Social Media Producer, HM Prisons

The About Us section of Sustainable Media’s website features a holding image of ethnically diverse stock photo models, crouching together sockless and laughing at a reusable coffee cup. Scrolling under the arbitrary, floating jpeg reveals the Latin text lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, a common design placeholder that translates professionally as ‘that’s lunch’. This supposedly intimate corner of the site has the adverse effect of being at once utterly indistinct yet passingly cryptic, and renders the entire website electronic landfill, a typosquatter on its own domain.

I had been out of work for nearly three months, and spread my last pay packet to a ninety-day breaking point which, mathematically speaking, reduced my standard of living by two thirds. To be fair it actually hadn’t; if you cut out daily public transport into central London, Pret a Manger and pitiful penne pasta meals, a largesse of your income is spent simply on the processes of a working day. But being single and freelance your life is on hold, and you’re unable to invest in anything resembling a major decision. It was last year I realised I had spent my entire twenties like that.

The smart people in television understand that it is a social industry and make sure they are crewing up before their current gig ends, until eventually it’s a relatively automatic process. They also specialise, be it entertainment, factual or drama, and carve themselves out as a go-to person specifically required by a production team, and then you just wait your turn to move up, especially at the BBC. Actually, that’s not entirely true either. I think it’s probably much more innate, as the best networking isn’t forced and the community rewards people who are capable, good to get along with and not those who are determined to silently flagellate ever on, miss work drinks hoping for their obscure creative genius to be discovered at home.

I slowly fell into social media work after taking a job in the BBC’s charity division working across their major telethon appeals. It was largely grabbing celebrity endorsements down the lens of my own DSLR camera kit, and writing copy for their online accounts on various platforms. I’d started off my career as a runner with the strategy of eventually making it to screenwriter as long as I bode my time long enough for the opportunity. Nine years later I’d found myself marooned doing odd bits and pieces, as the corporation cut television jobs and departments but inflated online, in competition with the commercial sector’s expansion into the shared marketing arena of digital content.

With the BBC charity team I finally made an effort to conscientiously go around and write down the names of everyone I worked with on a notepad so they’d in fact remember me. And it sucked all the harder when the Christmas appeal finished I was out on my arse again, and the real production crew bounced on to different Saturday night shiny floor or cheap comedy panel shows in the New Year. As I gradually ran out of money, I’d set a daily routine for finding new work, producing countless spreadsheets of job websites and recruitment agencies, which seemed to temporarily stave off my encroaching lack of structure.

I must have jettisoned at least fifty applications before the Department of Work and Pensions forced me to have an informal chat with Sustainable Media. I picked up a couple of weeks work tweeting from the 19th century as the Quaker Oats man, which in fairness made some use of my English Literature last-ditch desmond. I also attended an interview in Willesden for a now defunct overseas client who required a self-shooting Video Producer. I was asked how much I trusted Western mainstream media, if I was willing to travel and what I knew about the Quran. If they had in fact put a gun to my head, I would have still preferred them to the Hoxton-based football banter channel Weekndr.tv that my dole also required me to interview for.

I had ten years experience of interviews ranging from Pizza Hut busboy to what possibly was a social lead for jihadis, and had developed a singularity in approach to all of them: try and second guess some questions based on the job description and go on their website for a bit. But Sustainable Media was the first time I had no fucking clue what services or goods they provided other than they were a Shoreditch-based Non-Government Organisation who delivered ‘broadcast quality solutions’. I also knew that my meeting was with Guy Reach who was their ‘Head of Digital Audiences’.

I half-kneeled painfully on a waiting area beanbag listening to two lads play ping-pong in front of an abandoned bank of iMacs. The receptionist had told me that Guy was just finishing up another interview, which was an advanced apology for twenty minutes of waiting.

‘Fuck, hi. So sorry.’

I got up and took his hand. I’ve never felt natural delivering an overly firm handshake but it’s something I unconsciously learned to over-compensate for at sixteen and now don’t know how to deescalate.

Guy reciprocated an overly performative alpha-squeeze and led me down to the coffee ’n’ bikes place across the road. He was sweating profusely; it was a sunny April and I assumed he’d just come off the tube. He was wearing a hybrid of a sports jacket and hoodie where the lapels lipped unforgivably into a hood. He had a low-cut Breton T shirt underneath which exposed a chest of greying ringlets and a teddy-paunch which appeared somehow stylised. His designer faux-milk bottle frames added a grammar which offset any self-conscious facial sagging.

Guy had a tab with the young Spanish barista girl and it was clear he did all of his interviews here.

‘This is a great CV. I love the web 1.0 banner thing you’ve done.’

‘Thanks, my mate’s a graphic designer.’ I lied, it was unironic Word Art.

‘Really? We should talk, what kind of stuff? We’ve just won a contract with a chain of hospices. They’re making a whole new set of palliative information packs, could really do with a more sensitive font family.’

I faked enthusiasm; I was forgetting where the controls of the interview autopilot were.

‘So to tell you a little bit about us…’

Guy repeated broadly what I already knew; that the website was permanently-in-progress, and that their general mission was to provide media production facilities to charity and public sector clients. They were in a process of recruitment and keen to speak to people with a TV background.

‘We’ve recently won a government client who is looking to expand its social presence. Do you have any experience working with the vulnerable contributors?’

I stalled a bit. I mentally pre-rehearsed a gag about my ex-colleagues being vulnerable contributors but I lost confidence in the material before I could formalize any audio. I could usually jump through any compliance hoops at the BBC but this one seemed to catch me off guard.

‘Well. At the BBC I managed the social accounts of their charity division.’

And it all just went from there. The great thing about working behind big brands is that the name alone piques people’s interest no matter how tiny a peripheral cog you may have been. It’s corporate catfishing.

Guy was waxing breathlessly about the NGO, and felt that my CV would add some seasoning to a particularly meaty client, all the time assuring me it was a hugely creative role. I would have a relatively free hand, be able to script my own films and at the end of the day feel like I was ‘giving back a bit’. I felt at this point a dissonance between my own critically conscious brain which was being oversold a secondhand car, against my need to believe it was a real opportunity. I’d been surface-skimming plankton in various big ponds for a decade and now was presented with the possibility of finally making something of my own.

‘As I say, it’s a massive client.’ Guy swivelled his MacBook around and showed me the .gov.uk landing page for HMP Gravesend.

‘At the moment each prison in the country has a unique pID, or webpage, run somewhere at the Ministry of Justice. Privately-run prisons like Gravesend have been struggling with cuts and essentially, their image. The government are putting about sixteen mill into prison reform and they’ve decided that a bit of that should be put aside for social.’

‘Would that not put further pressure on the prison staff?’ I felt the immediate idiotic sense I was talking my way out of a job.

‘Yeah, the overcrowding is a headache for them.’ Guy explained. ‘They’ve just allowed mobiles in to stop payphone disputes, and I think there is real scope now to provide some more transparency and another potential revenue stream.’

Guy would have more details, if I was interested in attending a second interview with the client, who was the Prison Governor. He chased me up with an enthusiastic email the next Monday morning, looking to schedule a meeting down in Kent. I felt I had nothing to lose and an oddly invigorating anxiety about going to prison for a day. I agreed and clocked off for the week.

*

HM Prison Gravesend effectively came into being in 2011. It was the product of a merger between the Victorian institution HM Prison Medway, and two smaller prisons in Kent: Yaxley House and Rochester Training Prison, both Category C institutions that previously housed low risk adult and juvenile offenders. The new Category B site at Gravesend kept the old notorious Victorian Medway building to house the extra inmates but included a new separate learning facility block. Approachable by train along the riverfront, Medway was the last surviving panopticon prison in Britain, a depressed stone tulip, where at the centre of each wing was a single watchtower, from where the Victorian cells would potentially be watched or not watched at the same time. It was piece of Benthamite social engineering that was designed to inspire cost-effective Victorian restraint and moral re-ordering. Come 2012, the new prison had been outsourced from the UK government to a facilities division of a French frozen food company.

Governor Matt Vickers was packing the sheer amount of eyeball you were convinced he never blinked and seriously doubted if he could even sleep. He had a craning frame that was reluctantly buttressed down in a suit, and the only member of senior management I had met that genuinely needed the physical space of his private office. Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait chartered his walls to various Firsts rugby teams, from dogended Eighties grammar school boys to a recent HMP Officers fifteen. He had an authoritative but calm manner which pleasantly anaesthetised Guy’s freeballing neuroses, who fidgeted next to him cross-legged, needlessly touching up an iPad.

