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So far Josie has created 71 blog entries.

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|

Rubber Band

You can’t get hold of rubber bands in prison for love nor money.  They are banned, and those that have escaped detection are already occupied with the noble task of securing illegal mobile phones to prisoner’s willies.  This shortage is an issue if you have long hair like Rob and didn’t think about hair tie allocations when you were packing your prison bag.  Knowledge of probable previous usage doesn’t exactly predispose one to trust the occasional stray renegade that may have broken free of its tether and deposited itself innocently in a hallway.

Hair ‘mares aside, Rob is well.  Nepotism has resulted in a new job for him in resettlement where his role is to interface between prisoners and housing charities, allowing him access to different wings around the prison.  He loves the job.  Forget film production – this is hands down the most fulfilling thing he has done so far in his professional life.

The people and their stories humble him.  Men of indeterminable age, eyes hollowed by hardship, beg to be housed away from where they grew up and the lure of the gangs they joined at primary school.  They share details of their lives with him that move him to tears.  Beginnings that are unimaginable to the people in Whitehall who have the power to change them but stick instead with “tough on crime” and “deterrent” and “punishment”: existences beset by poverty and violence and fragmented families.  Some of them will transcend their destinies, but most won’t.  It’s why they are where they are and prison just makes it worse.  60% of prisoners will be homeless by the time their sentence has been served. Incarceration and family breakdown are excellent agents of homelessness. And what then? A home is a basic fundamental prerequisite for employment and addiction treatment and anything constructive in the fight against crime.

So many of you write to the governor about Rob and Tala that the Head of Security at Highpoint drafts a generic letter and sends it out on masse.  A thousand thank you’s for your kindness and time.  The reply insinuates that we are lying and upholds the prison’s decision to deny us security clearance for family days.  What they say goes because they hold all the cards.

I am fascinated by how truly voiceless and comprehensively powerless the prison population is that an allegation of inappropriate behaviour with a child can be made and upheld without the involvement of professionals in the field.  And this sort of injustice is happening all the time in prison. Prisoners receive black marks for not attending work when in fact they were not unlocked that day.  Prisons lose details of qualifications that inmates have spent years achieving.  Accusations are made and the prisoner can never, ever be right, because he is a prisoner: he is guilty by default and he has no voice.

We begin legal action.  We have exhausted every other avenue.  We request to see the footage of the “incident” and have it evaluated by an independent person who is qualified to assess “inappropriate” behaviour. What is happening to us is not right and cannot be allowed to stand.

I attend an all party parliamentary group on prisoner’s families at the House of Commons.  The Barnados spokeswoman delivers the shocking statistic that 7% of all children will experience the incarceration of one of their parents during childhood.  The various speakers describe innovative pilot schemes designed to support the family unit.  It is so far from the visiting experience as us wives and mothers know it that the optimism in the room begins to grate.

These incremental changes that are the preserve of politicians and the patient make no sense to me in the wake of the enormous ticking time bomb that we are facing.  Just before I burst with irritation the Prison Reform Trust representative asks why it is that we are not addressing sentencing and fighting for prison to be a “last resort”.  Hallelujah.  I salute all those who can stomach the political game, but whilst sticking plaster is being applied to this rupturing system I am watching children weeping and collapsing outside the visiting room trying to fight their way back in to stay with their dads.  It is a truly pitiful sight.  The trouble is that these boys will get back in eventually.  2/3 of the male children of prisoners will become prisoners themselves.  It’s their destiny.

Jonathan Aitkin kindly invites me for tea at his home.  We sit by his fireside and chat.  Having experienced prison at first hand he now spends a large proportion of his free time advocating for penal reform.  I ask him how he can stand the torpid pace of change and our huge appetite in this country for locking people up.  He is a realist.  You chip away diligently at the block of stone fragment by fragment.  There is no other way.  He is generous with his time and his stories.  I see his sadness that people still shout after him in the Tube calling him a liar and a crook.  He wonders when the punishment ends.  When is the conviction spent?  What about second chances?  He also wonders what exactly I want to do with my reforming zeal.  It’s a good question that I have been asking myself of late to little avail.

At first I can think only about what I do not want.  A negative campaign is all the rage these days after all.  I do not want the family to be used as a silent weapon in the “fight against crime”.  We are the solution and should not be pawns.  I do not want to see an increase in the victims of crime, when men are released from prison in a worse state of dependency and mental health and with poorer prospects than when they entered.  I do not want to see us continue to follow America towards escalating sentencing or ape its insatiable hunger for separation and incarceration.

