Chasing the Dragon in Jail

By Rick Watts 12/02/11

Being locked up is an inconvenience when you and your mates crave heroin. One London prisoner and ex-user recalls that getting the drugs is the easy part.

thefix_police cell.jpg
The nick is nowhere to be when desperately seeking a high. Photo via

Acquiring smack in British prisons isn’t much of a problem, if you can pay for it. But getting hold of tin-foil, an essential component for cooking heroin, is another matter entirely. Foil is forever known as “Jimmy” in prisons here; that’s cockney rhyming slang for “Jimmy Boyle” (an ultra-violent Scottish lifer, who wrote a cracking autobiography called A Sense of Freedom).

For those who don’t know the heroin/foil procedure: you smooth out a four-inch square and run a flame (lighter, match or burning toilet paper taper) under it to sear off any dirt or grease from whatever the foil was wrapped around previously. Once it’s clean and gives off no smoke, you tip powder heroin—say half a gram—onto the square, and re-apply the flame beneath. This melts the powder into a liquid blob. Tipping the foil causes the blob to run, and as it runs it gives off smoke, which you inhale through a tube in your mouth. This is known here as “chasing the dragon,” or “having a boot.”

Pete began to sweat and couldn’t keep still. He needed a boot, and that set me off too. He told me he had plenty of brown but no foil.

For years, getting high in prison was relatively easy: you could use the foil that was wrapped around the Kit Kats on sale in prison canteens. Consequently, for years Kit Kats were by far the most popular item in prison commissaries after tobacco, cigarette papers and matches. Though it was a no-brainer for the authorities that removing Kit Kats from the canteen would severely hamper heroin use throughout the prison system, it still took them twenty years to ban the chocolate. Nowadays, finding foil is much harder. Inmates working in the kitchens sometimes get their hands on it. Other inmates scour wastebaskets for a few crinkled squares, in the hope that an unwitting officer wrapped his tuna sandwich in the stuff.

I don’t use heroin anymore, but I’ve dabbled. I was dabbling pretty often back in the '90s, while I was holed up in the Scrubs—that's Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London—awaiting trial for commercial burglary after I was arrested for heisting two van-loads of Lee-Cooper jeans. But I never had as much trouble getting foil as when I unexpectedly found myself locked up one weekend in a police station.

Because of chronic overcrowding, it was always possible to get taken out of prison for a court appearance, only to discover that none of the London jails had space left to take you back that night. That meant you could end up being taken to a police cell for the weekend or longer. I once was impounded at a police station in Essex for three months during a prison officers’ strike. It was a fucking awful experience, even though they allowed my missus unsupervised visits in my cell twice a week... But for junkies in particular, being stuck in a police station is really bad news, especially if they're suffering from withdrawals.

So one Friday, while I was being loaded into the prison van after a long day at court, I was informed that I was being moved to Canon Row police station. That’s the facility opposite Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives. It’s full of cops who regard themselves as the elite because they guard the government. But thanks to the chaos of the congested prison system, they weren’t exempt from having to lodge people like me.

Four of us were ushered through the back door of Canon Row, where two forlorn cells awaited us. As we were making our way through the yard I looked at my companions. I knew two of them: both smackheads. One had the unlikely name of Peter Wolf. He was from Hoxton, East London, about my age (late 30s then), six foot tall and skinny. The other was a well-built, 20-something Northern Irishman called Driscoll, who loved a ruck. I’d seen him bash someone for pushing in the prison dinner line a week before. The third bloke I’d never seen before, but he seemed like a tramp: skinny, scruffy, long straggly hair and in desperate need of a wash.

I thought, “Fuck being in a cell with them two all weekend” and turned to Pete: “Me and you?” It was us in the first cell, Jack and the tramp settled in next door. Pete and I had a bag of property each: clean clothing, paperwork and toiletries. We both smoked and had tobacco, cigarette papers, matches and lighters, and before the police could search us we quickly “cheeked” our lighters, as there was a blanket smoking ban in the station. (To cheek something is to hide it clenched between the cheeks of your arse.)

Within minutes the door opened and two plod—that's cops—came in to search us, one fat, one thin. They patted us down then looked through our prop and confiscated the two boxes of matches we'd kept in our pockets.

“So when do we get to have a smoke?” we asked.

“Monday,” replied the fat one with a smirk. Two minutes after they slammed the door we’d lit up and were blowing the smoke through the vent above the toilet. Later on the hatch in the door opened and we were passed two cups of luke-warm tea, with two plates of food: two fish fingers, about 30 baked beans and two thin slices of bread. We ate ours, but Driscoll next door threw his meal at the coppers, screaming, “I ain’t eating that, it’s shite!”

That evening a problem arose. Pete began to sweat and couldn’t keep still. He needed a boot, and that set me off too. He told me he had plenty of dope but no foil. I had half a gram myself, but again, no foil. Neither of us had expected to end up in a police cell for the weekend.

I got on the door. In England all police station cells come equipped with a hatch that spares the cops from having to open the door to serve meals; that means you can whisper through them. After checking to make sure that no one was around I loudly whispered to Driscoll, “Got any Jimmy?”

Back came a breathy Belfast voice: “No, but for the love of God sort us oit a chase, we’re clucking to death in here!” Apparently the soap-dodger was on it too, and they were both skint.

I looked at Pete: “We’re fucked. What we gonna do? Surely there’s a way to do it without foil?” Pete had been a user for years; he’d found heroin when he was first locked up as a teenager. He said he took to it as it helped him forget the awful crime he’d been locked up for.

