About Josie

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So far Josie has created 66 blog entries.

The Wrong Trousers

Rob’s mate Z, an ex pro footballer, is carrying on where I left off with Rob’s culinary care.  He always gives Rob his potato waffles having decided, correctly perhaps, that there is no nutritional value in them and he doesn’t actually like them.  Rob agrees, but the Irish in him makes him very partial to potato products, and the right to eat things behind locked doors and in the relative privacy of his jail cell that no self respecting nutritionist’s husband would ever dare to put in his mouth on the out, acts as a uniquely liberating influence.  Rob now eats whatever he can get his hands on: it’s the calories that count if you want to keep your trousers up.

Z also makes a mean prison cheese cake (no baking required) out of his canteen purchases. (I’m unsure whether it actually contains any cheese, as eggs, cheese and butter are considered seditious for some reason and have been taken off the canteen list on the North side, but it tastes awesome apparently).  Getting it between the locked spurs is tricky however and their first attempt meets with disaster:

Z cuts a generous slice onto a plate and proceeds to propel it decisively across the open floor space between the wing cages.  His torque is slightly wrong though (perhaps he is better with his feet) and the cake flies off the plate, which, having jettisoned its cargo, smashes into the opposite wall.  Helpers arrive on both sides of the divide and hastily cobble together a recovery plan, whilst Z and Rob wet themselves with hysterical laughter and are no help whatsoever, but even these resourceful types can’t produce a long enough rescue implement to reach their quarry before a random prisoner, who as luck may have it is being escorted down the corridor, interprets the 5 second rule in a liberal fashion, and eats it.

Operation Cheese Cake mark 2 is more sophisticated and involves tuppaware.  Simultaneously channeling Lampard, Gerard and Ronaldo, Z aims well and scores with a decisive shot under the left hand corner of the bars and Rob finally gets his benefaction.

During the strike lock down Tala was worried about how Daddy would eat.  She herself, mid growth spurt, does so almost continually and has to supplement mealtimes with hourly Special K injections just to keep things ticking over.  She needn’t have worried.  Prisoners were issued with a pack of white bread and something almost resembling cheese in the absence of a meal, and in any case, Rob keeps a supply of tinned kippers under the mattress.  Last night there was some sort of glitch with the food so the men just got carrots and rice pudding instead of the curry that should have been on.  This sort of thing is a blow to the institutionalised, and even more so to Rob who isn’t a big carrot man (“They just don’t go”) ,and especially not when they have been liberally boiled into something unlikely to contain more than a memory of minerals.

The Daily Mail announces confidently that prisoners are eating steak (the lucky bastards) and wouldn’t we all like to be sitting around watching telly and living it up like them.  Sadly, the overcrowding situation in British jails makes it unlikely that I could indulge the editor with a free trial at one of the HMPs, but I suspect he might find it slightly less agreeable than his bravado suggests.  Prisoners are given TV’s in the way I dish out screen time to my ten year old, because I am too lazy (or occasionally hung over) to do anything else with her.  It is a drug they are fed in the absence of education or rehabilitation. It is not given as a privilege, but rather as an anaesthetic.  Everything else they are supposed to have, they don’t.  Except drugs.  Huge amounts of them, anywhere, any place, anytime, for a price… which is sometimes death.

Still, the Daily Mail were top of a league table charting the number of breaches of the editor’s code of conduct, (beating its closest rival the Sun by more than double), so perhaps someone from the paper may yet get to sample the cushy life of the incarcerated.  P.S. Anyone from the Mail want to give me a column? I could use the cash and, incredibly, every one of their readers gets a vote so it might be an idea to let them know what is actually going on inside, and why.

Yes, there are a handful of very unpleasant individuals who are probably where they should be until they can be given an alternative vision of what it is to be human from that handed down to them as children brought up knowing nothing else but violence and abuse and fear as is almost invariably the case with bullies, but the majority of prisoners are, in Rob’s experience, pretty decent people, and often unusually kind, funny and even brilliant.

Prison reform doesn’t happen because it isn’t a vote winner not because it can’t be done.  That is changing at the moment because of the rapid and inexorable slide of our penal institutions towards out and out anarchy.  Rob is pleased that his current abode is topical.  He moved out East when West was still best and was always ahead of the curve – an early adopter you might say, wearing trousers that looked all wrong to the uninitiated and then suddenly so right as the rest of us dragged ourselves wearily towards the next fashion imperative.

Although he’d doubtless rather be in N16 with us, he is currently happy again, and praying to stay put until after Christmas at least. His nightly scrabble battles with the Libor Americans (hung out to dry by Barclays for trading irregularities that were ubiquitous and widespread to the point of institutionalisation), and AJ, (an ex-Tamal Tiger for whom English is his third language and who is thus given considerable leeway with his spelling upon occasion), are a nightly source of raucous hilarity.  One can’t help feeling that they might be better off doing some kind of government work at home on a tag for the next nine years, contributing to society and funded by their families: these are pretty bright guys…. but I’m sure Liz Truss knows best.

Rob never challenges the Sri Lankan on his letter arrangements and in fact argues the Tiger’s case vehemently, advocating passionately for words such as “scaringz” (multiple frights), as they have a pact to beat the Americans at any cost.  He was jubilant this morning on the phone, having almost won last night. “Doesn’t that mean you lost?” I ask somewhat insensitively.  “Well yes, but not by much”. Sounds a bit like us.  So close and yet so far.

By | November 22nd, 2016|

Namaste

It is remembrance Sunday and I listen to the sombre reverent tones of a memorial service: An honouring of our brave boys, except that 1 in 10 prisoners are ex-servicemen and are living in squalor courtesy of Her Majesty.  PTSD is just one of the plethora of mental illnesses at the heart of offending, poverty and incarceration.

“The Secret Life of Prisons” (shot on illegal camera phones inside) airs on Channel 4 and I watch a father’s face as he sees his mentally ill son volunteering to be punched violently in the head in exchange for mamba.  I see the anarchy, the addiction, the violence and the hopelessness.  Rob has seen all of this and so much more. It’s nothing.  He doesn’t even warn me that I will be shocked and scared for him.

Prison officers are striking nationwide over safety: theirs and the prisoner’s. I hear nothing at all from Rob all day.  I hope it is because he is locked up.  The thought of what else would keep him from the phone is something I don’t want to consider.

