The prison governor was plump with soft pink features and wispy blonde hair that was grey at the roots. She was holding a file, which Jennifer presumed to be hers.
She smiled. “Hello again.”
Jennifer closed her eyes. She’d met this woman before. She remembered the hurried trip to the prison, the anxious meeting in the governor’s office. An inmate – Hayley Price – had committed suicide, and there had been an outcry. Jennifer’s job as prisons minister had been on the line, and so had that of the woman opposite her. Jennifer had saved them both.
She looked at the woman’s name badge on the lapel of her pale grey jacket. The jacket needed dry cleaning.
Ms Phipps, it said. Prison Governor.
Call me Sandra, she’d said on their first meeting, to which Jennifer had replied call me Jennifer. She hadn’t though. It was Minister all the way.
Things would be different now.
Jennifer considered for a moment.
“Sandra,” she said. “Good to see you again.”
The governor frowned, her eyes hooded, her cheeks darkening. “Ms Phipps, I think.”
Jennifer sighed. “Ms Phipps.”
Philips, the guard who’d brought Jennifer here from her cell, stood behind her, hovering at the door. The governor nodded at her.
“Thank you, Philips. You can leave us now.”
Jennifer heard Philips mutter agreement then pull the door closed behind her. For once she didn’t slam it.
The governor gestured towards the chairs in front of her desk. “Please, sit down.”
Four chairs were lined up against the wall behind Jennifer. She hesitated and chose one of the middle two. Sitting on it made her feel low and distant from the governor, shielded behind her desk. She stood again, pulled it closer to the desk and sat down. She wasn’t playing any power games.
Ms Phipps placed the file on the desk. “We’ll dispense with the pleasantries, I think. You were convicted of harbouring a suspected terrorist.” It wasn’t a question. But there was still the word suspected, at least.
“And you are aware of the current law in this area?”
The governor smiled again. “Don’t worry, Jennifer. This is a good thing, for you.”
Jennifer said nothing, unable to imagine how this could be good. She thought of Cindy, waiting for her; would she be back at their cell, or waiting on the landing?
“You may be interested in a development that results from the new laws.”
Jennifer pulled herself upright. “Please. Tell me what’s happened to my son.”
“Why would I tell you that?”
“Your solicitor is the person you should be asking about that.”
“Exactly. I’ve been promised a visit—”
The governor raised her hand to stop her. “I’ve got a message to relay to you. I need you to listen.”
“What sort of message?”
“That’s better. So, going back to the anti-terror laws. They’ve been very effective. But it’s had an impact on the prison population, as you may have noticed. We were already overstretched and this is more than we can cope with.”
Jennifer stared at her. What did this have to do with her? “Look, I don’t care about prison overcrowding. I’m not exactly prisons minister anymore.” Jennifer cocked her head. The governor blushed again and looked down at Jennifer’s file. She licked her lips then looked up again.
“I believe you should care even more now you’re a prisoner. Anyway, back to what I was saying. A new type of institution has been set up. One which, shall we say, provides a punishment to fit the crime. While also being of benefit to society at large.”
Jennifer knew nothing of any new institutions, or of what they might have to do with her. The governor was lying. She’d been an MP only two weeks ago, for heaven’s sake. Shadow Home Secretary. She would know about this.
Then she realised. “Please. Let me know when I’m going to see my lawyer. And I still don’t know the outcome of my son’s trial.”
The governor sighed. “Oh, do stop worrying about your son and listen to me.”
Jennifer pursed her lips.
“How are you finding it here? On the other side?”
“Women accepting you? See you as one of them?”
Jennifer said nothing. For many of her fellow inmates, the last time they’d seen her would have been on a ministerial visit. Many of them would have known Hayley.
The governor didn’t need to know about the welcome she’d had. The bruises she could feel on the backs of her legs. The invitation by Cindy, her cellmate, to be her pet.
Ms Phipps looked down at another file on her desk. “The legislation allows for people convicted of crimes like yours to be detained in a new facility. No cells, all the latest technology. Almost a hotel, in fact.” She looked up, smiling.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No, of course you don’t. This hasn’t exactly been publicised. Am I not making myself clear?”
The governor leaned forwards. Her tiny eyes were like grey pinpricks in her cushiony face. “What I’m trying to tell you is that you’ve got a choice. You can be transferred to one of these centres. If you choose.”
“I have a choice?”
“Yes. You can either stay here, or be transferred to the new centre. No cells, beautiful grounds, very low security, all high tech.” She laughed. “Sounds wonderful to me. You may want to consider it.”
“Tell me what’s happened to my family.”
“You need to make a decision, Jennifer. Do you want this transfer, or not?”
This made no sense. Jennifer had never in all her career heard of a prisoner being given the choice of where they were to be incarcerated. In the US she knew that some states gave death row convicts the choice of how they would be executed, but a choice of prison? In the UK? Never.
“Why do you need me to decide? Surely you can just put me wherever you want.”
“I wish it were that simple. A technicality. You were arrested in the Palace of Westminster. It’s exempt from the new laws, so we can’t just send you there. But you can choose.”
Jennifer heard a movement outside, in the corridor. Philips was back. Or she’d been out there all along. She’d seen Philips with Cindy at breakfast, whispering.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “I’d know about any new law.”
“There was no new law. This is covered by existing legislation.”
Jennifer shook her head. “I have to speak to my solicitor first.”
The governor rounded her desk. “There isn’t time.”
“We’re making you this offer now. You won’t get it again. There’s a van heading to the centre tonight, and you could be on it. If you want.”
“So when do I get to speak to Edward?”
The governor waved a hand. “You can worry about that tomorrow.” She paused. “You’ll like this place. All the creature comforts you’re used to. Big old house. In the Oxfordshire countryside. Burcot Park, it used to be called.”
Jennifer had visited Burcot Park, attended a function there as a minister. It was beautiful. Why was it being used as a prison?
The governor looked at her watch. “Of course we could just send you back to your cell. It’s early still, time for you to catch up with your fellow inmates. A reunion with your friends down there on the landing.” She looked up.
Jennifer shuddered, remembering Cindy’s voice in her ear. Come back here, when she’s done with you.
The governor was heading for the door, her tights rustling beneath her skirt. Philips would be outside, waiting. This choice wasn’t going to be presented again.
“Yes. I’ll go.”