CLAETUS JOINED A CULT
BY CLAETUS VAN-DAMNE
The week previous to going to prison,
I was hit by my own car.
The car didn't stop.
I had to hold on to the hood whilst the driver attempted to throw me off.
How does one get hit by their own car, you may ask?
Sadly, my wife was behind the wheel. We weren’t getting along so well at the time. The family doctor had prescribed me oxycodone for the pain of my 3 broken ribs, the crack in a lower vertebrae and a crack in my left patella. I was supplementing this with varying sized handfuls of codeine, diazepam and alprazolam throughout the day. In all honesty, this outrageous situation is not altogether unique for me. We all have stories. This is a snippet of my own recent history.
On the 19/08/2019, I went to visit some close friends in Bordeaux, on the west coast of France. I was 10 whole days away from the situation with my ex-wife and her family who were on the eastern border of France.
10 whole days to myself
to relax and search rural
Bordeaux for the best
wines in the world.
10 whole days to be with
my best mates who knew
and had accepted me for
They exist, seriously.
And I love them for it.
“Bogans” or "Eshays" an Australian might say, “Les voyou” the French might. But we’re all the same/same really.
Probable self harmer, a buzz-cut, sporting a man-bag and Lacoste in France. A probable 'self harmer', rats-tail, wearing a bum-bag, and Nike TNs in Australia.
Everyone, everywhere, is pretty much the same I think.
My ex-wife and I were in the process of buying a single hectare of forest in the French Alps. Yet, in-spite of both the vender and the buyers wishing for a quick & painless sale, we were required to attend meeting, after meeting. Followed by- you guessed it- another meeting.
The local government didn’t like young people. Or new ideas. And didn’t want new enterprise & certainly did not want us.
Alas. On the afternoon of the 22/08/2019, I received a call in Bordeaux from back east where 'the wild things were'.
"ll-y-a une seizieme rendez-vous.
Après-demain, á neuf-heure et trente."
‘There is a Sixteenth meeting. The day after tomorrow at nine thirty."
My blood was boiling. Our plans were in ruins and everyone was disappointed. I caught the overnight bus back to the Alps in ready for another discussion with a group of very dry, very dire local council.
I uncomfortably awoke on the bus in the ”centre ville” of the in-law's town at 9:45am & went straight to the supermarket for a bottle of rum. By 11am I was looking for more. I found a fresh bottle of Pastis* and put away half a litre.
It became easy then. I thought to myself, I could disappear! That was something I could do- run away over the border with my few belongings and forget France. Better yet, I could fly to Croatia without telling anyone. Or Hungary or Greece. Many countries needed volunteers and will help you out if you help them in the current Euro zone. So many choices.. But my final choice, the one I went with, the dumbest one; I could check out a French prison.
It didn’t take long to figure out how to make a serious enough crime seem 'harmless'. I removed the magazine from the secret pistol. There was no ammunition in the chamber. I was ready to do something silly.
I can’t remember the walk, but anyone who’s ever done a lone armed robbery, clumsy or organised, will tell you the wait time to execute is unforgettable.
I had my sister in-laws glasses from when she was a child on & was wearing a vibrant, stupid looking pink beanie. I wore my leather finger gloves for tree surgery to cover my tattoos and identifying marks.
I was fuckin’ James Bond. I was Jason Statham.
No, I was Mark Wahlberg.
Yes… Marky Mark from Boston. I was the fuckin Pink Panther but with a useless pistol trying to climb out of my too small pocket.
Again, I don’t remember entering the first pharmacy
I came across, but I do remember one thing, pulling the chamber slide on top of the lethal imposter. Pretending to mean business.
Apparently I’d aimed, which is not on. There were tears and there were screams. I was sloppy and belligerent.
I & It were a disgrace. Leaving the pharmacy with a full 100 litre ‘sac poubelle'.(Rubbish bag) Boxes and boxes of tramadol, codeine, liquid and pills. They had no real morphines or oxycodone. I had also managed a whopping 98 Euros from the till on top of that.
I can remember starting to run but quickly becoming tired being so inebriated. Suddenly, in came the law.
In front and from behind, the Gendarmerie (police) had arrived.
