Mr Clean and Miss Hughes

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.

By | August 29th, 2016|

Fairy Tales

This is Okha.

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Or at least it was Okha until she bleached all her hair and died it candy floss pink, because, in her words, “YOLO and I work in a hairdressers!”. Now she looks the same, but more like a psychedelic trance fairy.

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She is the kind of thing you would like to see if you were lost in a forest, metaphorical or real.  You would know that all was well if you met her in a quest.  She is playful and funny.  She is reckless and passionate.  She is self destructive and deliciously self indulgent.  She is beautiful, inside and out, and she is really, truly going through the wringer at the moment.

Last week her birth father died of cancer.  She didn’t know him.  Rob is her father.  She was three when she “found” Rob for me in a yoga centre and soon had him constructing elaborate islands and worlds out of yoga paraphernalia for her toy ponies.  He brought her up, adopted her and loved her, so she had very little interest in any other father until recently, when she started to realise that she might like to meet this mysterious other dad, safe in the realisation that one love doesn’t preclude another: Rob could be her dad, and her birth father could be something too.

Timings were wrong though and after appearing to improve, Adrian went suddenly and almost without warning.  Cancer.  Now she is grieving for something that never was.  On top of it all, I was away.  It was August – Everyone was away.  She found herself alone in London, grasping for a foothold as the world shock around her.  She fought to stay standing, collapsed into old patterns of self harm and then somehow, miraculously dug herself out again.

She misses Rob terribly, more than all of us, as she invariably can’t make the visit and is frequently elsewhere when he calls.  She doesn’t understand time. It is part of her dyslexia that she finds it very hard to quantify how long things will take or calculate backwards to avoid temporal disasters.  The prison visiting structure is very unforgiving and so is the workplace, so she has only seen him once since May.

She missed out on the photo shoot for this blog for similar reasons: Pinning Okha down to a time and place is a frustrating endeavour.  Her solution to her ghostly absence from the blog shot was to photoshop a picture of herself, very drunk cradling a rubber chicken, into the side of the image, but ultimately the technical know-how eluded her and so she remains missing.

She desperately needs Rob, and yet can’t quite seem to reach him.  He was an anchor for her as a child.  She had put up with me in my early twenties, still wild and, it has to be said, partially unhinged, but things were better with Rob.  We got a dog, a house, a sister.  Rob held me, so I could hold her.  In recent months their relationship was strained by the clash between the chronic stress he was under during the trial, and her need to be a teenager and break every rule in the book, and now it is even harder to keep the connection alive.

I also struggle to reach him in the short sporadic phone calls or in the noisy public visiting hall.  There seems to be no option but to detach a little and find a way to function independently of one another.  This is new territory.  We both worry about how to keep close.  I write to him relentlessly, sometimes two or three times a day, and he is now starting to do the same.  It’s old fashioned and feels how courting must have felt in the days before sexual liberation took over the world.  It is sweet and tender; a lifeline that just might work.

Tala is away in France with her best friend.  This once shy and retiring child is blossoming into life with a vengeance now.  It is as if all the love that Rob gave her as a child, that used to be reflected back only at him, is now bursting out of her like an unfurling bud.  She travels with me, makes connections and overcomes fears. She spends time with her Godmother who is beauty personified, and the closet terrestrial thing possible to a real fairy Godmother.  As much as I miss her, and bless her, she is no trouble really, it is something of a relief to have the bed to myself and to take a few days respite from the constant requests for sustenance.  She is growing like a weed, has the same size feet as her sister, and is almost impossible to satisfy.

It feels like the first time I have paused for breath since the sentencing.  I have been running to keep ahead of the grief.  Now that I sit here alone, I find that I was fleeing a mirage. What life is bringing is good.  It is different to what I had expected, but good different.  We will survive. I will go outwards into the world, and he must go inwards. Whatever the destination it is a relief to be moving forwards again instead of trying to slam on the breaks or hit reverse. What is done is done and there is no stopping this train.

