Beards are for ugly blokes. That is the conclusion D has come to and he cannot understand why Rob, with his chiseled features and unassailable good looks, persists with the chin wig. “If I nailed you to a cross” (not a reassuring opener in any setting and little short of menacing in the slammer), “you’d look like Jesus”, says D with affectionate, slightly crazed, exasperation.
Say no more. Who’d style themselves on the Son of God when God has given us whole body depilation that we might look like Love Island contestants: hairless from the eyeballs down. This is the Essex borders when all is said and done but Rob’s disposable razors were confiscated at Birmingham Crown Court on June the 24th 2016 and they have never been replaced.
His shaving brush hangs forlornly on its stand in a dusty corner of the bathroom quietly place holding for its erstwhile owner and occasionally jolting me, mid pee, into sentimental reminiscence.
Us girls appropriated his razor years ago whilst he was still in residence. Most men surviving outnumbered in excessively female households quickly come to understand that it is part of their role to upkeep a communal razor and rinse it unquestioningly prior to use, but the brush was always his alone.
Now it is one of the last relics from our old life. With the passing of time a tipping point has been reached whereby items conferred as keepsakes – scarves, T shirts and the like, have lost all totemic power. Possession is nine tenths of the law (unless your husband has been convicted of fraud) and whether we like it or not, these artefacts have now passed to us and serve as reminders no more.
Sometimes his absence hangs so heavy that I can barely speak. I can be very sniffy about suffering, particularly my own, or anything involving the loss of status or cleaners. There is so much hardship amongst the families of prisoners and such genuine fortitude that I feel ashamed submitting to despair in the midst of my relative privilege. As if this is a test and I am failing.
I watch the bright full harvest moon rise above a veil of clouds and remember back a decade or so when Rob, transfixed by a similarly spectacular lunar orb, drove confidently into the stationary boot of the car in front, whose owner questioned his sanity and relieved us of our no claims bonus.
In the past we sent our lunatics to the asylum. Now we send them to prison. The governor of an infamous London nick practically shivers describing the sound of prison nights to me before the gradual introduction of in cell TVs in the late 90’s.
For him this initiative, so maligned by a public opposed to “lags living it up in luxury” is the best thing to have happened in prison for decades (a damning admission in itself), because “It gives the crazies something to stare at through the night and keeps them quiet”. When I ask him what the mentally ill are doing in prison, or how he can safely accommodate them he just shrugs. He’s a civil servant. His is not to wonder why…
Researching the history of British asylums the penny starts to drop. Asylum closure was begun by Enoch Powell in the 1960’s after details of overcrowding, poor hygiene, wrongful admittance and brutal, ineffective treatment began to emerge shamefully into the public domain. Sound familiar?
A light bulb switches on in my brain (ECT anyone?). Today’s prisons are actually yesterdays asylums plus a lot more drugs and minus the staff. Prison in conjunction with “couldn’t Care less in the Community”, is government’s answer to the current mental health crisis and its prerogative remains the same: keep it hidden.
The idea of mad people chained to poles in the centre of rooms disturbed us as a nation, so we have replaced the poles with purpose built cages and banished the afflicted to Titan prisons in the middle of nowhere so that the madness can continue (cheaply) behind closed doors.
Better still, just like Victorian city prisons, our old asylum buildings repurpose marvellously as unaffordable luxury flats complete with witty backstories about their previous occupants. Kerching!
One in four young women are suffering from depression or anxiety or both. Our young people are cutting themselves to shreds on the values and the future we have handed them and the Prozac sweeties aren’t working for anyone except Big Pharma.
And prison makes everything worse. God help anyone entering prison with mental illness. Children of prisoners are twice as likely to experience mental health issues as their peers and I can personally vouch for the deranged mindset of at least one prison wife.
Knighthoods all round for the governors I say. Armed with little more than a fleet of pre-millennial tellies they are housing the hundreds of thousands with barely a loaf or fish in sight. Rehabilitation is moon pie in the sky: an unreasonable and frankly unachievable expectation without more money or less prisoners.
Patrick Cockburn, journalist and author of “Henry’s Demons” the harrowing story of his son’s descent into schizophrenia writes “The treatment of the mentally ill measures the health of any society because they are the most vulnerable and the least able to defend themselves against cruelty and neglect”, which is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s assertion that “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
I doubt big D would be impressed by the British bang up. UK prison is a one stop shop for the elements of our society that we can’t face. It is the underbelly of capitalism. It is yesteryear’s poorhouse. It is the arse end of prohibition and ill informed drug policy. It is the asylum in disguise.
It is also the only place where I feel truly at home. It is where my grizzly werewolf love lives and thus the location of every brief respite to our separation. A slither of moonlight in the dark.
We have Grandma in tow at visiting this week. She has become so frail that I have taken to linking arms with her wherever we go just to keep her upright. Sitting isn’t any easier. In stark contrast to my derriere which never leaves home without its convenient inbuilt padding, hers has rather lost its stuffing over the years so that an un-cushioned chair has become little short of torture for her.
