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Thank you for smoking

In bygone days the crapper in the education block at HMP Highpoint was basically a smoke house. Before the introduction of the smoking ban last week it billowed perpetually with a thick nicotine-rich fugg so dense that the facilities were hazardous to negotiate and the “No Smoking” signs on the walls tricky to spot. The loos themselves functioned mostly as armchairs which made Rob feel bad when the call of nature occasionally forced him to request the vacation of a cubicle. After a few fags men with skin like parchment and hands that were yellowed and stained might pop into the library for a chat or a book or a change of scene. There are few pleasures on the inside. A combination of fags, books and empty bowels is about as good as it legally gets.

For weeks the various strata of prison life have been readying themselves for the impending purgatory of the ban. The governor even saw fit to purchase a full sized cigarette outfit and persuade one of the more trusting lads to dress up in it: a witty harbinger of doom. Black marketeers have been judiciously stockpiling their new product, rubbing their hands together in grateful glee. Designers and engineers have perfected small crack pipes so that spice can be consumed in ever more lethal fashions and quantities.

In the 1990’s branding guru BJ Cunningham invented Death Cigarettes. Encased in a black packet and emblazoned with an iconic white skull and crossbones packs bore slogan’s like “Too bad you’re gonna die”, “It’s your funeral” and “The grim reaper don’t come cheaper”. We are all going to die. What matters to us is the liberty to choose how we live. Prison largely removes choice and so small freedoms become vital, hence why most prisoners smoke.

“They” like “us” know it kills in the end, its lethal effects are writ large on the packet, but there’s plenty will do that for you quicker in the slammer than a death stick. In a week that has seen another fatal stabbing at Scrubs, the focus on lung cancer before lung puncture might be considered by the skeptical (who moi?) as a cynical use of smoke and mirrors. Every three days someone takes their own life in a British jail and we want to demonise that most effective, successful and (in comparison to suicide) relatively innocuous anxiolytic of all the time? Ban the humble ciggie?

And don’t start about staff health and passive smoking. Current staffing levels ensure that officers rarely stray into prisoner territory which is why drug taking and violence are more prolific than anyone who hasn’t experienced these conditions first hand could ever imagine. No-one gives a hoot about the secondary smoke inhalation of the convicts themselves. If inmate health was of the teensiest concern, prison food would be budgeted at more than it costs to feed a dog and 23 hour bang up would raise the occasional eyebrow in the corridors of power.

No… like Grayling’s 2013 ban on books this latest “initiative” is all about subjugation. When it comes to prisons, HM is the ultimate dominatrix. As a group we can be fairly confident that most prisoners aren’t good with rules. Banning “burn” is nothing more than the perverse desire of the powerful to design ever more deceitful sticks with which to beat their captives.

When a smoking ban first came into effect at Isle of Man prison in 2008 inmates resorted to boiling up Nicorette patches and infusing absorbent materials such as tea, dried banana skins and pubic hair with the resulting solution. This noxious filling was then rolled up in pages of the bible or (wittily)The Criminal Code and defiantly smoked. Over 800 power cuts and many more low level electrocutions resulted from inmates short circuiting plug sockets to spark up.

Sometime during my adolescence my sensible and occasionally draconian mother banned my long suffering father from smoking anywhere, at anytime, on the irrefutable grounds that as his wife, she would certainly suffer the effects of his future ill health at least as much as he would. The result was that his car became a reliable source of mints of all descriptions and that he continued his filthy habit at work. Summer camping holidays were a little tricky – we children frequently discovered him squatting behind our old Citroen, frantically wafting away plumes of verboten smoke in a futile effort to remain undetected. If my mother could not break the habit of a man who, for all his sins, has adored her his whole life then I don’t give Her Majesty great odds with this latest prohibition.

We all have “props” that make life more bearable. Our family crutch and primary prison survival tool is the phone. Last week I held Tala in my arms whilst she sobbed so violently she could hardly breathe. Rob had just told her that he would no longer be calling at bedtime as all privileges had just been withdrawn from every member of his unit. The Albanians (bless them) had uploaded footage of their New Year’s Eve party to Facebook and the press had discovered it, thereby scandalising decent folks with this wanton display of immigrant happiness and advertising the shock existence of illegal mobile phones in prison. Gasp.

