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So far Josie has created 73 blog entries.

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|

Wrecking Ball

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.

By | July 10th, 2017|

A Hot Day in Hell

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.

By | June 23rd, 2017|

The Burbs

Suddenly the foxes are gone to greener Hackney pastures. An eviscerated nappy, a collection of gnawed bones of unknown origin and a smelly dark hole are all that are left behind. I’m sort of hoping that I’m going to wake up on June 10th and find that something similar has happened with the Tories, and that the bones will be May’s… but then I have always been a hopeless optimist.

To keep the local body count up in the absence of our furry friends, next door have blessed the street with a baby girl, and as a result our entire all-female household appear to be high on dopamine or oxytocin or whatever it is that gets released when you hold something so damn cute and adorable that you consider turning nasty when asked to hand it back. Hormones. Bless them. Nature’s little drug stash: the original and still the best. They do take a bit of managing when circumstances force build up though…

I am constantly amazed at why anyone thinks that corralling large numbers of men together into the myopic, mutated beasts that our prisons have become is advisable. I am even less convinced that the concept of freewheeling wives is a goer. Even the laundry lint is turning pink in our house, not to mention the fact that severe sexual deficit is making me ratty and unpredictable which are poor qualities in a mother.

I find Tala weeping into her duvet having hand crocheted me a bracelet that she has been unable to bestow upon me, because every time she calls my name to lure me upstairs for the gifting ceremony I shout things like “If I don’t get five minutes without hearing the word Mummy I’m going to scream”.

My girls are fabulous and deserve better. All prison kids should get a medal just for not shitting in the visiting hall, (though I did spot something suspicious under the toy table last week…). If I could pass for an under five there’d be little steaming piles of dirty protest poop in every corner of that place by the end of the day. Youth certainly is wasted on the young.

C’s girls make the four hour trip to visit him only to be told a sniffer dog has detected drugs on one of them and that they will therefore be having a closed visit and should consider themselves lucky they are getting that. No one checks for the non-existent drugs, notices that this kid is one of the cleanest cut teenagers on the planet, or feels any need to justify the protocol because this is prison and prisoners’ kids don’t have feelings like normal children, so the family accept the horrid, glass separated hour, cry through the first 40 minutes at the unfairness of it, and then huddle around the single phone, with two chairs between the three of them, pretending to C that they are alright.

I’ve been there. I’d go home empty hearted before I’d do the closed visit charade again: the metaphor for what prison does to families is just too apparent in that soundless, senseless box. Another wife doesn’t let their daughter sit on her dad’s lap at visits now. She knows what has happened to us and isn’t prepared to risk it.

And still the children visit fathers who aren’t allowed to walk around or play with them. What are these kids learning from this experience? I’m 100% confident it is more likely to be be “Stick It To The Man”, than “Crime Doesn’t Pay”.

Prisoners aren’t really people and therefore can’t vote, so unsurprisingly there is little to no interest in the general election, however the men are allowed to put forward someone from the wing to sit on a council with the prison hierarchy. Rob makes the mistake of saying something insightful in a discussion group and the guys on the wing get excited and decide that he should represent them. I can hear him slumping over the phone about the “appointment”. It’s a poisoned chalice. The men will all have different requests of varying sanity and the prison will likely ignore almost all of them. Satisfied customers will be thin on the ground.

Currently there is talk of making Rob’s unit into a quasi open block with full daytime unlock, all day phone access and an extra monthly visit. Such a wing exists on the South and is considered highly desirable (in prison terms). Rob has reservations though, because what makes Unit 12 so great is the fact that it is composed of a random selection of men. His fear is that as soon as the unit gets special status, it will also require special prisoners.

Actually there are lots of prisoners who are very special indeed… possibly a little too special to make it through the selection process. The more colourful characters are unlikely to access to the top drawer of prison accommodation: only certain types will make the grade, risking a unit full of People Like U’s. Who wants a packet of bourbons or even a stack of custard creams when you could have a selection tin? Bring on the Family Circle.

