About Josie

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So far Josie has created 75 blog entries.

Rubber Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | January 30th, 2017|

Sorry but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | January 20th, 2017|

Brick in the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | January 11th, 2017|

New Year’s Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | January 4th, 2017|

And Lo, A Miracle

Underneath the “Free the Garlic Two” sign, that is mysteriously displayed on one of the official prison noticeboards, another message appears: “And lo, a miracle”.  The governor has taken one whiff of the offending “hooch” and declared that whatever is in that bottle, it certainly hasn’t been brewed for pleasure or intoxication.  He cancels the appeal, rendering Rob’s three page essay on the by-products of carbohydrate breakdown without the presence of sugars or yeast, and the chemical composition of methane as opposed to ethanol, a waste.  The Garlic Two unpack the bags containing their scant possessions that have been underneath their beds for the past two days and are welcomed back from punition like returning prodigal sons.  Both of them are £20 short on their canteen allowances for the week, but given that Rob was set to hunger strike if the authorities had continued with the disciplinary process, sighs of relief are breathed all round.  I know my husband.  I can hear the stubborn set line of his jaw over the phone, righteous and defiant, and I do not want to think where this might have gone.

And so we visit on Christmas Eve on masse, the two girls, grandma and I.  Rob confesses to feeling like a mother bird trying to feed a nest full of chicks who are all vying for the juicy worms of his attention.  The smallest chick mostly seems to win out and by the end of the visit I will feel as if I haven’t managed to extract enough of him to last me until next week.

The visiting hall and “visitors centre” are bereft of even the most perfunctory seasonal cheer.  There is not a bauble or faded plastic holly sprig in sight.  Most institutions manage to resurrect some kind of ravaged seventies tinsel tree construction out of storage for the occasion, but there is not the merest suspicion of grudging celebration at HMP Highpoint North, and this despite the fact that the big man himself (Jesus Christ), was a fellow “criminal”, tried and condemned by the authorities of his time.

It is a strange Christmas Eve.  The long familiar journey, the fight to stay awake at the wheel in the dark as the passengers slumber uncomfortably in their seats, the disengagement with the soft part of myself that knows how to feel.  Rob is well though.  Irrepressible in fact.  He has found something remarkable in the commune of convicts on Unit 12 and confesses that the prospect of being ejected out of there into the single cells of the “basic” naughty block was at least traumatic as leaving us.

Perhaps I should feel slightly miffed about this admission?  I don’t.  We are in this for the long haul: another 4 years at least.  We have to do what we can to survive this.  Living where we are is our only weapon of defiance in this unfolding Kafkaesque nightmare.  The fact that he feels connected and integrated into his new life is a huge relief.  I will not roll over and die as I’m supposed to and neither will he.

Christmas day is rubbish.  For some reason, although Rob’s mum and brother are with us and although Tala is still full of childish excitement about presents and the endless chocolate opportunities, it feels pointless to baste the turkey that will be dry anyway, and fuss with the stuffing and the trimmings when he cannot eat them.  Five hours later when I finally get the cremated bird on to the table with the roasties and red cabbage and cranberry sauce, we toast Rob, who has just called after eating what has been, even by prison standards, a disappointing lunch in his cell with J and I feel emptier and lower than I can remember.

Three days later and I have cabin fever.  Okha leaves for Thailand with all of her savings.  I will miss her more than I can say, but I am glad for her. Someone should escape.  She sends me an incredible poem about her first night in Bangkok and I know that she is where she should be, far away from the cold grit of our London lives, and nonetheless realising how much we have.

I prevail upon uncle Tim’s good nature and get him to man the fort for a night whilst I jump on the Eurostar to Brussels and visit Carolyn, (usually resident in Portugal, but visiting her husband’s Belgium family for a few days), because she has always somehow been able to inspire me again when all seems lost.  We spend a wonderful day gorging on each other’s news and soaking up the connection.  It is like oxygen.

