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So far Josie has created 75 blog entries.

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|

Angels

It’s Easter Sunday and Unit 12 smells of poo. Rob’s mate B has resourcefully diluted a capful of Lenor into a diffuser bottle and is spraying it liberally in the general vicinity of their pad to see if the “unstoppable” fragrance can stop the poo. B isn’t just doing this out of the goodness of his heart however. It has to be said that he is at least partially to blame for the ripeness in the air, though several factors are at play.

First and foremost there has been a lot of lock up. National holidays mean anti-holidays for the men: staff shortages ensure that no-one gets off the wing, resulting in the entire bodily output of 70 men being deposited into two groaning crappers.

There has also been considerable gambling on recent big footy games. This may appear unrelated to the fetor, but as canned tuna is the gambling chip of choice, consumption is up, and constipation is down – healthy overall, but detrimental to the prevailing bouquet.

B has too much Skipjack in the game and is so peeved at being four cans down, that he launches a pan full of water over the loo door at the precise moment that his creditor is curling one out. The unsuspecting victim is furious but the culprit is long gone before he manages to regain sufficient dignity to exit the cubicle and B has changed his shoes and is looking insouciant… angelic almost. I shudder to think what the payback would have been had mackerel been in play… at £1.55 a tin (tuna is a snip at £1.15) and with its denser, meatier, protein kick that is so coveted in this resolute gym culture, vengeance would surely have been biblical.

Angels are causing headaches for another prisoner too. V, a charming and diligent Russian in for importing a trailer load of duty free fags, is both Rob’s star English student and a devout Christian. After listening intently to the chaplain’s story of the three angels Gabriel, Michael and Lucifer, it dawns on V that by casting Lucifer out of heaven and sending him down to earth, God in fact created evil.

Disturbed by this unsettling own goal by Christianity and the apparent debunking of religious duality, V challenges the man of the cloth to explain, at which point the chaplain mumbles something about an urgent phone call and adjourns the session.

V is devastated and more than a little daunted at the prospect of considering the world from this new vantage point of oneness. Best put a couple more cushions out for Buddhism next week then or hope that the chaplain managed to reach the Big Man on the blower, but please God let the chaplain not question his religious calling. He gets more done for the men at Highpoint North than anyone else, except perhaps the gambling support guy, who is also active and helpful, but like everyone who is keen to make prison an effective place of rehabilitation, is battling the boredom and pointlessness of prison life.

It hasn’t been V’s week. He suspects that he has picked up the mild stomach bug that appears to have been doing the rounds on Unit 12. Rob knows better however, having witnessed B and his naughty compadre Ginger Q surreptitiously spiking unsuspecting victims with laxative for a laugh. As V excuses himself after yet another resonant fart, the pair can no longer keep straight faces and, unable to smoother their glee, exit the cell hastily, their hysterical laughter clearly audible from the other end of the wing. Rob hopes that he has reached untouchable status, but it’s hard to be sure, so until the bottle is empty he is operating a nil by mouth strategy in their presence.

At home the Easter holidays seem long and intense, particularly when the prison suddenly cancels visits on Good Friday, now rebranded Bad Friday in our house. I get an apology email which I consider framing. Now the following weekend is fully booked too, making it three weeks of separation from Rob. It is becoming hard to visualise him and I fall back on photographs, but he was younger then and clean shaven. He is slipping inexorably through our fingers…

Tala finally manifests her frustration with a tantrum of demonic ferocity. Unfortunately I’m the only one left to bear witness to her desperation. As she boils over, limbs erupt into slaps and kicks that leave me feeling inadequate and outplayed. They hurt too. I want to run away and keep running, but I cannot abandon her: fear of aloneness is likely what has caused the outburst in the first place. Inevitably I lose it in the end and fight back until we reach an uneasy truce and fall fitfully asleep, curled up into protective balls on opposite sides of the bed.

For a bit of light relief I read Erwin James’ memoir “Redeemable”. It is a remarkable piece of writing and his story is visceral and haunting. He served 20 years in jail and is unflinchingly remorseful for the crimes he committed, and yet the description of his childhood leaves me scratching my head and searching the narrative for the non existent exit routes he missed. I can find only moments where he narrowly avoids his own death. It is astonishing how many times he and his father were not just failed, but utterly overlooked by perfunctory systems of “care”. His “break” didn’t come until eventually he became eligible for one to one psychotherapy in his Cat A lockup and lucked out with a psychotherapist who had skill, compassion and a belief that he was “redeemable”.

No one Rob has ever encountered in prison has received a single meeting with a professional who could help them. He does witness a man walking back and forth between unit 15 and the health wing however. He is recognisable from the lattice of self harm wounds that adorn his painfully scarred arms. With horror Rob notices that the man has begun to remove body parts now too. The tips of both little fingers are missing above the knuckle. Self harm rates are at their highest ever level in British prisons with over 32,000 reported incidents in 2015.

I wonder where the severed finger pieces are now. In the bin I guess, rotting slowly alongside all those sinners who have fallen and been cast out of sight and mind of the rest of us angels in the free world.

By | April 25th, 2017|

There She Blows

I wonder if the hurricane of distemper that buffets me through my waking hours will blow itself out one day and drop to a kinder lull. On the outside I smile a lot, but inside I feel stormy and disconsolate. Not for myself. I’m ok. We all are. I have nailed myself to this prison life consciously. I believe I can beat the shame and the label… but most won’t. Prison is a curse that hangs like a dark cloud over the future life of every soul it has held. I want to tear apart the comfortable conversation about wrong doing and right punishment that underpins our national lust for ever longer periods of incarceration because we are truly being fed lies about why people commit crimes or why they desist, and the madness of it has built up a head of steam inside me.

I am kindly invited to an awards ceremony celebrating the most inspiring charities of the year. Three of the six winners are prison linked which ought to take the wind out of my “outraged in Stoke Newington” sails for a moment, but actually just makes me want to be violently sick on someone’s black tie. The good, the bad and the ugly of politics are benevolently patting these good causes on the back whilst running a government that is directly creating more prison fodder than anyone here can ever hope to mop up. It’s like cheering the cabin boy on for bailing water out of a sinking ship with an egg cup whilst the captain is down bellow merrily blowing holes in the hull with a shotgun. I know. I’m chippy as hell. So shoot me, or shoot the bloody captain (metaphorically people… this is not – repeat not – a call to arms!).

I meet a beautiful girl at visiting. She is just 27 and stunning. Her boyfriend was attacked in the street and defended himself. No-one died, but the boyfriend had made the fatal error of being black, so now they are 4 years into a 15 stretch. I bow down to them in the face of that future. Such loyalty so young. So much love, such insurmountable obstacles.

In the queue to be searched she frets that she’ll be pulled up for her outfit. It has happened to her before. She’s in jeans, trainers and a long sleeved top. Admittedly she looks sinfully good in it, but I am stunned that this could be seen as a problem, or indeed, anyone else’s effing business. I suggest some choice phrases in the event of any adverse commentary and we giggle our way successfully through the checkpoint, with me balancing out her voluptuous youth with my lines and incumbent child.

Whilst we in the UK are apparently intent on protecting the prison population from the female form, in the US, in what is a particularly cruel kind of torture, prisoners are busy propping up the economy by manufacturing bra’s for Victoria’s Secret. Prisons are big business in the US, in fact there are currently more incarcerated black men (87% of them for non violent, mostly drug related crimes) than were indentured at the height of Slavery. If you want a good predictor of the US prison population in 15 years time, illiteracy levels in 9 year olds are a pretty accurate measure, because it is lack of education and opportunity that creates a perfect storm of poverty and desperation and a convenient bargain basement labour source.

Although we don’t have actual illiteracy issues in this family, we are struggling to read each others letters. Tala and Rob both write and draw to each other regularly. He spends considerable time depicting various animals inhabiting large socks (don’t ask why: I’ve yet to illicit a satisfactory explanation), whilst she constructs activity sheets for him to while away his hours, but virtually nothing is getting through at the moment. Rob can’t bear to look at her when he has to explain that in lieu of her precious cards, he has been handed a curt note stating that all four of her offerings have been confiscated. An article in the Telegraph about prisonbag.com, that I have sent for his perusal meets the same fate. No mention of why. No universally applied logic. No recourse, no explanation, no accountability, no compassion, no decrease in the abundance of every possible narcotic…. No-one bloody home!

The bizarre thing is that if I had photocopied the cards and sent in copies, they would probably have made it. God forbid there should be anything authentic or original inside these walls. There is no heart in anything that a prisoner can receive…. except inside us visitors perhaps, such as these tattered hearts are, are after the ravages of prison-time and longing and loss.

Rob visits a quiet isolated chap who is soon to be tossed back into the wild after six years of internment. As usual Rob is not the bearer of good tidings. There will be no-where for this man to go upon release. He confides in Rob that he used to have a council house. In fact this is why he is inside: for blowing the house up. The sad thing is that he was actually trying to blow himself up, but mistimed it, with disastrous consequences for the bricks and mortar. He survived to face prosecution for arson and destruction of public property. It’s not funny, but they laugh together none the less. What else can you do. When Rob leaves, the man retreats into himself once more; no trace of the laughter remains. Rob looks back into the single cell and sees a man who looks as one might expect him to look when he has been so desperate that he has tried to take his own life and has then been thrown into the slammer for his troubles. He is a burnt out shell whose humanity and possibilities have been blown away by the icy indifference of anyone who might have intervened to help.

Without kindness and empathy what are we? Life seems complicated but is it really? As Rob and I hold hands across the visiting table again and try to find a moment of intimacy whilst Tala pretends to be a pecking bird on our prone arms, I look around the hall and it is clear why family ties blow all other solutions to reoffending out of the water. We ache and wait and worry and write because we love and care and believe. The North wind may huff and puff and blow itself out but it will only make the man hug his protective layers more tightly about him. We are like the sun. When we shine he will take off his coat because he wants to. Because he is warm. Because there is love and because without that there is nothing.

By | April 11th, 2017|

Can-Can

Spring comes again like a miracle. The streets flutter pink and white with blossom and grey becomes green all around. In this world where the impossible has happened, even certainties like the seasons arrive like gifts. Prison time is counted by the inmates and their lovers in seasonal blocks: the first Christmas; the second summer. This new warmth in the air brings back sharp memories of last year when we won our court case and, for a few sweet days before HMRC’s ill fated appeal, spring promised to unfurl its buds into a world in which we would finally be free.

In keeping with the time of year there is a new addition to our family. It’s not an immaculate conception on my part, but rather a miniature Russian hamster called Lolly who is as fat as she is long and remarkably engaging as chisellers go. After dire warnings that the creature will die in her own filth before I will clean out the cage, plus the procurement of a declaration of ownership and responsibility signed by Tala, I finally agree to relax my “no more dependents” policy and the once silent wee hours reverberate merrily with the sound of nocturnal exercise routines and the frenetic and surprisingly loud toilet roll destruction habits of our new acquisition.

Hamsters invariably seem to come to sticky ends: death by glow stick consumption, blocked up bottom and starvation are all fates that have befallen previous generations of the species in the unfortunate care of the offspring of acquaintances and family members. Therefore, although the dog is both bemused that we would voluntarily invite a rodent into the house, and slightly miffed that her access to Tala’s bedroom is intermittently suspended during hamster handling sessions, we implement a strict pet separation protocol in the house: Ruby may look like butter wouldn’t melt, but I’ve seen her eviscerate a rat with astonishing rapidity, so she has to resign herself to staring mournfully into the cage and “freaking the hamster out with her eyes”, as Tala puts it.

Lolly’s cage is considerably larger proportionally than Rob’s, and I bet he’d kill for an exercise wheel, a bowl of Hamster Harvest, or even plentiful toilet roll. The showers and loo are being fixed on Unit 12, leaving only one functioning loo and two showers between 70 men. If Rob manages to complete two of the three S’s (shaving hasn’t happened for the entire 9 months of his incarceration), he feels the day has been a success.

Achieving anything at all in jail is like pulling teeth. Rob tries to help the men who are soon to be released on parole by typing up CVs for them on the resettlement office’s computer, but someone from the housing team is obliged to supervise him at all times.  The system is really just set up so that the inmate orderlies can make the tea and mop the floor, and as with everything in prison, trying to make anything function in a vaguely intelligent way is a lost cause. Being used to operating in the real world where if you aren’t productive you don’t get paid this is tricky for Rob.  He also genuinely wants to help the men his is locked up with, but his remit is mostly to help them fill in forms and then inform them that there will be nowhere for them to go to when they leave (unless they are high risk or registered addicts). Churchill said “There is treasure in the heart of every man if only you can find it”. We aren’t even looking.

At visiting I am almost treated to the glorious sight of the first ever prison flash mob. It’s a risky proposal as the guards are unlikely to see the funny side but the fact that three of Rob’s good friends have visits that day seems too fortuitous an opportunity to miss and the guys decide that at exactly 3pm they will jump up and do a flash mob Can-Can acappella style. Rob ruins it by forgetting, which is probably for the best in the interests of avoiding further criminal proceedings for the organisation of seditious dance plots, but he still spends the rest of the evening being mercilessly ribbed about his failing faculties.

On the up side I do get to meet two of his friends on my journey down the visit hall to the cafe. I stop for a quick chat with both of them before their visitors arrive. It is a strange thing not to know the people who have come to mean so much to Rob. I have pictured them as best I can from his descriptions, but there is no substitute for the real thing, and making this small connection with the people who sustain him where I cannot is significant and oddly precious.

I confess to C, an erstwhile traveler, that I don’t know how he gets up every day with so much time still left to serve: he is “just” 6 years into a 17 year stretch. His eyes twinkle. He grins revealing his legendary single snaggle tooth and muses that his previous lifestyle was killing him anyway. He goes on to declare that the prison experience is also revealing things to him that cannot be taught elsewhere.  His acceptance and trust in the face of so much adversity floors me anew.

I buy him a caramel slice at the cafe despite his protestations. It’s the least I can do for a man who is living the stuff of nightmares and making lemonade from the bitter lemons he has been dealt. You can lock him up, but you can’t keep a good man down, especially when he’s a Can-Can, “can do” kind of guy.