Relationships can become stuck and stodgy through lack of resistance and comfort and co-dependence can stifle even the most creative individuals.  Again it strikes me that the universe moves in mysterious ways.  I do not want to be like a pair of old slippers, familiar and worn. I would still like to be the glass slippers that go to the ball, and ride in a pumpkin coach and even though I don’t believe in princes and fairytales anymore, I still believe that I have a path that I must walk, or preferably dance, so why not do it willingly, in silver sparkling slippers and leave comfort at the back of the wardrobe.  Perhaps there is a Narnia awaiting.

By | August 21st, 2016|

Double Bubble

Visits are the worst days.  People with experience tell me this often.  Initially I can’t relate to it, living as I do for every moment of connection, but now I understand: You arrive after whatever ordeal you have been through to get there on time, (in our case today an unintentional tour of Cambridgeshire in an attempt to avoid a pile up on the M11).  You check in, receive your visiting order and number of admittance, wait until the entry time, then wait some more until someone bothers to unlock the doors and begin processing. (At Highpoint the entry queue wouldn’t look out of place in an Essex nightclub.) When you pass all the searches and sniffer dogs you are finally let into the visiting hall.  This one consists of four chairs, three blue, one red, bolted to the floor around a table.  You take your places.  We pick blue chairs, correctly supposing that the red seat is for the inmates.  You wait again until in dribs and drabs at around 3pm the men start to arrive.  We have already lost half an hour out of the precious two.

When I tell Rob in the morning that we have managed to book in for today he sounds worried.  Apparently if you don’t have your prison issue jeans and blue and white shirt (which is surprisingly fetching), you can’t get into the visiting hall.  Knowing that everything takes forever in jail, and at Highpoint worse than Hewell due to the very low staff numbers (this is the downside of the Cat C), Rob is not at all sure that he will be able to swing it in time, but eventually, heavily bearded and looking like something out of Cheech and Chong, he does arrive.

He is thinner again and seems to be bowled over by seeing us.  He has already been so dehumanised by the system that he can’t relate to himself as attractive or worthy of our love and time.  Already I am fighting back the tears.  Prison is a place where men are worn down and made to feel both worthless and powerless.  The very essence of their masculinity is consciously gelded in the crazily mistaken belief that to break them is to reform them.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the men fight and kick off to assert themselves, some just bleed out hopelessly until such time as they are released.

There are no conjugal visits in the UK.  How does a relationship survive without touch, tenderness or intimacy? In that crowded, watched visiting hall we all try in vain to get as close as we can.  The longer into the sentence, the more separated experiences each of us has incurred and the harder it seems to be to reconnect. I try to tell him where we have been and what we have done and am aware only of how far the beauty of the nature and the kindness of strangers that I am describing, is removed from his experience.

As I go to fetch tea, Tala immediately tells him that I have been hugging “other men” on the yoga retreat. Guilty as charged – a good yoga retreat is by definition a hug fest by the final days.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother him in the least.  Having owned a yoga centre himself he is more than familiar with open displays of affection, but locked away as he is, on a playing field that is so very far from level, this unsolicited, naively delivered information stabs at him.  Jealousy and reproach cloud his face.  He confesses to emotions arising in him that he hasn’t experienced in years. Jealousy and self doubt.  I am powerless to help. I can’t not be me, and honestly, the love and support of friends new and old is a lifeline to me.

Our relationship is strong – one of the strongest.  If we are struggling to negotiate this time, what chance do so many other partnerships have?  Men need their womenfolk and their families to mitigate their maleness and to ground and soften them. I am constantly surprised by the instantaneous transformation of the men’s faces and body language the minute they spot their women and children.  What women need no-one here cares about. We carry on, try to keep the cupboards stocked and the children sane, but it is a fight, often conducted alone.

