Eight-fifteen on a wintry Monday morning, and the small wooden door in the prison gatehouse swings open. A dozen young men step out, one-by-one. Two are clutching tool bags and one is holding a pair of rolled-up overalls. The others have their hands thrust deep into their pockets.
A dozen men being released on temporary licence; out on rotl, as prison jargon has it. Some must be back at the prison gates eight hours from now. A lucky few will be at liberty for almost 11 hours. Some have work placements, others have families to go to. One or two know that the Kestrel Super is waiting at the shop on the corner, one pound twenty nine a can.
One of these men is Gary. He woke hours ago, dressed, and had his breakfast: a 250ml carton of milk and a small packet of cornflakes, handed out with dinner the night before. He's picked up his mobile phone from a locker in the gatehouse, and he's eager to be on his way.
Gary walks two hundred yards from the prison gate to the bus stop, and waits. He's in his mid 30s and is coming to the end of a three-year sentence. It's his sixth time behind bars, or “behind the door”, as he puts it. Half Gary's adult life has been spent in prison. There's been thefts, the odd robbery, plenty of burglaries. Whatever it took to buy a couple of rocks of crack cocaine.
The bus arrives. Gary goes upstairs and sits at the back, looking out of the window. “Every week someone else gets cleared to go out on rotl,” he says. “There's a period of initial excitement. People say 'I'm going to sleep with so many women', or they talk about the great food they're going to eat. Some guys just want to be with their families. But a lot of people don't find rotl easy. They start doing drugs or drinking and things, straight away.
“The night before my first time out on rotl I didn't sleep. I stayed awake all night. I must have smoked a whole half ounce of tobacco. And then I didn't enjoy the day at all. The time went so quickly: I didn't do most of the things I'd been looking forward to doing. I didn't make contact with my family. I didn't even eat. Nothing. I didn't seem to have had time: the time just went. I won't say I was overwhelmed, but I felt very uneasy, all day.”
Today Gary is going to be working for an organisation that is based a short distance from the prison. He'll be in an office, a place where a handful of the other staff know what it is to spend time behind the door. He will work there for five days a week; each day he will have lunch at KFC or McDonald's, the only places that will accept the lunch vouchers that his temporary employer will provide. He is banned from licensed premises. And he must be back at the prison gatehouse by 7pm each evening: not a moment later. “If I'm even ten minutes late I could get adjudicated. I'd have to go before the governor, and I could lose my rotl, lose privileges. If there's anything at all that's going to delay me, I have to telephone the prison to explain.”
Eventually, Gary will gain more permanent freedom. How permanent, is difficult to say.
It will be a relief to be out, of course. “It's a traumatic place, locked up with people you don't know and don't trust, living on your wits all day”. But it will also be a struggle. Finding work, a place to live, staying away from old neighbourhoods and old friends, it will all be difficult. Sometimes, it seems prison is easier. “I have seen people coming back in after two or three days, and I've thought: 'This has to be about more than just the drugs, or being useless as a criminal.' I think, subconsciously, they wanted to go back to jail.”
And there is one characteristic of liberty that is particularly painful for Gary: the shame is so much more acute when he is not behind the door. Not that crime and punishment is anything new for the males in Gary's family: “My father went to jail, my uncle went to jail, my brother's in jail. My older cousins went to jail. And now my younger cousins are going to jail.” But he does feel shame and he does feel guilt. “I've always had a conscience.”
And while his first victims are the people he has robbed or burgled, he knows that his family are victims too. “My secondary victims,” he calls them.
“I struggle with my guilt and my shame. It's always there, but I feel it far more keenly when I'm around people who are effected by my behaviour, when I'm out on release or on home leave. I'm very aware of how my behaviour has affected my mum and my family, who've had to put up with the shame of what I've done.
“The hardest part of freedom is trying to talk to my family about this. It's like the elephant in the room. They don't talk about what I'm doing to them.”
* Gary – not his real name – is due for permanent release in 2014.
Ian Cobain is a Guardian journalist and author of Cruel Britannia.