Wild and Free

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.

By | September 8th, 2017|

And Then There Were None

Men are dropping like flies on unit 12. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel over there. Every morning someone new has been axed in the night.

It begins with the eviction of charming Russian V to a detention centre from whence he’ll no doubt be deported to a gulag back home. This is routine for all foreign nationals regardless of the offence and even for those with children who have been born here and are thus forced to chose between their father and their home.

Then a mobile phone discovery sees K transferred back South to a wing unaffectionately known as Gaza. It’s not long before he ends up in Seg, (the isolation unit) where it reportedly takes 5 screws and a beating to “bend him in” to his cell, although that is probably just a malicious rumour and clearly highly unlikely. He is last seen in a meat wagon shipping out to pastures new. Check Mate… but to whom?

Without K’s steady influence on the youth emotions bubble over and the snitches are further emboldened. Grassing is the lowest of the low in prison because officers are rarely considered to have the best interests of their charges at heart. Telling “the man” leads only and inexorably to draconian punishment and never to help.

The internal politics of prison living are like chess: when you remove key pieces from the board you disembowel the community and destabilise the whole game. Suddenly guys are getting nicked and banished (a cruel and medieval torture involving the loss of everything you know) in their droves. A draw of tobacco here, a phone there and piece by piece the heart of the unit is surgically removed.

K didn’t do drugs or buy or sell. He was a fitness guy: smart, motivated and constantly frustrated by the lack of courses and education at Highpoint. His sole reason for having a phone was without a shadow of a doubt to call his Mrs. You’d want to call her too if she was your girl: she’s beautiful and trying to stick by him through a sentence that is well over a decade too long to impart anything except bitterness.

Prison phones are a joke. They’re charged at three times the national rate, cut you off after exactly 10 minutes and two seconds and are excruciatingly public. I defy anyone to really excel at phone sex at 4.30 in the afternoon (last slot before bang up) with a queue of guys cheering you on from the sidelines.

The unit’s best barber is also lost in the cull condemning the survivors to bad hair until a replacement can be found. The shame. Cake clubs collapse, friendships are severed and the once buoyant mood of the wing becomes tense and disconsolate. Outside it rains and rains.

My spirits are rather soggy too. Holidays are a mixed bag for mothers. On the one hand a less Nazi approach to bedtime means that the house is still blissfully peaceful at 7am. On the other I have 7 hours less childcare a day… and it is raining… biblically. I escape to the Sun. God bless Easyjet and everyone I know who lives somewhere with a sensible climate.

Children are infinitely preferable in small packs of mixed age groups who can be fed en masse and then turned outdoors and largely ignored. Left to their own devices without internet access it seems they will revert to the good old practices of playing together and messing about in the woods or the river, returning at sundown, grubby, hungry and wholesome. They form little communities and rub along together regardless of language barriers and age gaps, teaching each other to make bracelets and alarmingly sharp daggers. They spend bone chilling amounts of time in and under water whilst we soak up sun and adult conversation and regret that we even thought about smashing their precious tablets over their sweet little heads.

August brings another birthday without Rob. The numbers are beginning to stack up alarmingly. My mother is shocked by the profusion of grey about my temples. My neck is turning mercilessly to crepe. The clock ticks.

I toy with re-igniting the mid life crisis, but a week spent with our Great Aunt in Canada sorts me out. She is part of an ex-pat community of women who have all eschewed the lure of child bearing and husbands and are now retired from various high flying jobs and living companionably together in elegant condos, quaffing excellent wine and making the twilight years look remarkably desirable.

I am invited for a swim and dinner chez one of the “Friday Night Gang”. Gina (as in Re, not Va unfortunately… that would just be too perfect) ushers us in. “And they told us you were fat and ugly” she admonishes. I feel instantly perky. “You’d better not be wearing a two piece” she warns, “no-one has worn a two piece in that pool since the early 90’s…” These gals are feisty, feminist and deliciously glamorous – living proof that you are only as old as the woman you feel. If they can fuel their 70’s entirely on girl power, surely I can manage half a decade of my forties?

Finally, and when I least expect it I have “The Dream”: the one where Rob has been released and we are together again. This is the prison equivalent of the post bereavement dream: a blessed reprieve where the deceased returns briefly and you can talk and hold each other again in a dreamland that is somehow more than that.

For some reason probably related to the holiday spirit we push together two sun loungers and lie in each others arms. I can even smell his skin in the sunshine. After a while I dare to ask if he has to go back. He must of course because this is fairy time. Even in the visits – especially in those ridiculous wretched, noisy, visits – I never feel him as close as this. Actual prison visits are roughly as satisfying as bad sex wrapped in an entire 12 pack of Durex Extra Safe (zero intimacy and very little actual pleasure), but this dream stuff is the business.

I awaken reluctantly but remain intoxicated with the bitter-sweet cocktail of gratitude and loss for several hours, clinging to it until gradually the feelings fade and there are none.

He is gone again.

By | August 23rd, 2017|

Hell’s Teeth

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.

By | July 26th, 2017|
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