Hell’s teeth there’s a man on the roof at Highpoint North! It happens now and again. Unfortunately this one has gone up without sunscreen and it’s a scorcher so no-one gives him long before he jumps or retreats.
Most prisoners suck up the injustices of the system and just do their time, but this guy has cracked. Rumour has it that his requests for a transfer have been ignored and a rooftop protest suddenly seems like his only hope. Perhaps he wants to be nearer his family, or somewhere that nominally offers a course he needs for release? Perhaps he just hates it here? No-one knows. What is known is that nothing good will happen now. This is kamikaze.
It takes until nightfall for reality to bite the lone demonstrator, ensuring that none of the other men get let out for exercise that sunny day and achieving a great deal less than nothing for all involved, unless third degree sunburn and a cameo in this blog count for anything.
It is true that the man will now be moved… to the British equivalent of Siberia: as far away as possible from where he wants to be. He’ll also do an extra two to four years over his sentence for his troubles. No-one gives a rat’s arse about what you want in prison. You are on your own. Put up, shut up, and “just say yeah” or it will be the worse for you. It’s hard though.
Having missed the morning off work for a council meeting with the governor, Rob makes the fatal mistake of clocking in at his job in the library instead of attending his voluntary computer course. Now he is in trouble. Part of him (the part that is still labouring under the misconception that initiative is an attribute), wants to lose it, but thankfully the majority of him remembers that he wants to come back out to us someday. This is the mother of all institutions: be nothing and no-one, or else…
The problem with prison is that the whole place is teeming with characters: entrepreneurialism and spirit appear to abound amongst the incarcerated so the only way the sparky and bright survive is by performing a kind of schizophrenic character splice with everyone “from the out”. You “yes sir, no miss” to anyone who walks into that building by choice. It’s them and us. After a while resisting the machine becomes exhausting though and most men on long sentences submit to institutionalisation rendering themselves all but useless to the outside world and confirming the general assertion that they were no-hopers from the start. No one sees their potential.
I stick my head round Okha’s bedroom door to see if she is coming to visiting. She turns over and smiles hazily at me through the fugg of ethanol between us. I scream. She has had some kind of late night break-failure mediated contretemps with a pot hole on her bike, landed on her mouth, (now cut and swollen) and knocked half a tooth out.
I ring my next door neighbour: she is the font of all useful knowledge. She also has a newborn and is therefore always awake. (FYI 111 is the number to ring when you discover a toothless child on a Sunday morning, people). By the end of the afternoon a temporary cap has been fitted on the shattered tooth. It looks a little Ken Dodd, which is upsetting for her now that both local and alcoholic anaesthetics are wearing off, but it’ll do ’til Monday.
In jail everyone’s biggest fear is illness and particularly toothache. Chris Grayling eat your heart out: you may be the devil’s own emissary with the blood of literally hundreds of prisoners on your hands, but your ability to instil fear into the incarcerated community has nothing on prison dentistry, or rather the lack thereof.
A mate of Rob’s has bitten down inadvertently on something hard and lost half a molar. He is in absolute agony and will remain so, having been given an “emergency” appointment 6 weeks away. He can’t work or study the pain is so intense. It is frightening and pitiful to see.
Another guy has historic and well documented back pain which he has managed throughout his life with copious pain relief. The prison doctor decides the medication can be cut leaving the guy in perpetual chronic pain. Nothing he says gets him a new appointment or a reversion to the original prescription. Luckily for the prison his back is probably too gippy for him to make it up to the roof, so there is little risk anyone will find out that this kind of passive brutality is routine in British jails. No-one will ever ever know.
At visiting we sit next to a small quiet family. The two young daughters draw feverishly for their father. I wonder what on earth their Dad is in for. It transpires that he is a doctor who had a disagreement with HMRC over VAT receipts. When I ask if this man is permitted to treat the inmates Rob snorts loudly and derisively into his jasmine tea. Fat chance! Ok… so you might not put him in sole charge of medical finances but the guy isn’t in here for being a bad doctor. Men are writhing in agony in unattended, unstaffed cells with qualified doctors locked up helplessly next door to them.
There are all sorts of people in prison with all manner of talents. The first question asked of a new arrival should be “What can you offer?” and the second “What would you like to receive?”. But then that would involve seeing prisoners as people, giving them purpose and improving outcomes for society at large…
On the long drive home through Sunday evening traffic I wonder briefly if there is some kind of hex on our house: even our lodger has broken her ankle on the first day of her holiday poor thing… but then I don’t feel cursed. I actually feel very very lucky.