I don’t even remember hearing the sirens. The Pink Panther froze as Inspector Clouseau, accompanied by his men & women in sky blue, aimed their fully-automated FAMAS, with 45 calibre rounds at me.
In front 2 cars poured out 6 to 8 officers, behind me I could only guess. But the French cops bring hardware. I’ve never seen a threat so real. I won’t forget it either.
Then, in rapid and over-lapping intervals, were the shouts;
“Lâchez-vous Votre pistolet!
"Throw down the gun!"
Among other assorted screamed directions in French. The message was pretty clear to anyone in any language.
I slowly placed the weapon on the ground.
“SOL! DIRECT! A SOL!”
"GET ON THE GROUND!"
“VISAGE A BITUME!’’
"PUT YOUR FACE ON THE GROUND"
These are the sounds of a police force that are fully prepared to take your life. And hey, as far as any-one else knew, the idiot with a big white bag of drugs really did have a gun. Various knees of varying weights came to rest on various parts of my back, legs and arms. Everyone who’s ever been pinched anywhere, will tell you that part, isn’t forgotten. The breathlessness and intensity. I was pushed down into the street so hard, I swear I could see the depth of the white marks they paint on the road. Then it was over. I was in cuffs.
"Menottes" (handcuffs) as they're called in France, have rectangular receivers & click clamps. This makes all hand movements agony. They also lace you up with the seat-belt of the car for extra security, I don’t think Australian cops do that.
I was sent to the cop-shop, over-night, in Valence. I spoke to 2 lawyers and started to sober up and regret things while in detention at 'Saint Quentin Fallavier'.
'Saint Quentin Fallavier' is a prison just near the Lyon Aeroport- the first in a very long line in the salting of a wound.
It was barbed wire everything.
It was helicopter open air mesh everywhere.
On Monday the 28/8/2019, 3 judges took 30 minutes to declare me deserving: 3 years prison, 10 years expulsion from French territories (all of them) and a 5 year ban on weapons licences.
I asked & asked, but never got my phone call.
My poor wife. She was broken.
For the next 23 months, I would be held at the same facility. But I didn’t know that yet. I just wanted to make a phone call. It would be 3 and a half months before that happened legally.
90% of French inmates have privately owned mobile phones. Not Nokia 3360’s or thumb diallers that fit in an orifice of a body.
They had iphones. iphone 6’s, 7’s, 8’s, 9’s and 10’s.
When Apple released the 11, some guys got one. Samsung Galaxies, S20’s. French prison relies on small to middle criminal behaviours’ continuance.
For sanity’s sake. We only had 1 phone between 70 and even that one was locked unless you had organised a “carte d’access”
(access card) to pay for your call.
Alot of things are allowed.
For safety's sake.
For the 'machine' to run at a speed quick enough to box up and move on with the flow of drug seizures, violence-related crimes, organisational crimes and crimes against humanity including terrorism and child focused acts of evil.
It was 21-hour, all day, every single day, lock-down (at least) unless there was an emergency. Perhaps an escape attempt/success (two guys did make it out while I was there) or murder, either within the prison or among the higher levels of the Lyonnaise Mafia outside.
Even 'would-be rappers' could cause a “fermeture” or prison wide, full lockdown. They fucking love rap & when the rappers outside called someone inside “Feu vert” we’d be lockdown. Indefinitely.
In these cases, the whole place stopped, and we couldn’t leave our cells for 24 hours a day, unless we were at 'death's door' or had an appointment with a lawyer.
But my lawyer never came.
During 'normal days', (only 21 hours inside our cells) we were allowed 1 hour and change in the morning and the same again in the afternoon to wander around an oblong rectangle. This is only on paper. It was never that long. Also cages aren’t very pleasant.
Once I realised that this was my new life now, it took only 3 days to notice the knives my cell mate had. He didn’t even try to hide them. They just sat with the toothbrushes.
Side note: The man was doing 18 months for knife crime. He also had a very vocal, very bitter distaste for me, which did change in time. He was a 6 foot 4" Algerian.
Not knowing anything about anything, I laughed at all his jokes, and understood none of them.
He wasn’t a bad man and at least he was sober.
So I started to get really sober.