I do want to have a voice.  I want to fight stigma and shame with words and pictures.  I want to matter.  I want my children to matter.  Most of all I want to tell the stories of the people who have taken my place in Rob’s life because I am locked out and they are locked in with him.  The officers who somehow get up and try to work everyday in conditions that are frankly un-workable, the governors who want to innovate and personalise and don’t have the power, the wrongly convicted who can still raise a smile, the uneducated who have not been afforded the vocabulary of protest and vote with their feet and their fists, the abused who abuse, the depressed who survive, the hundreds of thousands of people whose humanity is eclipsed by a crime and a sentence, whose story is stripped away and replaced with a single lazy moniker “criminal”.

Hear my stories and reconsider what you think you know about the people we have given up on.  We need to be flexible and think outside the cage because our present is showing us that where the people go the politicians will follow.  Let’s fight the pull to return to the comfortable shape of what we think we know lest we should become tight and bound, condemning a whole outpost of society to remain forever strapped to society’s inglorious groin.

By | January 30th, 2017|

Sorry but…

Perhaps it is just January and the onset of the cold snap?  Perhaps I would be feeling this way even if my life hadn’t just been turned on its head and shaken violently, or perhaps I am just starting to come out of the state of shock that I have been in for the last 6 months?  It’s hard to pinpoint why now exactly, but suddenly I can cry.  Not pretty sniffy cute crying, no. Proper face contorting, mucus factory events that only those who really love you can witness without pity or revulsion.  Once the switch is flicked I’m at its mercy and utterly incontinent (in the eye department), which is awkward in public.  It’s good though.  I am a ship that has taken on water imperceptibly every time I have said “I’m fine” and I need to be bailed out.

I have an article in the Sunday Times Magazine which is great, but then, in the interests of balance I suppose (God forbid I should get anything good out of all of this), trolling also begins. I’m sort of flattered and sort of appalled at how badly brought up we are.  I was raised not to say anything if I couldn’t say something nice.  Admittedly I can’t say I always stick to that on this page: sometimes I just feel fierce and the dragon escapes, but I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to point out to someone that they deserved their pain.  The idea that my loss and that of my children is a good thing because it will strengthen the power of prison to act as a deterrent to speculative criminals, is dubious to say the least.  It has been common practice over the centuries to use women as weapons of war and persuasion but we tend to rather look down upon that sort of approach from our lofty enlightened Western perspective these days.  The whole idea rather assumes that I’m a chattel who should be added to the funeral pyre.  People are “sorry but” he should have thought about us when embarking upon his “crime”.  There is no “but” in “sorry” people.

I wouldn’t mind if prison was a deterrent or actually worked.  As Ken Clarke says, prison might work, but almost anything else you could think of works better.  The notion of crime as a considered choice is outdated and ill-informed in any case, without even taking into account the fact that miscarriages of justice, even just the ones we know about and overturn, are happening twice a day, every day, every week, every month of every year.  Add to that accidents, the arbitrary nature of our drug laws and the fact that crime is primarily driven by social factors, and the whole idea of deterrent becomes so pompous it’s embarrassing: the bray of those who believe they are where they are because they deserve to be, never considering the thousand advantages they don’t even know they have.

There.  I’ve done it again.  I’ve opened my mouth and said something that isn’t entirely nice.  The thing is that I don’t want to go along with the idea that I’m expected to be quiet about what I see in the visit halls: the children screaming to stay with their dads, the way the men sit and look at their hands whilst their families leave.  200,000 of our children will have a parent in prison every year and 1000 children (16 – 18 year olds) are actually incarcerated every year.  That’s a lot of sad children: a whole blighted swathe of our future and still we fight to curb our lust for retribution and tougher sentencing in this country.

Given that prisoners with strong family ties are 40% less likely to re-offend than those without, you would have thought that us “sorry” wives would be welcomed at the prison gates, but we are not.  Holding prison families together is the single best thing we can do to cut crime and yet the very mention of a conjugal visit will be met with derision and outrage.  I suspect this also has to do with our concept of wives and mothers generally:  sexless Madonnas for whom abstinence is a relief.  But many a prison relationship will break down over time.  Endless time, stretching out far over the horizon.

