Skinny Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | September 28th, 2016|

Notice to Self

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

It’s amazing… no really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By | September 23rd, 2016|

Computer says no

Visiting again.  

My sat-nav decides to deny me the font of its precious knowledge at key moments during the journey to Cambridge and so we arrive with a screech of tyres and moments to spare, only to find that an entire south London family have been left off the list and refused entry.  They are categorically not ‘avin any of it, causing those of us unfortunate enough to be queuing behind them to remain bottle-necked in the visitor’s centre watching the clock tick slowly as our visit evaporates uselessly in their wake.

Finally the girl behind the desk manages to reach someone from the bowels of the prison and begins, leisurely, to process them.  I am going inwardly nuts.  I can imagine Rob sitting, waiting, wondering, and so when we are finally handed the precious visiting order I run, both children at my heals towards the prison entrance in case the guard should elect to shut the gate and go off for an extended fag break in lieu of letting the stragglers in.

I throw my loose change, locker key, visiting order and phone down on the desk prior to the body search.  The guard looks at me aghast.  I follow her line of vision and clock the phone.  She looks stunned.  “You’ve got a mobile phone!”. I apologise profusely, explain about the processing problems and the rush and ask if I can just leave the phone on the desk and pick it up on the way out rather than having to go all the way back to the locker room again.  I haven’t realised what is about to happen yet.

She shakes her head sadly at me.  “I can see that it was a genuine mistake, but I’m afraid that you have just committed an offence and you will have to wait here now until someone can come and deal with you”.  I can’t believe it.  More delays.  I’m literally hopping from Converse to Converse with impatience.  Finally an officer trundles down the corridor to see me. “Guilty as charged?” she jokes.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  “We know that it was a genuine mistake” she begins, but then “unfortunately though, you have just committed an offence punishable by up to ten years in jail, and if you want the visit to go ahead today it will be a closed visit through glass.”  We have just got up at 6.30 on a Sunday morning (one of our party has only had an hours sleep and still smells strongly of ethanol), and driven fast down a motorway for and hour and a half.  It feels like a slap.

Tala is sobbing uncontrollably.  It’s the first time she has cracked since that first horrific shock.  It has been two weeks since we have seen him due to the dearth of visiting at Highpoint (only 3 a month), and she has been planning all week to sit on his lap for the entire visit.  Now she won’t even be able to touch him.  I am engulfed by a wave of despair.  Everyone here knows that it was a mistake:  I threw the damn phone down on the desk, so clearly I wasn’t trying to conceal it.  We all know it and yet the punishment is still being enforced.

It is a classic example of “computer says no”, where none the individuals are able, even if they are willing, to let common sense prevail.  Besides, the staff here are so inured to suffering that this is most likely all in a days work for them, and I have certainly not yet learned the art of kicking off effectively enough to try that on for size now.

I should probably consider myself lucky that no charges have been brought and take my mistake on the chin, and yet the bloody mindedness of the system grabs me by the throat and manages to do what the 3 months of separation we have already endured have not.  It breaks me.  I realise that I am entirely without power.  Worse still, the people inflicting the punishment seem to be in the same position.  We are all in thrawl to a system that doesn’t have a heart, nor seemingly a head.  I am sobbing like a small lost child.  Utterly wretched.

We are being herded towards the closed visiting booths.  I can see Rob standing behind the glass at the end of the corridor.  The look on his face almost makes me retch up the cocktail of guilt and love that is percolating inside me.  He is silently watching the spectacle of us crying and being asked to take sips of tea and offered Kleenex before they will take us further.  I keep saying that I just want to see him, but they insist that I calm down and clean the running mascara away first.  The cons in the tea shop ask me what is wrong and shake their heads sadly when I reveal my mistake, but they have been here long enough to know that the dye is cast.  Finally Okha takes over.  She tells us both, with instant results, that it is enough and that we have to stop.  If ever there was a girl for stepping up, it’s my girl.