The Minister for prisons is on the radio blaming “new psychoactive substances” (he means mamba/spice), for the upsurge in violence. How convenient.  Nothing to do with staff shortages then and the inevitable lock downs and human caging that results.  The 2,500 extra part-time guards promised by 2018 is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed, even if they can be recruited on pitiful pay and dire working conditions.  Nothing to do with the fact that most of the inmates are addicts whose illnesses are not being treated.

A heinous fart of pressure is building up in the holding pens that pass for prisons in the UK and they are beginning to blow in the form of suicides, escapes, riots and strikes.  This is not going to be pretty.

Luckily however the minister has a solution to the spice problem. Random drug tests.  Ta dah! Now we can make lists of the people we already know are taking drugs, punish them more (because that really works), whilst simultaneously sparking an internal trade in child pee as prisoners everywhere make like Withnail and carry a sachet of unadulterated urine with them at all times.

In the interest of balance (between idiocy and common sense) they also get Ken Clarke on the program.  He describes British prisons as “overcrowded slums” into which we funnel a greater percentage of our population than any other European country with no positive effect on crime figures whatsoever, and explains in a single sentence how to sort it out: Lock up only those who are a danger to others or themselves, rehabilitate, treat addiction and mental illness and use fines and tags where punishment is necessary. Attaboy Ken.

Fortunately we are not alone in Europe (well not yet anyway) in having a problem with our prison service.  Holland is in trouble too. A BBC news headline reads “Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners.” Ah.  Slightly different problem to ours then.

Their reluctance to lock up anyone but the most violent or persistent offenders, coupled with a shift away from a war on drugs in favour of the pursuit of human traffickers and terrorists means that most criminality is effectively dealt with using community service orders, fines and tagging, leading to the closure of 19 prisons, and this despite having had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe a decade ago.

You see it really isn’t that hard.  We could turn this ship around, but we are currently plotting a very different course across the Atlantic towards the American Nightmare.

I go for supper at Cyril’s house.  The one who got away.  Since mentioning the shamefully (for a nutritionist) erratic eating habits I have occasionally adopted of late, I have had more dinner invitations that I can shake a stick at.  It’s fantastic.  Might I add that I have criminally little (all right not any at all) Chanel in my wardrobe?

I remember meeting Cyril at the film industry mecca of Cannes in a jaunty suit and trainers, looking impossibly dashing and fresh faced when he started out working for Rob 14 years ago.  Now he is tasked with re-homing the staff and dismantling the business they built together.  Rob’s space on the desk where they worked side by side is sterile and tidy; the banter between them silenced by absence.

As the judge pronounced his co-defendants guiltily one after the other Cyril saw the bullet with his name on it suspended inches from his forehead.  Despite being pronounced not guilty, the bullet has lingered and follows him still months afterwards in his dreams.  In a supermarket car park he is paralysed with fear and cannot get out of the car.
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I ask him somewhat selfishly to relive the sentencing.  I fantasise that perhaps he might have experienced the euphoria of the reprieve that I had longed for.  Did he make the ecstatic call to his wife – the call I had played out a hundred times in my mind when it seemed there were still two paths ahead?

But no-one really got out of this jail free.  There was no happy call, just a rising tide of tears that overtook Katja so savagely as she sat at her desk at work, that she could not stem their flow or speak or explain herself.  Not tears of relief.  Tears of bitter sadness for our sake.

Empathy is a beautiful thing because without it we could just imagine that other people don’t suffer or love or hope or fail as we do.  In our cellar there is a broken neon sign that spells out “Namaste” in a looped font.  It was damaged in transit on one of the many house moves that have punctuated our life together and belonged to Rob before I knew him.  I plan to repair it and never do. It’s a sanskrit word that can be translated in many ways.  The most powerful for me is this understanding: “I recognise myself in you and you in myself”.

One day, (and I trust, naively perhaps, that it will be soon), we will look back at the way we treat the most vulnerable section of our society: our soldiers, our sick, our poor, our disenfranchised, our foster children, our weak… and our inability to see more in them than their mistake will shock our children.  We will shake our heads in wonder at the barbarism of it all, of the “them and us” mentality, of the shameless superiority and schadenfreude.

Namaste

By | November 17th, 2016|

Post Truth Generation

I wake up feeling decidedly wobbly.  It’s probably just the cold, or the fact that supper was pistachio nuts and Nutella off the spoon, but I feel hopeless. This is not a time span that you can wish away. It is relentless.  He is not here and he is not here and he is not here.

Loneliness opens up like a chasm in my chest.  Crying feels like an admission of defeat, so I don’t and get up and do what needs to be done for the children.  Lunches, laundry, love. I am so blessed with support from every angle, but images of familial contentment have began to hound me.  After a wonderful supper with friends their Daddy comes home on his bike to them, flushed both with cold and the warmth they are about to give him, and ours does not.

I turn on the radio.  Dear God no! America has just elected to its highest office a man who thinks that it is acceptable to face the world pretending that the dead thing on his head, that looks as if it has been cobbled together from the contents of the plug hole after a molting orangutan bath, is hair.

I’ve kind of had it with the will of the people.  Brexit and Trump are indicative omens of our time.  Facts and truth and considered opinion seem to be relics from a bygone age and now what is important is how things can be made to appear, like having hair in places where you clearly don’t.

The vilification of “Brexit Blocker” judges in the Daily Mail (other crappy papers also available), complete with mugshots and details of their earnings, plus their sexual and religious orientation, was also extraordinary.  They were asked to advise on a legal matter, did so, and are now being publicly stoned for their expert opinion and accused of standing in the way of “The People”.

The dynamics of this situation, along with the way Trump has conducted himself and his campaign in the U.S. and then won, are national and global examples so redolent of my own small personal tragedy: of why I am here and Rob is not, that I feel hopeless all over again.  We are a post truth generation.  It is rhetoric over fact.  It is the triumph and the Trump of fear.

Benevolent dictatorship Plato style is sounding good to me right now.  Lets have Sandy Toksvig for Philosopher Queen: at least we could all laugh as the country follows the U.S. to the dogs.  For pity’s sake don’t let the people decide on anything more vital than Bake Off.

In what I would like to describe as shock and horror, but is actually closer to resignation at the predictability of the will of white males everywhere, I take to the page and consider that the very fact that I am able to do is this is because I am taking advantage of the post truth generation tool: the internet – a platform that requires no qualification.  I am not an expert on the law or the prison system or relationships and certainly not on politics.  I am a pissed off woman telling it as I see it.  It’s just a story, but then, what isn’t?