As the visit races by, a full hour shorter than at Hewell due to a reduced allocation and the tardiness of the men’s arrival, we do manage to reconnect.  It’s not easy, broken as the atmosphere constantly is by Tala’s requests to play “rock paper scissors” and her incessant beard bashing.  She just wants to have fun and mess about with him as she used to and have a tiny snippet of what she took so very much for granted for ten years. She is shocked by how many children are visiting and worries that so many little souls have to go through what she does.  She knows that she has extraordinary coping skills that put me and Okha to shame.  She is an unassuming but powerful child who could probably devise an incredible outreach program for other children given the opportunity.  Whatever she does and is, I am in awe of her.

With the experience of two prisons now under his belt, Rob is beginning to fully comprehend what needs to, and could, change instantly and without financial implication in our prisons. The most self defeating rule here is the policy of withholding canteen money in the initial weeks of the sentence: If you have no money and you need to wash, or smoke a cigarette, or phone your wife, or watch the game, you will need to borrow.  All borrowing is “double bubble”: You borrow a cigarette, you pay back two.  When Friday comes and you can’t pay back, because actually you have no control over your canteen sheet and there are frequent deductions for start up packs etc that you may not have understood in processing, especially if, like many here, you can’t read, then you will be beaten up, and double bubble kicks in again. You now owe twice as much and so the cycle of debt and bullying continues.

There is no reason for holding back the small allowance (paid by the families not the state). Someone in Westminster, who knows nothing about life on the inside, just thought it would be good to be tough on prisoners.  But for the grace of God go I.  Remember that when your star is shining.

On the drive home I cry the whole way.  Tala falls asleep in moments and I have the luxury of a whole 2 hours to indulge myself in despair.  It is the first time I have cried for longer than three seconds.  The brokeness of the system, the futility, the waste, all get on top of me. I’m buried again.  I feel selfish and utterly foolish to think that I could manage this.  I can only see one solution.
I call our lawyer Jim, and like a child on a car journey asking if they are nearly there yet, ask him again if there is any hope of some kind of reprieve.  It is a pathetic question and we both know that I know it is hopeless.  It is Friday night.  He must have so many better things to do than to listen to me crying on the phone, and we are not even on the clock(!) but he talks to me, without any hollow reassurances until he makes me laugh again and I have put myself back together.  I tell him about hug-gate.  He is unphased and gives me the simple advice that regret will tear you apart.

This is a war. You just have to survive it. In time it will end and then there will be healing and perhaps even peace, greater and more profound than before.  Perhaps.

By | August 13th, 2016|

All Change Please

On August 9th the guys are transferred to Highpoint (AKA Knifepoint!) near Newmarket (where?), near Cambridge.  Thanks to an insider tip off they did have some warning of this upheaval, but it was kept top secret due to the security issues around moving prisoners from place to place – peak opportunity for a prison break.  Had the authorities known that we knew, it would have been cancelled.

Highpoint has had some celebrity inmates in the past. The famous George’s were both here: Boy George for imprisoning an escort and chaining him to a wall – (if you’re going to go down for something, why not that?) and George Michael for crashing into a shop front high on cannabis and prescription meds, but this doesn’t seem to have improved the accommodation.  In fact Highpoint could more properly be described as Lowpoint right now and Rob is very much wishing that he was back in good old, bad old Hewell.

They are now back to basic again on the constantly shifting sands of another induction wing, in a cramped pad with bunks, re- negotiating how to manage the remaining 6 foot by 1 foot of space they share under pretty much constant lock up.  No pillows again, just a sheet and a blanket. No kettle let alone a TV and most challenging of all nowhere to hang anything. There will be no canteen again for weeks and the same demoralising struggles to get a curtain, washing powder and liquid will inevitably be the work of the coming week.  Rob and Keith are still sharing which is a blessing, and Charlie has again landed himself a reasonable cell mate in the form of a low key Nigerian. It is hard to discern much about this new location except that it is pretty grim.  It should get better: eventually they will be transferred out onto the wings where, in time, they will have single occupancy cells and considerably less lock down, but how long that will take is anyone’s guess.