A few years earlier he’d cut school and was in a park in North London with a few pals. They’d seen a tramp asleep on a bench with the end of his sock sticking through a hole in his shoe. So for a laugh, they put a match to his sock. But as it turned out, the tramp was a meths drinker, and his clothing was completely soaked in pure methylated spirits. As soon as the fire touched his sock he immediately burst into flames and burned to death. Pete served eight years, and for the first year had the same nightmare every night, of the burning, screaming tramp trying to grab him. He said heroin stopped the dream and he’d been using ever since.

But still, always having been able to find foil, he didn’t know any alternative except for a syringe, and we didn’t have one on hand. Not that we’d have used it—I wasn’t that far into smack and Pete had a phobia of needles, picked up from childhood dentist visits.

The evening wore on and we smoked, talked and tried to take our minds off the problem. But the conversation always came back to foil. Pete rang the bell and asked the copper if he’d go get us some chocolate from the local shop if we paid for it ourselves, but the cop laughed: “We’re in Whitehall [governmental area of central London] you pair of cunts; there ain’t no local shops. And what do you think I am, your butler? This bell is for emergencies only!” With that, he slammed the hatch and waddled off.

Somehow we got to sleep, but were woken at 3 am by Driscoll screaming at the police. He spent the rest of the night trying to kick the door down.

Saturday dawned and we’d had enough. As breakfast came through the flap—fish fingers, beans, bread, cold tea—we refused it. Then we demanded exercise and a shower, anything to get out of the cell to try to find some foil. “Later,” we were told.

We had no alternative. We took a leaf out of Driscoll’s book and started kicking the door and whacking it with rolled up blankets (this makes a terrific booming noise). The boys next door joined in. A senior copper came down, opened the flap and asked us what the fuck we thought we were doing making all that noise. We told him we were remand prisoners [not yet convicted] and that we had the right to decent food, exercise and a shower.

“What’s the matter with the food?” he asked. Pete described the crap we’d been fobbed off with. And right then and there, inspiration hit me smack in the face!

“Yeah guv,” I said. “We’re going to miss out on our weekly home-cooked meal.”

“What’s that?”

“If you’re on remand you’re entitled to one home-cooked meal brought in at the weekend.” This had actually been true ten years previously, but the entitlement had been abolished, due to the large amount of drugs getting into prisons this way. I was gambling that the coppers, who didn’t routinely house prisoners, had heard of the practice but were unaware it had ended.

“I’ll check,” he said, and disappeared.

That afternoon, Pete and I were taken out into the yard and allowed to walk round in circles for half an hour, closely followed by two coppers with dogs. Back inside, we were permitted to strip-wash in the station toilets, then banged up again. Then, to our amazement, a cop appeared at the hatch and asked what the procedure was for getting us our home-cooked meals. They’d bought it!

I was on it: “What happens in the Scrubs is my missus delivers it. The other two next door haven’t got any kin, but I’ll get something sent in for all of us if I can make a phone call?”

He unlocked the cell and lead me over to the desk. He dialed my then-wife Lola’s number, which they had on record, checked that it was her, then handed me the phone and stood next to me, listening:

“Hello, Lol?”

“Rick, what’s going on?”

“Listen, ring my mum’s house and tell her I need two Sunday roast dinners, not the usual one, and get them delivered to Canon Row police station, where I am; the police are okay with it.”

Lola had never heard of this practice, which had ended years before, but she never missed a beat: “Okay, I’ll ring her now.”

“Oh and Lol, make sure you wrap them up so they stay hot; there’s no way of re-heating them here.”

On Sundays, my mother would be performing her usual routine of doing the Sunday roast for at least a dozen people. My brothers and sister would all turn up with their families; no one got turned away and anything left would feed her four dogs.

Back in the cell I told Pete we might be getting some decent food—as long as no coppers made any inquiries to the prison. “Never happen,” he said. We got through that Saturday night by telling each other stories of our previous arrests. He was a natural storyteller and had me in stitches a couple of times; we even forgot our drug problem for a few hours.

That Sunday morning we had our half hour exercise in the yard at 10 am. Big Ben was only a few hundred yards away and chimed the hour. At 11 we washed, then at one O’clock, the cell door opened and a copper waved me out.

I looked down the corridor. There was Lol, standing by the desk with an enormous cardboard box, out of which was coming the fantastic smell of roast beef.

They let us have a ten minute chat on a bench by the desk while the sergeant inspected the contents of the box. Oh, that smell... I don’t know what smelled better—the food, or me wife.

When he was finished, the copper showed Lola out, while I was taken back to the cell, carrying the box. And there, to our relief, we took out two huge Sunday roast dinners. Both wrapped in tin-foil…

That night passed as good as any night in a police station cell could. We were full of home cooking and smacked out of our heads. Peace and quiet reigned. I’d wrapped four chicken legs, four slices of beef, two Yorkshire puddings and two roast potatoes in large pieces of foil and asked a cop to pass them to Driscoll and the tramp next door. He did. Once he was gone, I whispered to Driscoll that there was half a gram hidden in the biggest potato. I think he was crying as he thanked us.

We were back in Wormwood Scrubs next day. Pete and I were put on different wings, and shortly afterwards he was released—all his latest charges were dropped. I never saw him again.

Three years later I was finishing my sentence. By then I’d been transferred to Wandsworth prison in the South of the city and was working in the reception department, where new prisoners are checked in. I got talking to one new arrival, who said he came from Hoxton:

“Hoxton? D’you know a bloke called Peter Wolf?”

“Pete? Yeah, he was a mate of mine. He’s been dead nigh on three years.”

“What? Dead? How?”

“Massive OD. They found him lying in Highgate Cemetery with a set of works in his arm.”

“A syringe?”

“Yeah. He’d only been out of the Scrubs three days.”

Rick Watts is a British writer who is currently in prison. He has written extensively for prison publications, including HMP Pentonville's Voice of the Ville, and won a Gold Koestler Award for poetry. This is his first article for The Fix.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix