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The most expensive shelf in the Prison Service


I HAD already been working in the prison for several years before I came across it. In truth, I had little reason to note its location in ‘reception’, where inmates who enter and leave the institution are processed. On my passing visits I barely registered it, bedecked as it always was with cardboard boxes containing prison-issue tracksuits, toothpaste and soap – indeed all the various impedimenta generously handed to those who temporarily reside at what was then Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

It was about the size of a substantial office desk with a tall filing cabinet bolted on one side. I suppose that is what I guessed it had to be; hence my lack of curiosity. It was shrink-wrapped in plastic, thereby obscuring any true function from sight. I had leant on it and used the spare flat surface on occasion to scribble some hasty notes. It was only when my job title changed and I began spending more time in reception, helping to process entrants myself, that the mystery of its origins was solved.

Waiting in the evening for prison vans to arrive can be a fairly dull endeavour, which encourages small talk and banter. It was to while away a few such idle hours that I quizzed the officer on reception about the provenance of the piece of equipment which stood as it ever did, heaped with cardboard boxes.

‘That,’ he said almost proudly, ‘is the most expensive shelf in the Prison Service.’ My confused look encouraged him further.

‘It was ordered by the Governor before last, to help with security on visits. The only thing was, they didn’t check whether it would fit in the visits entrance hall – which it doesn’t. It’s stood here now for at least five years. We just use it to store the boxes on.’

‘What is it, then?’ I asked.

‘An X-ray machine – you know, like they have in airports when you go through security.’

‘Expensive?’ I enquired further.

‘I heard, about £12K.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Hence the most expensive shelf in the Prison Service.’

We exchanged a wry, knowing smile.

When I left the prison about three years later it was still there. In the last months before my departure, however, there had been developments. A Principal Officer had been tasked to get rid of it, and gamely discussed with me the phone calls he had made to Gatwick and Heathrow airports to see if they wanted to take it off our hands. Unfortunately, although it was still in its original wrapping, no one knew where the instructions or technical manuals were any more.

I recently met an old friend and colleague from there who informed me that it had gone. He wasn’t sure where, but feared that it might have simply been scrapped or dumped. I must admit that I felt a slight pang at the news; a certain sense of loss. After all, it seemed to me that it had outlasted at least three governors and had been there longer than any inmate. I pondered that it would be grossly unfair to label it an unused, failed machine. Why, it was used every day! Surely it was a most exemplary – if expensive – shelf.

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Toby Pilling
Toby Pilling
Toby Pilling has spent most of his working life in the social care field, particularly with delinquent youths. As a founding member of the Mark Steyn club, he often poses the Great Man questions on his show, and was termed 'The Good Toby' by him - a moniker he is most proud of.

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