The fires are raging. In light of recent events my petty challenges feel like a minor footnote on the epic arse of tragedy. Money is a God and this is his pound of flesh. There is shock and horror. As a nation we are basically OK with sacrificing the comfort, well being and ultimately the lives of the “have nots” as long as we don’t actually have to listen to them scream. I pass the Grenfell Tower on the Westway, it’s blackened shell macabre and tragically defiant: a charred middle finger to the pretty surrounding affluence.
In Portugal my friends watch in horror as it takes a forest fire 5 seconds to traverse the valley in front of their house. They escape with their lives… just. The children don’t even have shoes. No time to corral the cats who are left behind in the inferno. Scores of neighbours are incinerated in their cars as they flee. And all for money.
Central Portugal has been systematically turned into a giant and lucrative plantation. As a monoculture, Eucalyptus trees suck water and nutrients out of the earth like monstrous babies devouring their mother. They tower with reckless growth over the native species, which is marvellous for ticking EU grant boxes and producing cheap paper pulp, but deathly to the native flora and fauna and people. The dry, oil rich timber is petrol in the flames, feeding itself with demented abandon to the furnace.
This is not an act of God. I am not reconciled to it. These are not people without whom I can carry on. I am not calm. It is enough now with the sound bites and the short term thinking and the reckless gambling with the lives of “others”. This is our Earth and these are our people.
People are beautiful in a crisis. It is the love that will floor you every time. I have experienced it myself: the outpouring of solidarity from fellow human beings. Donations to the Grenfell survivors become problematic in scale. They have to ask people to stop giving. This is the human spirit when it is connected and perceiving common ground above differences. This alone gives me hope.
It’s hot in the city and tempers fray in our house. I just can’t seem to climb out from underneath the piles of washing up to achieve anything useful. If I get back to zero every day I feel like I’m ahead, but I’m not. Creative and financial productivity is dangerously low. Something has to give and currently that thing is threatening to be my sanity.
The girls’ birthdays dare to come around again. I am unsure about the ethics of leaving six 11 year olds with unsupervised access to a canister of helium, but the castrated squirrel voice effect of the gas undeniably renders the Harry Potter theme amusing to all present and negates the need to entertain them in a more wholesome fashion.
Grandma is in residence too. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. This lady has an indefatigable elegance that withstands even the humbling act of being observed trying to peel a carrot with a carrot. We try to laugh about what is happening to her but watching as your faculties diminish appears to approximate the horror of experiencing a slow lobotomy with insufficient anaesthetic. In her more virile days my M in L often implored me to to put her in the river at the bottom of her garden if she ever got too daft. Fortunately she has moved. We could both do with a dip somewhere today that is for sure, but I’m reluctant to add euthanasia to the family rap sheet.
In the slammer it’s scorching. At visiting, in the deafening hall that is thick with sweat, Rob looks as if he has been partially barbecued. An officer marvels at how the men all file out of their cells into the baking concrete exercise yard of an afternoon to fry. The thing is that an hour of hot air a day, unpleasant as it is, is all there is, and better than no air at all, AKA suffocation.
Speaking of hot air and asphyxiation Truss is gone. Her replacement David Lidington is an unknown whose voting records don’t bode well unless you have an intense dislike of foxes or gays, but I’m dying to be proved wrong.
For some reason, that I haven’t quite been able to fathom, I get invited to dinner at a Mayfair club to talk prison reform with a table of people whose services to the cause before breakfast today have likely eclipsed everything I have achieved in my lifetime. I attempt to make up for my poor credentials by looking certainly not hot, but at least slightly better in a dress than the majority of hairy ex cons with direct experience of life inside, and hope that the assembled company prefer anecdote to actual activism.
There are so many good people inside and outside the “service” pulling what remains of their hair out trying to mitigate a debacle perpetuated by one thing and one thing only: massive overcrowding. Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust is categorical that prison should be a last resort for as few people and for as little time as possible because, as he knows all too well having run Wandsworth for years, prison makes everything worse. In prison less is definitely more.
There are intakes of breath when I disclose the whereabouts of my husband. No-one really knows what prison wives look like because we are a hidden breed and don’t usually wear our name tags, remaining unknown even to each other unless in situ. Telling the world at large that you have lain with the enemy and intend to do so again, (though not for some time unless they get a move on with ROTL), is strictly against the rules but no-one told me that, so the cat is out of the bag and I’m shooting my mouth off, disclosing inside secrets like the fact that this system is totally f***ed, and dancing on HMP’s hot tin roofs with gay abandon (don’t tell Lidington).
At the dinner those with the unenviable task of running prisons confess to dreading the onset of a long hot summer. Prisons are tinderboxes at the best of times. Forget sprinkler systems, there’s not even a fan or an ice cube at the disposal of the people on the front line trying to stop this bonfire igniting.