I wonder about truth.  It has always seemed like a laudable principle.  In the context of Brexit and the US election more of it would have been welcome.  The truth sets you free apparently. But when applied as an absolute and abiding rule it too can become a blunt instrument of pain in its own right. If the truth is something you vomit up and pass off as a delicacy by dint of veracity, it will still taste like sick.  On a personal level, I’m in the suck it up, keep it inside, internalisation of angst camp.

Part of me is glad that the prison phone system only works one way.  After a bracing walk with the dog and a hug from one of Rob’s best mates, I have rebuilt my mental health sufficiently to avoid splurging Rob with my own fears and loss when he calls.  I hide the overwhelm.  We talk about Trump.  I don’t tell him that I am dying alone here.  What good will it do to tell it? He can’t do anything, change anything, fight for anything, love me or hold me from where he is.  Talk is cheap, (or it would be if prisoners weren’t being overcharged three times over), and even more so when there is so much left unsaid, but we have nothing else today.  Nothing more until the next visit in nearly two weeks time.

I receive poetry written inside from an ex offender.  It is so powerful and poignant and redolent with a despair that is so bitterly familiar to me about the breakdown of his marriage, the dreadful inability to hold his children and the mountain of hours and days and years ahead, that I can’t take it anymore and I give myself over to the sobbing that must out. Something new breaks in me.  We have to stop the punishment.

Liz Truss, please, help these men in your care! Don’t sit there like a smug muggle Professor Umbridge presiding over the chaos that is erupting in the correctional establishments whose numbers you actually want to increase, so that we can lock more people up in them rather than actually reducing our offending rates? (which are incidentally the worst in the world).  Don’t spend your life getting into a position of power only to do with it something ineffectual and wasteful.  Men are rioting and breaking out of your prisons because they have nothing left to lose (and by the way there is no way the Pentonville escapees made it out without both outside and inside help). Speak to the service users.  Hear them.  Don’t sit in your ivory tower forcing them to write “I must not tell lies” on their hands over and over until they bleed.  They are already bleeding.  And so are we on “the out” without them. That is the truth.  Hear my prayer and help us, and God help America.

By | November 9th, 2016|

Great Expectations

I set off for the BBC to record the interview for Woman’s Hour. Tala sets the bar of expectation low for my first foray into mainstream media. Her parting shot is: “Mamma try not to burp on the radio”. It’s good advice which I manage to follow. Jane Garvey is fiercely bright and business like and I sense that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She asks me things and I try to answer them as honestly as I can. After we finish I have no idea what I have said, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve missed plenty of tricks. When the interview airs the following day however, apart from sounding so posh that I could slap myself, I am surprised to hear a reasonably lucid conversation.

I check my website to see what’s happening and find that it has crashed. When I finally get on there have been 3000 hits before the end of the program and this continues to rise throughout the day, quadrupling itself after the piece makes the weekend show. I get emails from other women in my situation and much worse, beautiful letters from random strangers and hundreds of sign-ups to the site.

I can’t believe it. In this world where there is so much to be upset about, so much misery and confusion and madness, people still have the time and energy to be interested in the lives of a convict and his family. It is an incredible feeling to be wrapped in layers of protection that radiate outwards from my family, to my friends, to acquaintances, to friends of friends and now to total strangers who happened to turn on the radio on Tuesday morning. I feel like the penguin in the centre of an Antarctic huddle.

Rob doesn’t catch the Tuesday broadcast because he is in “labour”. I hope it isn’t as painful as mine were. There isn’t a box with “wife on the radio” that can be ticked to excuse him from disassembling a computer(?) which is what passes for education at Lowpoint so I urge him to commit an act of civil disobedience and refuse to leave his cell, or at least pull an old fashioned sickie – “Ferris Beuller’s day off” is a family favourite and we have both observed our occasionally reluctant and resourceful offspring enough times to know what to do, but he is still pursuing his enhanced status, which would let him draw down more money weekly and entitle us to an extra visit a month and he doesn’t want to risk the penalty.

Even in jail where there is so little to achieve, the basic human drive to succeed and prosper is still a powerful force in him. Acceptance is a tough nut to crack. He is becoming a little desperate about his dwindling funds. Now that he isn’t working, even though he has money in his “spends” (his personal account that I have paid into), he isn’t entitled to access enough of it to continue to call us every day and still buy essentials like washing powder, or cod liver oil (a great vitamin D source and vital for these men who get virtually no access to daylight for years on end) or fruit. One of the reasons for this is that the call rate out of the prison is three times the standard rate. Talk about kicking a man when he is down.

Even when he does have credit he can’t get to the phone much at the moment however as staff shortages mean that the men are being locked down almost permanently. I stop expecting him to call in the afternoons. It is better not to expect.

The upside of the lock up is that Rob is reading avidly and is becoming a full on bibliophile. He starts to attend book club. Along with getting religion (he has chosen Hinduism mostly in a bid to get in on the Diwali feasting I suspect), you get ticks for activities like this that supposedly contribute to eligibility for enhancement. The endless jumping through hoops and singing for your supper. One of the club attendees is a traveller who has already served ten out of a certain seventeen years of his sentence for a murder.   He is extraordinary well informed about history and literature and comes alive when he shares his knowledge. He learns for its own sake. For the sheer joy.  There can be no other reason.

It is Sunday and bitingly cold suddenly. I think about people making roasts for their families and almost regret the no cook zone in my kitchen. Tala is at ballet all day, Arsenal have anaesthetised the surrounding populace into a familiar low level of tepid disappointment with a draw, Okha is AWOL without a functioning phone and the dog looks horrified when I suggest a late walk in the drizzling dusk. The coziness of the house seems insurmountably hard to maintain with all of its people scattered and winter closing in.

Luckily we have fresh blood. In an attempt to keep my head above water and service the plethora of bills that continue to mount up: council tax, insurance, water, electric, gas etc. etc. I have turfed Okha out of her loft space, shoe horned her extravagant collection of make up and costumery into the spare room and rented her room out. Admittedly it’s a little brutal, but we have to be practical. Our lodger is gorgeous – quiet and friendly and she cleans the sink after she washes up. I like the feeling of another body in the home. It’s win win in an otherwise pretty relentlessly lose lose situation.