Some of the men on unit 12 are awkward bastards: uncouth, loud, and possibly utterly charmless in the eyes of polite society, but they are also funny and irreverent and honest… (well sort of). Everyone brings something unique that contributes to the vibrancy. Everyone is a member of the community. Surely there is enough grey in the world already?

Privileges are great. Sure. But you have to read the small print. The last thing Rob wants on his conscience is any part in the creation of a leafy suburb at Highpoint North. If the price of pseudo daytime freedom is twitching curtains, lights out by 9.30 and swapping cell mates for kicks, it’s a no thanks.

Diversity isn’t easy. It’s a hard won, tensioned thing, but its opposite is inbreeding (unlikely to happen directly at Highpoint North), but metaphorically speaking we all know what happens when cousins get it on with cousins. Like Hackney, prison is a mixed bag. It’s one of the things that Rob has come to love about it, which is one of the things I love about him… and Hackney.

By | June 9th, 2017|

Missing

We arrive early at the prison. By some miracle the sun is shining so we book in and throw our coats down in the grassy fields beneath the razor wire. I taught Tala to do a handstand here before our first ever visit, fighting nerves with forced cheer. Now Okha is making daisy chains, Tala and I are racing each other barefoot to the trees and back and the easiness is real. This is our life. Our Sunday.

As we lay on our backs catching our breath and soaking up the long awaited rays, a small blond child approaches. He is one of those genial irrepressible characters who assume immediate friendship and settles himself down comfortably in our midst.

We show him how we are making the garlands, but his fingers are jumpy and impatient so we gift him one of ours. I suggest he gives it to his dad. He looks at me darkly “My dad’s in jail”. That’s code for “I can’t give him anything”. “Our dad’s in jail too” says Okha. The kid looks surprised and volunteers “I really miss my dad”. We tell him we miss ours too. He looks at me suspiciously. I’m patently too old for a dad. “I miss mine times 1000” he counters. We concede defeat.

We’re good at missing. We don’t expect relief from the sensation. It is our constant companion and almost comforting in its familiarity. The consolation is this: each passing day takes us one step closer to him. My friend lives with the opposite reality. It is the 7 year anniversary of her son’s death. Every day takes her a step further away. There is no future relief for her, just the passage of time: a double edged process whereby pain fades alongside memories. I think of her when I need strength.

There is a man on Rob’s unit whose hands are missing. Both have been cut off at the wrist. It’s a humiliating, almost unthinkable thing to live with. He uses a cup with a special handle through which he hooks his stump. He needs help with the simplest of things and yet he looks happier than anyone Rob has ever met. He is in prison, with no hands and he never stops smiling.

Against all odds one of the guys on Robs unit has been seen by a prison dentist who has recommended the extraction of three teeth. They send the guy off to hospital for an op under general anaesthetic. When he comes round he discovers that every single tooth from his top jaw has been removed. Whether this was a medical necessity or an administrative error is unclear: this is prison – no-one tells you anything: the teeth are missing, that’s all you have to go on.

He thinks he’ll get new ones on the NHS and has been told he won’t have to wait long. On this promise he is electing not to let his wife visit until his nashers have been re-instated. The more experienced residents snort in derision. Dream on Toothless.

I’m not quite sure what state my beloved will be in today. It’s Ramadam and his cell mate is on a somewhat antisocial timetable, arising at 1.30am for a fully illuminated, no holds barred midnight feast, then back to bed for more snoring. Consequently Rob is missing sleep, so I’m heartened to see him looking cheerful and bonny. You won’t do well in the slammer without tolerance and compassion, qualities that are hard to maintain when you are hungry or tired. This is either boot camp for the soul, or simple torture.

As we enter the visit hall someone mutters to their companion “Blimey, I didn’t realise they were locking up wizards now”. I follow the line of his gaze and realise that he is looking at Rob, who is waving and grinning enthusiastically at us from across the room. With his sparkly eyes and mad professor beard, he is indeed looking uncannily like a swarthy Gandolf on the run.