‘It would be really interesting to get some of your insights about the media side of things,’ Vickers said. ‘You wouldn’t of course be joining from a standing start. We’ve had a radio programme running from the prison for a number of years.’

‘Radio Medwave.’

I’d researched it and keenly unloaded everything I knew. It was a handover from the old prison and specialised in educational programmes, winning some awards and regularly featuring on National Prison Radio. As I spoke I was aware I was at the borders of my bullshit.

‘Of what we do here, do you think any of it would translate well to video?’

I reeled off something not overtly technical about how a lot of their barbering and cycle repair programmes could be easily produced for the web, much in the manner of podcasts and online radio shows. I told him a sketch of an idea for an in-house documentary about the UK’s prison epidemic of Spice, or synthetic marijuana, and it seemed to sustain his interest. I inventoried my personal camera kit and gave a fairly reasonable impression I could get going tomorrow if I needed to, on a budget of pocket money.

‘Ah yes, who’s funding this…’

Vickers outlined further how the government’s extra budget for prisons would be spent, but this it turned out was part of a wider transparency exercise. Gravesend had been scandalised for transferring prisoners to fudge overcrowding numbers resulting in two incidences of unnecessary inmate death. They had recently been exposed on a Panorama programme, and a BBC News piece singled out mental health concerns amongst overworked prison officers.

Providing their own digital content seemed to be a way of wresting back the narrative considering they already had some broadcasting facilities in house and in terms of public relations, not an incredible amount to lose. What was more, social media use by inmates was already largely out of control thanks to contraband smartphones and tablets flooding the jail. Hundreds of iPhones and Samsungs had been confiscated in a year alone, and the prison was regularly deleting prisoner Instagram and Facebook accounts. The government had even thrown in a couple of mill to fight the losing battle.

‘Obviously we can’t be seen to be profiteering,’ Guy cut in. ‘But we would be able to square any revenue by putting it back into production costs and the educational programmes. The production company will technically be Sustainable Media which is a registered NGO.’

His input didn’t seem to get the approval from Vickers that he was looking for. And I hadn’t held out much hope for his proposed pay per click model. YouTube CPM advertising revenue translated roughly as about a thousand dollars per million views and looking at Sustainable Media’s other channels they rarely broke 10,000 hits for a video. That would mean each video pumping back less than a whole ten quid return each, best case scenario.

Eventually Vickers told us we should wrap up and I was enthusiastically thanked and taken back through the security process. The rigorous search and X Ray system distracted me from retrospectively over-thinking how I performed, or dwelling on any lingering unease about the whole idea. I had however acknowledged a feeling I recognised only briefly in my career, that this enterprise might actually instil some real sense of purpose.

*

Guy emailed to offer me the job the following Tuesday which worked out well as it meant I could enjoy a whole fortnight’s Job Seekers Allowance before I had to start work. They tasked me initially with setting up the HMP Gravesend YouTube channel and managing a Twitter account. I’d also be required to take part in development meetings with some of the radio team and contribute programme ideas that would also work across both platforms. Any final piece produced would have to be signed off by Guy but in this instance I would act as a Producer.

The salary worked out less than the fixed term and freelance contracts I’d been on in telly, but seeing as this was a permanent role I would be earning far more across a year. I started to think about the summer and updated my profile on some dating apps, whilst my Spice documentary was pretty much mentally scripted and storyboarded with a clear narrative arc of what I already wanted to say.

Before my first day induction at Gravesend I hadn’t seen much of the prison. For the interview, two prison officers had escorted me through security and up a spiral stairwell to the Governor’s office, which was in the main entrance building before you entered the central circus opening up to the wings. In a strange way I had hoped Guy would be there, I found him goofy and exhausting but felt an unwelcome pang of anxiety when I discovered I was out there on my own.

Part of the role meant I would get to know the prison officers and become familiar with inmate life. My main point of contact regarding access to the wings would be Kerry, who helped me through the two hulking sets of gates to meet the officers on duty. She had been transferred from Northumberland prison and was clearly some years younger than me, but already vastly more worldly. She appeared professionally self-drilled and able to demarcate two separate co-functioning Geordie personalities when having to deal with violent prisoners and maintaining a cheery 9-to-5 working day. We would accidentally match then unmatch on a dating app and never spoke about it.