Lidington, if you are listening, we need escape routes back, front and centre in Her Majesties fiery hell holes, and we need them now. You’ve got to get some (I’d say roughly half) of these men out before it is too late. The alarm bell has been sounded, ignore it at your peril, or more accurately at the peril of all those who have always had less opportunity, less care, less education and less power than yourself.
Suddenly the foxes are gone to greener Hackney pastures. An eviscerated nappy, a collection of gnawed bones of unknown origin and a smelly dark hole are all that are left behind. I’m sort of hoping that I’m going to wake up on June 10th and find that something similar has happened with the Tories, and that the bones will be May’s… but then I have always been a hopeless optimist.
To keep the local body count up in the absence of our furry friends, next door have blessed the street with a baby girl, and as a result our entire all-female household appear to be high on dopamine or oxytocin or whatever it is that gets released when you hold something so damn cute and adorable that you consider turning nasty when asked to hand it back. Hormones. Bless them. Nature’s little drug stash: the original and still the best. They do take a bit of managing when circumstances force build up though…
I am constantly amazed at why anyone thinks that corralling large numbers of men together into the myopic, mutated beasts that our prisons have become is advisable. I am even less convinced that the concept of freewheeling wives is a goer. Even the laundry lint is turning pink in our house, not to mention the fact that severe sexual deficit is making me ratty and unpredictable which are poor qualities in a mother.
I find Tala weeping into her duvet having hand crocheted me a bracelet that she has been unable to bestow upon me, because every time she calls my name to lure me upstairs for the gifting ceremony I shout things like “If I don’t get five minutes without hearing the word Mummy I’m going to scream”.
My girls are fabulous and deserve better. All prison kids should get a medal just for not shitting in the visiting hall, (though I did spot something suspicious under the toy table last week…). If I could pass for an under five there’d be little steaming piles of dirty protest poop in every corner of that place by the end of the day. Youth certainly is wasted on the young.
C’s girls make the four hour trip to visit him only to be told a sniffer dog has detected drugs on one of them and that they will therefore be having a closed visit and should consider themselves lucky they are getting that. No one checks for the non-existent drugs, notices that this kid is one of the cleanest cut teenagers on the planet, or feels any need to justify the protocol because this is prison and prisoners’ kids don’t have feelings like normal children, so the family accept the horrid, glass separated hour, cry through the first 40 minutes at the unfairness of it, and then huddle around the single phone, with two chairs between the three of them, pretending to C that they are alright.
I’ve been there. I’d go home empty hearted before I’d do the closed visit charade again: the metaphor for what prison does to families is just too apparent in that soundless, senseless box. Another wife doesn’t let their daughter sit on her dad’s lap at visits now. She knows what has happened to us and isn’t prepared to risk it.
And still the children visit fathers who aren’t allowed to walk around or play with them. What are these kids learning from this experience? I’m 100% confident it is more likely to be be “Stick It To The Man”, than “Crime Doesn’t Pay”.
Prisoners aren’t really people and therefore can’t vote, so unsurprisingly there is little to no interest in the general election, however the men are allowed to put forward someone from the wing to sit on a council with the prison hierarchy. Rob makes the mistake of saying something insightful in a discussion group and the guys on the wing get excited and decide that he should represent them. I can hear him slumping over the phone about the “appointment”. It’s a poisoned chalice. The men will all have different requests of varying sanity and the prison will likely ignore almost all of them. Satisfied customers will be thin on the ground.
Currently there is talk of making Rob’s unit into a quasi open block with full daytime unlock, all day phone access and an extra monthly visit. Such a wing exists on the South and is considered highly desirable (in prison terms). Rob has reservations though, because what makes Unit 12 so great is the fact that it is composed of a random selection of men. His fear is that as soon as the unit gets special status, it will also require special prisoners.
Actually there are lots of prisoners who are very special indeed… possibly a little too special to make it through the selection process. The more colourful characters are unlikely to access to the top drawer of prison accommodation: only certain types will make the grade, risking a unit full of People Like U’s. Who wants a packet of bourbons or even a stack of custard creams when you could have a selection tin? Bring on the Family Circle.
Some of the men on unit 12 are awkward bastards: uncouth, loud, and possibly utterly charmless in the eyes of polite society, but they are also funny and irreverent and honest… (well sort of). Everyone brings something unique that contributes to the vibrancy. Everyone is a member of the community. Surely there is enough grey in the world already?
Privileges are great. Sure. But you have to read the small print. The last thing Rob wants on his conscience is any part in the creation of a leafy suburb at Highpoint North. If the price of pseudo daytime freedom is twitching curtains, lights out by 9.30 and swapping cell mates for kicks, it’s a no thanks.