Then the train I am on breaks down and I miss the last Eurostar home. There is no room at her inn for the night but bless her she books me into a beautiful little hotel in the heart of Brussels where I waste the gorgeous room in solitude.  I don’t even go out to forage.  There is however something wonderful about being alone on this adventure.  I take a 30 minute shower and lie on the white hotel sheets in the sympathetically lit room, looking out onto the bustling unfamiliar city below.

The following day I am on the first London bound train out of there. Twelve miles into our journey it too succumbs to the frosty conditions and short-circuits irreparably and so we wait, without power or heat.  The hours tick by and I begin to scan the cabin for who to eat first.  They send round Twixes to appease the people which is worryingly successful.  We receive news that we will be towed back to Brussels.  I send uncle Tim the Samaritan’s number, fearing for his sanity after a text where he describes his toss up between the living room where Tala is glued to endless repeats of eye twitchingly bad American teen soaps and the kitchen where Grandma is confessing that she wants to die.

I wonder if the train debacles are just an outward manifestation of my desire to evade responsibly for a bit longer, but then Tala sends me a selfie and I am suddenly desperate to return to her.  The people I love are scattered, frustratingly out of reach, but unlike my fellow passengers who need more Twix sedation, I think I might be learning patience.  And lo, just as I resign myself to living out the rest of my days in coach 8, a miracle occurs and we finally begin to move again.  Where we are headed now is anyone’s guess, but then, isn’t that the beauty of it all?  The past is history, the future is a mystery.  Happy New Year.

By | December 30th, 2016|

Recipes

Prison never lets you down.  Just when you think that there is nothing to write this week, because we are saving our visit for Christmas Eve and because no-one has done anything actively stupid and we are all ticking along nicely and trying to get Christmassy, Rob calls to say that he is getting shipped out of the wing that has become his motley family and thrown into a single cell on a trouble maker’s “basic” unit.  The reason? Hooch.  Except that there is none of course.  Rob is famously teetotal.

Perhaps the guards were a little bored today and decided to spin some cells for a laugh.  Maybe they were frustrated in their efforts to uncover any contraband or perhaps they genuinely think that you could consume rotting garlic and ginger in adequate quantities to induce inebriation, whatever the reason, the Nigerian concoction is gleefully seized this morning whilst Rob is in “education” and disciplinary measures are now in process.

This being the prison system no reasonable conversation can be had.  The fact that there is neither sugar nor yeast involved in the immune tonic recipe and therefore no possible alcoholic content is utterly uninteresting to the bright sparks in control here, nor is the fact that this bottle has been sitting in plain view on Rob’s window sill for the past month, including an afternoon when the governor had sat in his cell, chatting convivially with Rob about families and visiting, whilst touring a guest around the more presentable wings of the establishment.

Rob’s cell mate who wouldn’t have drunk the foul smelling brew if you’d paid him, and certainly had no hand in its creation, is subject to the same punishment.  They will loose their enhanced status and are now on basic: two visits a month, no money (which means no phone), no TV and very little unlock.  Merry Christmas.  There will be a hearing tomorrow where he can plead his case, but nothing he has said so far today has made any difference, and they are told to pack up their scant possessions.

Unfortunately he is on speaker phone as he relays this sorry tale and Tala has heard it all.  I watch her swallowing back the dismay and the anger, blinking hard.  She doesn’t really understand what has happened but she knows from the sound of his voice that he is hurting and getting ready to lose everything: cell mates, friends, pupils… again.  Anything you build is prison is an illusion.  She’s learning fast.  She knows that it is now unlikely that we will get to see him before Christmas.  She is also now well versed in how to run to the bathroom and splash her face with cold water to stop the rise of the tears which will hurt him more than anything they can do to him inside.  I don’t tell him where she has gone or that I can hear choked sobs from upstairs.  I do not mention what I can read in her eyes.

