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So far Josie has created 79 blog entries.

The Ladies

“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.

By | December 3rd, 2017|

Dreams

Today is the day! Our first ever family visit… at last. It’s a big day. Too big perhaps. Tala is bouncing off the seats with unbridled excitement but Okha, who has metamorphosed into a nocturnal creature of late, is unslept and unprepared as we arrive at the prison, this being the middle of her night. The visitor centre is eerily quiet with only a handful of families on the list. It is cold.

We almost slip up at the first hurdle when Oki discovers the dreaded “phone in the back pocket” only moments before the gates shut, plus she has a hell of a job getting tampons through security but, after discussions about “ heavy flow” that seem brutal and unenlightened even in this Dickensian environment, a compromise is reached and we enter the hall at last.

We launch ourselves predictably at our favourite prisoner, revelling in the freedom of movement that is the hallmark of this visit, but I know immediately that I have already become too institutionalised to be comfortable with this changing of goalposts. I don’t know how to be in the space.

Tala is at no such loss however and is already charging back from the playroom, eyes glittering, with a towering collection of board games and pens and all the paraphernalia of 11 year old fun.

We bag the table football while we can but are soon surrounded by a small contingent of under 5 spectators and the aim of the game quickly shifts from goal scoring to avoiding infant eye gauging with the the reverse ends of our pins.

Undaunted we sit back at our table… the one we had vowed we wouldn’t sit at because we didn’t have to and Rob and Tala launch into Connect 4. Oki is looking white and fraught. I understand how she is feeling. Orminston Familes who run the day really go the extra mile to make it cozy and welcoming. The attending prison staff are unimposing and smiley. There is a magnificent lunch laid on including a delicious and authentic curry (racial prejudice in sentencing does have its advantages) and cake for a little girl’s birthday. Everyone does everything they can but… this is still prison. There are bars on the windows and the doors are locked. Two hours, five hours, whatever. He won’t be coming home with us.

The space and the early start are particularly tricky for a twenty year old. 5 hours of phone deprivation is torture in its own right but worse than this there is no way for her to get what she needs here: no place for her to begin to broach her fears or her fragility. Whatever was left unsaid before prison began has remained so and the hurt festers painfully in her. Teenage is a terrible time to lose your father… again.

This is Tala’s visit: her chance to catch up on the thousands of hours of missed play since his departure. I sit as close as possible and hold him tightly, just a squeeze or two short of strangulation. I retract back into myself. I expected too much. I had hoped that this visit would refresh the parts that other visits can’t reach, but the sepia tones of dreams translate poorly into reality. This is not the time or place for the kind of play I need.

I can feel myself going under already on the journey home. A strange feeling like sliding down the sides of a giant mixing bowl. I know that if I hit the bottom I may not be able to get out again. I’m shaking inside. A week later it is still there… nervous wide-eyed anxiety: a perpetual feeling of having drunk too much coffee, reminiscent of exams and trouble.

I know things are bad when I find myself in bed with Donald Trump. Calm down, it’s only a dream… but still. Although one cannot rightfully be held responsible for the depravity of the subconscious I have debated long and hard with myself over revealing such debasement to my loyal and long-suffering readership but I have very little shame left besides which this is honestly the funniest thing that has happened to me all week.

In the dream I am stroking Donald’s (I think we’re on first name terms now) face and with that genuine depth of tenderness that is the preserve of lovers (breathe through the nausea people) I am asking him what happened. I want to know what has broken his heart and made him so obnoxious, though, in keeping with my empathic dream self, I phrase this somewhat more sensitively. I think I actually call him “sweetheart”.  He thinks about it. I see him soften. Goddammit I see him self reflect and then, just as he is about to make the break through, the alarm clock sounds and it’s dream over.

I know I ought to be relieved to regain consciousness from what could only be termed a nightmare objectively speaking but the dream is beautiful. Unlike Real Josie who has been a crotchety depressive old cow all week, Dream Josie is kind and clear. In the dream I understand what eludes me so often in reality: that genuine compassion and kindness, even and especially towards those who hurt us the most, is the only way. “Love your enemy” is profound wisdom indeed… I only wish this lesson had been slightly less literal.

