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A Hot Day in Hell

The fires are raging. In light of recent events my petty challenges feel like a minor footnote on the epic arse of tragedy. Money is a God and this is his pound of flesh. There is shock and horror. As a nation we are basically OK with sacrificing the comfort, well being and ultimately the lives of the “have nots” as long as we don’t actually have to listen to them scream. I pass the Grenfell Tower on the Westway, it’s blackened shell macabre and tragically defiant: a charred middle finger to the pretty surrounding affluence.

In Portugal my friends watch in horror as it takes a forest fire 5 seconds to traverse the valley in front of their house. They escape with their lives… just. The children don’t even have shoes. No time to corral the cats who are left behind in the inferno. Scores of neighbours are incinerated in their cars as they flee. And all for money.

Central Portugal has been systematically turned into a giant and lucrative plantation. As a monoculture, Eucalyptus trees suck water and nutrients out of the earth like monstrous babies devouring their mother. They tower with reckless growth over the native species, which is marvellous for ticking EU grant boxes and producing cheap paper pulp, but deathly to the native flora and fauna and people. The dry, oil rich timber is petrol in the flames, feeding itself with demented abandon to the furnace.

This is not an act of God. I am not reconciled to it. These are not people without whom I can carry on. I am not calm. It is enough now with the sound bites and the short term thinking and the reckless gambling with the lives of “others”. This is our Earth and these are our people.

People are beautiful in a crisis. It is the love that will floor you every time. I have experienced it myself: the outpouring of solidarity from fellow human beings. Donations to the Grenfell survivors become problematic in scale. They have to ask people to stop giving. This is the human spirit when it is connected and perceiving common ground above differences. This alone gives me hope.

It’s hot in the city and tempers fray in our house. I just can’t seem to climb out from underneath the piles of washing up to achieve anything useful. If I get back to zero every day I feel like I’m ahead, but I’m not. Creative and financial productivity is dangerously low. Something has to give and currently that thing is threatening to be my sanity.

The girls’ birthdays dare to come around again. I am unsure about the ethics of leaving six 11 year olds with unsupervised access to a canister of helium, but the castrated squirrel voice effect of the gas undeniably renders the Harry Potter theme amusing to all present and negates the need to entertain them in a more wholesome fashion.

Grandma is in residence too. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. This lady has an indefatigable elegance that withstands even the humbling act of being observed trying to peel a carrot with a carrot. We try to laugh about what is happening to her but watching as your faculties diminish appears to approximate the horror of experiencing a slow lobotomy with insufficient anaesthetic. In her more virile days my M in L often implored me to to put her in the river at the bottom of her garden if she ever got too daft. Fortunately she has moved. We could both do with a dip somewhere today that is for sure, but I’m reluctant to add euthanasia to the family rap sheet.

In the slammer it’s scorching. At visiting, in the deafening hall that is thick with sweat, Rob looks as if he has been partially barbecued. An officer marvels at how the men all file out of their cells into the baking concrete exercise yard of an afternoon to fry. The thing is that an hour of hot air a day, unpleasant as it is, is all there is, and better than no air at all, AKA suffocation.

Speaking of hot air and asphyxiation Truss is gone. Her replacement David Lidington is an unknown whose voting records don’t bode well unless you have an intense dislike of foxes or gays, but I’m dying to be proved wrong.

For some reason, that I haven’t quite been able to fathom, I get invited to dinner at a Mayfair club to talk prison reform with a table of people whose services to the cause before breakfast today have likely eclipsed everything I have achieved in my lifetime. I attempt to make up for my poor credentials by looking certainly not hot, but at least slightly better in a dress than the majority of hairy ex cons with direct experience of life inside, and hope that the assembled company prefer anecdote to actual activism.

There are so many good people inside and outside the “service” pulling what remains of their hair out trying to mitigate a debacle perpetuated by one thing and one thing only: massive overcrowding. Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust is categorical that prison should be a last resort for as few people and for as little time as possible because, as he knows all too well having run Wandsworth for years, prison makes everything worse. In prison less is definitely more.

There are intakes of breath when I disclose the whereabouts of my husband. No-one really knows what prison wives look like because we are a hidden breed and don’t usually wear our name tags, remaining unknown even to each other unless in situ. Telling the world at large that you have lain with the enemy and intend to do so again, (though not for some time unless they get a move on with ROTL), is strictly against the rules but no-one told me that, so the cat is out of the bag and I’m shooting my mouth off, disclosing inside secrets like the fact that this system is totally f***ed, and dancing on HMP’s hot tin roofs with gay abandon (don’t tell Lidington).

At the dinner those with the unenviable task of running prisons confess to dreading the onset of a long hot summer. Prisons are tinderboxes at the best of times. Forget sprinkler systems, there’s not even a fan or an ice cube at the disposal of the people on the front line trying to stop this bonfire igniting.

Lidington, if you are listening, we need escape routes back, front and centre in Her Majesties fiery hell holes, and we need them now. You’ve got to get some (I’d say roughly half) of these men out before it is too late. The alarm bell has been sounded, ignore it at your peril, or more accurately at the peril of all those who have always had less opportunity, less care, less education and less power than yourself.

By | June 23rd, 2017|

The Burbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | June 9th, 2017|

Missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | May 29th, 2017|

Midday Sun

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

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

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

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

With anticipation he unfurls the paper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | May 18th, 2017|

The Effing Clap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | May 11th, 2017|

Mayday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | May 4th, 2017|

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|
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