Kerry would introduce me to Michael who was the senior prison officer on duty on B Wing. He had an Estuary pitbull for a build but middle age and an uneven goatee appeared to neuter him a bit. I wanted to impress him or at least show I was unfazed.

‘What we actually needed here were more prison officers. It’s no fault of yours son, but some of the lads here are at breaking point.’

This shattered my illusion that I would have some kind of tacit endorsement from the screws and that there would be some kind of mental breakwater between me and the prison. I managed to somehow demarcate my fear inside my left trainer, which involuntarily shook undetected. Up through the safety netting that hung between the two iron landings of the wing you could hear intermittent banging, frightened, angry shouting and meandering, open-ended arguing.

‘Perhaps this is your chance to really shape the conversation?’

Fuck off, Guy, I thought, only to realise that it was me who just said that.

He half-laughed resignedly and shook my hand.

‘Good luck to you, son.’

*

HMP Gravesend had both a diverse intake and a depressing revolving door of familiar faces. Its own internal economy was based overwhelmingly on drugs. The most visible clientele were the gangs of twentysomethings who dominated the petty dealings during social hours, either as marauding freelance enterprises or the lieutenant public face of larger, hierarchical dynasties. They were also by and large the locals, overspill from the merger of the juvenile detention facility Yaxley House. Kent itself had been flooded by gangs from London who had been driven out of the capital by the Met, in order to massage their own knife crime and homicide statistics.

There were also hundreds of Romanians and a scattering of Poles and other Eastern Europeans. For many, like the homegrown seafront heroin addicts, the rock bottom of prison was actually a step up from living underneath society. This foreign subdivision, from remorseless pickpockets to illiterate casualties of justice, was patrolled and curated by their own gang structure. There was also an Albanian contingent that was a separate, professionally criminal element in for almost exclusively cocaine importing via Kent’s picturesque harbour towns.

With a bit of notice Michael had managed to secure some conversations with inmates later in the week. I was still galvanised by my flagship Spice documentary and had some prepared questions, borrowing a university Arts grad on work experience to help with my microphone, as if nothing else managing his nerves seemed to centre mine a bit.

I scarcely garnered anything usable from the supervised balcony vox pops. Four out of the nine lags barely spoke English, one called me a ‘nonce’ and the rest only boasted about being able to get Spice. From what I salvaged in my edit, the running time came in at less than two minutes, and on top of that the student failed to record any proper sound. I couldn’t get hold of Guy to sign anything off and my attempts to boot up the Twitter account were similarly disappointing. I struggled to get any remotely relevant Home Office press releases retweeted and my attempt at inter-service ‘brandter’ with the Kent Police handle fell on deaf ears.

I resigned to more generally gathering footage of prison disturbances, which were regular and daily. I learned quickly that as long as I wasn’t an obstacle I was a pretty low priority and could get decent footage of prison yard fights, dirty protests, and Kerry would tip me off about mass prison guard pile-ons on problem inmates. In my first few weeks I had managed to bundle together a good couple of hours of rushes, but most importantly by taking myself out of those situations through a lens I was getting desensitised to the prison itself.

Then my kit got nicked. I usually had a staff locker set aside where I kept my camera and sound recorder but Kerry had informed me of a prisoner violently refusing a room search and we bolted for A Wing. I hadn’t had time to remove it all from my camera bag, and I had to put it down for a moment as to not obstruct two screws powering into the cell. Before I had even turned around I knew it was gone. I reported the theft to the wing’s Custodial Manager who was respectfully non-sarcastic about our chances of recovery. My camera itself was replaceable, Guy had even offered to get me a new one when I started through Sustainable. But I had lost most of my footage both on the camera and an external hard drive. The B-Roll and plodding GVs of the prison were reshootable enough, but nothing else was. My contractual trial period was approaching and both Reach and Vickers hadn’t seen much by way of the fruit of my labours. I had to get it back.