Whenever longer jail sentences are lauded as a cure all for crime (this week for acid attacks – horrific events that leave the victims scared for life), I slump. Incarceration is not a cure for crime. The data is now conclusive that increased sentence length neither reduces crime nor disincentivizes offending. Long sentences are categorically not a deterrent, (except with regard to white collar crime) and we are Flat Earthers if we say otherwise.

But what about the victims? Consideration for the wronged is vital and persuasive. It is against the needs, rights and suffering of victims that I stress test every opinion I hold about prison. I understand the concept of an eye for an eye but doesn’t that just leave us with lots of half blind people trying to find their way in what is already a dark world? How much vengeance is enough? Could the death of one person cancel out that of another? Surely our lives are more than account books to be balanced?

I don’t know how I would feel if someone hurt or killed one of my children. I hope I never find out, but if you want to see something beautiful, something that gives me hope and something to aspire to, watch this.

By | November 23rd, 2017|

Halloween Heart

Unless you are an Albanian mafioso, (lot’s of them at Highpoint North incidentally – exceptionally generous and hospitable people), you probably have no idea how much a severed thumb bleeds. Think burst water main. T demonstrates by lopping his off with a circular saw in carpentry by mistake and spraying the workshop red like a Halloween themed geyser.

The bloodshed continues when Rob’s mate W loses the plot in gardening and attacks someone (psychotically intent on provoking him) with an edging tool just days before his release date. It makes no sense, but curiously, when you cage humans together in the underworld for years on end you tend to bring out the dark side.

Another man is demonstrating his frustration/madness/distress (is there a difference?), by throwing himself against the walls of his cell and knocking his own teeth out, (clearly no one has warned him about the horrors of prison dentistry). The results are ghoulish and messy. Bloody prison.

Surviving or God forbid occasionally enjoying hell essentially comes down to people, (staff and inmates) and not privileges, which means that despite the heavenly freedoms of Units 6 and 7 over in Highpoint South to which Rob could have requested a move months ago, Unit 12 has remained his favourite haunt.

Hallowed is it therefore that the mountain is coming to my Mohammed:  a Category D style regime has been promised to the whole unit! That’s the treat. The trick is more responsibility which for Unit 12 means cleaning on the Sabbath. As a council member it is Rob’s unfortunate task to verify that all members of the wing are honouring the new rosta.

Persuading children to clean things is tedious even when one controls all sources of food and shelter but prison youth only really respond to drugs, intimidation or Trump administration standards of spin. The thought of bathrooms relying exclusively on male attention for their cleanliness has always filled me with horror, but prison is another realm.

Rob’s mate K cannot understand why there are so many pubes on the ceiling of the shower until Rob discovers S (possibly not the sharpest knife in Dexter’s drawer) cleaning the shower by throwing a bucket of water as hard as he can at the floor thus displacing all ground filth to the walls and ceiling. Mystery solved.

When I hear Rob muttering about how it’s easier to just do things yourself I feel suddenly tender towards the prison system. All women really want is for men to understand the unique nightmares of motherhood and if incarcerating orphans and film producers together is the only way to do that, so be it.

Finally the all important new door is fitted granting freedom of movement around the unit until 9 pm. It’s not life or death but it means a great deal to the men. In jail trust is the Holy Grail and this ramshackle, remarkable community have pulled together and earned it. The greatest blessing is bedtime phone calls: so worth the occasional pube in the eye.

Halloween comes and with it the hoards of polite, creatively attired children accompanied by adults in Nigel Farage masks (I do love Stokey). Both of my girls have now reached the stage where dressing up is primarily about looking good (black lipstick is surprisingly glamorous even on an 11 year old) with a vague nod to horror, or in Tala’s case, cats.

Both girls go out (one with her feline friends and loot bag and the other to a Turbowolf gig) and I am left manning the door, handing out the sweets, hoping someone will nick the pumpkin like last year curtailing the festivities before only the Bounties are left so that I can drown my sorrows with chocolate eye balls.