An hour later he calls back.  Apparently cells in the naughty wing cannot be found as the current occupants have refused to move and so they wait, bags packed, for new instructions.  The awful thing is that even as my mind is boggling with the Kafkaesque insanity of the accusation and although I am deflated and worried for him all over again, I am simultaneously bugging him for the details I will need to write here, and he knows it.  It’s a little mercenary, opportunistic even, but then there isn’t much point in wallowing in victimhood.  Prison clouds don’t really have silver linings sewn in: you have to make them yourself, and this page is my sanity.  Some people live to write.  I write to live.

If you can take a good, basically law abiding citizen (give or take a film business of two), who hitherto believed in the rule of law and the validity of our institutions and make of him, in only 6 months, an angry man who feels increasingly radical and militant, what can you create from someone more dangerous or marginalised?

If just one of the officers at Highpoint North has taken the trouble to get to know Rob, they will be in no doubt whatsoever that he is exceptionally unlikely to have embarked upon a batch of moonshine, but whether anyone will be able to override the system is doubtful.  Everyone’s hands are tied.  I hear from the politicians and the think tanks that they want introduce reform but can’t get anything except a “tough” message past the general public.  Frankly I’m sick of it and I don’t really buy it: I don’t see that the public are particularly enthused about cuts to the NHS, but those are happening none the less.  The cost of re-offending is hard to measure exactly but it is at least £15 billion a year, which I can’t help feeling might be better spent on the health service or on schools, and if the pubic need convincing about that, then a little dinner party with Tony Gallagher and Paul Dacre might be in order.

In Birmingham they are rioting.  There is no hot water and not enough food.  The government line is that Mamba is to blame.  It isn’t.  Riots are a side effect of deteriorating conditions and the despair of men who have nothing left to lose.  Men are literally starving in some prisons around the country and only those who can bribe the servery staff or who can afford to spend all of their canteen on top ups can survive.  This is a recipe for disaster.

Chris Grayling is another apparently.  He presided over a 30% cut in prison staffing levels, amongst other “tough” measures, after which point suicides and violence escalated with astonishing rapidity.  Now he has been let lose on the railways with similarly disastrous effect.  Perhaps he is just unlucky.  Perhaps he is a good man with a difficult job, or perhaps he and other career politicians should stand up and be counted. The last person to do that on prison reform was Ken Clarke and he was duly sacked.  It is true that you can’t change anything unless you are in power, but if you are, please use it, and use it fast before we brew something truly monstrous in our festering penal institutions that cannot be put back in the box.

By | December 21st, 2016|

She Brings the Rain

The weekend is a washout and the concrete prison exercise yard is not improved by the conditions.  No hoods in the slammer so, even if you do have a flimsy prison issue coat, when it rains you’ll get a wet head.  Rob goes out whatever the weather in an effort to remain somewhat free range and retain a semblance of an immune system.  He embraces the rain.  All the elements seem precious against a backdrop of cheerless institution and razor wire.

Immunity is an issue in prison with rubbish food, depression and stress high on the list of successfully delivered outcomes.  Rob and his ex-cellie have a secret health weapon based on an old Nigerian trick that involves a bulb of garlic, two fist-sized rhizomes of sliced ginger, boiling water and an empty Coke bottle.  The ingredients are combined and left to ferment until the solids decompose into a syrupy glob of barely liquid culture that is administered daily and with much grimacing.  I outright forbid him to partake on visit days.  He already smells strongly of salad as a result of moisturising with olive oil, and garlic is rarely considered an aphrodisiac on the breath.

Not that there is any point in cultivating desire at this point.  At a Christmas party for a Conservative party think tank on prison reform I ask Ian Duncan Smith about conjugal visits, not because I think anyone will get one any time soon, but just for the hell of it and because I want to make him think about sex and remember my blog name: it works for the advertising industry.  Perhaps I should print some cards though…?