By | March 28th, 2017|

Rats

It’s Monday morning. The living room is freezing and the sash window is wide open. Something is wrong. I can’t make sense of the scene, until I see the missing things and finally, reluctantly comprehend that we have been burgled. Rats. I run quickly into the hall and up the stairs, dreading what I will discover, but there is no-one and everything else is in its place; my bag, carelessly slung on the banister, still contains its vital organs: passport, car keys, purse.

There has been no forced entry. I have forgotten to fasten both the catches and the shutters, and nothing more than gloved fingertips were needed to slide the sash softly upwards, yielding access to our private world. Above we slept peacefully, far away in dreams and oblivion.

Tala is unconsolable. Everything that has gone was hers or Rob’s: his computer, her school bag, her purse. It isn’t personal, but it feels it. There are no other signs of violation: a glass and plate remain unbroken on a side-table suggesting a degree of care that jars with the way she feels. I wish I could feel more but I am, as always, fine.… and eerily numb.

The Stokey police force are prompt and helpful. According to the investigating officer, aside from leaving one’s entire technological arsenal in full view of an unlocked window, it’s the state of my front bush that is to blame. It desperately needs tending and is so overgrown that anything could be going on behind it. With tactful non-specificity I mention that my husband is away at the moment and promise to rectify the situation upon his return.

The nice officer proffers a further insight into the crime. In any given area there are only a handful of people who do these kind of robberies. When they get caught and removed from circulation for a while, the robberies tail off, but as soon as they are released the stats jump right back up again. This information couldn’t fit more squarely with everything that I already know prison to be: a senseless stop gap that does less than nothing to change the direction of anyone’s life, leaving perpetrators and victims to remain locked in a self-defeating cycle of endless recidivism.

Rob is predictably sanguine about the material losses but is broken by the sound of Tala’s sobbing in the car on the way to school. His mates are furious that this has happened to us: house breaking is very low on the honour stakes inside. The stolen goods are unlikely to fetch more than a couple of hundred quid at best on the black market, but the cost of their replacement will be ten times that at least, plus the hassle and the haunting sense of vulnerability: the fragile safety that I have been gently cultivating since Rob’s departure is shattered along with my prospects of undisturbed sleep. Unsurprisingly my little bedfellow is back, clinging to me sweatily in the night.

I am invited for tea with a kind prison reformer who entered the arena not out of necessity like me, but because he realised that no-one else would support the most maligned and betrayed elements of our society. “Wicked” people according to Liz Truss, “scum of the earth” according to the Daily Mail. It’s not hard to raise money for a children’s hospital or better still a dog sanctuary but Britons go selectively deaf, and apparently dumb, when it comes to “criminals”.

The mother I meet this week as we wait urgently in the dispiriting queue for the one ladies loo isn’t visiting a “criminal” though. She is here to see her son on his birthday. He is a danger to no-one, and is back inside having broken his parole due to homelessness and, I suspect, addiction. She loads up with the rubbish they sell in the visiting hall canteen. It’s a generous spread for a sad party.

There are so many good people working in the sector of prison reform, banging their heads against a status quo that suits too many people too well. If we really believed in rehabilitation we would do it. If we really cared about families we’d let them in for visits on time. If we really saw criminals as people, we could no longer countenance locking them up like rats, with rats.

Rat Park was an experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander in the 1970’s. He took male rats and put them in cages with access to food, water and heroin water. Pretty soon all of the rats were hooked on the heroin water. No surprises there, but then he took another group of rats, and put them into cages 200 times bigger with toys and wheels and female rats. In this setting the only rats to occasionally use the heroin water were the female rats (just to take the edge off the incessant advances one supposes). More interesting still, when the heroin dependent rats from the small cages where released into Rat Park, they more than any other rats, avoided the heroin water. Drug addiction, poverty, loneliness and living conditions are inextricably linked. If we want to tackle drug abuse in our jails then we need to first tackle the human abuses of incarcerating non-violent men and women in high security facilities designed for the Dark Ages.

This week there have been a spate of radio programmes about bent prison guards bringing drugs into jail. This is really not news but it serves the government to spin this story now and effectively blame criminals for the prison crisis. I listen to the fallen guard’s stories of how events spiralled away from them, tugging them into the current of crime, and yet “the criminals” who have enticed them away from the light are never afforded the same consideration: their context remains stripped from them. Relentless dehumanisation.

We were all born wanting light and love and fresh water. Some of us get Rat Park and some Rat Hell: it’s the flip of a coin. The irony is that every prison I have visited is set in beautiful countryside amidst acres of unused green space. We have the potential to create Rat Parks but we plump for Rat Hell because “they” are not like “us”, and that suits “us” just fine.

As the wife of a “rat” in hell, I’d happily be a heroine if only someone would let me in on time, or better still let me pitch my conjugal tent on the grassy fields of Highpoint North.