This week the real bloody mess is me. Prison conjunct with Halloween will apparently awaken every rattling skeleton in your closet. I’ve transcended the demon ‘HOPE”: it has burnt me at its stake too often already, but I can’t find much to replace it with which leaves me facing LONELINESS… the kind you get in a crowded room full of people who are all not the one you love. Now I’ve hit DESPAIR again. Every time I think I’ve slain that monster it rises like a zombie from the dead to spite me.

I dramatically declare to my friend that I would cut body parts off to get Rob home again. Which ones? He asks. I imagine myself as an amputee and reconsider. Rob is probably expecting to come out to a whole wife, plus dancing is one of the few sanctionable pleasures I have left.

I consider having a breakdown and staying in bed. Forever. But as I lie awake watching dawn temper the night I can see the shadowy face of my youngest (still sleeping with me on account of the nightmares and the warmth) and know that I can’t do it. A prison family is a virtuous circle and it only takes one person to fall out of formation for the structure to turn grotesquely in on itself.

Loving a prisoner is like loving a ghost. Prison time stretches on and on like an evil enchantment way beyond what is fair or bearable and into unchartered territory where there is only fear and desperate faith. Love without flesh or bone? It’s a sorcerers riddle I cannot solve.

This week has seen me hurtling through emotions handcuffed to a macabre ghost train that never stops. I have to remember that there will be an end. One day this ride will be over and I’ll climb off and into real flesh and blood arms that will hold me tight until sunrise, One day I’ll wake up and he’ll be here, but for now this is a dark wood and no place to be alone. Fortunately I’m not.

After the little trick or treaters are all away to bed leaving only occasional rabid teenagers on sugar or crack still prowling the streets, I nip out to fetch in the novelty cobwebs from the hedge and find in their place an immaculate cotton wool heart, pristine and perfect: not a stab wound in sight: A snowy mark on our house, a slightly tipsy? sign (from next door bless them) that love rules, even in the darkness.

If you follow Prisonbag on Instagram you can even see the heart and my hedge in all its fluffy glory…

 

By | November 6th, 2017|

A thousand cuts

To cut a man up in prison you only need a tooth brush and two small disposable razor blades. You set the blades close together into the brush handle. That way the slashes won’t heal and the scars remain forever. “Razoring” is common practice on the inside. It costs very little to get a man cut up: lucrative employment is thin on prison ground. Desperation has only ever bred brutality.

Scores left over from “the out” are often settled this way. You will not know where they will will strike. The ambush can be anywhere, anytime.

A victim arrives from Highpoint South, skin in ribbons, jumped by four men in the gym in a well planned, deftly executed assault. HMP Knifepoint is living up to its nickname. Experienced staff will no longer work South: give them sleepy little North any day. And so it gets worse. At least two units are now almost entirely prisoner run. No one is safe.

The outside isn’t much better. Knife crime is rising 24% year on year. Prison sentences will only, can only, make everything worse. When we pen our youth away from all humanising influences will they learn a lesson?

Certainly. They will learn the law of the jungle and the price of weakness: these kids are survivors so they’ll step up to the plate. Many have been abused, abandoned and syphoned into gangs since primary school. Do they need help? So much and in so many ways. Will they get it in our prisons? Absolutely not. The longer we lock them up the more they harden and the violence spills back out into our communities again like some kind of monster. When we throw the book at our bad boys, they’ll rip off its spine and eat it for breakfast.

There is a video doing the rounds on Facebook called “The Race of Life”. A throng of teenagers from all walks of life stand ready to run a race. The winner win collect one hundred dollars. What’s not to like? Tension crackles. You can cut the air with a knife, but before the race begins there are some provisos.

“Anyone whose parents are still together take two steps forward”, shouts the umpire. The children from broken homes deflate a little “Anyone who grew up with a father figure in the home. Two steps forward”. The gap widens. “If you had access to a private education, advance two paces”, the ref yells. The kids at the back are getting twitchy. “Two more if you have never had to contribute to a family bill” he shouts. “Step forward if you have never worried about having your phone cut off. If you’ve never wondered where your next meal is coming from, take two steps again”.

Some of the runners are half way down the field already and the race hasn’t even begun. The course is dotted with young people spread out over the field. Some (mostly black) kids haven’t even stepped off the baseline. They’re looking down at their shoes now. There are no short cuts for these children. They know they can’t win. It’s a familiar feeling but you can see the frustration in their faces. And the shame.

