Before becoming a writer, NOEL ‘RAZOR’ SMITH spent a long time in prison. There are few places, he explains, where the tea is of worse quality — and fewer still where it is taken more seriously.
When notorious prisoner Charles Bronson, once dubbed the ‘most dangerous man in the British prison system’, broke away from his escort and clambered onto the roof of Broadmoor Special Hospital in 1983 (the first of his three visits to the roof during his stay there) the first thing he requested was ‘a nice cup of tea’. Fortified by his tea he set to work on ripping the entire roof from Kent Wing, causing hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage. Charlie, like the majority of prisoners, dangerous or otherwise, does love a cup of Rosie Lee.
I have always been a big tea drinker, and three decades of drinking tea has done nothing to blunt my enthusiasm for this refreshing amber beverage. Tea is very popular in the British prison system, though the tea that is supplied to the inmates would not be a taste that those in the free world would choose or recognise.
Traditionally prison tea is made in huge urns, or ‘coppers’, which are the size of a skip, and stirred with a paddle that would not be out of place on a lifeboat. The copper is filled with fifty gallons of water and then a muslin bag containing loose, but very poor quality, tea leaves, weighing around fifteen pounds, is lowered into the water and left to boil, sometimes for twelve hours.
The Prison Service catering departments are mindful of reducing costs and balancing their budgets and so purchase the absolute cheapest products, including tea.
Prison tea is universally known as ‘diesel’ by prison inmates, and this is due not only to the bitter taste but also to the fact that it invariably has a ‘rainbow’ effect on its surface, rather like spilled diesel fuel on a wet road. Milk is added to the coppers once the water has boiled so as to lighten the colour of the brew.
But, ever mindful of the tightness of prison budgets, not so much milk is added as to make the brew look in any way appetising, just enough to make it muddy brown in colour.
Sugar is classed as a luxury in prison and so catering departments do not waste it on prisoners. If you want sugar in your tea then you must purchase it at your own expense from the privatised canteen supplier. Some prisons now supply tea bags and powdered milk to prisoners so that they can make their own brew, but, typically, the stuff they supply is the cheapest.
Prison-issue tea bags are like little parcels of tea dust wrapped in a bag that has the feel and consistency of a woolly blanket. Pop one into a cup of hot water and you can wait for up to ten minutes before the water even changes colour.
And prisoners have discovered that the sachets of prison-issue powdered milk are highly flammable, which, if you are making a bomb or planning an arson, is great, but not so good for making a decent cup of tea.
Our prisons run on tea. Well, tea and heroin. But the comforting and familiar ritual of sitting down for a cup of tea with someone, especially while being held captive in the strange and unfamiliar environs of an institution like Her Majesty’s Prisons, is something of the outside world that even the longest-serving prisoners hold on to.
Almost every act of prison indiscipline that I was involved in over my time behind bars (and there were many) was thought out over a nice cup of tea. That’s the great thing about tea: it oils the thought process.
Even when you are planning subversion and mayhem, tea is perfect for that lull before the storm. If you don’t believe me, just ask Charlie Bronson.
NOEL ‘RAZOR’ SMITH was born in London in He has a total of fifty-eight criminal convictions and so has spent the greater portion of his adult life in prison. While serving time he taught himself to read and write and is now the author of four books, the winner of several Koestler Awards and the editor of Inside Time magazine.