As the dog and I face off over the walking situation, there is a knock at the door. I open it to find Okha’s ex-boyfriend arriving to spend the afternoon with her as per their yesterdays arrangement. She isn’t home and sends no word to him until two and a half hours later. We sit in the kitchen together and I eat everything that is readily available from the fridge (left over pasta, a stray sweet potato pie and some almond butter) whilst we chat.

He has been travelling and has grown almost beyond recognition in the last year, full of stories and photos that he shares with me. The depth of his continued love for my child, for whom, despite her faults and even as he is being stood up, he has nothing but respect and admiration, moves me to tears that I try to hide for fear of freaking him out. How many of us can love when it is futile and stay open when it would be so much less painful to cut off and walk away?

It isn’t the afternoon either of us expected, but weirdly, it works. We sit there, bridging gender and age gaps, united in loving someone who is not there and it makes me think about Amy singing “Love is a Loosing Game”. Love is something that you do against rubbish odds, hopelessly and into the void. No expectations.

By | November 7th, 2016|

Hallelujah

I wake early.  Can’t sleep.  I sing “Hallelujah” softly to myself in the 5am darkness.  Jeff Buckley saved me once before from the depths of a depression in my twenties. I’m not depressed now, far from it.  I was once told that depression is anger turned inwards and my anger is very much out.

At visiting we are again seated at the top of the hall right next to the guards whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly over our pitiful table-separated huddle. Tala knows that she can’t sit on Rob’s knee any more. She has her T-shirt tucked firmly in too, and a jumper for good measure.  Her long legs are bare though.  She doesn’t even realise that they, along with a ten year old’s lower back apparently, may be considered salacious and I am not going to dignify this lunacy by telling her.  As she gets up to make her way to the queue for the cafe (she loves to get the tea), she stops and gives him a quick, furtive hug, her eyes flashing guiltily towards the watchers.  She looks hunted.  Rob has lodged a formal complaint against the note on his file and just that morning has received a reply saying that the comments cannot be removed and apparently other guards also noticed the “inappropriate behaviour”. The closing of ranks.

A father and a daughter somehow managed to find a moment of intimacy and peace within that infernal visit hall, and that cannot be stomached.  No happiness here please.  No cheating the system.  Suffering only.

We have been dragged through the courts on a charge that, according to the tax expert should never have reached court.  We have been convicted by a lay jury against the ruling of a judge. We have been sentenced and separated and have taken all of this as our lot, but to have insinuations of sexual abuse, which would make Rob a paedophile, Tala a victim and me an aider and abetter, tossed carelessly into the mix is the proverbial straw breaking the camels back.  It is enough now. Enough.

I know that what is happening to us is nothing in the scale of human suffering.  I think about Aleppo, North Korea and the bereaved everywhere and know that I have nothing to whinge about, but if I don’t allow myself to let it be significant that this separation and this Dickensian prison dis-service are destroying the lives we once had, I would feel as if I had done what I am expected to do and just rolled over and died.  So I am letting myself roar on this page instead.  I dedicate my life to being as free as possible, as much of a foil to his incarceration as possible.  I want to tear the doors off all the cages – those imposed upon us and also those of my own making.  I want to live and I want it to be wild and free.

Fortunately for us all there is mostly too much basic housework and admin to do just to keep our heads above water for me to really devote enough time to the ML crisis to action this brief, but I do my best to indulge in defiant happiness when I get day release from my duties now and again.  Today has been fun though.  I have been interviewed at the BBC about prisonbag.com by my intellectual crush Jane Garvey for Woman’s Hour – intense, impossibly brief, but nonetheless exciting! It will be aired tomorrow (Nov 1st) at 10am.

Back to reality now and I plod through the laundry between writing, dog walking and Halloween preparations.  I open the lint tray to peel off the satisfying pale violet down and think how a machine designed to do one thing – dry, is also imperceptibly eating the clothes as a side effect of its relentless tumbling: a slow thinning and ageing of everything it touches.

Our family, and thousands like us are suffering a similar fate as we are thrown into the system and left to spin endlessly around in it, the reality of our lives together slowly eroding.  What will be left when he comes out? Will we still be recognisable to each other or will be just be a mush of lint, homogenised into something new but useless and unwearable?

Rob looks remarkably well at visiting.  He has become known as the yoga guy and is being asked to teach by other inmates.  The prison won’t let them have a room despite an abundance of potential available spaces, so they modify a cell and make it work.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nick Brewer, an extraordinary man who served a six year sentence in South America for drug smuggling. (He had also spent time in a UK jail many years earlier and found Buenos Aries infinitely preferable). He somehow came by a yoga manual during his second year and spent the next five years entirely reforming himself physically, emotionally and spiritually with twelve hours a day of practice and self awareness, by putting himself into a kind of voluntary solitary confinement and immersing himself in this one book.  He now runs his own yoga centre and attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to teach in prisons. You would be hard pressed to meet a more charming and interesting man, or a system less interested in the reformation of anyone in its “care”.

At jolly old Lowpoint North Rob’s cell mate who is erudite and principled is trying to study for an upcoming exam without any of his books which have been stuck in the system for months now.  Perhaps the books need to be read in their entirety prior to approval and are just to tedious for anyone to be bothered with the task? The thought of creating any kind of peaceful study or rehabilitation space here is ludicrous.

From what I can hear on the phone it is like a a sort of macabre Butlins in there, with constant announcements over the Tannoy, but these are not Redcoats calling the happy campers in for fun and games, these are shouts to get back to the cells for lock up or out of them for exercise or blithe threats announced by dumb, power titillated 20 year olds in uniforms that “anyone who comes to the office asking for anything non urgent will get an immediate loss of all privileges”. Rob’s cell mate immediately heads off for the office and lets them know exactly what he thinks of this latest edict.  Nothing happens to him – It’s an empty threat blurted out by a boy with a toy and the tingle of power in his veins.

What exactly does he consider non urgent anyway? There are eighty eight people on the emergency dental list at Highpoint South including Rob’s old sheet ripping compadre K, and none of them have been anywhere near a dentist in all the time they have been inside, which probably adds up to centuries between them.  If you have ever had toothache for a day you will know what urgent feels like, but no-one here cares. They hand out the drugs and lock the cell doors.  There is always screaming in the night in jail.  Urgent was probably how it felt before almost a hundred people took their own lives and 32,000 self harmed last year in UK jails.  Good morning Campers.  Ho-de-ho!