Bertrand was by far the most enthusiastic contributor to my failed Spice documentary, and one of the countless self-proclaimed all-seeing drug lords of Gravesend who could get anything from Spice to Uncle Bens. Still only in his early twenties, the Lewisham lad had been bounced around foster homes from Lee Green to Dartford, cultivating a talent for selling quite bad cocaine to grammar and private school boys and was a deep cultural critique of the Illuminati and their management of the southeast London care system. He was uninhibitedly entrepreneurial and a routine three-month shift in prison only broadened his clientele. He would have ate up any of his customers’ City graduate schemes had his own dynamically locomotive skill set been placed on different tracks.

‘What the fuck you need a camera though.’ Bertrand laughed, his hand massaging a suffocating choke hold of tattoos up his neck. ‘Ain’t they paying you enough?’

I tried to enter the prison black market under the subterfuge that I was a secret potential buyer of my own merchandise. I had collapsed into the first hurdle.

‘Truth is I’m looking for my own one. It got nicked on A Wing.’

‘Jokes.’

‘They can keep the camera, yeah. It’s the hard drive I need, bro.’

He humoured me. My sentences unwittingly ended in risible Mockney-Jafaican uplifts. In the end I almost did a drug deal out of politeness. He said he’d keep an eye out for the drive but I went home that night having given up.

*

I spent the next two days avoiding any emails from sustainablemedia.com and .gov.uk, and rehearsing excuses for my colossal data loss. Family tragedy, corrupt files. Video rendering problems. Then the next morning Bertrand found me on the A Wing landing and told me to come to his cell. I could barely disguise my relief that the rogue terabyte had been recovered.

It hadn’t, it was much worse than that. Bertrand and his roommate were huddled over a contraband smartphone. They were watching an Instagram video which had over 143k views.

It was footage I had shot. A fight that had broken out in the yard two weeks ago, over a stolen block of hash resin, had been uploaded from the hard drive. A Chatham gang member, with some not insignificant mixed martial arts knowledge, was administering a right cross then two quick left jabs over a shorter, stockier rival, who was trying to see the fight out crouched in a defensive formation against a fence. The onslaught continued, a grainy jab, a pixilated hook, a pendulous Muay Thai kick to his ribs and it was over, to great ooooohhhhhs and ahhhhhhhhhs in the prison yard before the screws rucked over. The video had been uploaded to an account called 100%_bromley with over 89k Followers, and then shared to a Facebook page called The Banter Tap which had 24 million. I was responsible for a major security breach and would have to speak to the Governor.

Guy told me to travel up to Old Street before we devised a strategy for Vickers. His playbook would be to essentially blame the Custodial Manager who would have failed to provided adequate security on the wing. However it played out, we would lose access to the prison and the project would be over immediately.

‘How many hits is it on now?’

I had been too scared to check it since, but it had now clocked a quarter of a million. It was the most successful video I had ever produced.

Guy was panicking. He had overseen the contract from the seat of his low slung jeans and was only now checking through all the unanswered emails I had sent him. It made it very hard to feel sorry for him or if at all responsible.

‘Who knows you shot this?’

Only Bertrand. His roommate was almost monosyllabic and clearly someone who functioned as a mule. The footage wasn’t watermarked in any way, and Instagram had compressed the file meaning it could have quite easily been shot on anyone’s smartphone.

Guy and I agreed to bury it and essentially deny all knowledge if questioned, whilst both silently acknowledging this was a low in both of our careers. He had a four o’clock with funeralzone.co.uk and threw his focus onto that. I agreed to try and win over Bertrand and to keep a modest social presence for the duration of what now felt like a particularly finite contract.

*

‘Jokes.’

Bertrand took a drag then tossed the spliff roach out between the bars of his cell window. ‘Fucking jokes. Is that on a million views now, yeah?’

He also agreed to keep quiet about it. Then he told me he might want me to bring something in for him at some point; no drugs, just something that might help business. I didn’t have much choice, and was just glad it was over.

‘Yeah, mandem wants to meet you as well, you know.’

He meant the fucking kung fu fighter from the prison yard. Apparently the video had garnered him some kind of prison celebrity and was genuinely enamoured with the footage.

‘It is great content,’ I admitted.

