You’ve probably seen safe houses crop up in films. Children of Men springs to mind. The first Mission: Impossible. The sixth Die Hard. Even our very own Ryan Reynolds’ Safe House. But, until the current, legally-mandated lockdown, you’ve probably never personally felt like you’ve been holed up and hidden away under witness protection. And guess what? You still haven’t. Not really.
Frank Matthews spent five years as a Witness Protection Officer, deployed to the Covert Policing Branch of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Justice Protection Unit. He also spent two-and-a-half years under witness protection himself, being safeguarded by the Counter Terrorism Squad. Today, he works with the global Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is registered with the Legal Aid Board as an expert witness. In other words, he’s the real deal — and knows almost all there is to know about real-life, self-isolated safe houses.
“I have personally used safe houses on numerous occasions,” Matthews reveals to Gentleman’s Journal. “I’ve protected, to name but a few, members of the Italian mafia, hit men, drug traffickers and members of organised crime groups. I also had my own allocated safe house to assist with my covert identity, which I utilised for protection matters.”
They’re some impressive credentials. And so, with many of us complaining that we can no longer step outside or meet our friends for a drink, we decided to ask Matthews for his tips, tricks and techniques on surviving self-isolation. Because, as a man who knows just how locked-down a lockdown can be, who better to see us through our own solitary safe house moments?
A routine is vitally important
“The duration of a stay in a safe house is determined by many factors,” Matthews explains. “It can range from a few days to months. As such, a routine is vitally important. Get out of bed, be active and industrious as best you can under the limiting circumstances. Try breaking the day into segments, when you are active for an hour or so then engage in some relaxation.”
It’s a good suggestion. During the week, when you’re working from home, we’d suggest slipping on some smart shoes or throwing on a tie during office hours. That way, when 5pm ticks around, you can loosen your laces, kick back and feel like you’ve moved forward into a new, distinct part of your day.
Good cooking is a great distraction
But once you’ve segmented your day into sections, you’ll likely still have trouble filling them — especially on the weekends. But count yourself lucky. As Matthews tells us, when he used to protect witnesses in safe houses, they weren’t allowed phones, access to social media or even letters from the outside world. Instead, he says, they had to find other, more mouth-watering ways to pass the time.
“As with protected witnesses,” Matthews explains, “you need to find something to occupy your time and take away those incessant thoughts that will inevitably be going through your head about the situation you are in — and the potential danger you feel. I’d recommend good food. Do some home cooking or baking, and try recipes or dishes that you’ve always wanted to cook.”
Staying clean will help you stay happy
“Safe houses are never luxuriously furnished,” says Matthews, “but they have the basic furnishings and requirements for living. Each individual Witness Protection Officer will have a safe house allocated to them — and it is down to them to put the finer touches on the place, working to a restricted budget.”
As such, the former police officer adds, keeping your limited space neat and tidy is of paramount importance to maintain your wellbeing. And it’s not just your surroundings. “Personal hygiene is also important,” Matthews continues, “and keeping yourself clean and groomed. Try a long soak in the bath or extra-long shower for relaxation. Try to expunge all negativity from your life.”
Ensure you keep on exercising
But a long, hot shower and some much-needed primping and pampering isn’t the only way to keep yourself feeling fresh and invigorated during lockdown. Exercise is also a key way to keep your mind and body as revitalised and rejuvenated as possible. And, as Matthews points out, if protected witnesses can work out in even the smallest safe houses, so can you.
“Police safe houses take many forms, ranging from multi-bedroom houses to one-bedroom flats,” he explains. “But exercise is essential and even, when the circumstances permit, a brisk walk outside. Sit-ups and floor exercises are good — but I would recommend working out to online fitness trainers.”
Fill your down time with fun (quiet) activities
“If you’re going to watch films or TV,” says Matthews, offering advice on your down time entertainment choices, “make it light-hearted, fun content. If you’re a reader, tackle some good books. Also, board games and a pack of cards can be effective in pleasantly passing the hours.
“I’d encourage reigniting old hobbies,” he adds. “Or perhaps a new one that will enthuse, but not frustrate you. I would alway encourage activities that could be performed in the safe house, but preferably nothing that would draw attention from the neighbours. I wouldn’t recommend learning to play the trumpet…”
Always get a good night’s sleep
Matthews’ final lockdown recommendation takes you to the end of your day — while setting you up for your next. “You need to try to get a good night’s sleep,” he says, “as that will aid your mental state for the following day. And, if you start to dwell on any negative thoughts, it’s imperative that you either obliterate them yourself by engaging in an activity or talking them through with someone.”
Still worried about self-isolation? Here’s how to beat your COVID-induced anxiety…
Join the Gentleman’s Journal Clubhouse here.