By | October 31st, 2016|

Belieber

Yes I am! Scoff if you want to, but Justin Bieber singing “Love Yourself” is hot – end of story.  Okha, the barometer of all things cool and also my effortlessly groovy niece Lucca agree.  I rest my case.  There is something surprisingly beautiful about his cocktail of youth and overexposure, something unique and inimitable, which when coupled with the tats and that bod, is like catnip to me at this stage of life.  Yes sisters, our peri-menopausal surges can be pretty much on a level with a 17 year old boy’s, (not that I’m suggesting finding one…). It is as if the remaining eggs are jumping from the ovaries into the pre-fallopian void screaming “Come on love, there are precious few of us left down here…lets make this one count…!”

There are a lot of things that I am discovering about myself now without my beloved wingman.  It turns out for example that I don’t really like cooking as much as we all thought I did, and actually, it is vastly less time consuming to just eat children’s left overs or live on avocado, salmon and cherry tomatoes.

Also, I quite like eschewing the virtues of Radio 4 and listening to Grimmy on Radio 1 in the mornings (his irreverence just makes me laugh), and I really really like going out again – it’s fun! After years of being endlessly content to watch box sets snuggled up on the couch with Tala asleep upstairs and Okha being badly behaved enough for all of us, a new era of sociability is dawning.

Conversely I also realise that it is super useful to have someone around to do tall jobs…but fortunately Okha ensures a generous flow of DIY fodder through the house and we manage.  People are so good to us and we want for nothing socially or practically.  I am truly blessed.

Any doubts about the fact that I was embarking upon a full scale midlife crisis were dispelled when my deliciously stylish French friend Sophie handed me down a pair of leather trousers worth more than the entire contents of my wardrobe and I have not been able to take them off since.  If someone would just give me a Ferrari… The jury is no longer out (on at least two levels!). I’m forty three, my husband is in the slammer: I am ‘aving a crisis and I’m going to blooming well enjoy it.

I feel sassy and “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” about the whole thing.  I didn’t choose this, in fact there is probably nothing on earth that would have entreated me to get back into the world again and leave my contented bubble of domestic bliss and marital harmony, other than the precise situation that did occur, but here I am, in full breakdown, supervised only by a ten year old.

Viewed less derisively, some tentative trusting part of myself knows that it is invigorating to break down, and that change is good, or at least inevitable, but at the moment I feel like a landscape after a forest fire, charred and smouldering and devoid of the structures that hitherto dominated it, waiting to see what will grow.

It’s not a comfortable thing for a man to watch his family survive and change between the brief snatches of connection in the visiting hall.  Worse is to see them not surviving and sinking under the weight of the bills and the single parenting and the shame.  When you sit in your cell at night wondering if you are any use to your family anymore, or whether you will have any point for them when you get out, it must be like pulling at a loose thread in a piece of cloth and watching in morbid fascination as the life you dream of returning to unravels.

We talk about these fears in so far as we can in the fleeting 10 minute calls that are always interrupted too soon by the beeps indicating that we are about to be disconnected.  There is no other way through than to trust and to hope and to pray and to love each other. These will be long years.

I learn that there will be no release on a tag for Rob. Only those serving sentences of four years or less are eligible, so there is no hope for us with his nine year stretch.  Eventually he will get to a cat D and there will be day release but when or where and if and how are all unanswerable questions.

Prison is already a terrible punishment.  There is more deprivation than you can imagine if you have not experienced it first hand.  It is disempowering and dehumanising.  The only thing that could possibly save these men from what they could become in this environment is connection with their families.  For the families, having a father or husband or son or brother inside is like a constant gaping wound.  It serves no-one to increase the collateral pain by making visiting and communication so hard.

Why does it have to be so inefficient?  I write Rob an email every day, not because I have anything meaningful to say, (in fact my mails are mostly senseless drivel by the time I have finished cleaning up after the day and have crawled bedwards), but I want him to have a daily snippet of kindness and love.  No one processes the emails until boredom has reached some kind of zenith in the staff room however, or the doughnuts have run out and someone cracks and delivers the week long backlog, so that suddenly there are four or five missives awaiting him after work in his cell, and then a dearth of humanity until the next sporadic delivery.  Ditto with his letters to me.  Four at a time drop onto my doormat, then nothing.  Books take roughly 5 weeks to clear security.  Does the prison actually read them in their entirety before green lighting them?
If we have any aspiration at all towards rehabilitation we need more humanising influences, more love and more meaning in these mens lives, and even if we are utterly intent on punishing them to the point where they are entirely broken into some kind of utopian submission, could we at least improve family access for the children?  Supposedly there are family visits at Highpoint roughly every month – a 5 hour session that has the potential to actually facilitate some kind of half normal interaction.  Rob applied in August.  The next one that might have spaces is in February.  Maybe.  If you are a believer.

By | October 25th, 2016|

Goodbyes

Friday afternoon and I miss a call again – the result of the incompatibility between iPhones and wet fingers.  It is a distressed, bordering on depressed message.  Rob is to be moved to Highpoint North – only five minutes down the road, but a whole different ball game.  He has been offered this supposed upgrade several times now and turned it down, but today when he refuses to move he is told that if he doesn’t go he will be put on report and “basic” – no money and potentially no visits.  He packs his scant possessions together and is gone within half an hour.

There are no goodbyes.  Friendships are hard won in prison: people are perhaps understandably wary, but these relationships are simultaneously the only thing that make the inside bearable.  Rob will be starting again…again.  Anyone who knows prison knows that every time you get comfortable, they move you.  The rug is constantly being pulled from under your feet and you either live with the ill effects of this ever present stress or find a way to relax into the perpetual free fall.

Keith is also moved, but not to the same spur.  Charlie will supposedly follow next week.  Rob is in the dreaded induction wing again, sharing the tiny, bunked cell with a Somalian who seems to be using the entire pad as a bin.  Dirty plates, general rubbish and clothes of dubious cleanliness litter the floor.  He is a slob, but is otherwise inoffensive.  It could be so much worse.  Rob spends the entire night awake listening to the rattling snores of this stranger, enforced intimacy reiterating the loneliness with each shuddering respiration.  He comforts himself by imagining my arms around him; Nothing to hold on to except memories and dreams and projections.