It is painful to hear Rob on the phone.  There was little at Hewell to really recommend it, but in comparison to where they now find themselves those were halcyon days. Most of all they miss their friends.  This is a relentless journey where all comforts are stripped away time after time.  As a spiritual test it is perfectly designed and I suspect incomparable.  Constant resistance and indifference; nowhere to hide. I book a visit.  I can speak to the booking clerks now as if I was arranging a doctors appointment.  Shame is an affliction I am glad to be without, tied up as it inevitably is in judgement turned both in and out. Tomorrow we will see him.

It is strange to be back in the grey summer London chill. I have been in a place Tala describes to her best friend Luli as “very hot where everything is bigger.” She means the mosquitos I think, but she is right on another level too.  I have been in a wild place these past ten days, swimming in mountain streams and waterfalls where clothing seems like an affront to the ancient untouched landscape.  Barefoot on the earth, hot and dusty, falling into bed after long hours of cooking and carrying and not thinking.  It has sometimes felt as if I have been branded by what has happened to us; as if I am entirely defined by it, but in the tiny miraculous hamlet of Gravito, created out of an inherited ruin on a wing and a prayer by the vision and love of my friends, a thread is cut and an identity falls away.

I knew that I was coming to a beautiful place where I would be part of a hive, doing my part for a communal good that had nothing to do with injustice and incarceration and everything to do with love and freedom, but I was unprepared for how precious it would feel to make new connections and friends, just as me, no history.  My connection to Rob is absolute, coming out of years of love and togetherness, concreted by family and home: two lives bound inextricably together.  He has been ripped out of this cosy nest leaving a gaping space.  I can either sit in front of this void and stare into the abyss or I can begin to grow something in the bare space that has been created so very much against my will.  There is a risk to moving forward, to saying yes to what is new and unknown, but it is exhilarating too and I am definitely coming alive again.  I will not sit and wait and grieve. I will live and grow on my own again, as he must also.

All illusion of control is fading rapidly.  I feel like a small leaf being tugged and carried and tumbled over waterfalls in the river I have been swimming in for the past 10 days and it reminds me of a beautiful card that Carolyn, (owner of Gravito, Godmother to Okha, incomparable friend), sent to me when I was twenty one and making a total hash of my life already.  The card depicted a fairy hanging on to a leaf, skirts billowing, wings pressed back, being buffeted and blown through space by the wind. Inside she wrote: “Sometimes I feel like the fairy hanging on for dear life. Sometimes I feel like the leaf, and sometimes, just sometimes, I even feel like the wind.”

Here is the new address for anyone who would like to write:
Robert Bevan A800 3DT
HMP Highpoint South
Stradishall,
Newmarket,
Suffolk,
CB8 9YG

If you are signed up the email a prisoner service you need to go to your address book, click on edit and change the prison name from Hewell to Highpoint.

By | August 11th, 2016|

Panic Button

As we exit the visiting hall I am fiercely proud to see Rob laughing with his mates as they retreat back into their world of men.  On our side of the hall it is last orders.  Families and couples are still being prised apart by increasingly curt shouts to finish up.  I am once more next to a silently weeping woman whose two perturbed children look confused and helpless.  It is the wife of the man who Rob is teaching to read.  The dreadful helpless feeling washes over me again. I ask her if she is ok, when clearly she is not.  She nods without looking at me, fighting to regain composure. I chat to the children to distract them from their mother’s cracking facade of coping.  I tell them that their dad and Tala’s dad are working together, and that Tala is really jealous that her dad gets to watch telly whenever he wants.  I babble a bit of nonsense and they laugh, prompting their petite, gentle, tired looking mum to tell me about the eldest’s boy’s ADHD and about another little brother of four who has Aspergers and is too tricky to bring visiting, who cracked the car windscreen last week by head butting it.  It all tumbles out of her in a rush: How hard it is to explain the situation to the kids, the musical beds at night, keeping so busy that you don’t have to think, the children who are missing out, the effort of keeping it all up and running and cheery; the guilt when you can’t.