When the ref shouts “Go!” amazingly most of the contestants run, but not those right at the back. Why would they? The hundred dollars is not for them. They never even leave the starting blocks.

I see these young men every week at the prison. I don’t know their stories, but they all have one. No one wants to end up in this place. Perhaps they wanted to run a race they thought they could win. There is no victory here though. Now they are in prison they are not just on the base line of life, they are walking backwards barefoot over glass.

There is a young man who comes to book club. At first he was only in it for the biscuits. As the son of a preacher man Rob knows that a month of sermons has nothing on the humble biscuit. Staff grumbled about the guy’s attitude: he needed to learn respect; he was a taker, cut from the wrong cloth.

Over the months however, slowly, tentatively, his manner has changed. With painful trepidation he has become a part of what is probably the most diverse book club in the western hemisphere: a tiny brave new world far from his smash and grab past. Now he helps and passes the biscuits around. Someday soon he’ll read the book.

Another man, a lifer in his 50’s, comes every week to the library. He has never once smiled at Rob when he checks out his pile of novels nor said goodbye when he leaves. Never a whisker of reconnaissance nor a flicker or warmth until out of the blue one day the man requests a title.

He’s after “A thousand and one places to visit before you die”, “because… see… I’ve done my time. They’re cutting me loose.” he explains and breaks into an extraordinary grin that lights up his face. The sun emerging from behind clouds. They find the book and flick through its suggestions together. “They should have this place in here!” the lifer jokes.

Perhaps they should. Prison is an extraordinary place. Utterly counterproductive to anyone who might on the face of it belong there, but an invaluable lesson for those who think they don’t. It is sometimes unspeakably tough to be cut off from the ones you love but I thank God that prison happened to us and jackknifed me in my sleep. Like a bad boy’s kiss it has shocked me awake. Now I know the difference between an artery and a luxury.

At visiting we are let in earlier than usual. Prisoners are still filing into the hall and being allocated their tables. Somehow we converge with Rob at the front desk and he and Tala find themselves walking together to our places. It is the first time in 16 months that they have done anything apart from sit. She is wildly excited by this coup de grace and clasps her arms tight around his waist as they traverse the room, stealing glances up at him from this long forgotten angle, matching him pace for pace with long legs just like his, smiling upwards like a sunflower in the light. Every moment of every life is precious. Even and especially those that cut you to the quick.

If you haven’t seen The Race of Life here it is:

 

 

By | October 25th, 2017|

Full Lunatic

Beards are for ugly blokes. That is the conclusion D has come to and he cannot understand why Rob, with his chiseled features and unassailable good looks, persists with the chin wig. “If I nailed you to a cross” (not a reassuring opener in any setting and little short of menacing in the slammer), “you’d look like Jesus”, says D with affectionate, slightly crazed, exasperation.

Say no more. Who’d style themselves on the Son of God when God has given us whole body depilation that we might look like Love Island contestants: hairless from the eyeballs down. This is the Essex borders when all is said and done but Rob’s disposable razors were confiscated at Birmingham Crown Court on June the 24th 2016 and they have never been replaced.

His shaving brush hangs forlornly on its stand in a dusty corner of the bathroom quietly place holding for its erstwhile owner and occasionally jolting me, mid pee, into sentimental reminiscence.

Us girls appropriated his razor years ago whilst he was still in residence. Most men surviving outnumbered in excessively female households quickly come to understand that it is part of their role to upkeep a communal razor and rinse it unquestioningly prior to use, but the brush was always his alone.

Now it is one of the last relics from our old life. With the passing of time a tipping point has been reached whereby items conferred as keepsakes – scarves, T shirts and the like, have lost all totemic power. Possession is nine tenths of the law (unless your husband has been convicted of fraud) and whether we like it or not, these artefacts have now passed to us and serve as reminders no more.

Sometimes his absence hangs so heavy that I can barely speak. I can be very sniffy about suffering, particularly my own, or anything involving the loss of status or cleaners. There is so much hardship  amongst the families of prisoners and such genuine fortitude that I feel ashamed submitting to despair in the midst of my relative privilege. As if this is a test and I am failing.