Hundreds of prisoners are caught and intermittently punished for phones every day of the week (13000 mobiles were confiscated in prison last year) but when the press get involved stories are spun and “the authorities” panic hence this knee jerk decision to punish 70 uninvolved men and their families.

Aged 11, Tala doesn’t smoke at home yet, so we had to make do with cuddles and lullabies to get her breathing under control. Finally she fell asleep on my chest, soothed by the rise and fall of my smug pink lungs.

To Highpoint’s credit they lift the punishment eventually and our family is reunited over the airwaves at bedtime, but the damage is done and “the child” as she is affectionally known in our household, is becoming familiar with depths of despair that I had hoped would remain unfathomed until perhaps her first romantic love affair.

Stress is at least as carcinogenic as cigarettes. This ban will bring that on in spades and herald new and greater levels of debt and punition, not to mention the inhalation of pubes and other unsavoury and as yet uninvented substances guaranteed to make tobacco look positively angelic. It will play well in the press though. In a world where sensation, scandal, blame and debauchery sell, our laws are being dictated by media empires in whose interest it is that society remains as fractured and divided as possible. Happiness and harmony just don’t sell. You can stick them in your pipe and smoke them.

By | February 6th, 2018|

Fish Tank

How do you treat a sick fish? It’s not a trick question and the answer is simple. You change the water.

At a recent inspection at HMP Liverpool, men are found to be living in rooms with missing and broken windows, exposed wires, cockroach infestations, blocked and over-flowing toilets. There are vermin infested rubbish piles in communal areas too dangerous to touch. A man with multiple mental illnesses is found in a damp room containing only a bed and has to be rescued by the inspector. Violence has tripled since the last inspection. This prison is a sewer and will produce only rats. This is not the fault of the governor. This is the result of a culture that thinks it can cure its sick fish by adding cyanide to their tank.

I thank our lucky stars for Highpoint North. The Ritz it ain’t but Unit 12 is tentatively becoming a flagship wing for rehabilitation culture. It’s corridors are now painted a sunny yellow and embellished with positive quotes. It boasts a vibrant council. Residents (who are unlocked almost full time) manage all the cleaning and look out for each other. There is hope and friendship and possibility. There are even cake clubs for heaven’s sake!

Syndicate members contribute ingredients and the resulting delectable concoctions are shared between all. Admittedly the prison palate is easily pleased, but standards are reputedly high. D, the unofficial Bad Boy’s Bake off King, has recently shipped out to D cat, leaving Rob to contend with a glut of digestives and another poignant farewell.

There is nothing bitter sweet about saying goodbye to the mysterious poo that has been found in one of the unit’s toilet cisterns however. It’s removal, though logistically complex, is good riddance. It is unlikely that its prior owner genuinely mistook the water tank for the bowl, so one can only assume that the rogue pooper deposited his load in this curious location to remind us all that this is still prison. When you deprive a man of his liberty the chances are he will seek to assert his freedom in a variety of un-envisaged and undesirable ways.

This week we drive to our convict through flurries of snow. It is almost romantic: even razor wire looks beautiful in white crystal. I am however feeling somewhat less lyrical by the time I’ve waited unsheltered and prone by the gates for 20 minutes and have developed blocks of ice where once were feet. Visiting wives unfailingly dress to impress whatever the weather and I will not be the exception.

Credit where credit is due though, there is light in the visitor tunnel. Children under 14 no longer have to wear wrist bands, and identification requirements at check in have been reduced down to the levels required for foreign travel, i.e. a passport will now suffice. This speeds things up to the point where the lovely and long suffering admissions ladies actually have time to make eye contact without risking heckles from the back of the queue. Powers that be, our collective blood pressure salutes you, but please, can someone change the lightbulb in the visitors’ cloakroom? It expired months ago and in a building that houses hundreds of relatively able bodied men perhaps one of them could oblige?

