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.
Okha and I are on a road trip, the pretext for which is a college open day. The upshot of her deranged hippy childhood where TV was limited exclusively to nature programs is that she has developed a comprehensive knowledge of animal kind. The drawback is that her interests are now are pretty niche. It takes us approximately three and a half hours in the car and 20 minutes on the campus to discover that this establishment not only smells overwhelmingly of horse poo but is also populated entirely by white girls in jodhpurs: not a splash of ethnicity nor any kind of tentative misfit in sight.
My daughter, who has gone conservative for the day with pastel hair, Doc Martens and (by her standards) a conservative dress, sticks out like a sore thumb. We cast furtive glances at each other, neither one wanting to appear hasty until, unable to bear it any longer I grab her firmly by the hand and we run screaming to the car. Get us back to our noisy, dirty, over populated, kaleidoscopic city and away from England’s green and pleasant land.
We’re both a little ashamed of our knee jerk desertion. We should know better than anyone that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but there is a limit to tolerance and how much dung one can reasonably be expected to tolerate in the name of a tertiary education. I wonder if art school might not be a better fit? Probably a fair amount of scat in those places too though, albeit creatively situated and resonant with symbolism.
There are few settings better disposed to DMCs than the car. Sitting side by side and staring straight ahead we re-find each other after some difficult months. She’ll always be my little girl, but she is resolutely her own woman now too, and that is the way it should be.
After all boyfriend conversation has been exhausted we move on to the thorny issue of what to do with me in my dotage. Alzheimer’s is all but a foregone conclusion: I am already frequently to be found searching for the car keys in the fridge.
As far as Okha is concerned so long as I develop the kind of dementia where I merely forget that she is married and repeatedly break out champagne to celebrate the good “news”, we may be able to work something out, but if I go down the poo smearing route, it’s off to Dignitas with me – no ifs or buts. Fair enough. I am a reasonable mother but I’m not prepared to put in the kind of devotion and self denial that would earn a future carte blanche for anything experimental involving excrement.
Speaking of which, writing for the Daily Mail is an unlikely aspiration for… well anyone really, but nonetheless this has been my overriding ambition for 2017 because where the DM leads the politicians follow. Extraordinary and sad, but true.
With days to go my dubious dream is realised with a double page spread entitled “Husbands behind bars at Christmas”. I purchase my hard copy incognito from an unfamiliar newsagent, sandwiching it furtively inside a Guardian like the guilty porn it is. Unfortunately they have picked the “wistful” photograph where I look as if I have gas. Payback I suppose. I feel suddenly vulnerable and exposed.
It is not long before worried messages are illuminating my phone like a string of neurotic Christmas lights on flicker. “Am I okay? Have I read the comments?” I haven’t, don’t and won’t. I have it on good authority that Daily Hate commentary is almost entirely penned by middle aged men in soiled tracksuits who live with their mothers and eat a lot of biscuits, adopting noms de plume like Suzy or Amanda, so I’m not even mildly curious about the grubby content of the tiny troll mind. I am however interested in raising the profile of prison families and the damage done to children by the often unnecessary abduction of a parent. After the sticks and stones of the prison experience, words will never hurt me.
Persuading the gen pop that prison is broken ought to be easy: the facts and figures are unassailable, but as a nation we are increasingly bored by the humble fact – a dry, sterile little nugget of inconvenience. Okay then, to hell with facts: we need stories! As the actor Alan Rickman said: “The more we are governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from and what might be possible”. So I will tell our story for whatever it is worth.
Rebranding prison is a PR task of epic proportions that will take a lot more than me looking pained in a dress, (no trousers or jeans allowed on females gracing the pages of The Mail… yes, honestly!) but just having a voice is a baby step in the right direction and so I’ll take any crap anyone wants to throw at me.
Back on good old Unit 12 M looks as if someone has thrown a turd at his head. Olfactory investigation unearths the unlikely revelation that he is in fact sporting a coffee head mask: instant coffee made into a foaming paste with two tablespoons of hot water, rubbed generously into the scalp and left to set. It appears that M has made the rookie mistake of revealing his fear of balding to A, the wing’s unofficial chief prankster who has suggested this procedure. To be fair caffeine does have an array of health benefits but a topical spoonful of instant is unlikely to succeed at rebooting defunct hair follicles.
To the delight of everyone (this is the slammer and Unit 12 is a drug free wing which can make Friday night a bit slow) M is waxing lyrical about “the tingling”, convinced the concoction works. You can clock up the years doing time but wisdom doesn’t always come with age. Some people are born smart but most of us have to learn the hard way: slowly and painfully. If the worst that happens is an unfortunate brown stain on your head as you pass through the intestines of life then great, but sometimes things get messy. We can pretend they won’t or don’t or shouldn’t, but history would be against us there.