I watch the bright full harvest moon rise above a veil of clouds and remember back a decade or so when Rob, transfixed by a similarly spectacular lunar orb, drove confidently into the stationary boot of the car in front, whose owner questioned his sanity and relieved us of our no claims bonus.

In the past we sent our lunatics to the asylum. Now we send them to prison. The governor of an infamous London nick practically shivers describing the sound of prison nights to me before the gradual introduction of in cell TVs in the late 90’s.

For him this initiative, so maligned by a public opposed to “lags living it up in luxury” is the best thing to have happened in prison for decades (a damning admission in itself), because “It gives the crazies something to stare at through the night and keeps them quiet”. When I ask him what the mentally ill are doing in prison, or how he can safely accommodate them he just shrugs. He’s a civil servant. His is not to wonder why…

Researching the history of British asylums the penny starts to drop. Asylum closure was begun by Enoch Powell in the 1960’s after details of overcrowding, poor hygiene, wrongful admittance and brutal, ineffective treatment began to emerge shamefully into the public domain. Sound familiar?

A light bulb switches on in my brain (ECT anyone?). Today’s prisons are actually yesterdays asylums plus a lot more drugs and minus the staff. Prison in conjunction with “couldn’t Care less in the Community”, is government’s answer to the current mental health crisis and its prerogative remains the same: keep it hidden.

The idea of mad people chained to poles in the centre of rooms disturbed us as a nation, so we have replaced the poles with purpose built cages and banished the afflicted to Titan prisons in the middle of nowhere so that the madness can continue (cheaply) behind closed doors.

Better still, just like Victorian city prisons, our old asylum buildings repurpose marvellously as unaffordable luxury flats complete with witty backstories about their previous occupants. Kerching!

One in four young women are suffering from depression or anxiety or both. Our young people are cutting themselves to shreds on the values and the future we have handed them and the Prozac sweeties aren’t working for anyone except Big Pharma.

And prison makes everything worse. God help anyone entering prison with mental illness. Children of prisoners are twice as likely to experience mental health issues as their peers and I can personally vouch for the deranged mindset of at least one prison wife.

Knighthoods all round for the governors I say. Armed with little more than a fleet of pre-millennial tellies they are housing the hundreds of thousands with barely a loaf or fish in sight. Rehabilitation is moon pie in the sky: an unreasonable and frankly unachievable expectation without more money or less prisoners.

Patrick Cockburn, journalist and author of “Henry’s Demons” the harrowing story of his son’s descent into schizophrenia writes “The treatment of the mentally ill measures the health of any society because they are the most vulnerable and the least able to defend themselves against cruelty and neglect”, which is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s assertion that “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

I doubt big D would be impressed by the British bang up. UK prison is a one stop shop for the elements of our society that we can’t face. It is the underbelly of capitalism. It is yesteryear’s poorhouse. It is the arse end of prohibition and ill informed drug policy. It is the asylum in disguise.

It is also the only place where I feel truly at home. It is where my grizzly werewolf love lives and thus the location of every brief respite to our separation. A slither of moonlight in the dark.

By | October 9th, 2017|

Seat of Mercy

We have Grandma in tow at visiting this week. She has become so frail that I have taken to linking arms with her wherever we go just to keep her upright. Sitting isn’t any easier. In stark contrast to my derriere which never leaves home without its convenient inbuilt padding, hers has rather lost its stuffing over the years so that an un-cushioned chair has become little short of torture for her.

Prison isn’t big on soft furnishings, so I decide to smuggle something in. It’s a bold move. The last time I brought an unauthorised item with me into prison (my phone), things didn’t go well, but I consider Grandma worth the risk.

We start off strong, secreting the vital bolster successfully through the entry gates, sandwiched unobtrusively between Grandma and me, but that is as far as we get. Bootleg butt protection is a flagrant breach of protocol and no one on the “body search” team is in the mood for any funny business.