By | March 20th, 2017|

Clubs

After months of waiting and multiple postponements, the “BAFTA membership renewals committee” are ready to discuss Rob’s expulsion from their club. I am keen to meet with them and discuss the salient details in person, but apparently only the member in question may attend the hearing. I point out that Rob’s freedom of movement has been somewhat curtailed for the time being and that I’ll have to do, but they won’t speak to me, or his lawyer, or anyone. They are all too important and busy to meet me in person clearly. I had always thought, erroneously perhaps, that control of our nation’s nuclear deterrent lay with the PM, but I now suspect that the infamous red button in fact resides in Piccadilly, safeguarded by the lofty BAFTA renewals committee.

They throw Rob out unanimously of course, kindly sparing themselves the uncomfortable spectacle of doing it to my face, and ignoring my written representation where I point out, reasonably I feel, that if Lord Archer wasn’t stripped of his Peerage for his criminal conviction, then perhaps they might spare Rob?

A quick perusal of Rob’s IMBd reveals that he produced 39 films during his career. The film business for which he is now quite wrongly (according to the presiding judge), serving a 9 year sentence, gave development money to over 300 producers and resulted in the production of over hundred films. The British film industry depends heavily on the sort of innovation, creativity and hard cash that he brought to it.

I have to confess to being slightly relieved – the screeners (the only reason anyone joins), are two a penny round here, and I can’t afford the membership, but that doesn’t stop them being mealy mouthed rhymes with bankers. If you must have your little club, then let it at least stand up for its own. No-one can do anything about the massive bomb that has gone off in my life since Rob was convicted, but it is this lack of solidarity and heart that hurts the most.

Rob couldn’t give a monkeys of course, having long since given up caring what anyone out in the free world thinks of him. In prison there are codes of conduct that are simple and sacrosanct. Top of these is staying loyal to your own: you don’t grass. Solidarity between the men against the system is all they have. No-one wants to be inside, (and if they do, then what does that say about the life they have come from?) and so you never, ever risk giving another man any additional grief from your oppressors whatever has gone down between you.

A big guy arrives on Rob’s unit on a transfer from the South Side and violates this golden rule by picking a fight with someone and then blabbing to the screws. Rob is genuinely worried about the potential repercussions of this faux pas. Apparently the new guy was being bullied on his previous unit, (now everyone knows why), and the peace and harmony that usually abounds on the wing is beset by an uneasy hum of unrest.

In any other jail this sort of indiscretion would have been redressed with social isolation and/or disfigurement of some description, but here it probably only means he won’t be invited into any of the supper clubs that have sprung up since Unit 12 have been awarded a cooker. No one really really knows the reason for this benevolence, but it appears to be an acknowledgement of attempts on the wing to build community. Whatever it’s origins, it is a total coup.

Prison food is gastronomically very hit and miss, insubstantial and nutritionally barren. Hitherto, the men bolstered their diets either with biscuits or with eggs (boiled in the kettle) and tinned kippers, depending on whether you are in the gym brigade or the backgammon posse, but now people are getting together and making dishes of okra or chick pea curry. Smells of mamma’s cooking and far-flung homelands abound: there is considerable racial diversity in prison (you are twice as likely to go to jail if you have made the unfortunate mistake of not being white), and remarkable dishes are being created from unlikely ingredients: all cut and prepared using the flimsy plastic prison issue knives judged too pathetic to pose genuine stabbing hazards.

It’s not all peace and harmony though. Rob is furious. He has forked out £2 from his canteen purchases for some Lenor to make his kit smell fresh for us at visiting, and is disgusted to find that his laundry is returned to him smelling, as always, only slightly damp. He enlists J’s nose for confirmation. After multiple deep inhalations, neither of the guys can detect even a suspicion of the scent of Springs First Rain promised by the “Uplift” fragrance from the “Unstoppable” range – apparently not so unstoppable in prison.

They march into Newboy’s cell as J happens to know that he’s a Lenor user too. They demand he fetches a T shirt from his cupboard. He looks worried, wondering if this is some sort of bizarre initiation ritual. My guys demand Newboy sniffs the shirt. His fears are confirmed. They sniff it too, as Newboy becomes increasingly anxious. They knew it… Nothing….! Either the Lenor is stoppable or there is foul play.

Militant, Rob and J march out in search of Laundry Guy. They state their business: they’re not happy, but Laundry Guy is on their side… and he has an explanation. He isn’t allowed to put the clothes on a long enough wash to let the Lenor do its Lenory thing so there simply isn’t enough contact time for any infusion to occur!

It’s a bit like visiting itself… too short for the transferal of anything good. I have to admit that I’d have liked a waft of something other than olive oil and that inert prison odour during our weekly rendezvous. It is the little things that you miss the most. He is so stripped bare in that room, with his empty smell, and his uniform. Just a glimpse of a familiar old t-shirt underneath his prison shirt makes my heart race now.