We might well have a smattering of wizards banged up: we seem to have just about everyone else… but let it not be said that we are stuck in the dark ages. Herb lovers were once burned at the stake as witches, now worst case scenario its a mere 5 stretch for possession and a meagre 14 for supply…of weed…seriously? God bless the Lib Dems. People please…back them up! No one in the slammer for weed unless you’ve dropped a block of it on someone’s head and killed them.

It’s odd though because although half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, no political manifesto, not even Corbyn’s mighty tome, includes prohibition. A bit of consistency would be nice…I just want to know where I am: deciding what to put in one’s own body is terribly taxing.

Taxing the wacky baccy is probably not a bad idea though. According to the Institute of Economics and Research up to £900million could be raised annually through taxation of a regulated cannabis market. Add to that the several hundreds of millions we currently spend policing and prosecuting the trade and the numbers aren’t looking too shabby. Bring all drugs under government control and we’re really talking.

I don’t smoke weed because it turns me into a gibbering paranoid wreck. I don’t do crack because, much as I’m not a fan of the prison wife gig, I am blessed with love and support and the reality of my life is not so terrible that I want oblivion. I still want to feel. Those who don’t need help and they certainly won’t get that in prison.

People use drugs. They always have and always will. You ban something, you drive it underground, you make it dangerous. I’m sick of seeing kids missing their Dad’s x 1000 because we legislate for an imaginary world and parliament has its fingers in its ears shouting lalalalala, to drown out the dull roar of it’s meaningless slogans and missing values. Forget strong and stable. How about innovative and intelligent, or God forbid, kind and wise.

By | May 29th, 2017|

Midday Sun

The fox who lives underneath my garden shed has cubs. I spend so long watching them tumbling skittishly over each other in the midday sunshine that they become quite unperturbed by my voyeurism. They strew the garden with litter, jump on all the plant pots and smell pretty rank, but I feel too kindred with their mother to evict them. She grooms them all meticulously yet looks moderately bored with the whole thing and rather as if she’d prefer be out on the town rummaging through recycling boxes… but perhaps I’m projecting?

It’s a year to the day since Rob’s conviction. My little cub needs minding so I stay home and break out a packet of chocolate corn cakes. I know how to celebrate. They say the first year is the worst, and although we aren’t even a quarter of the way up this mountain, when I turn and look back I can see that there is distance behind me, and I’m still standing.

As if to mark this ignoble anniversary Rob’s yoga mat finally clears security, it’s vivid purple sponge incongruous in the cell. The sight of it jolts him uncomfortably back to an old life he does his best to forget: it doesn’t do to dwell. We are a hazy memory preserved in a rose tinted bubble, comforting and distant: a nebulous dream from the past, a hope for the future, but rarely his present.

Rob’s sentence plan also arrives this week, only a year late. Given the time it has taken to compile, we are expecting great things because at some point during the next eight years, someone will, God willing, see fit to release him back into the fray, so I’m hoping for society’s sake that in the interim they are also planning to address his deviance.

With anticipation he unfurls the paper:

“Carry on in full time work. Continue as an enhanced prisoner”.

That’s it. Oh dear! Truss has been telling porkies again: this is written evidence that there is in fact no plan to rehabilitate anyone, no second chance and no consideration for the fatherless children at home. Prison is just what it appears to be at face value – men in cages being fed drugs and biscuits until they are eventually tossed back into society, hard, homeless and certainly more desperate and dangerous than before.

At least the sun is out in jolly old Blighty though, and what better way to celebrate this anomaly than with a BBQ? Unfazed by the fact that this is a working day, Highpoint staff put the prison on a full 7 hour lock-down, considerately deliver packets of crisps to the men for lunch and take to the outdoors to bond over a burger and a bit of bronzing, all neatly captured on those pesky camera phones and leaked to The Sun, who to their credit, put in a word for the prisoners.

