply in a place reserved for people who are deemed to live with the general population. With this in mind, I got in touch with four former prison inmates to find out the most bizarre things they witnessed during their time inside. Here's what they had to say.

John Williams
67 years old
Served a number of sentences for armed robbery

I saw two incidents during my various prison sentences that have stuck in my mind as being quite bizarre. The first was when the prison guards in HMP Albany dug up the body of my dead pet budgie, thinking I'd buried contraband. People serving long sentences were allowed to have budgies, and I'd come to see mine as almost like my child. There was a little grassy area with a tree on it outside the wing, which I'd decided was a suitable spot for a burial. About 20 minutes later, I was looking out my cell window when I noticed a group of screws walking towards the grass.

To my horror, they then started digging, obviously thinking that I had hidden contraband. They must have seen me burying something and got the wrong end of the stick. It was very surreal. They eventually uncovered the budgie, and had a good laugh about it. I didn't see the funny side, though. I'd actually developed a closer relationship with that bird than I had with most people up until that point, which is probably one of the reasons I ended up in prison in the first place.

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The second incident involved a prisoner getting caught wearing the prison governor's wife's underwear. He was strip searched, and revealed to be wearing a pair of Anne Summers-style knickers. The screws searched his cell, and found four other similar pairs. They wanted to know what was going on, and fired off questions at him: "What's going on here?", "Is there a black market in knickers?", "Where did you get them?" He refused to answer, so he was hauled in front of the governor for having unauthorised items in his cell.

I later heard that the governor had read out the charges, and then asked him if he had anything else to say. "Yes," said the undie thief. "I'm very sorry sir, but they're your wife's knickers." He had been allowed outside the prison to paint the governor's house, as he was a trusted inmate, and had snuck inside and stolen the underwear.

Justin Rollins
32 years old
Served sentences for street robbery

The strangest incident I saw inside happened at HMP Highdown in Surrey. I was on the healthcare unit at the time, after cutting my arms with a razor so that I would get transferred there. It was safer and quieter than the young offenders section of the prison, which I had previously been in.

Highdown mainly held category A and B adult prisoners, but also housed some youngsters, of which I was one. Everyone else in the healthcare unit but me was an adult, and a lot of the residents had serious mental health issues. One day, I witnessed a guy being dragged out of his cell by guards in white anti-contamination suits. He was taken past my cell, and placed in a special cell designed to reduce the possibility of self-harm.

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It wasn't unusual for prisoners to be removed by the men in white suits; it usually happened when someone had covered themselves in shit, which happened on a regular basis. This time, the reason was something far weirder though; a pillowcase full of severed pigeon heads had been discovered in the inmate's cell. He had been using bread to lure them to his window, and then ripping their heads off and collecting them.

We never saw the pigeon killer again after that. I assume he was either shipped out to another prison or fast-tracked to a mental health facility. The other inmates found the incident funny. At the end of the day, you've got to find humour in dark situations in jail. The staff were more hardened than the cons. They'd seen all types of things in there, and took it in their stride. Saying that, one of them did vomit up her breakfast upon the pigeon discovery, for which I don't blame her.

Ceri "Cesto" Stokes
33 years old
Served numerous sentences for violent offences

The most bizarre thing I saw whilst locked up was a guy taking a screw hostage with a fake bomb made out of a flask and some wires from a radio. He was Irish, and was playing on the national stereotype. In reality, he had no idea how to make bombs. The hostage was a female screw called Emma, who was a pain in the arse. The whole wing had been complaining about her, and the Irish kid had obviously decided to take action. He'd blocked her in the office, and was threatening to blow her up. She was pissing herself, which we all thought was funny, because she had been making our lives a misery.

It became obvious that the screws had lost control of the wing, and the inmates were soon rioting. The guards managed to lock us outside in the exercise yard, where we were kept until midnight. The prisoners on the wings surrounding the yard threw their mattresses out of their windows, and we set fire to them and had a bonfire. The riot made the Welsh news.

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The Irish kid got an extra four years added to his sentence for hostage-taking. The prison governor eventually assured everyone who had been kept on the yard that we wouldn't get any additional charges if we all agreed to go back to our cells. Although he kept his word, some of us got shipped out to other jails shortly afterwards. It was a strange and funny incident that sums up how mad prison can be at times.

Stephen Jackley
30 years old
Served a 12-year sentence for armed robbery

One of the oddest things I saw behind bars was the guards in HMP Parkhurst cancelling the prisoners' time on the yard because there was a cloud in the sky above it. I guess according to the prison authorities' logic, rain means wet ground, which constitutes a breach of health and safety. A cloud suggested that rain could have been on its way, and they wanted to be proactive and deal with the threat before it arrived. Considering the nature of prison, I wouldn't have thought a cloud featured at the top of the list of things that could have potentially caused us harm.

John, Justin, Cesto, and Stephen now say they are reformed characters. Justin has a book out about his criminal days, Stephen runs his own publishing company, John keeps a blog about all things crime- and prison-related, and Cesto now raps.

@Nickchesterv / @JoelBenjaminDraws

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