As spring unfurls the buds and colour begin to daub the bleak prison gardens. Rob is entranced by the sound of a skylark overhead. He can’t find it at first but then eventually it reveals itself high above him, bouncing on the breeze. Suddenly someone shouts out of one of the open windows “You looking for Jesus bruv?” Rob confirms that he is indeed…. and that as a matter of fact he has found him too. Jesus loved a sinner. They were welcome in his club. Judas took his thirty pieces of silver, betrayed his friend…. and then went off to hang himself. He took the money and ran… sound familiar BAFTA?

By | March 13th, 2017|

The Big Squeeze

I live in a world that shakes. It is imperceptible from the outside, but inside I flicker like a leaf buffeted by the wind. Not always, but often. I’m not sure why exactly, but I can hazard a guess. Today I am also gurning like a speed freak because the barista ignored the “de” part of my “caf” order.

I look and feel as if I’ve got a bad case of the DT’s. I roll with it. I cook in advance for the entire week, clean the bathroom, hoover up a storm and basically get down and dirty with all the little household jobs that I have been ignoring on the assumption that my remaining resident child will probably not notice the state of the skirting boards. My non-resident child is traveling in Vietnam but when I catch a glimpse of anyone with pale blue hair, my heart starts suddenly awake, alive with foolish optimism.

Caffeine is a revelation. Okay, the shaking is vaguely disturbing but the house looks great. I expect I’ll crash at some point because artificial energy stimulation, albeit from a relatively benign and legal source, is tantamount to sticking a plaster over the empty sign on a fuel tank and carrying on driving.

It’s like toothpaste. You can go on extracting stuff long after you first believed the tube to be empty but then, inevitably, one day there really is nothing left and you must live with un-freshness until you finally remember to negotiate the toiletries aisle.

I don’t want to end up like that mangled metal tube, knotted and bent out of all recognisable shape. I’m tired and emotionally wrung out but life doesn’t stop on compassionate grounds. It carries on squeezing.

Toothpaste is dual functioned in the slammer, doubling as a surprisingly effective glue. It is a rare cell whose walls are not be-speckled with calcified Colgate or Crest in various constellations where once was displayed another man’s family or perhaps his fantasy: The Sun is a prison stalwart, passed in hierarchical sequence from man to man, its third page a moment of escapism in a relentless world of men.

Rob refuses to risk damaging the cards that Tala sends him by affixing them thus to the wall. Blue Minty Gel is infinitely less sympathetic to paper than Blu Tack and he treasures her missives: arrows of love sent from her world to his. Today he is upset because he has been refused delivery of her latest offering. We try to work out why. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Is it the thickness of the card? Something in the content?

What comes into or out of prison depends largely on the disposition of whoever is on post duty that day. I’m not sure how to navigate these constantly shifting sands in order to avoid future disappointment.  I do know this though. Tala spends hours drawing and writing those cards and if I hear Liz Truss utter the words “family” and “support” in the same sentence again when she is talking about my world, I’ll scream.

Most of the petty cruelties and indignities, to which prison families are subjected as they try against all odds to maintain relationships with the incarcerated, are the side effects of unsuccessful attempts to stop the flow of drugs into prison. Without exception Her Majesty’s Prisons are flooded with narcotics, brought in by drone, guard, prisoner, letter and visitor. All that happens when supply is squeezed is that the price goes up, for which read increased debt and violence. This week the MOJ claimed that prisoners take drugs because they can order them on their phones. Hmnnn, best not ruin 83 crack-free years for Grandma by getting her a smart phone for her birthday then…

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the only way to stem the flow of drugs into prison is to decrease demand or that the only way to decrease demand is to treat addition, which is not at all the same thing as cutting off supply.

One of the most depressing things about prison is the lack of individual recognition or solutions. Everything is reduced to the lowest possible denominator. Hooch is a problem? Ban fruit. Drugs an issue?  No more phones… or letters…, or human contact… for anyone. Lock everyone down, put everyone on a perfunctory course. Tick the bloody box. Never look below the surface or invest in a long term solution. Our current response to addiction, which is to criminalise it and try (always unsuccessfully) to intercept the product, is laughably shortsighted. What do we expect to happen when prisoners are released?

Best follow the advice of the Daily Mail then, the genius publication unread inside prison, which claims that us lefty liberals who argue that prison doesn’t work are ignoring the fact that if someone is locked up they can’t commit a crime. This isn’t true of course. There are plenty of crimes committed inside, but only against other criminals (who don’t count), or themselves (good riddance) or the guards (never mind). This reductive view also fails to take into account the fact that locking people up in perpetuity will either bankrupt the country or necessitate the reintroduction of the death penalty for anyone serving over 5 years.

If we really cared about our society we would ban diesel vehicles and address diabetes, but we don’t. We just love locking people up, and then squeezing and squeezing until there is nothing left.