Once inside the visiting hall however I spot a familiar face amongst the staff and when I explain about Grandma’s bottom she disappears at once, returning minutes later with the contraband and a massive smile.  For all any of us knew Grandma could have stuffed that thing full of drugs, but our angel of mercy took a chance on us. She gave us the benefit of the doubt and along with it our humanity.

S (the subject of last week’s funereal travails) is working in the visiting hall on rubbish and tray collection. With inimitable charm he has persuaded every member of unit 12 to entreat their visitors to buy him something from the cafe. As unit 12 are legion today, (a dozen or so of them at least), his pockets are bulging alarmingly with a growing collection of fizzy drink cans and assorted confectionery.

By the time we hand over our Fruit Pastilles he is looking as green as a Jamaican can reasonably look without the production of actual vomit. Anything not consumed in the hall is potentially subject to confiscation and so S is chowing down resignedly, puke or no puke. Reckless consumption of everything and anything is the result of this infantilising system and a hallmark of the prison experience: you get what you can when you can.

I watch a young boy take a chocolate bar over to The Man with No Hands (whose visitors are late) and offer to open it for him. It is common practice for other visitors to look after even unknown men who are still waiting. They do enough of that, and we are proud to take care of our own. We know that there are many reasons a family can find themselves in that room. More than 1/4 of UK adults have committed an imprisonable offence, it’s just that most of us don’t get caught.

The man with no hands is beautiful. It’s the first time I have seen him. Hands were the price he paid for finishing on the losing side of an African armed conflict where mercy is for the weak. When his wife and daughters arrive he wraps them in his stumped arms, folding them into himself easily, conveying with shoulders and biceps and neck everything hands could. His girls look so proud. You couldn’t not be. I have never seen a more radiant man.

I really think that Liz (HM, not Truss – she has already been deposed – someone tell Katie Hopkins) ought to pop in and see for oneself what is occurring in one’s dungeons these days. Ignorance is not bliss. I’d give HRH 20 minutes in that visiting hall before she started granting pardons, although Rob, looking as he does these days like a cross between Guy Fawkes and Osama Bin Laden is unlikely to be first in line for her mercy.

I’m tired. This week I have driven over 500 miles collecting and returning Grandma to the Midlands via Cambridgeshire. There is also water coming through my bedroom ceiling again (the work of a rogue rodent gnawing though plumbing in the loft) and scary confiscation issues to contend with.

By Sunday night a potent cocktail of exhaustion and unwanted responsibility catches up with me. I miss touch. I miss it so much I have taken to having multiple baths just to let the water hold me. When an oven ready lasagne fails to induce pleasure, (orally, not topically people… I do have limits), I admit defeat and settle in on the sofa to face this beast of loneliness down. “Bring it on… Do your worst!” I scream silently. Big mistake.

During the ensuing hours I run the full gamut of hopelessness and wretched self-pity, landing finally in downright depression. Not an evening I’d repeat in a hurry, but the letter I write to Rob at the end of it is such a roller coaster of unbridled hyperbolic emotion that it at least gives us something to laugh about when he receives it two days later and long after I have come back to the light.

The thing that pains me most amongst all the stresses and strains of the single mum/prison wife gig is the remorseless draining away of my fecundity. Not that I actually want to do anything with it (two kids is at least 1/2 a kid too much for me), I’d just like to carry on looking as if I could.

My friend B reassures me that I am still looking pretty fecund, which is generous, but there is no denying that there is little point to looking even slightly fecund without someone at least slightly attempting fertilisation, and my fertiliser is on library duty for the foreseeable…

The library is something of a sanctuary in prison: somewhere to escape the tensions of the cell. In his wisdom the prison governor has vetoed the men’s request to be allowed to cell share with people they get on with and who share similar routines where both parties are agreeable, stating that if you can’t get on with your cell mate that is your problem.

Prison is a very diverse community. Having experienced the joys of cell sharing with an incurable snorer during a lengthy nocturnal celebration of Ramadan, Rob is dispirited by this response. It belies a lack of empathy that ill fits the head of an institution that purports an interest in rehabilitation. Lord (of Highpoint) have mercy. There is only so much adversity any man can take. Less is more, unless we are talking bootie of course, when more is always more comfortable.

By | September 28th, 2017|

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|
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