I have arrived in this room by virtue of a philanthropist friend of Keith’s who has taken a paternalistic interest in our story and the Prison dis-Service.  My white knight is a big lad and exudes something so genuine and unthreatening that within five minutes of the Justice Secretary’s arrival he manages to introduce me to her as “a prison family blogger”.  I seize my chance.  Experience has taught me that announcing in polite circles that your husband is doing 9 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure stops conversation for long enough to make any point you like.

I bear in mind Tala’s parting shot as I set off for the evening “Don’t bore her Mummy” and then, resigning herself to reality and settling the bar a little lower after considering me realistically for a moment or two, “Well…. just don’t babble”, and so I plump for something practical.  Does she know that phone calls are charged at 3 times the national rate to prisoners?  She doesn’t.

I consider telling her that anyone who wants to use a mobile phone for drug dealing can get one in five minutes and isn’t particularly bothered about legalities, and that most people just want a phone to keep in touch with their families.  Rob spends his entire weekly earnings to make nine ten minute phone calls a week.  It’s also interesting that mobiles are rife in places like Wandsworth where the 23 hours-a-day lockup makes phone access tricky during the remaining hour and forces prisoners to choose between joining the phone queue, showering or exercise.

I don’t want to rain on her parade however, so I get Christmassy and ask her what she would do with the Prison Service if she had a magic wand.  I know what I’d do with it, but I doubt she’ll admit publicly to buggery.  She just wants things to be better run apparently: no rats in the kitchen or cells out of use because of mould or dirty protests.  (Cells are often made uninhabitable with blood or faeces, and there are crews of prisoners in every jail tasked with the unenviable job of cleaning up.  It’s what people come down to when they don’t have art materials or a voice).  Fair enough, but lady, I offered you a magic wand! Dream a little! Think big!

She gives a good speech.  What politicians will say to a room of smart, well-vetted (except for me) reformers and what they will say in the public arena where their main brief is not to lose votes every time they open their mouths (an art never learnt by Ken Livingstone), is very different.  She genuinely seems to want to encourage rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending, which is heartening given her dull public message about security, but I can’t help feeling that everyone is still missing the point because, and this becomes increasingly clear throughout the evening, no one actually speaks to the Service users, and no-one in power has ever been to prison except on a day trip.  Prisoners do not need or even want new buildings.  They are pretty much ok with the rats too.  What they want is to be treated with respect.  Rehabilitation begins and ends with the relationship between officers and inmates and the attitude of the institution to its charges.

I watch Liz (I think we are close enough now for me to call her that, and she did express an interest in reading my blog), claiming somewhat mystifyingly in parliament, that barking dogs deter drones and I can’t help wondering if she wouldn’t be better advised to go down the Californian route, where petting dogs (and now also a pig in a tutu apparently) are used in the airport in LA to reduce stress and improve the well-being of passengers.  Any schemes where prisoners are permitted to train and care for animals are immensely successful in terms of reducing re-offending.

So we know that children, wives (especially with the odd conjugal thrown in), dogs and probably pigs have a positive effect on re-offending.  It’s a pretty sad indictment of our system when the only way to make it work is to use the unpaid services of the families who are also being passively punished by its failings.  At our last visit we were let in so late that my seven hour trip yielded only 80 minutes with my beloved, and they wonder why we tarry at the end and have to be shouted at to clear out.  And what about all the prisoners without families?  According to the Centre for Social Justice, whose Prosecco I’m quaffing at said Christmas party, half of all prisoners under 25 were previously in “care”.

Until we create a familial environment within prison itself – a prison family where all of the individuals from governor to guard to prisoner, contribute and care for each other, nothing will change in our jails no matter how many extra screws you throw at the problem.  Human beings need purpose and meaning in their lives, whatever they may, or may not, have done in the past.  They need self respect and the impression that they matter.

There is so much untapped potential from within the prison population: chefs who would like to share their skills and recreate family meal times rather than receiving a plastic tub of deadness to eat alone in their cells, traders, graphic designers, businessmen, IT experts, sportsmen, even politicians (I’m having tea with Jonathan Aitken in the New Year), you name it, you’ll find one in prison, and all anyone wants to do in there is to pass their endless sentence doing something useful.