Prison isn’t big on soft furnishings, so I decide to smuggle something in. It’s a bold move. The last time I brought an unauthorised item with me into prison (my phone), things didn’t go well, but I consider Grandma worth the risk.
We start off strong, secreting the vital bolster successfully through the entry gates, sandwiched unobtrusively between Grandma and me, but that is as far as we get. Bootleg butt protection is a flagrant breach of protocol and no one on the “body search” team is in the mood for any funny business.
Once inside the visiting hall however I spot a familiar face amongst the staff and when I explain about Grandma’s bottom she disappears at once, returning minutes later with the contraband and a massive smile. For all any of us knew Grandma could have stuffed that thing full of drugs, but our angel of mercy took a chance on us. She gave us the benefit of the doubt and along with it our humanity.
S (the subject of last week’s funereal travails) is working in the visiting hall on rubbish and tray collection. With inimitable charm he has persuaded every member of unit 12 to entreat their visitors to buy him something from the cafe. As unit 12 are legion today, (a dozen or so of them at least), his pockets are bulging alarmingly with a growing collection of fizzy drink cans and assorted confectionery.
By the time we hand over our Fruit Pastilles he is looking as green as a Jamaican can reasonably look without the production of actual vomit. Anything not consumed in the hall is potentially subject to confiscation and so S is chowing down resignedly, puke or no puke. Reckless consumption of everything and anything is the result of this infantilising system and a hallmark of the prison experience: you get what you can when you can.
I watch a young boy take a chocolate bar over to The Man with No Hands (whose visitors are late) and offer to open it for him. It is common practice for other visitors to look after even unknown men who are still waiting. They do enough of that, and we are proud to take care of our own. We know that there are many reasons a family can find themselves in that room. More than 1/4 of UK adults have committed an imprisonable offence, it’s just that most of us don’t get caught.
The man with no hands is beautiful. It’s the first time I have seen him. Hands were the price he paid for finishing on the losing side of an African armed conflict where mercy is for the weak. When his wife and daughters arrive he wraps them in his stumped arms, folding them into himself easily, conveying with shoulders and biceps and neck everything hands could. His girls look so proud. You couldn’t not be. I have never seen a more radiant man.
I really think that Liz (HM, not Truss – she has already been deposed – someone tell Katie Hopkins) ought to pop in and see for oneself what is occurring in one’s dungeons these days. Ignorance is not bliss. I’d give HRH 20 minutes in that visiting hall before she started granting pardons, although Rob, looking as he does these days like a cross between Guy Fawkes and Osama Bin Laden is unlikely to be first in line for her mercy.
I’m tired. This week I have driven over 500 miles collecting and returning Grandma to the Midlands via Cambridgeshire. There is also water coming through my bedroom ceiling again (the work of a rogue rodent gnawing though plumbing in the loft) and scary confiscation issues to contend with.
By Sunday night a potent cocktail of exhaustion and unwanted responsibility catches up with me. I miss touch. I miss it so much I have taken to having multiple baths just to let the water hold me. When an oven ready lasagne fails to induce pleasure, (orally, not topically people… I do have limits), I admit defeat and settle in on the sofa to face this beast of loneliness down. “Bring it on… Do your worst!” I scream silently. Big mistake.
During the ensuing hours I run the full gamut of hopelessness and wretched self-pity, landing finally in downright depression. Not an evening I’d repeat in a hurry, but the letter I write to Rob at the end of it is such a roller coaster of unbridled hyperbolic emotion that it at least gives us something to laugh about when he receives it two days later and long after I have come back to the light.
The thing that pains me most amongst all the stresses and strains of the single mum/prison wife gig is the remorseless draining away of my fecundity. Not that I actually want to do anything with it (two kids is at least 1/2 a kid too much for me), I’d just like to carry on looking as if I could.
My friend B reassures me that I am still looking pretty fecund, which is generous, but there is no denying that there is little point to looking even slightly fecund without someone at least slightly attempting fertilisation, and my fertiliser is on library duty for the foreseeable…
The library is something of a sanctuary in prison: somewhere to escape the tensions of the cell. In his wisdom the prison governor has vetoed the men’s request to be allowed to cell share with people they get on with and who share similar routines where both parties are agreeable, stating that if you can’t get on with your cell mate that is your problem.
Prison is a very diverse community. Having experienced the joys of cell sharing with an incurable snorer during a lengthy nocturnal celebration of Ramadan, Rob is dispirited by this response. It belies a lack of empathy that ill fits the head of an institution that purports an interest in rehabilitation. Lord (of Highpoint) have mercy. There is only so much adversity any man can take. Less is more, unless we are talking bootie of course, when more is always more comfortable.
It is the morning of S’s Dad’s funeral. A sombre and elegantly cut suit and Italian leather shoes have been sent in to the prison so that S can pay his respects looking dapper and dignified. It is unlikely that the addition of a guard shackled to each arm will enhance the look, but if anyone can pull it off it’s a wild Jamaican hardman like S.