Diversity isn’t easy. It’s a hard won, tensioned thing, but its opposite is inbreeding (unlikely to happen directly at Highpoint North), but metaphorically speaking we all know what happens when cousins get it on with cousins. Like Hackney, prison is a mixed bag. It’s one of the things that Rob has come to love about it, which is one of the things I love about him… and Hackney.
We arrive early at the prison. By some miracle the sun is shining so we book in and throw our coats down in the grassy fields beneath the razor wire. I taught Tala to do a handstand here before our first ever visit, fighting nerves with forced cheer. Now Okha is making daisy chains, Tala and I are racing each other barefoot to the trees and back and the easiness is real. This is our life. Our Sunday.
As we lay on our backs catching our breath and soaking up the long awaited rays, a small blond child approaches. He is one of those genial irrepressible characters who assume immediate friendship and settles himself down comfortably in our midst.
We show him how we are making the garlands, but his fingers are jumpy and impatient so we gift him one of ours. I suggest he gives it to his dad. He looks at me darkly “My dad’s in jail”. That’s code for “I can’t give him anything”. “Our dad’s in jail too” says Okha. The kid looks surprised and volunteers “I really miss my dad”. We tell him we miss ours too. He looks at me suspiciously. I’m patently too old for a dad. “I miss mine times 1000” he counters. We concede defeat.
We’re good at missing. We don’t expect relief from the sensation. It is our constant companion and almost comforting in its familiarity. The consolation is this: each passing day takes us one step closer to him. My friend lives with the opposite reality. It is the 7 year anniversary of her son’s death. Every day takes her a step further away. There is no future relief for her, just the passage of time: a double edged process whereby pain fades alongside memories. I think of her when I need strength.
There is a man on Rob’s unit whose hands are missing. Both have been cut off at the wrist. It’s a humiliating, almost unthinkable thing to live with. He uses a cup with a special handle through which he hooks his stump. He needs help with the simplest of things and yet he looks happier than anyone Rob has ever met. He is in prison, with no hands and he never stops smiling.
Against all odds one of the guys on Robs unit has been seen by a prison dentist who has recommended the extraction of three teeth. They send the guy off to hospital for an op under general anaesthetic. When he comes round he discovers that every single tooth from his top jaw has been removed. Whether this was a medical necessity or an administrative error is unclear: this is prison – no-one tells you anything: the teeth are missing, that’s all you have to go on.
He thinks he’ll get new ones on the NHS and has been told he won’t have to wait long. On this promise he is electing not to let his wife visit until his nashers have been re-instated. The more experienced residents snort in derision. Dream on Toothless.
I’m not quite sure what state my beloved will be in today. It’s Ramadam and his cell mate is on a somewhat antisocial timetable, arising at 1.30am for a fully illuminated, no holds barred midnight feast, then back to bed for more snoring. Consequently Rob is missing sleep, so I’m heartened to see him looking cheerful and bonny. You won’t do well in the slammer without tolerance and compassion, qualities that are hard to maintain when you are hungry or tired. This is either boot camp for the soul, or simple torture.
As we enter the visit hall someone mutters to their companion “Blimey, I didn’t realise they were locking up wizards now”. I follow the line of his gaze and realise that he is looking at Rob, who is waving and grinning enthusiastically at us from across the room. With his sparkly eyes and mad professor beard, he is indeed looking uncannily like a swarthy Gandolf on the run.
We might well have a smattering of wizards banged up: we seem to have just about everyone else… but let it not be said that we are stuck in the dark ages. Herb lovers were once burned at the stake as witches, now worst case scenario its a mere 5 stretch for possession and a meagre 14 for supply…of weed…seriously? God bless the Lib Dems. People please…back them up! No one in the slammer for weed unless you’ve dropped a block of it on someone’s head and killed them.
It’s odd though because although half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, no political manifesto, not even Corbyn’s mighty tome, includes prohibition. A bit of consistency would be nice…I just want to know where I am: deciding what to put in one’s own body is terribly taxing.
Taxing the wacky baccy is probably not a bad idea though. According to the Institute of Economics and Research up to £900million could be raised annually through taxation of a regulated cannabis market. Add to that the several hundreds of millions we currently spend policing and prosecuting the trade and the numbers aren’t looking too shabby. Bring all drugs under government control and we’re really talking.
I don’t smoke weed because it turns me into a gibbering paranoid wreck. I don’t do crack because, much as I’m not a fan of the prison wife gig, I am blessed with love and support and the reality of my life is not so terrible that I want oblivion. I still want to feel. Those who don’t need help and they certainly won’t get that in prison.
People use drugs. They always have and always will. You ban something, you drive it underground, you make it dangerous. I’m sick of seeing kids missing their Dad’s x 1000 because we legislate for an imaginary world and parliament has its fingers in its ears shouting lalalalala, to drown out the dull roar of it’s meaningless slogans and missing values. Forget strong and stable. How about innovative and intelligent, or God forbid, kind and wise.