Meanwhile milestones are being reached on the out in our broken homes: Keith’s daughter Elizabeth turns 11 without him.  The girl is a legend: she is miniscule, but she can fly a plane (honestly), and drive a stick shift Land Rover.  She invites Tala to her party (they have an unshakable bond born out of mutual loss), where the guests all give themselves such big sugar rushes they have to hold each other down.  It a massive success.

Charlie’s girls forgo anything seasonal that would interfere with their visits.  They have never missed a single one.  In the pursuit of fairness he has to rotate their hands over the separating table.  They never let go.

Okha and I crack and go halves on a packet of razor blades having finally accepted that Rob isn’t going to be able to change the brutally blunt one that predates his departure, and Tala finally admits defeat and consigns the “She Brings the Rain” t-shirt to the wash, unable to detect even the faintest whiff of father underneath the layers of pre-pubescent b.o. that undeniably dominate its odour profile.  I watch it circling in the foamy tides, another layer of him washed away in the artificial rain of the machine.

By | December 13th, 2016|

A Thousand Wasted Years

It has not yet struck eight on Sunday morning and Tala is to be delivered to a West End theatre in full hair and makeup within half an hour.  I can’t find a hair net for love nor money and several kirby pins have already been inserted at such vicious angles that good will is in short supply on all sides.  When the doorbell rings I suppose that the cabbie has gone old school on me and renounced the phone for legs, and so I am surprised when I find my firstborn, with slightly different coloured hair to yesterday plus two policemen, on the front step.

I react reasonably calmly but a little uncharitably with a long suffering “Oh God, what has she done?”.  They assure me that she hasn’t done anything at all, and that they have only escorted her home out of concern.  I can see why.  It is below freezing and she is only wearing a T shirt.  The blue hair is also adding to the Elsa effect.  She is attempting to smile reassuringly at me, though it is clearly hard for her to bring me into focus and so the result is midway between a leer and a gurn and yet I suspect she looks a darn sight better than she did when they found her.

One of the officers beckons me outside and asks as delicately as possible if my daughter is “all right”.  I’m not quite sure what he means and he clarifies by tentatively wondering if she has some kind of mental illness.  I explain as gently as possible that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with her.  Contrary to appearances, she is not special needs, just very, very pissed.  He seems relieved.  After all, he’s been there himself.

By now the cab has arrived and is lined up behind the panda.  I try as quickly as possible to ascertain where they found her (Vauxhall?) and how she got there but as everyone, including Okha, seems confused I have to leave or risk this year’s Nutcracker missing a vital snowflake stage left on the back row, and so I thank them profusely, tell Okha sharply to proceed straight to bed, and head off to the theatre.

Later when she has sobered up enough to field my questions, albeit through the veil of a raging hangover, I am still none the wiser, as she genuinely doesn’t really know how she got from a club in Shoreditch to a station in Vauxhall, or why she was alone or where her favourite coat is.  I wish I had thought to take the names of the officers who helped her.  I desperately want to thank them.  This is what policing should be about.  They saw a dangerously inebriated girl on her own and protected her from the elements, herself and God only knows what else.  This is crime prevention.

Furthermore they didn’t chastise her irresponsibility or berate my parenting and eclipse the lesson inherent in what was certainly an unpleasant and frightening experience for her, and thankfully seems to have shocked her into realising self-obliteration may not be the answer. They simply took care of her.  This is community.  I hope their superiors will agree that this was a good use of police time and that our saviours won’t be disciplined for providing a free Uber service to the nation’s drunken revellers.

I am lucky that there were officers to spare to look after my girl.  Most are busy engaged in fighting “The War on Drugs”.  I have just finished reading “Good Cop Bad War”, brilliantly written by ex-undercover agent Neil Woods.  £7 Billion a year is spent by the police fighting this war in a way that will only ever result in escalating violence as the untouchable gangsters at the top intensify intimidation of their subordinates to protect themselves.