It’s difficult to describe the vibe. Saint Quentin Fallavier is built in 2 wings. The first, Batiment MA (building MA), is for long-term- the upwards of 2 years 'residents' and the other, Batiment QHCD, for the 'less than 2'. The first wing is mayhem. The second, less so but definitely not the “Savoy” of London. Cell windows are single pane glass. This is France- rarely did they lock properly from the cold. The iron bars, spaced at 15cm apart, with a top and bottom welded and strung “holding band”; had then been supplemented, on the exterior, by an aluminium panel that viewed as a grid 3.5cm, but it’s cubed. There’s depth. One can see straight ahead, but not left or right much. None of this is legal by the way. But the French don’t really care. Few parts of S.Q.F. were made according to Euro law.
I knew a guy who drove without his license once too often & I knew more than one with murder, terrorism or human trafficking charges. It’s all the same in France.
They all end up in concrete box, wrapped haphazardly in razor wire & forgotten.
"Yo-yos” were how the men sold, bought, helped, punished & threatened each-other quietly. A torn sheet, tied to a second, third and so on. With a weight on its outer end (usually a semi-filled bottle of water, to spin from slow to fast in the direction of the receiver, who would have his hand or a stick out a twisted metal hole torn in the 3.5cm grid to allow the end to arrive so the recipient could pull it indoors.
Drugs were available 24/7, though they did slow down over-night. Over-night the men would throw their yo-yo’s across one another to create “pinch” of webbing and collect packages that had been thrown over the walls. It was incredible. They’d work for hours. But this was the main entry point for phones, drugs, photos, & letters that needed to be passed un-read. Anything.
Anything was possible.
Once or twice a week, fireworks would go off, celebrating this or that guys birthday, release date, or new years eve. It was so loud, so continuous, that I my heart stopped jumping at the booms, the screams and the cries in the night. I slept very poorly with a fork in my hand for the first month. Until I was comfortable that being Australian was almost enough to keep my presence novel and non-threatening. I was going to be fine.
Then I settled in for the long haul.
My second “Co-pilot” was a shut-in. Yet he continued his day to day hashish dealings with little interruption. Every visit included at least 30 grams of black or yellow, high density and quality, waxy/chalky hash. I was stunned.
He and I smoked hash in blunt wraps and played Sega mega-drive for 2 weeks... until his x-box arrived and then for 3 weeks that’s all that happened for me until I got a job.
I am a chef by trade & the logical choice was to work in the cuisine(kitchen). So I did.
The drugs got even more prolific. Since guys from all over the prison converged at work, the selling, buying, passing on, handling & using drugs was far more profitable than the 3.45 EU per hour we were paid.
At least I was out of the cell. Workers got private “promenade” (walk) timeslots in the afternoon between shifts and we got to drink real coffee for free in the morning. What was not explained is that in getting a job, you give up your access to schooling.
Spanish, Italian, English & French linguistic classes. Sports access. Bibliotheque (library) accessibility.
Discussion groups. Philosophy groups. Religious plans. Anything you may have had going for you to enjoy your life, or display a wish to do good things in the world, “disparue” (disappears/gone).
All your ideas of good behaviour is out the window & through the bars & the grid to the end of a yoyo stuck in a shrubbery of razor wire.
Thanks for the job, chief.
Work? You can buy toilet paper.
Don’t work? Enjoy the view and the one bar of soap a month.
Doesn’t seem fair.
Doesn’t seem humane.
We went months without toilet paper, especially when Covid was hitting. It was outrageous and humiliating.
We were jokes to most of the staff. Though of course, some 'screws' cared.
I worked for 3 months in the cuisine, until one legitimate death threat and two others that went “un-seen” happened.
I had become decidedly 'untrustworthy'.
My sheer amazement at the way things worked was enough to be branded as a 'narc'.
I was the only Australian to ever be incarcerated at Saint Quentin Fallavier & I had no idea what to do.
What I did know, is that my penchant for drugs was not severe enough to risk what happened to guys that couldn’t support their habits. 500 euro debts turned into 1500 Euro debts in minutes or seconds. Bi-carbonate of soda is priced similar to the cocaine itself.
I had made a decision before I went to prison to stop using. Part of my (extremely selfish) motivation on the night of the 22/08/2021 was to run away from my wife and my responsibilities, my drugs and my alcohol problems.