Tory MP Phillip Davies has no sympathy for the men however: “If you don’t like the time then don’t do the crime”. Congrats on the rhyme Phil, but this comment is asinine and frankly so dumb it hurts. We live in a world of soundbites. May is proving the sad truth that politicians just need to repeat target phrases X number of times per minute to ensure election. It therefore also stands to reason that when you label someone a criminal, talk down to them and remind them over and over with every turn of the key and every rebuttal that they are bad, the chances are they’ll hear the buzzwords, they’ll believe them and they’ll be what you tell them they are.

I’m on the screw’s side on the jolly though, and so are plenty of the men. Guards are saddled with appalling working conditions and pay, insultingly unflattering uniforms and are legally bound not to strike. Their recent foray into industrial action elicited an icy reaction from government, but it seems that no one actually gives a rats backside about lock-downs as long as their purpose is kept resolutely frivolous. The staff’s best hope of an improvement in working conditions then is to adopt an approach of as much dereliction of duty as possible until prisoners finally crack, organise mass riots and go Guy Fawkes on parliament.

The only real hope for anyone in prison, (and thus obvi for our society as a whole… join the dots Phil), is self education, ‘cos prison ain’t educating no-one. Unlike the majority of prisoners who lack basic literacy, Rob’s nose is rarely out of a book and so the good ladies who run the library offer him a job. Could it get any more Shawshank?

Predictably the note on his file about inappropriate touching threatens to derail the process, but for once he is dealing with people who treat him like a human being. They listen to his story, do their own “digging” and give him the first break he has had at Highpoint by calling his treatment what it is: bullying. To his great joy the appointment goes ahead. I never thought I’d be married to a librarian.

He is emotional on the phone that evening. Acts of kindness are so far and few between inside: belittling, derision and contempt are systemic and so being treated considerately is shocking and almost painful. I feel something vital wake up in him again. A man remembering who he used to be.

The prison governor has confirmed that Rob’s behaviour was (and I quote) “The innocent act of a father comforting his child” and yet the comments on Rob’s file have prevented family visits, almost sabotaged the library position and are being dropped into conversation by staff with other prisoners (which is frankly terrifying) and still the prison claim that they cannot remove the allegation from his record. Really? Can’t or won’t?.

Rob has unsuccessfully pursued every option available to him because if he can’t get justice on this issue who can? Orwell and Kafka eat your heart out. It might have taken us until 2017, but we are not just living your dream, we are basking in it, out in the midday sun.

By | May 18th, 2017|

The Effing Clap

I am nervous and I don’t know what to wear. For the first time in almost a year I am going to visit Rob alone. I chose something simple in the end: a white dress, and add silver shoes for a bit of quirk. I am getting to know the reception ladies now. They’re lovely and ask about the children: they have never seen me alone. I explain that this is a date, and we chat as if my husband wasn’t a bad person.

From the back of the queue I can tell which guards are on body search this week just from the way the children are squealing and giggling and waiting to be searched by the girl who always tickles them. She has colourful tattoos and dip dyed hair and would look at home sitting in my kitchen with Okha’s mates. It’s a little thing, but the sound of children laughing is precious in this place.

When it is my turn to be searched she surprises me by telling me that she has been reading my blog. I flush immediately pink, regretting the photo on the title page and mentally rescanning past entries at speed, hoping that I’ve stuck to the Socratic ideal: is it kind, is it interesting, is it true? I do my best with interesting and true, but sometimes kindness eludes me which is sad because it’s the only thing that really matters in this world.

Sometimes I’m mean because I’m tired and weary of this charade. I’d like to blame Grayling, the anti-Midas of politics (everything he touches turns to shit) for simultaneously doubling sentencing and cutting staff, thereby creating a system that pits officers, prisoners and families against each other, but he is in any case about as popular as the clap and that would be unkind. True… but unkind.

