The first thing I learned was that you get there early, to this particular prison that is. There's no need at some of them, you would just be hanging around, but here they call you in the order that you arrived, so if you are early you get a longer visit. Furthermore the car park is tiny so you take a chance getting there at the last minute. My second lesson was to wear shoes that slip off easily. They will make you take them off and show the soles of your feet so you don't want to be messing about with tricky buckles and laces. Thirdly you empty your pockets before you leave the car because if you accidentally forget something the metal detector might go off and you cause a delay in the queue: your ID and a tenner, that's all you take in.
I'm a bit of an expert now, I have visited this particular lad in almost every establishment in the South of England. Well not really, it just feels like it, but I have become familiar with a few and know the rules and routines. I know which visit halls have vending machines (coins needed) and which have a tea bar; I know which days the drug dogs operate and when they don't; I know if I will be given a wrist band or a stamp on the back of the hand; I know if I will need 10p for the locker or not; I know which visitor centre loos are best avoided. As we wait to be called most of the faces around the room are familiar, we are creatures of habit and tend to visit on the same day of the week each time. You can spot a first-timer: there's someone new today and she asks about the form she's filling in, how much cash she can take in, where we have to go when we are called. A regular visitor shows her what's what, we all hope we are not behind her in the queue.
The phone rings, we all sit up a little straighter and strain to hear. The Prison Officer reads the first 4 names, the one familiar to me among them, and I run across to the main entrance to avoid the worst of the drizzle. Another short wait, a shorter queue, "Next family!" - I am a family of one and not actually family at all but his only regular visitor. Paperwork and ID are checked, another short walk, another short wait. Empty contents of pockets onto a tray, hands out at your sides please, turn around, open your mouth, shoes off now please and show me the bottoms of your feet, thank you that's fine. Another short walk and I am let through the final locked door and into the visits hall. He is already seated and waiting, I know he will have spotted me the second I was let through the door and his eyes will follow me as I walk to the desk, hand over my visiting order and am given a table number. I turn in the direction pointed, make eye contact with him for the first time and his face lights up with a broad grin as I cross the length of the room. We share a long, tight squeeze of a hug and sit down to spend our two hours together.