In Holland conjugal visits are routine.  The reason for them is less altruistic than you might think however.  If a conjugal visit is cancelled due to a prisoner’s misdemeanour, a wife will give a prisoner much more grief than any official disciplinary process can deliver.  It’s a skill us women have perfected over generations, and a tragically underutilised resource.  If we are to be used as weapons, at least let us be a force for good, and have some fun into the bargain.

Rob’s prison family continues to come up trumps.  C works in the gardens and so it is that as I chat to Rob on the phone, C walks past and presses a small bunch of fresh rocket into his hand.  I can hear chewing and then exclamations of rapture as raw pepperiness bursts onto a palate that is unaccustomed to anything fresh.  I didn’t even know that there were gardens at Highpoint.  Nothing that is grown in them seems to end up on the prisoners’ plates.  Presumably this little harvest is the result of some kind of initiative that no longer has funding or ticks the correct boxes. Kale is promised forthwith, and eagerly awaited.

J is worrying about his skin and asks Rob for advice.  The concept of vegetables is tentatively muted, and Rob’s heart sinks as he realises that he ought to do the right thing and hand over some of the contraband greenery.  Quick as a flash J tells Rob that he is all right, and points out with a wink that his Terry’s Chocolate Orange must count as at least one of his five a day!  Sorry but he just doesn’t like green stuff.

By | January 20th, 2017|

Brick in the Wall

Good news!  Rob is top of the list for the next Ormiston Trust Family Visit Day.  This is the Holy Grail of visiting days.  They only happen every five weeks and are booked up 6 months in advance, because what your kid will get is something approaching a normal afternoon with their dad: a whole five hours for entire families to be together in an open room that you can move around in – no desks and tables and chairs.  You can walk together and see each others’ faces from an angle that is not straight on.  You can maybe even dance.

Tala is wild with excitement!  The elaborate costumed dance routines she has always choreographed for him, involving complex lifts and spins for the express purpose of showing herself off to maximum effect continued up to the wire of his exit from our home life.  She doubts that they’ll have the space to really do themselves justice, and they’ll have to sing if they want music, but still… she is dreaming of her name in lights again, and of him in tights, and it is making her laugh and giggle in anticipation.

For a moment I forget this that is prison we are talking about and dare to look forward to a gentle ooze of time together.  The thought of being able to sit as one, on the floor maybe, resting against a wall perhaps, nestled into the crook of his arm, with the luxury of time just to be and breathe, is dangled tantalisingly in front of us.  To slip under the cloak of his protection just for a moment, and stop with the holding it together and the toughing it out.  To kick off the lead shoes and balance the seesaw of responsibility for just an afternoon.  To feel weightless and light the way I used to with him.

But then of course the bubble pops.  He is refused security clearance.  We aren’t told why but we know.  The “inappropriate touching” allegation is still on his record and spreading its malicious poison, and not even the incredulous House of Commons headed letter to the prison Governor, from sympathetic, hard working Diane Abbot MP, (a copy of which is pinned to my fridge) can remove it.  The crushing annihilating sense of impotence bears down menacingly once again.  Prisoners don’t have rights, nor do their families, not really.  An ill-educated, twisted guard can decide that a ten year old sleeping on her father’s lap while he stokes her back is paedophilia, and make it true.

If you have ever held your child or touched their back to soothe  them to sleep consider how it would feel if they were only allowed a paltry 2 hour visit 3 times a month with you.  Would they cry a little?  What is their crime?  Would they like a snatched moment of closeness?  If there is a concern about the safety of my daughter, then surely social services should be involved?  To steal from Alfred Doolittle, “I am willing to see them, I am wanting to see them, I am waiting to see them”.  I would deal with them any day of the week not to see Rob groping his way in the dark down the dead ends of the prison complaints procedure, always thwarted, the heel of the boot grinding him ever deeper into the dirt.  The injustice cutting into him.  Another brick in the wall.

Tala is quiet on the back of my bike as we cycle home in the dark from town.  She is tired.  The comfort blanket that she never had as a baby, fashioned now from Rob’s scarf in which she wraps herself ceremonially each night before sleep, isn’t working any more and her nightmares are back.  Bloody dreams where the dog has had her eyes removed or my face is beaten and swollen or Rob has had his legs removed below the knees.

I offer a penny for her thoughts as I pedal our joint weights laboriously through the night air and she reveals that she is thinking about where she will go if something happens to me.  With Okha gone I am her only buffer against the outside world.  Who would take her?  It’s funny because Rob has just had the same fear and has asked me to think about it and formalise the decision, so I swallow and run through some options with her, matter of fact and sensible as we glide through the cold January night.