We are due to visit the following Monday with Grandma.  It has been a complicated operation to procure her from Worcester now that she doesn’t drive and is too frail to travel alone.  She is a tiny bird like figure, always immaculate, increasingly forgetful and disheartened by her diminishing usefulness. She is a delight; A beautiful selfless presence.  It is incomprehensible to her that her son should be incarcerated.  She has told no-one except her sister.

It’s Sunday morning and I check the Monday visiting hours for North. There is no Monday visit.  This is a disaster.  Rob’s mum has invested in a new salmon pink jumper and has had her hair done.  Her longing for him is palpable and I feel desperate for her.  I ring the visiting line but it’s a weekday service.  I ring the prison itself and am surprised to eventually get through to an actual person.

I explain.  He also tries unsuccessfully to contact the visiting office.  I explain again and beg for help.  He calls the assistant governor and is reliably informed that the monday visit will be honoured.  Phew – panic over.  But something niggles at me.  I know this system now and it seems increasingly unlikely to me that we would get access on a non visit day – there is just too much red tape.  I call back and speak to a woman who incredulously assures me that I will certainly not be able to visit on Monday.  I would have made a 3-4 hour round trip for nothing!  The previous phone operator was at best a fantasist, at worst a sadist, but probably in reality is just a bit thick.

I ask if there is a way to put me on the list for today – impossible apparently. I dig deep and channel my powerhouse of a mother again – she never fails me. “Do you mean to tell me that my mother in law has travelled hundreds of miles at great expense and in poor health to see her eldest son, for a visit that has been confirmed by the prison, and we now won’t be able to see him? Can’t you make a phone call and make an exception?” She puts me on hold and then, miraculously, informs me that I can come today.  I don’t really believe that it will happen, but I’ll take the chance.  I thank her profusely and begin to reorganise the day.

Tala has to choose between visiting and a ballet rehearsal for a West End performance for which she is contracted not to miss rehearsals.  She chooses to honour her word and forgo the visit.  Watching the development of this maturity makes my heart swell and then ache, as if it is being held too tightly by a fist.

We arrive to find that we are not on any list, but we luck out with a super competent receptionist who promises to work some magic.  Within half an hour she has sorted it, (this is exceptionally speedy in prison terms), and we join the entry queue along with several new born babies whose father’s surely missed their births.  Until I see Rob there in the hall I will not believe that we have pulled this off.

At last we are in and lo and behold so is he.  He wasn’t on the visit list either apparently, but somehow managed to persuade one of the screws to process him anyway.  He looks happy to see us, ruffles Oki’s sea green hair and hugs his mum as she sinks into him, but I can tell something is wrong.

On the way in one of the officers has told him that he has been seated next to the surveillance point as there is a note on his file to say that he has been observed stroking his daughter’s back.  There is a suggestion that social services should be involved and visits with Tala are now in question.  Okha looks as if she is going to be sick.  Fortunately his mum can’t hear anything at all over the din in the hall and is content just to hold his hand and smile devotedly and ask him if he is sleeping any better at various intervals whilst we try to work out where to go with this.  When it is time to leave she is shaking with the unsuccessful effort of holding back the tears.  We are all aware that she may not see him again.

Where the link between film fraud and paedophilia lies it is hard to tell, but this is not a joke.  A dismal sense of powerlessness bears down on us all.  We are at the mercy of a system that is an ass and it is hard to keep faith.  When I finally get home I am left trying to explain to Tala why she won’t be able to sit on her dad’s lap again.

Goodbye childhood.
(All emails and letters (which are so very gratefully recieved), need to be sent to the same address but to Highpoint North now. If you want to reply please enclose an SAE as stamps and stationary make a massive dent in his earnings!)

By | October 16th, 2016|

The Happy Mondays

In an attempt to get “Enhanced” (more visits, more canteen money), the boys have taken on roles on their spur.  Rob is now the official go to guy for Racial Equality, Charlie is Disabilities (somewhat appropriate as he is currently dealing with severe back pain for which he is receiving precisely no treatment or care) and Keith is Sexual Orientation (I think it may be something to do with the hair – all those corkscrew curls).

A large black guy comes to give Rob a special T shirt and looks him up and down with evident misgivings.  He is clearly a huge disappointment.  With his usual perma-tan pretty much erased by the months inside, and despite undeniably impressive facial hair, it’s going to be a stretch to pass him off as anything other than 100% white male.  The other day, someone did call him “blood” though, which is as good as it gets in terms of respect from the brothers, and no mean feat in a place where the exercise yard is almost entirely racially divided, just like in the movies.  It was a big moment.

Of course the well honed skill sets that each of the men will bring doubtless bring to their new positions will be entirely surplus to requirements.  All that will happen now is that their names will be put up on a noticeboard somewhere so that everyone can ignore it.  If they are lucky they’ll get laminated.

The big news is about what happened last Happy Monday on G block. (Mondays are always happy as that is when all the meds for the entire week are handed out and generally consumed immediately.)  Added to this, a large batch of hooch was released onto the market, and these two elements proved to be rather volatile bedfellows, engendering a massive riot and causing great excitement on the other spurs.  Small acts of violence don’t raise an eyebrow here – (last week a badly beaten body was found by chance, locked inside a cupboard to which no prisoner should have had keys), but mass actions like this are less frequent and altogether more thrilling.

As the situation deteriorated, the alarm was repeatedly sounded as wave after wave of screws failed to cope, so that eventually the remaining wings were left almost entirely unguarded as even the really reluctant officers hit second gear and broke into ungainly trots in the vague direction of the action.

I have to confess to feeling rather as if Rob has missed a trick here.  Surely this was his chance to pull off a well executed prison break?  We have the box set after all and watched it faithfully to the end, long after it stopped making any sense at all.  What were all those years of script reading and film making for God dammit, if not to rapidly devise a faultless escape plan, parachute in through my window, pausing only for a bit of long overdue ravishing, gather the children and enough pots of Nutella to dangle in front of them on fishing rods to get them to swim the channel, and blend seamlessly into the Calais camps before they all get burnt down.  Despite my earlier disparaging comments, I reckon that with couple of days of autumn sun and a bit more growth on that beard, he’d be a dead ringer for the Syrian terrorists that are presently occupying Northern France en masse according to the Brexiteers.  The girls and I have had our niqabs ready for months.