I have had so much good fortune in my life: loving parents, an education, loyal friends and a family of my own. I have had every advantage and yet I have made so many mistakes. Without the head start I had, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I am humbled every day by the stories Rob tells me from the prison library: men trying to educate themselves and make something from the nothing (or worse) they get inside. The nothing they have always had. When I weigh up the continuum of my life we are really not talking curses.
My world is collapsing. Literally. I return from a sunny amble with the dog to find that roughly a third of my bedroom ceiling has fallen in, covering my entire dress arsenal (a collection which has been compiled over many years, with much angst and the appropriation of enough dough to buy back the house) with builders rubble, plasterboard and hunks of blackened water-sodden loft insulation. Damn that Saniflow! Putting a blender in a loo is not only a vile concept, it also doesn’t work. It is an abomination on every level from conception through to execution and is responsible for the fact that my erstwhile sanctuary now looks like Kabul on a rough day.
Nothing stirs in my chest as I survey the carnage. Zero. Zilch. It just makes me feel tired. I stare at the devastation for a while, briefly consider dislodging the rest of it with a broom handle and creating my own tomb, and then go and water the geraniums.
I’m not sure what to do, so I adopt my default response and go next door. My neighbour, high on sleep deprivation, slaps her newborn in a papoose and comes round to inspect the damage. She takes one look and tells me to dial it in. We need immediate professional help.
This is my second insurance claim this year. I feel rather sorry for the company. They obtained me as a client only last summer after an awkward call from their predecessors who had discovered our blacklisted names on some kind of database of shame, and (16 claim free years notwithstanding) ditched us overnight. At the time I felt rather aggrieved. Now I realise they were on to something.
I am not a good bet. I am a wounded animal and the odds on my survival are poor. Prison leaks steadily into everything you try to do to stay above water at home and pulls you under. This week we have been late to school every day. Forget homework or nutritionally balanced suppers. I’m happy just to get to the other side of bedtime without screaming. De-escalating family tensions is particularly important in summer due to OWS (Open Window Syndrome): no-one needs the happy sizzle of their barbecue overlaid by the ominous and unmistakable sound of a mother on the turn.
I am an accident waiting to happen. My other neighbour preempts disaster by volunteering to lop my olive tree which has gone feral over the course of this untended year. I am already a shouty, occasionally tearful, harassed person and the loss of digits is unlikely to improve my disposition or the tranquility of his summer evenings, plus, he is just kind. I am lucky. I am sandwiched by love and care. I look as though I am standing up, but really I’m just leaning on everyone around me.
I pick up a fellow prison wife en route to Highpoint. Rob has volunteered my services to a friend whose Mrs has hitherto been spending her Sundays battling with the grueling 12 hour journey by public transport. I tentatively ask what the guy is in for. Rob hasn’t got a clue.
Neither of us knows what to expect when I pull up outside J’s flat, but we hit it off immediately. She is smart, interesting and passionate about her neighbourhood where she is setting up local community awards in her “spare” time alongside her full time job. Not bad for a prison wife.
My old friends are awesome: without them I would have cracked months ago, but not one of them can tell me how it was for them when their husband went inside. None of them knows how the first year feels compared to the second, or that summers are quick and winters slow. They don’t know how to put a part of themselves to sleep to survive the separation, or how to dream into a future so far away.
It also transpires that J has a remarkable knowledge about the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, both on and off the set. Impressed, Tala relegates herself selflessly to the back seat and we all chat the journey away rendering the weekly pilgrimage educational for Tala, anti-soporific for me and thus less potentially lethal for us all.
J’s partner’s story is another shocker. With pitifully diminished access to legal aid and a backlogged appeal process our courts are becoming a farce and like most farces (not my favourite genre), it’s not all that funny, particularly when it’s happening to you.
The wife of one of Rob’s literacy students has had their children taken away from her. After her husband went to prison she couldn’t cope, so now the kids are in care. Prison is a truly terrible thing to do to a family. The dad is devastated. On top of it all the children are not receiving his letters. He is an enhanced prisoner with a flawless record who has relentlessly taught himself to read with the help of other inmates. He is doing everything right, but how much can he take? He carries on writing to the children and keeps the letters in his cell. One day, when he gets out, he will give them a great big stack of envelopes tied up like a present. He’ll try to show them that he never stopped thinking about them.
As we pass through visitor security I see a newspaper cutting proudly displayed on the side of the scanner. “Mother of four jailed for six months for passing a £5 wrap of cannabis to partner at HMP Highpoint”. It makes you proud to be British doesn’t it? We are so marvelously tough on crime…. and children.
Prison is like a wrecking ball to a family and Paul Dacre is twerking shamelessly on its chain yelling “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”. Households crumble. Children get taken away and become prison fodder in their turn: 50% of under 25’s in British jails come from “care”. No one wins.
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.