The pattern of behaviours and thoughts are familiar to me, but for some reason it is not mostly what I live. Generally, I am able to watch these debilitating thought streams safely from the other side of the divide. When you take away the veil of self interest and the belief in a saccharine fairy tale life, everything is just as it should be.  This is not a spiritual or religious stance, it is just that nothing else works.

I feel wretched for them all.  I pray that he will be one of the few who come out improved with new skills, determined to brave the many obstacles to going straight: the criminal record, the inadequately paid unskilled work, the familiarly of the old ways and people.  For the straight life to stand a chance, it needs to be repackaged and sold as an entirely different story. That needs people inside our jails who have the ability to relate to the diverse population, delivering full time effective rehabilitation.  We have an exceptionally long way to go.

For our part a radical change of direction into a life of crime is something we could now contemplate .  Rob is acquiring the skills: jail is nothing if not an excellent networking opportunity and a hothouse for unscrupulous plans, besides which, we would be able to see a lot of our lawyer Jim, who we are very fond of, and who would doubtless be glad to get a good client for life. We are very lucky to have him.  I am shocked when Rob tells me that he has met guys inside who have already served eight years over their tariff.  I wonder who is advocating for them? This is a scandal that no-one seems bothered about.  It’s only criminals after all…

Inside the intimacies of sharing a cell continue. Rob finds Keith’s (washed) pants in the sink, wonders whether to postpone the washing up until after they have been removed, but then, after a brief but intense inner struggle, decides to get over himself and manhandle them from sink to washing line.  Keith and Rob do well together.  They are both considerate, generous and self sufficient characters.  Self-centredness in this environment does not fly and you will soon get a reputation if you accept favours without returning them.  In this barter economy, services and goods all have a value and respect is essential.  Anyone with a sense of entitlement, poor accounting skills, or unfunded addictions will not do well here and there are regular beatings to prove it.

Keith still struggles with the injustice of what has happened. The long hours alone with his thoughts (Rob really can be pretty taciturn if he’s not feeling the conversation) lure him into the same torturous circular patterns of disbelief that I have dabbled in myself:

How could a case, described by the judge as the most complicated he had ever heard, involving intricate tax law which provokes debate and disagreement amongst the top legal minds in the country, have been put before a lay jury with no fiscal credentials?

How was it possible that in such a case not one expert opinion was presented by the prosecution and none allowed for the defence?

Why did the Court of Appeal illegally overturn the ruling of the judge by disputing agreed facts between the two sides, thus returning the case to be heard by the jury, who, as the original judge knew, could not possibly understand it?

Rob gives him one afternoon to talk about it, after which he warns that the subject will not be revisited.  It is a little brutal, but probably for the best.  These irreconcilable facts wind themselves into the kind of slipknot that pulls itself tighter the more you struggle, and friends don’t let friends hang themselves, even metaphorically, in the night.

Besides, you never know who you might get as your next roommate: The wife of Rob’s literacy student also tells me that when her husband first arrived at Hewell he had the misfortune to land in a pad with a full on psychopath who warned him not to sleep at night as he was going to stab him in his sleep.  He stayed awake until 3 in the morning at which point his nerve broke and he decided to utilise the panic button in his cell. Fortunately for him this prompted swift relocation into alternative and infinitely safer accommodation.

I board the flight to Portugal. I am about to enter a country where drug use has been decriminalised with extraordinarily positive results, especially vis a vis the use of “legal” highs (which represent more of a threat to health than many more conventional established narcotics) and overdose mortalities.  Three small, confused children would still have their dad at home if they lived here.

How about we keep our jails for people who are a threat to society and let people choose what to put into their bodies? We did it with penises, we positively encourage it with alcohol, and the prison cafe is brimming only with goods guaranteed to cause long term health implications at the sort of consumption rates I witness all around me.  A little consistency people, and we could just create a situation where we could reduce penal overcrowding and use the cash for committed rehabilitation.  There are a few families, (families who love each other and feel pain just like “good” people), who would be very grateful.

By | August 6th, 2016|
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