Drip Drip Drip

My kitchen tap is dripping badly.  It’s a vintage affair requiring a special washer that no longer exists. Changing the tap is a hassle and expensive, so rather than fix it right now, I push the spout over the porcelain that divides the two bowls (most unhelpfully for the roasting trays), so that I can’t hear it.  Our prison service seems to run along similar lines. From what I can gather, prison is a holding pen for all the elements of society that we currently don’t know what to do with: drug dealers, drug addicts, alcoholics, the traveller community, eastern europeans who can’t do plumbing, a few gangsters, a few film makers, and anyone with a problem with authority.

This last faction is particularly visible inside: kids who have survived school by making a name for themselves as rude, uncooperative and unteachable and who go on into adult life in the same vein, unable to hold down jobs or relationships.  Many of these guys don’t have visitors or letters, they have no-one.  Some behave appallingly inside, abusing the screws, (many of whom are women), refusing to go through the induction tests that would qualify them for various categories of work, disrupting every class they enter.  Lots of people also seem to have mental health issues.  Rob meets an alcoholic manic depressive who is charming, but who drinks as soon as he is released and finds himself almost immediately back inside having abused or assaulted someone whilst under the influence.

Many of these men have entirely given up on their free lives.  There are dealers here who come from drug families where it is accepted that you will spend roughly 2 years out of every 10 inside.  There is zero interest in what is going on in the rest of the country or the world.  When I ask whether most inmates were pro or against Brexit, Rob snorts in derision.  No-one has even mentioned it or gives a monkeys toot either way, that is, if they even know it’s happening.  Prison is the real world for most of the people in here and they approach it as such, trying to stamp their individuality on the system, kicking off when they don’t get what they feel is due to them, lashing out when the sheer futility of their situation gets on top of them.

Our prisons are basically unfit for purpose.  What we need is here, as everywhere it seems, is “Norway Plus”: (Less people in the prisons and proper full time rehabilitation). Our reoffending rates are terrible.  New sentencing guidelines mean that huge sentences are begin handed down, and we have doubled our prison population in the last 25 years. We are also getting ever closer to the American system now where if you offend more than three times, they lock you up for life. Three strikes and you’re out.  If you offend whilst in prison the punishments are severe.  Rob meets a guy who was only doing a 6 month stretch, then got into a fight, broke someone’s jaw, and is now serving a seven year sentence, and yet what do we expect a bunch of angry young men to do when we lock them all up together and infantilise them?

A mass prisoner action had been planned for the previous day in retaliation for the guards breaking an inmates arm after he disrespected one of the female officers.  For some reason it failed to materialise but it is indicative of the mentality inside.  Apparently there is very little difference between the guards and the prisoners – both like a good fight and both do a healthy trade in drugs.  The inmates all know that if they are part of internal violence they will at the very least loose their privileges: (visiting rights and canteen money), and will likely add years on to the time they serve, but these are not people who don’t do things because of the consequences. The whole notion of deterrent is laughable.
I call the plumber.  He is here by lunchtime and changes the pretty, old, leaky tap for a shiny new modern one. The things that used to concern me seem ridiculous now.  The new tap works.  It is functional.  It doesn’t fit with who I used to imagine myself to be once upon a time or how I think the world should look, but the old one was broken and it had to go.  It’s out with the old and in with the new.  Roll on Norway Plus.

By | July 2nd, 2016|

Visiting

I awake on visiting day feeling excited and slightly nervous.  There is a kind of holiday atmosphere in the house – no school, no work.  We get up early, (at least those of us who are not teenagers do), play, dress and grab apples to take to walk the dog who will I fear not be welcome at HMP Hewell and will be spending the reminder of the day alone.

Suddenly it is getting late and I begin to panic, rushing the girls into the car and fumbling with the ridiculous Tupperware’s of marinating tofu and avocado crackers that I mistakenly believe will go down well with my passengers.  I check the passports and directions like an obsessive compulsive and still mange to leave my visit booking reference behind.

The journey goes swimmingly until we arrive at Hewell Lane and iMaps tells me I have arrived, when in fact I have not.  I continue driving until finally I see a pub and people in the car park.  I feel embarrassed to ask for the prison and hope that the woman who directs me will think I’m headed there in a professional capacity, middle class shame rising up in me involuntarily.