*

Kevin wasn’t nearly as tall or stacked as the main regulars in HMP Gravesend’s gym; but he was utterly sinewed throughout, his body electrified taught by his nervous, wiry energy. He had weighed his mass across his legs and arms in the ambidextrous way Muay Thai fighters do, to optimise his speed and balance. He had dense, deep sea blue Norse Thunder Crosses tattooed across both of his calves, two canvases of hairless ink that made you wonder if it was still technically skin underneath. I felt uneasy about his potential politics but he seemed to be training peacefully enough with the Muslim inmates. I had seen the same fascistic symbol elsewhere in the prison and understood it represented some kind of allegiance to a biker gang.

Kevin had supplemented his daily training at a gym in Dartford by self-teaching on YouTube, and by travelling up to big-ticket fight events at York Hall and the O2, before he was haplessly sent down for committing assault on his ex-wife’s boyfriend outside of a Prezzo. He had a manboyish charm and chirruping voice which made you wonder if he demarcated all of his darkness into a separate, terrifying personality you were yet to see.

‘This is going to really help my profile,’ he scuffled side-to-side, tossing a couple of shadow-jabs excitedly.

‘Fighters need to build themselves up online now, you know.’

Prison footage might give him an extra edge, I imagined. The gym was a huge social aspect of prison life, providing focus, achievable goals and a mental health asset as you served your time, alongside of course as big a physical presence you could amass for inevitable confrontation. It was an acquired curriculum that the prisoners could transfer professionally to people outside, much like ex-servicemen who provided military fitness programmes to advertising professionals in Victoria Park. Then holy fuck, I had had an idea.

Gainz In Chainz would be an official HMP Gravesend YouTube series, that uploaded positive workout tutorials and some MMA lessons from often seriously hardened prisoners. I quickly bought Charles Bronson’s Solitary Fitness to use as a rough handbook for what translated well to the outside consumer. The endeavour would be the joint baby of Kevin, Bertrand and myself, it could be presented as a positive contribution by the prisoners as well as my first flagship web series produced for Sustainable Media. I hastily scheduled a meeting with Guy back in East London.

He was still a bit sore from the leaked footage debacle, but I had a zeal about me and a pre-rehearsed pitch. I had collated a bunch of the most successful fitness YouTube channels in the UK, as well as anything MMA-related which all generally had astronomical view counts.

‘Wow, we could really do something here,’ he gleaned, distracting himself with a Top 5 Muay Thai KOs video with over five million hits, before toggling open another tab which had a military fitness playlist open. He agreed to sign out a new DSLR camera kit and set of lenses from Sustainable Media.

Squaring it with the Governor was tougher so we had to fudge it a bit, selling it as essentially a prison mental health item, not much more than an informative set of radio lessons with visuals. We were also quite disingenuous with our planned schedule. We gave the impression we would do two or three videos, but it was our intention to upload every Thursday. Guy assigned one of his in-house designers to compose a template for some apocalyptic-looking thumbnails and any other channel artwork.

Vickers simply emailed back — Sound interesting, MV. We took this as sign off and saved the email as a reference. With our first video, we played on Kevin’s new online fame, putting his and the prison’s name in the video’s tags, and titling the video Official Prison MMA Workout.

Kevin was a natural optimiser, offering the audience various opportunities to Like and Subscribe to HMP Gravesend. He also looked the part, his chirpy welk stall patter disappearing into an explosion of kicks, punches, elbows and knees. He ran a series of furious fitness drills, press-ups, sit-ups, burpies and squats as if training for the fight of his life but intermittently playing to the camera. Then we published it.

We did a tease for the main YouTube video on Instagram and linked it in our account bio, piggybacking on Kevin’s still running hashtag #prisonmmaguy. Then it cascaded. 12,000 hits overnight, 50,000 by morning then 110,000 by the end of that day. It hit the big 250,000 in half the time his original fight video had done, proving many Social Media Week doubters wrong that whilst content was indeed king, it didn’t hurt to optimize the kingdom a bit. We would then release a weekly video, which built on our debut until after a month we were averaging over 500,000 views per upload. Our subscribers jumped from 152 to 43,000.

As the YouTube channel flourished, it stoked our Twitter presence until we got retweeted by New Cross-based grime artist Playrite. He had noticed an article I had tweeted about overcrowding and shared it; it turned out Playrite was one of our old boys, doing six months for carrying a knife back in 2013.