Why not see a part of the world very few do at the same time?
It was awful.
But I got my self-control back.
Something happens to you when you witness a man lose a large part of the skin on his face over half a pouch of tobacco.
These guys don’t just fight. There’s no warning.
It happens so fast, it’s difficult to know who had started what. Simple fist fights would break out often.
But knife fights, when the blades are so sharp, so small and so disposable that wounds takes time to appear were another thing.
It was never possible to judge how serious things had gotten until at least 30 seconds had passed.
When fights broke out, those not involved would stop and stare, waiting for a sign. Sometimes it felt like watching brothers in a living room. At other times, when the blades were out and those involved had been awake for a week with no plans to rest- it was less so.
That's another level of violence I never thought possible. Life-changing elbows and knuckles. Tiny little pieces of folded paper that can cut deep enough to resemble pork belly. The kind that puts men in wheel-chairs or takes batteries of surgery to correct.
I never knew what real violence meant.
Some men and women feel pride in the severity.
Any-one privy to what happens to men in 21 hr/day lock ups knows what generally ends up exploding in the exercise yards.
It’s violence; profound & unforgettable.
It’s not worth any of it.
Nothing’s worth that trip to the hospital. On Sundays, there weren’t even doctors available.
Sundays were dangerous.
I read and wrote most of the time I was away. I tried to find something, anything to make my days seem worth it. Friends, stories, drawings, poems. I taught myself to read and write French.
I learnt that everyone has a story, no matter how ugly or poor they seem or how serious their crimes.
I got to know guys that were part of running many of the markets across Europe and North Africa.
While we are all human, some people in this world are so capable, that drugs just make sense.
The world moves too slowly for them otherwise.
Saint Quentin Fallavier is where some of them converge. Incredible strengths walk by incredible weakness’.
I’ve never heard an Australian boast about the kind of quantities that the Europeans talked about as being a 'bad week' for them.
I have to say that, in my opinion, there is no stage of the criminal drug trade worth the product. A gram in the hand represents a lifetime of prison years, loss of sons and daughters to the trade- loss of life itself in many cases.
A sobering fact is that both the tax-man and the dealers need drugs to be illegal to turn that insulting, music generating profit. It’s not good for anyone 'in control' to legalise expensive substances.
But that’s another story & mine is nearly finished.
I was granted liberation on 02/02/2021. But it wasn’t until the 16/08/2021 that I actually walked out the door.
No calls from the bars for “Bonne chance!” or “ Bonne courage!”('good luck' and 'hang in there').
Just another morning that included my leaving-
as quietly as I arrived.
I was driven from Lyon to Paris, again in those evil square cuffs, interlaced with the belt.
6 hours with the Gendarmes (armed officer).
I arrived in Paris - to the refuge & political holding “Le Mesnil Amelot”.
A place that is often surrounded by protestors.
On the morning of the 17th, I was supposed to fly to Doha with Qatar, but I’d been bumped. So back I went to the “political prisoners holding facility”.
To the fields of razor wire and the fine steel grills.
We were a little more free than in prison.
Phones were legal, but nothing was free. A 1 inch toothbrush and 2grams of paste. 2 plaques of soap at a square inch. 2 sachets of over-perfumed shampoo & as much cold water as you could ever want.
It was a new prison, with similar inter-character rules. But my initial fears subsided quickly as I fell in with the Algerians again. Just like in prison, I found myself quickly comfortable around those guys. They’re thinkers.
Since being organically off drugs in prison, I’ve gotten back to Australia and found Sublocade.
It’s as good as they all say. Though I’ve slipped up a handful of times, I’ve not OD’d once, & not withdrawn for any amount of time.
It’s a considerably better way of life.
“Game Changer” mais oui, en fait.
One of my close friends only recently said:
“The first time I smoked heroin I felt like I’d found what I’d been looking for my whole life."
I couldn’t agree more and most of the readers would know what that feels like. But since prison, now that I can do as I please, that painful little bump in the belly has been the difference. I don’t use. I don’t need to. There’s so much to do & while Saint Quentin Fallavier has changed me forever, I have hours upon hours extra in the day now, thanks to my own aspirations, yes-
but also thanks to Sublocade.