Finally we are locked into the glass booth.  He picks up the phone on the other side.  Only one of ours seems to be working.  We put our hands to the glass.  It’s like in the movies, but real.  I try to explain and apologise for what I have done to us all, but I can’t seem to get any words out and the waterworks are on again. Okha shouts at the door, eventually manages to get some service and points out that there are three of us and only one working phone.  They shrug in response.  She asks if her little sister can please get to hug her father at the end of the visit.  They promise to see what they can do, but don’t return.  This is it.

We try to make the most of it, but Rob is honest about the fact that this is a huge blow to him.  He doesn’t blame me – it’s a big conceptual shift to think of a phone as contraband, (indeed I am still actively trying to remember to have mine on me), but the thing is that there is nothing kind or soft on the inside:  He relies on us to recharge something vital inside in himself which he is attempting to preserve against all the odds.  Touch is precious.  Talk is cheap.

We find that if we all huddle around the receiver we can hear each other faintly and so we carry on a conversation of sorts, prompted mostly by Okha who has resolved not to be beaten by this.  Tala gives up after a while and drifts off, bored by the adult talk.  Eventually the ordeal is over and we are unlocked and told to finish up.

Outside in the relief of the fresh air I talk to a beautiful Columbian woman with a 4 year old daughter who has been coming since she was pregnant.  She only visits now because of the child.  They had been married for a long time and kept the relationship together for a couple of years into his incarceration, but after a while it just got too hard:  His paranoia, the struggle to just survive as a single parent coupled with the loneliness, ultimately proved too much. He has put in a request for a transfer back to Columbia.  

The reality is that we are fighting to maintain a relationship that is only really a memory of a relationship now and a collection of promises and desires for the future.  Love is an action, but trying to give and receive it within this system is like trying to touch through perspex: it looks as if you are meeting, but underneath, all the nerves can feel is the smooth lifeless surface of plastic.

By | September 15th, 2016|

BAFTA

Due to the joint ravages of moth and a teenage daughter who, despite spending all of her disposable income on beer and clothing seems to prefer to dress almost entirely in items plundered from her father’s wardrobe, I decide to pack up Rob’s things into plastic boxes so that they can wait out the remainder of his sentence in the relative safety of the cellar.

It feels a little like bereavement. Some of the shirts and jackets still smell of him: an unmistakable blend of his aftershave, incense and something that is uniquely him. Some of them are moulded from frequent use to his particular shape so that even on the hangars I can see his chest in the emptiness. I discover T shits that I haven’t seen for years dating back sixteen years ago to when we first met, nostalgic items from when we were younger, ambitious, unknowing. I work late into the night. I don’t sleep much anyhow. I spread my dresses out in a deliciously spacious fashion on the liberated rail that is now replete with femininity and feel as if I have just lost another part of him.

The following morning I receive a letter from BAFTA inviting me as Rob’s representative to resign his membership and avoid the disciplinary process following his conviction “for an offence directly related to the very industry for which BAfTA exists to support”. I turn cold and then hot. Yes BAFTA my husband is rotting in jail, 9 weeks into a 9 year sentence for providing development funds for the dire British film industry and putting much needed money directly into the hands of the independent producers and film makers who comprise the BAFTA membership. Would you also like to disbar all the producers who benefited from this scheme and others like it?

I call and speak to a very pleasant, but woefully unsuspecting chap, who realises part way through the conversation that he has awoken a sleeping dragon. He expresses genuine personal concern and sorrow. I wonder why it is that we strive under the auspices of professionalism, to keep these vital qualities out of professional communications and directives.

If you have ever tried to get a film off the ground in this country and benefited from funding from tax breaks, if you have ever run your own business and trusted the advice of tax counsel or accountants because they are the experts and that is why you hired them, if you have ever suspected that the papers don’t print all of the truth all of the time, or if you have been shocked by what you have read in this blog about a very unsafe conviction handed down by an inexpert jury in a trial where no expert tax opinion was ever heard or even if you just think that this process has been humiliating and painful enough for me, I invite you to write to BAFTA and encourage them to write to me again, but better.