Steaming gently in the tropical visit hall, I fancy I appear rosy cheeked and quasi bridal with my hair up and dusted in snow, but alas melting mascara icicles ensure that I look more like a bedraggled panda. Rob looks hot and cool enough for us all though: Long hair knotted at the back, protest beard positively resplendent, edgier than his nickname, Gandalf, suggests. My God, this man is beautiful!

By the time we are homeward bound the roads are greasy with slush and we battle back into the city through relentless driving rain. I arrive shaking with exhaustion, adrenalin, longing and loss (a crazy cocktail regularly imbibed by us prison wives) and, although it is only 7pm, climb under the duvet and gratefully accept the delivery of tea from my eldest. Nothing heads off a nervous breakdown like a supine British cuppa and the unsolicited love of your offspring.

Living with an officially adult daughter and her childhood best friend (who has moved into our shed) is hugely more successful than I had anticipated. Although neither of them are fully reconciled to the fact that, although all bathroom furniture is frequently baptised in water as a matter of course, these fixtures do still need additional cleaning, we live pretty harmoniously together, pitching in on the cooking and childcare and keeping our respective living costs low.

When do children become adults? It is a pertinent question with regard to maternal patience as well as criminal justice and incarceration. It seems that brain and hormonal development both continue well into the early 20’s. As a result psychologists have now recategorised adolescence into three stages: early (12-14), mid (15-17) and late (18-25). Since 2013 UK children have been eligible to see a child psychologist until 25. Why then are we prosecuting and incarcerating under 25’s as if they were fully formed rational adults? 17% of the UK prison population are under 25 despite the fact that the science proves that they are not yet in their “right” minds. I (and certainly my parents) can vouch for the fact that I was a lunatic until at least 23 when early onset motherhood cured me via exhaustion and the love of something other than myself.

I am not suggesting mollycoddling or God forbid the infantilisation of young adults – those under my roof contribute rent, food, cleaning and the DIY services of a wide pool of male admirers, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that this 18 – 25 group are dealing with a lot and are wont to make dubious choices before reluctantly embracing responsibility.

Where our youth are out of control and under parented they may well need an intervention, but no-one in their right mind would make that prison. Worse still are “Young Offender’s” Institutes, AKA child prisons, which are more violent and dangerous than any adult lock up.

How children become adults is a further question. With sweat, tears and forgiveness on all sides it seems. If we must perpetuate the cycle of life and fish and egg should meet, a little love and compassion in the tank is probably the way to go.

I’ll give Philipp Larkin the last word today.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

By | January 25th, 2018|

Prayer

No. I didn’t string myself up by the fairy lights, fatally overdose on sprouts or choke to death on a chestnut. I made it through the festive season. Just. Though let me assure you that Christmas is not a holiday for any mother and that goes double for the prison wife.

When we arrive at Highpoint South on the 23rd I am astonished to see the visitor’s centre wall to wall with decorations: a far cry from last year’s desolate dearth of cheer. If I’m at the dentist or the supermarket I couldn’t give a toss whether or not they have bothered with the tinsel: I know I count in the free world, or my dollar does… but this display of festive cheer means a great deal to me here.

You see, when the visitor’s centre feels safe and warm and cheery, the children imagine that their dads are being similarly cared for. They aren’t of course, (although to the prison’s credit Unit 12 also had decorations this year and phone calls until 1am on NYE which was very sweet), but every word and demonstration of kindness to prison kids is magic balm on their fears: their fathers live in a universe they have never seen, with people they don’t know, for reasons they may not understand, so the friendlier we can make their interface with this unfamiliar world the better.

Prison children are twice as likely as their peers to experience mental health problems. They worry about their jailed parents more than you could ever know unless you have watched them do it and wondered again and again to yourself how our current policy of mass incarceration could ever make the UK (much less the world) a better place.