By | March 4th, 2017|

Cards

I’m settling down to watch “Dear Dumb Diary” for Valentine’s day with my date Tala (my preferred squeeze being otherwise engaged), when the doorbell rings.  It is the bailiffs serving me with a tome of papers written in the now familiar legal double dutch that I (and Foucault) believe is specifically designed to baffle the lay person into submission.  Fortunately I have a secret weapon: my lawyer Jim’s phone number.  It seems I have been served with a restraint order.  It sounds appropriate to my current mood, but means only that I now can’t sell my house or empty my bank accounts.  Wasn’t planning on it anyway, so “woteva”.

Jim, frank as ever, warns me that if I thought the trial that resulted in Rob’s conviction was rough, I should wait ’til we get to asset confiscation. The difference now is that we have already been pronounced guilty, and therefore hold no cards.  The only thing I want to retrieve from this mess is holed up at HMP Highpoint North and unless I sign whatever piece of paper they decide to put in front of me, I won’t get him back.  The alleged hiding of assets is punishable by years.  Lots of them.

I honestly don’t care about losing my home.  I am deeply grateful that we didn’t have the third (or fourth) child that I wanted.  Preventative damage limitation on Rob’s part.  The splicing of a family is so brutal that losing all worldly goods can’t hold a candle to it.  Don’t take this as a cue to decide that prison works as a deterrent – it doesn’t.  It just wrecks lives and leaves all those who are touched by it feeling like murderous outlaws who want no part in society.  I speak for myself.

The recent undercover documentary shot at HMP Northumberland is headline news and there is a spasm of interest nationwide whilst everyone feigns surprise.  I suspect the film makers have deliberately shot this on a “drugs wing”, and they have certainly selected only the most salacious material.  Although I welcome the focus of attention on a crisis that is otherwise occurring behind closed doors, my heart drops when I see this kind of footage.

There is certainly copious drug taking in prison and precious little help for addicts, or anyone else for that matter, but there are also lots of rather ordinary people not involved in the mayhem, people who are trying to build a community inside and make the best of where they’ve ended up.

Rob’s Tamil Tiger buddy has taken to cooking for him; insistent as a Jewish grandmother.  I get excited, imagining fragrant Sri-lankan curries, but as everything has to be cooked in the microwave and ingredients are in short supply, the gastronomic result is disappointing.  Now and again someone who works in the servery can rescue a bit of left over chicken from yesterdays dinner, rinse it off and reuse it somehow, but mostly it’s rice, potatoes and noodles with boiled onions, and copious, bottom burning amounts of curry powder.

Now I am screaming at the radio because Liz Truss is busy pretending to feed the (80) five thousand with fishes and loaves and suggesting that the answer to our prison crisis is to reduce reoffending.  Yes dear, but how are you going to do that?  And don’t you dare mention your paltry 2,500 untrained guards who won’t even replace the 6000 culled by Grayling. Reoffending is tricky. You won’t solve it with an 8 week “box ticking” course.  It will take individualised solutions that actually address the root causes of recidivism: drug and alcohol rehabilitation, anger management, employment, housing etc and there is not a cat in hell’s chance you can afford to do that for the 85,000 plus people currently squashed into our heaving, ineffectual jails.  What is more, you know that!  You are just putting a giant rhetorical sticking plaster on the situation and hoping it will hold until Trump invades Sweden, or something, and everyone loses interest.  Our penal system is the equivalent of a health service that only has an A and E department.  Incarceration ought to be reserved for the dangerous and the deranged and we need someone in charge who can see past the end of her own career path and actually do something that works.

Just when the MOJ must be thinking that things can’t get any worse, an event with the potential to bring down the administration occurs. Prisoner A8003DT, aka Mr Bevan, is discovered missing.  A full search of all units on the North side fails to unearth him and Liz is a whisker away from receiving the dreaded call that a murderous film maker is on the lose.  It is panic stations at HMP Highpoint North, until finally Rob is discovered sitting quietly in the computer course he has been attending for the last month.

The officer in charge in new and clearly hasn’t received the briefing stating that all prisoners are wrong always, and so he breaks with protocol and admits to being at fault, concluding the incident peacefully. Safely back in captivity the epic scrabble battles have been ended with the transfer of a key American player back South.  Rob is somewhat relieved to have concluded the series without any life threatening altercations. Now Boxer J is playing cards instead with the new guy, prison style – 20 push ups a pop for loosing.

There are always penalties when you lose, but I have cards.  I have love. It’s all I need.

By | February 21st, 2017|

Admin baby

Forget everything I might have said about the dubious merits of eschewing tags, fines and community service orders and incarcerating white collar criminals in high security facilities at huge cost to the tax payer.  I now understand the master plan.  Basically prison wouldn’t work without a generous smattering of middle class guys on hand to do all the admin.  I haven’t had a letter from Rob all week, (and he is usually a two letters a week kind of guy), because he is run off his feet checking coursework or filling out applications of various sorts for all and sundry on Unit 12 and beyond.