Most “dealer” convictions are actually just users funding their habit, unable to seek help for their addiction because it is criminalised.  In general the police don’t care though as they, like so many of us, are fighting to keep their statistics (and budgets) up.

The illicit drug trade is also worth £7billion annually in the UK and £375 billion world wide: untaxed money that directly funds almost all other criminal activity; a booming unregulated industry that is also the underlying driver for the lion’s share of murders, robbery and gang violence.

Prison is full of men serving sentences for drugs.  Rob knows many who are there as a result of entrapment stings: good men with bad habits.  Others desperately need help for their addictions that they are not getting help for because addiction is penalised in jail, (though it is grounds for a yoga mat apparently, still denied to Rob who isn’t eligible for rehabilitation), and find themselves stuck in the revolving doors.  Some are born to the business and are prepared to trade years of liberty in exchange for a livelihood.  We aren’t all born to Eton families nor can we all be middle class users rather than suppliers.

Unlike so many in the police force Woods disagrees that the war on drugs can’t be won.  It will be won when we stop fighting it.  He has lived with the people that most cops just prosecute and the rest of us consider so “other” to ourselves that we can’t be concerned with their tarnished world.  Rob lives with these men too and is in direct agreement: custodial sentences for drugs offences are an utter waste of their time and our money.

Woods estimates, calculating generously, that during his entire career he probably only managed to stop the supply of drugs for a total of eighteen hours whilst simultaneously exacerbating turf wars as rival gangs lined up to fill the vacuum.  In direct contrast to the efficacy of his life’s work (or lack thereof), he also calculates that his investigations resulted in over a thousand years of prison time about which he says this:

“For me every single one of these is a year wasted.  These are a thousand years of wasted human potential; a thousand wasted years of possible creativity, learning and exploration; a thousand wasted years of people languishing in tiny cells rather than contributing to the world”.

In 2014 the government released a major report which found categorically that punitive measures have no impact whatsoever on drug use, in fact drug use escalates in line with increased punishment.  And yet we persist! Shall we stop now?  Please? All our addiction theories of the 1980s have been debunked.  Even “hard” drugs like cocaine only have the same addiction rates as alcohol (10%) which means that 90% of users do so without wrecking their lives.

Alcohol could have wrecked my life this weekend had not a kindly pair of young coppers noticed a small, blue haired drunk on the verge of freezing to death and brought her home to me.  I am deeply grateful to them, and not always as grumpy as I must have looked that harassed morning.

By | December 7th, 2016|

Living the Dream

In the charity shop I see a floor length vintage dress in dusky pink lace and chiffon.  I try it on because, even though I am alone behind the flimsy pine door of the cubicle, and no-one will ever see me in this sumptuous creation, it feels decadent to shed my sensible insulating winter layers and dream for a moment that I have a life that requires such attire and that I’m not headed for a muddy park in an ageing parka with worn cuffs and pockets stuffed full of doggie poo bags.  Then, in a moment of madness I buy the dress, mostly because I can do it up and didn’t think I’d be able to, but also because its good to dream.  You’ve got to have dreams.

That evening I make a late night dash to the shops and see Thomas, a homeless man who always seemed slightly other to the desperate collection of rattling junkies who worked the street alongside him. Thomas never appeared to be under the influence of anything.  He just didn’t have many teeth or a home.  I hadn’t seen him for months and tell him I’ve missed him and was worried about him.  He informs me proudly that he has a room now: a good clean place and that he is only out here tonight as there has been a glitch in his benefit this week.  He looks well and I tell him so.  He is pleased and replies in his gentle Irish lilt that he feels well too.

