Bern Butler – From Diary of a Prison Teacher

Bern Butler was born and raised in Shantalla in Galway City. She is a writer of prose and poetry, has been short and long-listed in several national competitions and published in ‘Force 10,’ and ‘The Grey Castle,’ (Ed. By Dermot Healy) and in The Ropes Anthology (2013). She has been short-listed in Listowel’s single poem competition 2012 and twice long-listed in the Fish Poetry competition. She has an extensive background in Education, specifically Prison Education.  She is currently studying on the MA in Writing programme in NUIG.


From Diary of a Prison Teacher

1995 Wheatfield Prison

There is a film crew and cast assembling in the prison yard during lunch time. There’s a group of about fifty people out there starting to film a scene for an episode of the crime-drama series Prime Suspect. All the real-life inmates are locked-up in their cells which overlook the yard in two-storey landings, surrounding the square yard on three sides. In the yard, real-life prison officers are acting as prisoners and are dressed in tee-shirts and track-suit bottoms. One of them is playfully punching another in the arm. Another is jogging on the spot. A third is imitating a prisoner in a drugged-out haze.

‘What’s the bleedin’ story?’ he says staggering around.

I am watching from a second-floor window on the prison school corridor. The window is roughly the same size and shape as skinny windows in medieval castles, except its frame is cold steel and the glass is triply reinforced. After the necessary preparations of the toy-sized crew and actors in the yard are complete, a sudden silence descends. Everybody freezes into place. A crow caws. The tiny director raises her hand and lets it drop.

‘Action!’ 

At that moment, a raucous chorus of yells breaks out from the cells surrounding the set. It is a loud jarring cacophony of male voices joined together in devilish purpose. The noise continues at a loud volume for a minute or two then disintegrates, until lone garrulous voices come to be discerned separately from the group.

 ‘Shower of useless cunts.’

‘Up Clondalkin!’

‘Couldn’t do your whack!’

Then these voices begin to trail off too. All the little people in the yard are looking around them. They are looking to the director to tell them what to do. The officers-dressed-as-prisoners are shaking fists at the windows. The director stands with her hands on her hips.  

When the yelling has stopped, and the yard is quiet again, she looks around cautiously. She directs the man with the clap-board to take up his place in front of the camera.  The actors take up position. Everybody is waiting in the silence.

‘Action,’ she shouts quickly. Again, the yelling breaks out from the cell blocks, louder this time. There is muffled banging mixed in with the shouts, like chairs are being danced up and down. Pipes in the cells are being hammered. There is loud whistling and crude name calling. Collectively, the effect is like a riotous meditative chant.

The director hangs her head. The crew and actors stand helplessly looking at her.  One of the cameramen walks over to her and starts gesturing. She swivels on her hips and looks up to the cell-blocks. Her check shirt is caught by a breeze. She runs a hand through her hair.

Quietly, one of the wire-meshed gates into the yard opens and a tall man in full uniform and peaked hat strides across the yard. He is followed by an entourage of six uniformed prison officers. It’s the Three-Bar, the top chief of the prison. As he crosses the yard the shouting from the cells diminishes and trails off to a whimper. A single voice rings out –

‘Fuck the system!’ Then there is silence again. 

The Chief and the director converse for a few minutes.  The Chief takes a stern look around the prison wings where all is now quiet. He shakes hands with the director and he walks off with the officers, to stand at the side of the yard. The camera man goes back behind his camera. The actors take position one more time.

La Plante raises her hand and drops it. Nobody moves. They are all turned looking at the cell-blocks. One of the actors, like a toy soldier points to a cell window on the second landing.

A full plastic two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola is swinging from a string, tied to the window, like a laden noose from a tree. There is an attempt being made to swing the bottle across to an inmate two cells up. Everybody looks up, including the Three-bar and his entourage, who must crane their necks and stand back a few steps. The bottle is hanging just above their heads. A hand reaches out and reels the bottle in with the string. Then the bottle is swung hard across and a hand two cells up reaches out to catch it – but misses.  The bottle swings back in its pendulum swing.

Below in the yard all remains quiet.

The mystery thrower launches the Coke bottle off at great force again, but a second time the other misses catching it. They try again. Another miss. As the bottle swings back to its original owner, there is a loud ‘Awww,’ from the cast and crew in the yard, sounding like the cry from a Wimbledon audience when the ball hits the net. The bottle comes swinging back followed by all eyes in the yard. It is grabbed and sent off – but misses again. There is a loud ‘Awww,’ once more. Again, the bottle is propelled off.  This time, the catcher catches a hold of it by grasping the string roughly.

‘I got it Simo,’ he yells.

A loud cheer emanates from the crew in the yard and everybody starts to clap

‘Nice one,’ says a voice from the window.

Everybody laughs and looks at Linda LaPlante who is smiling. She gathers her shirt around herself and looks to the camera man. He lowers his eye to the camera lens then raises his hand in acknowledgment. The man with the open clap-board leans forward. LaPlante takes a few steps backward. She looks directly at the assembled cast and crew.  She raises her hand.


For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)

Aside | This entry was posted in News, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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