I don’t know what I’m expecting from the date, but whatever it is, it doesn’t really happen. The table between us is too wide for a clinch without rib damage or mooning the person behind, the food is truly terrible, and I happen to be married to a man who hates PDA’s, and you don’t get much more public than this – strip lights, cameras, patrolling guards… so in the absence of the kisses I want, we talk.

Mercifully Rob’s new cellie S is a good guy. He’s a family man. Clean and quiet. S was away on holiday when he received a call to say that one of the workers at his carwash had electrocuted himself in a freak accident using the shower out of hours. He owned the business with his brother whose kids are younger than S’s, so S took one (or rather 4) for their team and accepted liability. Like so many of the men Rob meets inside, S couldn’t risk an innocent plea, (roughly a third on your sentence if it doesn’t go your way), so he cut his losses and “went guilty”. Probably best in the current climate for anyone with Eastern European intonation or visible colour.

The one fly in the ointment is S’s snoring, which is very problematic in a cell mate. After a night from hell Rob’s buddy K insists that he can help and claims that a loud clap causes most snorers to awaken enough to change sleeping positions, thus curtailing the snore. I’m sceptical as my friend trialled this method extensively and to no avail with her husband, (although she did favour the slap above the clap, – who can blame her? – nor was she fussy whether he was asleep or awake).

That night it sounds as if an itinerant flamenco troupe have materialised inside Rob’s pad. By the morning his hands are red raw and he can barely wrest them from his pockets to “flick the V’s” at K in their customary morning greeting, but, stinging palms aside, the method works and cell harmony is retained.

To give the new arrival a bit of space, Rob has taken to hanging out with the Tamil Tiger and his Jamaican cellie of an evening. The mood is deadly serious as the three are watching Master Chef and the cultural mix in the cell is engendering “lively debate”. The Jamaican speaks only broad patois, in which he has also instructed the Tiger, resulting in largely indecipherable conversation liberally peppered with shouts of “bumboclart” ,(that’s bum cloth to you and me), emanating from all parties. Casually the Jamaican interjects that he used to be a chef at the Ivy. Prison is full of surprises.

The Tiger, like so many of the men inside when you get to know them, has had a life that would make you weep: orphaned by the army at 4, a child soldier by 10… the stuff of history books too sad to dramatise, and yet his spirit is irrepressible. With inimitable Asian style he has taken to wobbling his head at Rob and waggling his finger delightedly for good measure, repeating for the umpteenth time that day: “You very junior Robert… I getting out soon. You have long time left my friend… long time!” before erupting into guffaws of hearty laughter and clapping Rob jovially on the back. If it were anyone else they’d get an effing slap.

Swearing is good for you. The science f**king proves it: the ruder the better apparently. It reduces the need for physical violence, raises your pain threshold and gives you enhanced strength, which goes someway towards explaining both the small fortune that Tala is accruing in her “Swair Jar” at home, and the tenor of all conversations in the nick. I stand corrected. Prison is good for something: you’d be hard pressed to find any other institution that delivers such a thorough grounding in expletives from around the world.

Suddenly it is time. Nanny rass! (that’s grandmother’s backside fyi). The lights are flashing on and off and I have to leave. I have violated Erwin James’ prison rule number one: expect nothing, and now I’m disappointed because I still feel empty inside… cold almost. Something must have happened between us however, because surprisingly and despite (or probably because of) the “alone” time together, the wrench of leaving again is worse than ever.

The pretty guard smiles at me on the way out. Prison does all it can to smother individuality with its ugly uniforms and inherent lack of humanity, and yet when you bother to look, the place is teeming with personality, inside and out: a quiet refusal to accept the greyness of this world. It really is full of surprises.

I drive home like the clappers, cussing as loudly as I can in every language I know until, surprisingly, I feel better.

By | May 11th, 2017|

Mayday

It’s Mayday and Tala’s school gathers in Witches Hollow in London’s Queens Wood to celebrate. It’s a glorious mish mash of dresses and wellies, flower garlands and ivy crowns as skipping children weave pattern after intricate pattern on and off the maypole, colours fecund against the earth. There is no signage and no selling: only the aberrant sound of fiddles and folk song in our English wood.

