We try out the early morning visiting at 9 am on a Sunday. It’s magic: No traffic and blissfully quiet in the visitors centre. Sunday morning, following as it generally does hard on the heels of Saturday night, (the sacred cow of the social life of anyone who, unlike me, actually has one), is an unpopular proposition for the majority, and those who book this slot are a different crowd: parents and grandparents mostly, plus a small violently vomiting boy, apparently suffering from car sickness.
No-one even thinks about starting to process us til 9, so by the time we are funnelled through the locked doors, searched, sniffed and finally admitted, we arrive in the visiting hall with a quarter of our precious visit already spent. I channel my mother, (never shy to fight a corner, especially mine), and bring this up with the receptionist afterwards, only to be told that the statuary minimum is one hour 3 times a month and that frankly I should count myself lucky that I am getting an hour and a half.
As we enter the hall, I realise that I am wearing almost exactly the same thing as the prisoners: Blue jeans and a blue and white striped linen shirt. Rob jokes that I might not get out again. What I would do for this to be the case and to be locked in for a night with my husband cannot be detailed here.
The beard is really shaping up well now, and he has been working in “Industries” and looks ripped, which is fitting as he is spending 6 hours a day ripping sheets into squares for recycling. No one has told them exactly what the squares are used for, and so, in the absence of a sense of purpose, they just rip for all they are worth to make the quotas which determine their weekly earnings. If you work hard you can earn up to £30 a week, which goes a long way in the slammer, but works out pretty well for the employers too, another example of how we are moving towards an American model. The work done in US jails has become vital to the stability of their economy and is legitimising the formation of a clandestine slave trade right under our noses.
Rob works next to a brilliant punk tattoo artist with lots of banter and clear plans for his future. This guy works like a machine to make his full quota as he is saving for the “out”. He puts a single pound on his phone credit for the week to call his wife and kids, and then saves every penny of the remaining £29 he earns for the mobile tattoo outfit upon which he hangs his future dreams.
Rob likes to work and is used to manual labour from summers spent grafting on farms as a teenager. The time passes better when you are busy too. Charlie is a demon at the ripping and plunges into the sheet pile with ferocity, whereas Rob, ever the gentleman, politely waits until other people have collected their raw materials, with the result that he is still only on £20 a week. Two weeks in, an edict from on high dictates that wages are to be cut by 25% from 4 pence to 3 pence per kilo of rags. It’s a cruel blow, but without the principle of free movement of people and labour, in fact with zero free movement at all, options are limited.
Rob is fast learning that although being nice works to a degree in getting what you want inside, the most effective strategy is violence, or threats thereof. This is confirmed on the meat wagon ride from Hewell to Highpoint by an affable career criminal in his 40’s who is adamant that intimidating the guards and kicking off indiscriminately is the best approach on the inside. It is a fine line, and admittedly he has just spent a few months in seg (segregation), leading Rob to be somewhat sceptical, but lo and behold, upon arrival at Highpoint, this new acquaintance launches into a well oiled patter of imaginative and colourfully articulated menace, and is rewarded by a prompt transferral out of the grim induction wing into a private room on a quiet block, a feat which is to take Rob and Keith, on full charm offensive, over two weeks.
The guards are simply not paid enough to bother dealing with difficult guys, and mostly capitulate rather than risk being doused with boiling water or bleach or whatever other disfiguring event is on the agenda. This is why it is so hard to get hold of any cleaning materials on the inside: Even Mr Clean can become a weapon in the arms of the calculating, the desperate, the experienced and the mentally unhinged and many inmates are a fascinating combination of all four.
Violence or the shadows cast by its ever present potential is how debts are collected and small fortunes are formed. Thanks to hefty interest rates and rampant addiction issues compounded by boredom and perpetual substance availability, you can make good money inside with a little capital, but you have to have the stomach for it; you must be willing to enforce your racket.
Most prison officers are too disenchanted with the system to even consider unlocking anyone more often than they absolutely have to, or doing anything over and above the minimum, which is good for the inside racketeers, but not so great for Rob. Three weeks in and he still doesn’t have a pillow, (for which read a foam block covered in plastic).
Pay and moral are both on the floor and so in the main, officers do the bare minimum and treat their charges on mass like the animals that some of them have certainly become. There are guards who break the mould however, like Miss Hughes at Hewell for example. If she is on shift she will do what she can and manages to procure kettles, unearth undelivered emails, rectify faulty phone cards, and retrieve dressing gowns out of limbo. As a result everyone goes to her for help and so she is quite literally run off her feet. Miss Hughes is also beloved of the entire prison population at Hewell. If anyone unsuspectingly includes her in the general abuse routinely meted out fairly indiscriminately to the screws, they are dealt with harshly by the other inmates.
Miss Hughes is sacrosanct, untouchable and a blessed symbol of what is needed if we are ever to change anything and anyone in this negative spiral of a system. She uses her working day to make the ugly world she enters a better place, with the result that she is collectively loved, respected and cared for by a group of people who can be simultaneously violent, aggressive and threatening to her colleagues. Her kindness to a section of men who, for all their posturing, are essentially disempowered and entirely at the mercy of the system, results in a trim figure, hopefully some job satisfaction on her part, and a rare bond that is embedded into the collective memory of the shoal of men who ebb and flow through that challenged institution. Many men will have slept better, enjoyed cups of tea, or finally managed to call home as a result of Miss Hughes and the few like her. She certainly isn’t well paid for her troubles, but Miss Hughes, if you ever read this, thank you and bless you.