Finally, several miles beyond the supposed GPS location, I see signs.  Unfortunately there are various possible directions to follow. I pick one at random, glad that I have driven at 100mph all the way and therefore have time for this malarky.  I pull up at the end of a leafy lane and try to gain entry via a buzzer. I explain that I am visiting a prisoner and am told to join the queue of cars as it is still too early to drive down.  After ten minutes or so I start to get suspicious and venture out of the car to ask the women in front if I’m in the right place.  I’m not.  This is the open prison.

Finally I make it to the cat B car park and visitors room. It looks a bit like a hospital waiting room, the cheerful palette powerless to mask the cheap construction. Thoughtfully, there is a kids corner and a little cafe.  I don’t know what to do and blurt out to the smiley cons running the shop that I have come to visit my husband. It hits me that this is my life now and suddenly I am crying and trying not to, which is making me cry more and people are coming with tissues and cans of drink and telling me that it will be better than I think and being so very kind, which is, once again, making me cry more.

They just look so very sorry for me, as if they would make it all better if they could. Sadly its above everyone’s pay grade. If a judge couldn’t help, what hope is there for these kindly souls.  One of the guards tells me that her sister works on the other side and she will radio over to ask her to make sure I’m ok.  The girls are hugging me and laughing at me and kissing me, which only makes me worse, so that when I come to do my finger prints and photo for the visiting requirements I end up with a dreadful red eyed grimace of a mug shot that will be my calling card until Rob is re categorised out of there.

We take a number from a ticket machine and wait to be processed through the endless check points. I have been told to expect a body and mouth search and a seat on a special chair that can tell if its occupant has a mobile phone in their bottom.  In preparation for this indignity, I have chosen substantial pants of the sort Bridget Jones would be proud of, (not that this would be any challenge to the strange cavity sensing equipment, but it makes me feel marginally more secure).

Thankfully no such chair exists in this facility and the status quo of my rectum remains private.  Finally we are lead into the visiting hall where the prisoners are all seated at coffee tables wearing what look like green netball vests to distinguish them at a glance from their visitors.  Suddenly I spot him, looking dapper in a pale blue prison sweat shirt that is actually quite fetching.  We can’t get to him fast enough, racing each other to his table.  He is so exactly the same: so full of laughs and stories and little vignettes about the crazy characters that people his world now, that I see that he really is ok and I relax at last and settle in to listen to what he has been up to since our brief phone call 5 days previously.

He has been moved to a more permanent wing where, although they miss some of the people from the induction wing, the accommodation is better: a bigger room containing two beds rather than bunk beds and a loo with a door on it! He has a pillow at last, and even a TV, but no kettle. There are three washing machines for 200 prisoners and he doesn’t yet have any allowance for the shop and thus no washing powder, added to which there is nowhere to dry anything anyway, so he has been wearing the same T shirt for 5 days. Again, the guys in the next door pad have helped them and somehow it has been arranged that they can have their cell painted! The “decorator” comes round to ask what they are planning to do with the place, and they toss up between magnolia and white (the only options), plumping in the end for magnolia for its warmer tones. The loo door is covered with graffiti and porn which they are keeping obviously.

Everything is currency and trading is relentless.  People are constantly coming into their cell trying to scrounge sugar or whitener or sitting on the bed and ranting madly.  One guy in particular, constantly wrecked on Mamba, a fish tranquilliser that is the drug of choice here, visits daily.  He comes in one evening brandishing a chicken leg that he wants to swap for a choc ice.  The fact that anything could have happened to that chicken leg since its original receipt is less worrying than the fact that chicken wasn’t even on the menu that day, so Rob politely declines, leaving other less circumspect punters to uptake the offer, which they seem to, as there is soon visual confirmation of a choc ice where once was a chicken leg.  It has been wonderful to see him.  I have cried tears of despair, happiness and laughter and when it is time to go, I am ready, recharged with the strength to get through another week.

I received a lovely message today from a friend wishing that I didn’t have to live all these things in order to be able to write about them.  The fact is though that unless you live something, you can’t really understand it. Despite all of the challenges of this situation, of which there are many, (including the 9 hour round trip that will be our weekly pilgrimage for the foreseeable future), I feel truly blessed to have been given the chance to see into this mostly hidden, dysfunctional, insane world.

Outside in the visitors room again, the other wives smile and reassure me that I will get used to it.  One small girl with a chatty two year old, breaks with protocol to tell me that her husband is in for 14 years for a drugs offence.  She has truly dreadful highlights and a lank perm, but she is very beautiful and so heartbreaking young.  Pale and dressed in black, she stands out against the mostly orange skin tones.  I wonder what will become of her and her daughter and then make a mental note to sort my manicure out for the next visit.

By | July 1st, 2016|
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