Tonight he is doing his cell mate J’s tax return. Oh, the irony!  Clearly J doesn’t know that Rob is reportedly a top level fraudster who may be a teensy bit unpopular with HMRC.  On the upside J may also soon be surprised to discover that he is miraculously entitled to a large rebate…. but possibly also an extension of his sentence…. it’s swings and roundabouts with cell mates.

I do an interview for RadioTalk Ireland not really understanding how many people listen to it and receive a flurry of delectably Gaelic sounding sign-ups to the blog.  Amongst the ensuing correspondence is a humbling letter from a woman who has lost her son but who nonetheless finds space in her heart to empathise with a random prisoner’s wife with a daftly posh radio voice.  It reminds me that despite all the madness, this is still a beautiful world, because love is irrepressible.

Rob looks good at visiting.  His forearms are becoming peculiarly erotic to me.  I know the men are only issued with those short sleeved prison shirts to make the concealment of contraband trickier, but one is none the less treated to an almost obscene amount of bare flesh into the bargain.  I roll my sleeves up too and we let our arms touch, skin on skin.  It is immeasurably sweet.

February is a time of reckoning.  There is simply nothing to hold on to. Christmas is a distant memory with only inflated adipose tissue and deflated bank balances to show for it, spring still seems impossible and the cold sky’s are white with apathy.  Perhaps this is why Tala and I seem to hit a brick wall suddenly and succumb to arguments and quasi-despair when I suggest an end to a protracted period of laissez-faire parenting vis-a-vis sweet consumption?  I get it, the desire to self-medicate and ease the pain of separation is strong in me too.

I long for an alternate universe where my life hasn’t been snapped in half. I want to fall down a rabbit hole and relinquish control.  I want sunlight and flowers and summer dresses.  But instead I have February.  We all do. And how much bleaker it must be in jail.  My parents attempt to escape on a cruise: a once in a life time luxury, and my poor dad promptly contracts pneumonia and spends the entire trip in the ship’s sanatorium on intravenous meds and fluids.  You can run from a British winter, but you can’t hide.  All we mammals can do is huddle together for warmth, which is tricky with a depleted pack.

The “inappropriate touching” debacle continues.  I answer a phone call from the familiar Haverhill number that ordinarily denotes a communication from my beloved and surprise the unsuspecting lady on the other end of the line by calling her “baby darling”.  She likes it. Apparently it’s a long time since anyone has called her anything so saccharine.  She should review her friendships.  She is calling from Ormiston Families: the wonderful organisation who run family visits at the prison.  She has just been to see Rob and had a surprising conversation with him.

I had contacted Ormiston to see if they could help me in my fight to clear Rob’s name of the spurious allegation against him, and after doing her due diligence my “baby darling” had discovered that the reason we had been denied security clearance for family visits was in fact Rob’s hooch “conviction”.  This being prison, despite the fact that there never was any hooch, (just a Nigerian wellness remedy), no-one has bothered to take the black mark off his file, thus disbarring him from family visits for three months: the age old and frankly distasteful practice of using children as bargaining chips to illicit prisoner compliance.

The Ormiston lady was all set to beg Rob to come clean about his hooch misdemeanour and quit lying to his Mrs about the reason for our exclusion from family visiting, and was thus a little surprised to find a teetotal bearded sage whose story was immediately believable to her. This kind of thing happens all the time in prison, because no-one is accountable and prisoners are guilty and therefore deserve neither explanations nor apologies for wrongs done to them.

“Baby darling” is a wonderful lady and promises not only to ensure that the hooch disciplinary process is halted, but also to help me with the “inappropriate touching” allegation which still stands as far as I know. The trouble is I don’t know much, because, although the Head of Security at Highpoint has written back to a few individuals who appear from their letter heads to be in high places, he hasn’t replied to me: I’m only the child’s mother after all, and a prisoner’s wife, and what decent woman would be one of those?

We all know that Grayling’s prison budget cuts have resulted in the miserable situation where neither guards nor prisoners are safe within our institutions, so it would be churlish of me to suggest that admin should be a priority, or that prisoner’s exam results, or educational achievements, or misdemeanours should be recorded correctly… they are only prisoners obviously… so I’m proposing that the proper response to all of this would be to embolden HMRC further and give them greater resources to pursue middle management.  That way we could alleviate the funding deficit by turning over the entire administration of the prisons to the white collar guys.  They are already all over most of it if Rob’s working day is anything to go by… and he thought he’d have time inside to contemplate within… and he bloody hates admin.

But here is the thing. The man who entered prison sure that the way through it would be to hole himself up, focus on spiritual evolution and become wider read, has come to understand that nothing you can achieve materially or spiritually in this world means anything if you are looking down on all the other poor souls who are starving and hurting.  No-one gets through the gates of heaven alone.  Unless what you do helps the people around you it is valueless.  Love is the only true currency, and love is a doing word, so it’s out with the navel gazing and in with the biro’s… There is work to be done.

By | February 9th, 2017|
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