Finally however, the situation was brought under control and the cells were spun, (searched to you and me) and it will be busy in “seg” for a few weeks.  The massive hooch raid will doubtless make Christmas rather dull this year, but there may still be time to get the Jacobs in and rustle something up with a few apples before the scurvy hits after the inevitable blanket decision to ban fruit (and presumably Jacobs, though perhaps they don’t know about that one and I should watch my big mouth), in the interests of removing all possible sources of fun from the lives of the condemned.

Out in the free world a bailiff from HMRC turns up at the house on Friday, as it happens on an entirely unrelated matter pertaining to estimated corporation tax for 2015 on a company that has been dormant since 2012 and doesn’t even have a bank account, so can’t possibly have received income or owe tax! Is it a good thing that my heart doesn’t even miss a beat over things like this nowadays?  The very charming collector asks if I will give the letter he is brandishing to my husband.  I say that this might be tricky, but offer to pass it on to an accountant which seems to satisfy him and he dispatches himself forthwith.

Tala is frightened that this will mean more years for Rob.  When she hears about the fight she fears he has been involved and either hurt or in trouble.  An extension of the sentence is something she worries about a lot.  We all do.  It seems that Highpoint keep turning people down for category D transfers, particularly if there are any overhanging issues.

The confiscation of our assets is going to be a long and drawn out process exacerbated by the fact that due to current disputes in the legal profession, Keith doesn’t even have a lawyer yet, and there is every possibility that this won’t be resolved prior to the cat D transfer date.  Cat D means that, if you can get to the right prison, (usually one of the really bad ones where they just haven’t got time for the noncy blue collar guys who are unlikely to stab anyone), there is a chance you will be sent home on a tag.

This is what we are dreaming of.  We have already talked about moving to another area of the country to provide reasonable grounds to get Rob to an alternative prison that is less draconian.  It would be a disaster for us: Okha would have to move out to keep her job, Tala would have to leave school and ballet which are the love and light of her life with Rob gone, and I would lose the support network upon which I feel entirely dependant at the moment,  but it could effectively make two years difference to our separation – of course I’ll do it.

Everything is uncertain: shifting sands over which we have no control.  I try to reassure Tala, but her angst comes from a deep, visceral place that doesn’t respond well to logic or lies. There is nothing to hold onto in our lives anymore.  Curiously though, if you stop trying to grasp on to certainties and unfurl your fist, there is real liberation in going with the flow and trusting.  I feel like a beggar with my bowl held out in front of me, waiting to see what will be thrown in.  A little scary, but also exciting and fresh.  New and alive.  Strange as this may sound, the overwhelming feeling I have in my life at the moment is one of gratitude.  There is so much love in the world.

In Rob’s last letter I read the words that have brought me the most relief of all in the time he has been gone:
“I don’t feel “locked up” . There are obvious physical constraints, but they fade into insignificance compared with the freedom that I increasingly feel in myself.  Sounds kind of cheesy, but “awareness awareness awareness” my darling, nothing more, nothing less.”
(Highpoint South, 27th September 2016).

By | October 6th, 2016|

Skinny Love

I visit again and strike up a conversation with a gentle girl who is visiting her boyfriend.  They have already done 2 years, 4 more to go.  She looks longingly at Tala, who is chilly waiting by the gate and is nestled into me I suspect more for warmth than affection.  She points out how lucky I am to already have my children: By the time her boyfriend gets out she will have reached the age where fertility falls of a cliff.  If love were a conscious choice she would leave him.  It’s no way to have a relationship.  It’s a skinny kind of love, interwoven with swathes of missing and longing and loss.  But love isn’t a choice.

We are “Unintended Consequences” apparently.  So are the children, and the parents.  It saddens me most of all to see tidily attired, grey haired pensioners, careful pleats in their trousers, waiting patiently in line to support their sons, loving them still, whatever they may or may not have done, trying to rise above the shame.  It is understood that we suffer -, emotionally, physically, mentally and financially, but this can’t be helped.  It is the price we pay for continuing to love a criminal and he should have thought about this before committing his crime: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

There has been considerable work done in the U.S. on attitudes towards criminality and punishment and it seems that there is a deeply embedded cultural belief in a principle known as the “conscious actor”, whereby criminal acts are considered rational and it is believed that the perpetrator has weighed up the crime against the punishment and considered the odds favourable.
If this were the case then it would make sense to hand down lengthy custodial sentences as a form of punishment and as a deterrent.  However many, and probably even most, crimes are not committed in this spirit, indeed there are a plethora of other theories which seek to understand crime, but we seem determined to stick doggedly with the anachronistic conscious actor model which leaves us in our present situation of lengthening custodial sentences, poor resources, bad conditions, repeat offending and broken families.  And for what?  Is our need for vengeance really so great that it eclipses the suffering of so many for so little result?

Native American Indians didn’t have jails, considering them a punishment worse than any possible crime, indeed the Apache often died when they were incarcerated by the white man.  Financial settlements for wrongs done were made, and in instances of murder, tribe members could either be exiled or asked to take the place of the deceased within the bereaved family(!), often becoming beloved and valued members of their new families.  How’s that for forgiveness? For practicality? There was in any case very little crime, and (could this be related?) no poverty.  No-one went hungry if there was food in the camp.  If a man could not afford a blanket or a horse or whatever was deemed necessary for life, he was given it, but the Indians were called savages and largely exterminated by the white men whose decedents now lock up increasingly large numbers of men, most of them non whites (60% in a country where they comprise only 30% of the population).

Tala is exhausted having come straight from a highly successful birthday sleepover which might more properly be named a wakeover.  As soon as she sees Rob waving and smiling from his red seat at the back of the hall, looking more and more like the Wild Man of Borneo, she charges headlong at him and is to spend the rest of the visit draped over him practically asleep in his arms.  It is astonishing how small she suddenly allows herself to become again.  Folded in his arms they are a picture of bliss.  Her turquoise cardigan has ridden up a little exposing a small mid-section of tanned back and he strokes her softy: a small bubble of intimacy in the busy, desperate space.

A thin weasely guard shatters the moment. “Pull her clothes down mate” he orders in a disgusted tone which suggests that a father stroking his ten year old’s back is an act of blatant paedophilia.  Another slap.  We look at each other speechless.  We are dirt to him.  The look on Rob’s face frightens me.  I make him promise not to react if the guard returns.  I beg him to keep turning the other cheek inside.  These incarcerated men are like tinderboxes and there are so very many naked flames.