Inevitably, come the hour of departure, staff are still attempting to unearth his threads. Finally they confess to having lost the entire shebang. This sort of ineptitude is commonplace inside and not usually of much concern to anyone: disappointing and humiliating inmates is the only thing prison is really good at… but this is S.
Ever resourceful, officers riffle through lost property and emerge triumphant brandishing an ensemble last seen in a bargain bin at Burton’s circa 1980: the kind of abomination of a suit only worn by Americans. S is unimpressed. To complete the look officers are proffering a pair of pointy slippers “fashioned” from black moulded plastic with no differentiation between sole and uppers.
A nervous glance at the set of S’s jaw persuades the officers that returning to the staff room to hunt for the bereaved’s mislaid property is now the most sensible course of action. The clock is ticking. Death waits for no man.
The unit is buzzing with gossipy indignation and unbridled excitement about what will unfold next. S is vowing to strip off to his pants and bear the coffin away in his boxers before he’ll touch that nasty get up and everyone knows he’ll do it.
Happily the staff come up trumps in the end. The idea of spending the day shackled to a near naked locksman has apparently had a positive effect on their collective eyesight and so S and his officer entourage are whisked away to attend the solemnities properly attired. Filial duties are completed, cousins are intimidated and all coffin bearers are wearing strides.
It’s a barely concealed fact that I like a wild man. Wildness in general is dying as “civilised” man encroaches on the vestiges of the natural world with his burgeoning statute book and his tarmac and his convenience canned living. We have become like helpless babies who can neither hunt nor farm nor shelter ourselves outside of a hulking infrastructure paid for with our freedom and tolerated only under the medication of drink, drugs and the anaesthetic of our screens.
Jay Griffiths concludes from her travels to the edges of civilisation that when we lose our connection to the wild earth the wildness of man’s spirit implodes. “When the maelstrom of adolescent wildness begins” she writes “many societies send their adolescents out into the wilderness. Teenagers jousting at petty or parental authority need real authority: Ice Fire Hunger Thirst Predator.”
Traditionally girls birthed their way to responsibility and boys underwent initiation rituals. In our troubled times initiation has been warped and appropriated by gangs who exploit the appeal of “belonging” and confuse wildness with violence.
We all need to feel capable, empowered, consequential and free. We are all mammals who need to belong. This is never more true than for those in whom something has gone wrong.
The antidote? The eradication of poverty and dismantling of the current world order probably, but in the interim I’ll plump for the great outdoors: the polar opposite of our current “solution” of internment.
Although I am not officially locked up myself, I am increasingly feeling like a caged beast in a society I don’t believe in or want to be a part of. I think the correct term for this is radicalisation. I begin to fantasise about a life of crime (Rob is impeccably connected these days). Perhaps some kind of Robin Hood heist to buy back the rainforest… or at least a bit of the New Forest? The thought of dinner parties where people will ask me what I do (professional prison wife is rarely an expected response) makes me twitchy. I am most at home at the prison gates.
My friend K is panther like in black sparkles this week to make up for last time when she arrived in her pink cleaning overalls – no time to change in-between the two jobs she now works to keep the family afloat.
Today her mood is as dark as her dress. She relates how her 65 year old husband was taken into hospital for three days and shackled to a bed for the duration. No clothes, no money, no toothbrush and no phone calls. No one bothered to tell her why he had stopped calling or where he was. When she rung the prison herself, sleepless nights later, she was met with a wall of silence. He broke down on the phone to her upon his return: a grown man and grandfather, crying. We wouldn’t treat a dog like that.
Not to be outdone in the prison wife style stakes, I’m wearing a gold strapless jumpsuit upon which I have blown an entire week’s housekeeping because I could not think of a single occasion for which it would not be perfect, plus it’s as wild as I can get for now without really landing myself in trouble.
After months of quietly enduring the nightly torture of sharing a cell with a man who snores like a pneumatic drill, Rob wakes up one morning praying for help. His mind is fragmenting. He is unable to face the day let alone another night. Hours later a rare single cell suddenly becomes available and miraculously Rob is awarded the upgrade.
As a result he looks fantastic at visiting. He loves working at the library. The right book at the right moment can change a person’s life. One of his mates is interested in mindfulness but hasn’t checked a book out of the prison library in the 6 years he has been inside. He is IPP and in the nightmare position of trying to convince the board that he is ready for release. He’s just been knocked back again for another two years. He has no idea when or how he’ll get out. If he gets angry or upset that will be proof they were right. He has hives from the stress and frustration.
Rob reserves him “Mindfulness for Dummies”, hoping the title won’t cause offence. A few days later the guy comes running up. He is almost crying as he bear hugs Rob and tries to explain “I understand” he says, profoundly moved…. “I’m the observer. It doesn’t matter if they never let me out”.
At the end of the visit Rob pulls me in close and whispers conspiratorially in my ear, “Don’t let on darling, because they think they’ve locked me up, but they haven’t… not really,… I’m actually completely free!”
You can lock a man up, but you can’t imprison his soul… only he can do that to himself.