Life is poorly controlled chaos if you live it. Perhaps we should all stay at home with our mothers spewing virtual outrage into the ether, crazy with the bitterness of unblemished, unhappy lives? But if we decide to sink or swim in the real world some of us will come unstuck and fall down the crapper. We’ll find ourselves floating around in the bog water then, staring up at the arse end of society and wondering how it came to this, hoping that someone will get their hands dirty and fish us out before we hit the sewer.
We might look like shit, but perhaps that is because we are drowning.
“Excuse me” says worried voice as I waltz confidently into the loos at my home from home, Highpoint Visitor Centre, “I think you might have sat on something”. The look of horror on the girl’s face does not bode well.
Gingerly I present my bottom to the wash basin mirrors. Sat on something? My butt looks like roadkill. Do you even know how much juice a stray raspberry can produce during an hour and a half’s dedicated squashing against a leather car seat? No? Well… it’s a lot… and those seedy bits don’t enhance the effect.
“What am I going to do?” I breathe in horror. She looks at me aghast, shaking her head sadly, “I honestly don’t know”, she admits. Help is at hand however. This is “The Ladies”. A small emergency summit meeting is called by the sink area and a growing contingent of women abandon elaborate make up routines and pitch in. There is strength in numbers.
My bottom is examined with grim practicality. Someone suggests pulling my jumper right down at the back. We try it. It rides up rebelliously and strangles me to boot. You’ll have to take them off and wash them concludes the first girl. “But she’ll look like she’s wet herself” counters her mate “and that hand dryer is crap.” There is nothing even vaguely absorbant in a prison loo: it is 2 ply roll if you’re lucky for whatever task is at hand.
“Do they have spare clothes here?” asks another girl “You know… the one’s they make you put on if your top’s too low or tight or something?” They don’t, which I am glad about despite my predicament: there are enough indignities in prison wifery without the aggravation of unsolicited wardrobe judgement at the gate.
Suddenly I know what I must do. I dispense with my jumper and whip off my long sleeved thermal, draping it artfully around my waist and tying the arms like a belt. “Ta da!” I cry triumphantly in my bra. The onlookers are unconvinced. Covering what is a fairly reasonable derriere (when encased in jeans at least) during a prison visit is basically a no no. Our men are in prison when all is said and done and the sighting of your Mrs’ unmasked behind isn’t much to ask, but beggars can’t be choosers, besides which I think I am styling it out! The girls remain dubious. “Just sit down as quick as you can and don’t go to the cafe” is their parting advice… ”and next time eat crisps!”
I love my husband (I think that much is probably clear), and other specific men: my dad, my brothers and a handful of randoms who have earned their stripes over time, but women are, in my view, more or less universally fabulous, (unless they are pre-menstrual/menopausal, trying to emulate men or just having an off day). This is particularly true in a crisis.
As early as 400 BC Aristophanes wrote a play about the women of ancient Greece ending the Peloponnesian war with a sex strike. You want to see an end to violence in prison? I suggest the reverse strategy: conjugal visits. It’s not rocket science – sex sells everything these days: ironically, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Let’s give peace a chance. I guarantee an overnight reduction in bad behaviour if prisoners have to answer to their wives as to why a conjugal visit has been cancelled. We’ve got this by the nuts. Might I suggest a preliminary trial at say… Highpoint North? No minister has anything half as impressive as the British woman up his sleeve, though it does seem that unfortunately one or two ministers have had their sleeves up unimpressed British woman…
Under current protocols the first opportunity for the resumption of marital relations with a prisoner is The Town Visit, though admittedly this may not be the stated objective of the “privilege”. D category prisoners who are in theory being prepared for release and reintegration (i.e. abandonment and homelessness) begin to meet their other halves for the first time in the outside world during sanctioned exeats into the local vicinity at which point the search is on for a suitable location for the resumption of “intimacy”.
The Ladies loos have long been a seat of privacy and tolerance; a bastion of acceptance and open-mindedness: a bolt hole away from home if you will. It is where we go to cry, excrete, vomit, regroup and redraw ourselves ready to face the world again. What happens in The Ladies stays in The Ladies and so it is to this insalubrious institution that we head in times of need.
It’s not “The Dream” but after years of prison we are used to that. It is in this cramped and lowly stall that we will defy the expectation of the system that we will break, illustrate our ingenuity, tenacity and flexibly and begin the long road back to rebuilding our relationships.
I’ll admit that The Ladies is an unlikely setting for the resumption of a love story. As a budding screen writer I was cautioned by the great Bob Mckee never to try to write a modern day love story as there is little to stop the path of love in the modern day world and thus no story, as story is born in the battlefield between desire and obstacle. Well Bob… try prison! All the obstacles you need and oceans of battered and bruised, but also victorious, love.
Rob was always a ladies man, in general far preferring the company of women to that of men. Miraculously, raising two daughters has only deepened his belief in the fairer sex. This has changed somewhat in prison where absence of choice has taught him a deep appreciation of his kind. You see what men are made of when you live in deprivation and confinement with them and there are so many good guys inside: a veritable brotherhood of man. Inexorably however The Ladies will always win out.