This place has made a coward of me, urging my husband not to stand up for himself, because I want him to come home one day.  I want it so desperately that I can’t even think about wanting it.  I don’t want to be like the wives who receive desperate, sheepish calls from men who have just increased their sentence by a couple of years for loosing it, and attacking a bully with a piece of wood, as has just happened to one of Rob’s co-workers on the sheet ripping line.  Another man is sacked for having a lighter in his pocket.  No more phone credit, no more canteen for him and an instant loss of status and extra visiting privileges.  He holds it together though and leaves quietly.

I have to switch off the big fullness of my love in the car on the way home to avoid that feeling of spilling uselessly onto the ground.  Tala is quiet on the journey. She asks what lawyers are for.  I explain that they represent you if someone thinks you have done something wrong, or if you think someone has done wrong to you. “Oh I need one then” she states confidently. “Can you ask Jim? It is wrong to take Daddy away from me.  Its not fair.  It hurts”.

How do I tell her that she is an unintended consequence? That she has no right to the daily love that used to be hers? It seems impossible and cruel: her quiet factual statement of pain, coupled with my own dull ache of resignation.  In the rear view mirror I watch her shut off the longing part of herself again as I have. Skinny love is all we can bear.

By | September 28th, 2016|

Notice to Self

Prison is not like the real world.  Prison is a magical place where you only have to write words on paper, laminate them, (I think this might be an important part of the recipe), and pin them to one of the noticeboards that are positioned with the monotonous regularity of cats eyes on a B road, and lo, they become reality.

It’s amazing… no really.

You cannot move in the slammer or anywhere in the near vicinity without visual bombardment by clusters of random words pinned artfully into patterns every two meters or so, in order that the qualities and the aspirations signified by them can become reality.

As I wait for my tea to be poured and am simultaneously hard sold a lemon cake which will apparently taste like the best sex I have ever had (I desperately hope it won’t, but can’t bear to disappoint and therefore make the purchase), I rest assured that DIVERSITY, RESPECT, ETHNICITY and SEXUAL ORIENTATION are all alive and well at HMP Highpoint. I know this without a shadow of a doubt because there it is, written and displayed for all to see.  Thank Goodness!

It would be really tough if this wasn’t a perfect universe where you just had to write words for them to spontaneously become fact and you actually had to do something in order for these lofty signifiers to hold meaning.

Hopefully there are similarly abundant notice boards in the kitchen with CHIPS, ONION BHAJI and SPONGE PUDDING writ large every few feet, so that instead of having to shop and cook for the prisoners, food can be whipped up via noticeboard.  If so, could I put in a request from Charlie, who is vegetarian, painfully thin, and hasn’t seen a vegetable in weeks, for BROCCOLI, CARROTS and COURGETTES?

If the prisoners could only have access to the word pool, I’d bet they might go for all the P’s: “PILLOWS”, “PENGINS”, “ POO PAPER” and “POST” (nobody has bothered to send it for two week). Less lofty than some, but a pillow is a damn sight more useful than a DIVERSITY, and there doesn’t really seem to be a downside to them – to date there have been no recorded pillow related deaths or attacks in prisons.

I’m considering getting some words for my home. GRADE 8 VIOLIN, HOMEWORK DONE and BINS OUT are on my current wish list.  I can’t go overboard because of the laminating costs.  I must choose carefully.

They must have their own laminator at Highpoint however because they really don’t hold back on the concepts.  FRIENDSHIP, FAMILY and PEACE and are all happening here.  No matter that a significant percentage of the inmates can’t read (over 30%), no matter that overexposure ensures that no-one who can read ever gives any of the boards a second glance: the box that requires prisons to address these topics can be ticked, because the words are out there, doing their wordy thing, being real and changing lives.

Only good words are allowed inside Highpoint however. Letters are now being delivered to prisoners with all of the swear words crossed out, which is really worth it, because these men shouldn’t really be corrupted by this kind of bad language.  I should imagine it takes quite a while to rid the incoming mail of all the wrong kind of vocab.  Speaking from personal experience there is plenty in this bizarre, barbaric separation that makes me want to curse violently and at great length.

It’s so simple and the real beauty is, that if by some strange turn of events the words were to stop working or the laminator were to fall prey to some kind of nefarious internal scam to manifest more chicken (and this would not surprise me), it won’t really matter, because there is zero accountability within the prison system, because the service users are all criminals and they can hardly take their business elsewhere.  No-one gives a rats backside about them anyway.  They are here to be punished.

It’s genius: You create a system which is the polar opposite of every well functioning business in the world right now, where the clients can’t give feed back, can’t complain, have no rights, no facility to chose an alternative service and no public voice.  You then fail to rehabilitate anyone or reduce reoffending rates, and it doesn’t matter because the people who you are supposed to be serving are utterly mute.

Except that there is a flaw in the logic.  Surely we all have something to gain from a reduction in reoffending and less criminality in our society? Let us be clear. There is no effective rehabilitation going on at either Hewell or Highpoint according to the people who are best placed to make that judgement – the inmates.   There are notices and forms though… Lots of them.  So many in fact that you have to wonder if the MOJ hasn’t got shares in a dodgy noticeboard factory in Bejing. Rehabilitation cannot be a half-arsed thing. You have to commit, and then some.  Lip service is null and void

I meet with the CEO of Nacro, one of the leading NGO’s for prison reform.  I am astonished to learn that 70% of all inmates have a primary need such as mental illness, drug addiction or alcoholism.  If these conditions are not addressed, then the likelihood of reoffending is overwhelming and the usefulness of prison is entirely defunct other than as a temporary holding pen.

In Rob and Keith’s own private holding pen there is an issue over Mayflies.  I know it’s September, but no one seems to have told the Mayflies.  Keith hates them and hunts them down with the kind of viciousnesss you would expect from a seasoned criminal, but Rob has declared his side of the cell a Mayfly sanctuary in an attempt to curtail these murderous impulses.  Sadly the Mayflies insist on doing their scampering thing, and frequently stray inadvertently into the kill zone.  I do think some signs might help. “NO FLY ZONE” should do the trick.  The May flies are at least as likely to take notice of all the signage as the inmates.

By | September 23rd, 2016|
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