‘My old manor looking nice and snug,’ followed by a pair of tear-laughter emojis, was tweeted to his hundreds of thousands of followers. Our own handle began to rapidly multiply as we also shared our fitness videos across a multiplatform strategy.

Alongside all this unexpected success I was casually breaching security smuggling smartphones and tablets into the prison on behalf of Bertrand. He never openly threatened me, but would casually remind me that we were helping each other out. This coupled with the prison’s security becoming particularly lax it was easy to forget what I was doing. Bertrand had asked me to finally smuggle in a £700 long-range wireless router and we agreed that with that was my debt repaid.

It was a somewhat embarrassing three months until Vickers demanded a meeting with myself and Guy about the state we had gotten into. He gazed at us so vastly we could map the lesser tributaries of the veins and detected a slight over presence of bilirubin in the whites of his eyes. He had the YouTube account open and took a moment for all the insights and analytics to wash into his seething panorama.

‘This is obviously not what I had in mind when you proposed this.’

He seemed to direct this at Guy which was a relief — he was after all Exec-ing the whole show.

‘The prisoners are providing a significant economic benefit, this is just a new way of doing it, Matt,’ he oozed.

It was hard to argue with; the YouTube CPMs alone were bringing in a few thousand a month and we were even making ad revenue from a new prison podcast.

‘And check this out.’

It was a Guardian article showcasing Gainz in Chainz, which I had tweeted out the day before. It was broadly positive, it developed Guy’s point about a modern way of giving back, and showed prisoners within a narrative of rehabilitation. There was even a wafty conclusive paragraph about the benefits of detoxified, positive masculinity.

‘Leave this with me.’

Vickers just stared at the screen. The last Guardian article about Gravesend Prison was a damning expose of the prisoner number fudges, and a local Kent newspaper called for their corporate contractors to be suspended and it handed back to the Home Office. It was the first positive piece about the prison he could remember since the cuts.

Inmates and prison officers began to recognise me even when I didn’t know their name. I seemed to have won some trust from the other side of the bars and indeed from Kerry who had begun calling me ‘Pet’. It then emerged that via Bertrand’s haul that he of course had truly muled me — he had set up a highly lucrative prison internet network; the long-range wireless router provided wifi to an entire wing, where a hierarchy of connection speeds had arranged, with some at the bottom tethering their smartphone to someone higher up the chain for an extraordinary commission. He even rigged the router to his fucking drone which took temporary leave from airlifting McDonalds into HMP Gravesend. Their favourite YouTuber was of course #prisonmmaguy and I was suddenly famous by association.

In one sense the encrypted prisoner network just exacerbated what was already going on: Albanian gang members posted boastful ‘cellfies’ showing off their muscles swaddling smuggled bottles of Brut. But generally wider internet access meant life became often indistinguishable from that on the outside; prisoners could shop, make money transfers, book holidays and even enjoy their explicit matrimonials through the miracle of Skype or FaceTime. What they shared from their cells was subject to the privacy policies of whatever platform they were on, willingly broadcasting to the outside world in exchange for their personal data, not knowing what was being surveilled and what wasn’t.

My Twitter banter with Playrite merrily escalated; I would tweet at him lock and key emojis and offer him weekend rates which he would enthusiastically retweet, or he would jovially threaten to buy the prison, all the time as amassing us new followers and impressions. We had easily surpassed the Met Police’s subscriber number months ago, and by December we wouldn’t be far off overtaking Playrite. It became the jewel in Sustainable Media’s crown and they’d been approached by other privately managed prisons to contract their own social presences. Guy had revamped their website, a very web 2.0 affair, and I put aside my Peroni bottle to pose for my new headshot as Head of Digital Content in the new About Us section.

I returned to Gravesend one more time before Christmas, as I had saved one of my charity multipack cards for Kerry. I found her leaning on Michael’s desk, searching through a bag of something obscured behind his computer.

‘Any of them a present for me?’ I crooned.

Kerry looked up and grinned. ‘Our friend Bertrand is playing Santa this year.’

She lifted up a bag of contraband.

I felt an unseasonal chill as she began to stack the smartphones, iPads, Blackberrys and wireless router I’d smuggled in, before finally producing my original camera kit and the familiar orange sleeve of the missing external drive.

‘Here Pet,’ she said, ‘and take a look at what we found on this.’

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