Tala and two other incredible children are the subject of a CBBC documentary for “My Life” called “Missing Dad” about having a father in prison. It screens at 5.30pm on Monday the 15th Jan. I still can’t watch it without crying with pride and sorrow…

Happiness is the greatest act of defiance a prison family can perform against a system specifically designed to prevent it. Jail is about punishment pure and simple: vengeance occasionally couched in the deceit of deterrent, and so, as a natural born rebel I set about trying to bring yuletide “happiness” to the household.

I buy things. The tree. The nosh. The presents. Then I fill the diary. People. Places. Stuff for the memory box. It works… sort of. The family remains vaguely upbeat, at least, we are busy enough not to slump.

Children want christmas to be like when they were small and still believed: brimming with magic, sparkles and copious chocolate, crowned by the impossible benevolence of Saint Nick.

My kids no longer believe in much however and no amount of material tat can wipe their memories clean again. Besides, it turns out that Christmas actually really is about being with the people you love. Without them it’s hard to rejoice.

New Years Eve was my best for decades but I greet Jan looking considerably worse than is fair cop for the amount I have drunk. I wake up with a burst blood vessel in one eye. Great. Hello freaky red eye lady. Ordinarily I wouldn’t leave the house looking or feeling this grim but Grandma must be redelivered back to the Midlands before she turns into a pumpkin or thinks she has.

Taking a person with dementia out of their environment isn’t wise. When you return them they tend to have forgotten simple things like where the bathroom is or how to use the phone (with which they now attempt to turn on the TV). Mildly funny… but mostly just sad and very very tiring.

By nightfall I have a migraine so profound that I’m puking repeatedly teenage style. By 2am I’m delirious and call Okha, the only person I am sure will be awake. I want her to search the net and check that my brain isn’t bleeding or exploding or something… the eye is really freaking me out! I know… I’m a drama queen and google is guaranteed to terrify us all, but nothing would surprise me about my life (or lack thereof) any more.

Google doesn’t disappoint of course and confirms imminent death so I call 111. The phone doc asks if there is another adult in the house. Tala is sobbing uncontrollably next to me terrified by the demise of her remaining parent, and grandma, previously a nurse, midwife and the most caring and competent woman I have ever known, can’t even find the light switch to her bedroom today and probably doesn’t count. “No… there’s just me” I say between retches… in a tiny village in the back of bloody beyond.

It’s just a headache of course, but then the doctor starts probing my mental state. Have I been experiencing feelings of hopelessness of late? Have I been persistently depressed? Well yeah…! Duh…! I consider putting it to the medic that she might feel hopeless and desperate if her husband was doing a nine stretch for film making, but decide to lay off the sas and cut the poor innocent lady some slack. The pain is taking its toll and rendering me almost docile plus she has just confirmed that I’ll live for which I am thankful when all is said and done.

In his book “Lost connections” Johann Hari, a depression sufferer himself for many years, explores the convenient medical myth that sadness is basically a serotonin deficit fixable by drugs. It isn’t unfortunately. Prosac might take the edge off for a few months but 65 – 80% of people taking anti – D’s are depressed again within the year. The only people who really benefit from medicating gloom are Big Pharma.

What Hari found was that just as every human has basic physical needs (food water shelter etc), we also have basic psychological needs. He writes:

“We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel we are good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future and there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those needs”.

Oops. Depression is about environment, not broken brains.

The same is true of both offending and recovery therefrom. Humans malfunction in hopeless environments. Sadly prison (being the epitome of a pointless, thankless existence) threatens to make everything worse for us all.

Here is my antidote and my prayer: Thank you to the governors and staff who are working against Grayling’s murderous legacy and improving things under the radar. Thank you to those inmates who support and care for each other as best they can. Thank you to the families and friends who visit and give the incarcerated something to come out to. Thank you to whoever sent Rob a box of chocolates. He isn’t allowed to receive them and the prison have sent them back but it was a lovely thought. Thank you to everyone in the prison reform movement striving day after day to bring awareness and sense to this most senseless of worlds. Thank you to everyone out there who has a heart and a head and cares about people they might never have met, whose lives may be very different to their own. We all belong together. We’re a community. We can change this step by step, opinion by opinion. We matter and we have meaning. There is always hope.

By | January 10th, 2018|
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