I have to drag Tala away before the last dance so that we can make it to prison on time. I navigate away from the festivities though densely growing bluebells, feeling heathen and wild, but wishing I’d never seen the Wicker Man. The car when I spot it, looks safe and familiar, for all that it is a symbol of sterile civilisation.

We power on to prison, merrily spewing out CO2 across Cambridgeshire as we go, and arrive to find Rob quiet and thoughtful. His cellmate J is to be released back into the wild. It’s a bittersweet moment – sweet for J and bitter for Rob. J is integral to the wing. Constantly audible, he’s an inherently likeable kid: respectful and irrepressibly good natured. He’ll be sorely missed and it will certainly be very, very quiet without him.

As a testament to J’s high standing on the unit, extensive preparations are underway to send him off in style. Having been egged, floured, oiled and repeatedly doused with water, J entreats Rob to search the area for any sign of his nemesis D, who is indeed discovered lurking with a suspicious pan of water. Not to be outdone, J considers his reprisal options, and ask’s Rob if shitting on D’s pillow is disproportionate. After a respectful pause for consideration, Rob nudges him towards the marginally less unsavoury option of availing himself of D’s soap dish instead, though in the event, time runs out and it’s goodbye and farewell.

Before he leaves, J bequeaths Rob his duvet, a hanger, beard trimmers, mouthwash and floss, and promises not to get married until Rob gets out, which is, lets face it, a way off. It’s possibly not the best way to re-ingratiate himself with the mother of his child, but it does bear testament to the bond between the men. Rob is older than J’s father and they couldn’t be more different on the face of it, but these are details that fade into insignificance when you’ve shared 7 square metres of space together for the last 6 months.

On the outside I come up against the idea that I am not a “typical” prison wife (whatever the hell that is). It’s a gross generalisation and belies a set of assumptions that annoy me intensely. It is also totally at odds with my experience of visiting and of other prison families who know as I do that the blight of prison transcends notional ideas of class and difference. We all experience the upheaval and separation. The love and the missing are the same, and no prison wife has ever made me feel ostracised. It’s the same with the inmates: you live and die by your character, not your diction or your past.

Just a short distance away from the festivities on Unit 12, something very different is going down. A lifer has raped a new arrival. The victim, just a kid, was only in on a motoring offence. They move the lifer onto “The Block” (the punishment wing where Rob was headed during the “hooch” fiasco), but it’s tricky with lifers… not much incentive for good behaviour.

You’d think they’d send the boy home, but they don’t. You’d think a lot of things, like that someone would have a handle on who amongst the prison population is a potential threat to the increasing number of under 25’s we incarcerate these days, 50% of whom come out of “care”… but the system treats all prisoners with the same ubiquitous disrespect, so no-one knows anything about anyone.

A recent report commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that about 1% of prisoners will be raped courtesy of Her Majesties Prison (dis)Service. Most won’t tell. The reason that there aren’t more incidents like this is that most people in prison are not a threat to anyone and therefore shouldn’t be there: other punishments are available and being used in places like Noway, Holland and Sweden with embarrassing efficacy for a fraction of the cost.

Most of the burgeoning UK prison population basically act as an unwitting peace keeping force, making sure that the problematic individuals who do need to be separated from society are too overcrowded to go medieval on the vulnerable new boys… most of the time at least. I hope the kid sues, but it’s unlikely he’ll want to become the poster boy for jail rape, and the inevitable “sorry but” barrage of abuse: he’s a criminal after all – let that be a lesson to him!

And where were the officers? Oh… I forgot! We don’t have any, or certainly not enough to maintain the safety of inmates and also ensure that my daughter’s letters are all rigorously checked and then refused, even though they are (and I know, I’m the mother and thus inherently biased) almost certainly drug free. Nope. Sorry. No one available to hear this kid’s Mayday call. Poor little bugger.

By | May 4th, 2017|
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