I ask him how he managed before the room: sleeping rough and hostels, until his brother bought him a caravan, which he could have sold now, but has passed on to another man in need, without fraternal support, and he is proud of his choice to re-gift and create the possibility of a second transformation.  I ask him what is next.  He looks longingly into the distance.  “Maybe… a job?  I think perhaps now that I can keep clean and I’ve got an address I might be able to get one”.  This is his dream, as uncertain and tantalising to him as my Cinderella ball is to me, and a damn sight less frivolous.

I don’t see Thomas again.  I hope that now he is “in the system”, someone will look out for him.  The families of prisoners live with this same misguided hope that the system that has captured their loved ones will also care for them, but every three days one of these families will get a call to say that their husband or son or brother or daughter has hung themselves inside, and these numbers don’t even include homicide, accidental overdose or death due to lack of medical attention.  Hope is a far cry.

When you enter prison, you no longer control your destiny.  You are unlocked when and if someone comes, you are fed what there is, when there is, if there is and you will be released when the powers that be deem it fit to do so.  This is true for all prisoners, many of whom incur extra years inside for perceived misdemeanours, but it is most particularly the case for IPP (imprisonment for public protection) prisoners who have to prove that they are no longer a risk to society.  Often the box ticking for their release includes education that they may not be able to complete because they can’t read or because the prerequisite courses don’t exist in their particular prison(!) and it always relies on the goodwill of officers, governors and parole boards who are under no obligation to give it.  In June 2015 there were still 4,600 IPP prisoners in Britain almost a tenth of whom had served five times their minimum sentence. When there is no hope, there will be no rehabilitation and we create men who have nothing left to lose; desperate and dangerous.

When I visit Rob the men are let out half an hour late so that we miss even more of our precious time than usual due to basic ineptitude and lack of consideration.  When I finally see him traversing the visit hall, looking like thunder, he remarks that if the same thing had happened at Hewell there would have been broken jaws and probably a riot.  Conditions are often better in the more high risk category B prisons because they have to be.  When you have no rights, no voice and no future, violence is what is left over and it works, at a price.

It is Rob’s birthday tomorrow.  I can’t send anything except cards and books, and there is no telling when and if the books will arrive – none have so far.  He calls to warn me that he will be locked up all day tomorrow so I probably won’t be able to speak to him either, which somewhat dashes the girl’s plans for a three part harmony rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

Prison is a rarefied world.  Many, like Rob, are serving sentences too long to wish away.  You have to live as if this captivity was life.  Prison life happens in prison time, which is punctuated by the locks and unlocks, the tannoy, the meals, the visits, the phone and shower queues (shorter than they should be given the paucity of facilities and the number of men) and the seasons.  Summer, autumn, winter, spring and summer again, and again and again.

I can’t look after Rob tomorrow or any day, the institution certainly isn’t looking after anyone, and so it is left to the men themselves to care for each other.  At Highpoint North which basically exists to house all the quiet easy men, a small community is forming.  Laundry used to be overseen by a large, heavily muscled African with little time for the task in-between bench presses, and often arrived in a disheartening damp clump outside the cell doors, but has since been overtaken by an small Asian guy who drys, folds and delivers with pride, so that Unit 12 are now all looking and smelling (apart from the shower refuseniks), rather dapper.

As with all communities it takes all sorts.  Some are fat and lazy, some are intense, some are funny and talented, some have frightful halitosis (a major downside to a cellmate) and some simply don’t bother to wash, but they are a kind of community now and you take the rough (and boy is it rough sometimes) with the smooth.

Rob used to be a diligent man.  Now weeks go by where he doesn’t reply to letters, leaving me fielding the enquiries, but he doesn’t live in the world that the letters come from or play by its rules and etiquette anymore.  He lives inside with his prison family now and if someone needs to chat, he will listen before he attends to anything on the distant out.  I am still the exception to this, so it’s easy for me to say, but I am glad that he has a new life.  I want someone to benefit from his wit and care and kindness.  Let him be a light in that Godforsaken place.  At least now with a new non-snoring cell mate, sleep is a possibility once more, and Rob can finally have some dreams of his own.

By | November 29th, 2016|

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|
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