She decides on her godparents, because they are amazing, live near her school, have a little boy who adores her, and a car (which is vital for prison visiting).  Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.  It’s a motto that has served us well.  She will climb peacefully into bed that night.  She is one of the lucky ones.  There will always be someone there for her.

I think about the nation’s orphans: a quarter of them will end up in prison, drawn inexorably into a current of crime and made to feel once again that no-one is there for them: just numbers, and never number one. It is a shameless waste of human potential.  Prison is a dead end sign for all who enter it: a resounding NO to everything they might have been. There are so many other solutions that are more fitting and effective interventions for the majority of cases: like gears on a bike we need to use the lowest gear for the terrain and stop the spiral of reoffending and hopelessness: personalised smart solutions.

I have watched my husband: a bright, entrepreneurial optimist with a loving family and a good education, brought to his knees by this blunt system that uses sledge hammers to crack nuts.  It cares not for the individuals in its grip and smashes them in the process.  Dostoyevsky said that the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.  What would he think about the state of our nation, fettered to an ailing prison service that is holding back not just our humanity, but our collective potential too?

By | January 11th, 2017|

New Year’s Eve

It is three minutes to midnight at Highpoint North and Keith decides that he is going to bed.  It’s a curious decision, not just because having come so far he may as well tough it out and share in the moment such as it is with his brothers in arms, but also because his cell mate C has been crystal clear throughout the day that on the strike of midnight he will be playing God Save the Queen, (the Sex pistols version obvi) at full volume. Sleep will not be a viable option.  Keith’s mind is made up however and so he will lie, long suffering in his bed throughout the deafening rendition, running over the past year perhaps and wondering why oh why oh why?

Rob likes C a lot.  He is interesting and thoughtful.  As a lifer he has had the chance to re-educate himself – he has the time.  He is generous too and is often to be seen bouncing around Unit 12 rattling a tub of Quality Street, dapper in a date night shirt (he has an array of these, all garnered from a previous prison job on a recycling unit), re-homing the toffees which he daren’t eat for fear of unwittingly expatriating his one remaining tooth which still clings valiantly and with unique alignment, to his upper jaw.

The New Year gets off to a good start when Unit 12’s B team win the Highpoint Four Aside Football Tournament, (indoor of course – God forbid anyone should be given access to actual fresh air or grass). Rob’s roommate J is their star player and Rob and C feel stirrings of quasi paternal pride as he returns home victorious.  J’s mum doesn’t know what to make of it when she comes for a visit and hears her boy talking posh and using big words all of a sudden.  Cellmates are the luck of the draw, but she wasn’t expecting this.  Wait ’til they get him started on the scrabble.

I wonder how a Nashville-bearded 54 year old yogi and a 22 year old boxer from Bermondsey manage so well together?  Division of tasks apparently: Rob is in charge of cell temperature and manages the window and air flow, and J controls the TV.  They both educate each other.  Rob is new to Big Brother and Undatables, but he confesses to finding popular culture more interesting than he had feared.  Acceptance is another key to surviving the shared cell: Rob will be deep breathing his way though his asanas well before seven which can, (and I speak from personal experience here), be mildly annoying.  Mostly though it is the realisation of how much they have in common that connects them: fatherhood, prison, adversity.

In Stokey we know how to let our hair down.  My sister-in-law Sarah pops in for a cup of tea with Grandma and me, and we sip and chat whilst keeping an eye on her dog Foxy who is recovering after an unfortunate space cake stealing incident at a teenage party and is still looking queasy and finding co-ordination of all four legs challenging.  She (Sarah, not the loose-living dog) has brought champagne but we can’t be bothered to open it, and stick with the tea.

Death, prison and divorce have rendered us all single tonight, and a combination of arthritis, canine drug abuse and baby sitting mean that we can’t go out, but it is one of the sweetest, cosiest New Years I can remember, with Tala asleep on the sofa and Okha awake in Thailand, texting in her greetings.

Rob and I used to have a pact never to leave the house on this night after a string of incidents in my twenties, most involving intoxication, unwise use of kitchen equipment and A and E, so it is no hardship for either of us to forgo the outside world and greet the New Year with sleepy sobriety, counting our blessings and feeling in spite of it all, that we are where we should be and that all is well.

By | January 4th, 2017|
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