I will certainly not resign, and am looking forward to the disciplinary process with venom. It is rare that I get a chance to direct some of the frustration and anger that is usually turned inwards. I call Jim and tell him in the worryingly stroppy, potty-mouthed language that I appear to have adopted in the face of this adversity, that I’m not having it. He agrees: he’s in, we’ll fight it, and in so doing strike a blow at all those who never think to look under the hood at the complexities, or at least that is how it will feel to me. Isn’t that what the film industry partially exists for? To look a little deeper?

Meanwhile I am surrounded by support. People grow solidarity beards, small children draw and send pictures and make vile potions to send to our oppressors, there is love. And where would we be without that? So far in prison Rob is yet to meet one person who actually believes that the system wants to rehabilitate them. Worse still, not one person believes that anyone actually cares about them. That is a damning discovery.

You can say what you like from a government office where whatever little sins you commit, (because we all do, because that’s what humans do…apart from you mum of course), have not yet been discovered, but until our prisons are evaluated on reoffending rates rather than on ever decreasing ratios of guards to prisoners and price we’re doing nothing more than providing excellent criminal networking opportunities for an increasingly angry, marginalised and socially disruptive group of people. There is no “us and them”, there is only us. We rise or fall together. We are a community, or at least we should be.

The latest directive from HMP Highpoint is that each prisoner is now allocated just one loo roll a week. This comes delivered in a plastic bag also containing a jay cloth. It is unclear whether this is to be used (rinsed and reused?) after the paper has expired or whether it is intended for a separate task. In other prisons fruit is now banned in an attempt to prevent the brewing of hooch. Scurvy anyone? At least it may also simultaneously reduce the call for loo roll. Constipation, however uncomfortable, is a positive plus in a world with little bathroom privacy.

Rob is a little sad that his neighbour has been moved onwards and upwards to the dizzying heights of block 7, the Highpoint equivalent of Mayfair, (which in prison terms translates to no bars on the windows and very little lock up) but is heartened by the fact that due to some internal scam involving frozen chickens, several block 7 residents have been booted out onto block 3 to contend with all the gang members that are normally housed there, thus freeing up a bit of space on 7 where Rob and the boys have their sights firmly set. Every chicken has a silver gizzard.

Lastly I couldn’t finish this post without saying a word about Don Ranvaud, impassioned visionary producer of Constant Gardener and City of God fame, who was genuinely devoted to film and instrumental in building film industries in the developing world. Don was so active in the film world that he was one of the few genuine non-dom citizens of the world, living in hotel rooms, hopping from film festival to film festival and generally baffling everyone with his unique mixture of brilliance and madness. He died perhaps inevitably of a heart attack in a hotel room after a life entirely devoted to trying to move and shake in the industry that he loved and also railed against. He vociferously opposed Rob’s conviction and was a true, if slightly unhinged comrade. RIP Don, you will be missed. RIP Doris also; Smaller, furrier and less well known, but nonetheless beloved.

By | September 9th, 2016|

Penguins

It’s the little things that make life bearable, inside prison and out.  In times of deep despair the warmth of a tea cup in hopeless hands, the solace of a hot, silent shower or a strangers smile, can all make a difference and turn the scene as they say in the business (film, not fraud obviously).

If you know Rob, then when you discovered that he was going to be spending the next few years at her majesty’s pleasure, it would not be long before you asked yourself how on earth he was going to survive on prison food.

For some, incarceration and the culinary and alcoholic deprivations thereof, are life savers: Rob’s neighbour proudly shows him the leather belt he entered jail with 5 years ago, a redundant swathe of worn notches marking the eight stone he has lost inside.  Keith was positively jubilant about the health farm aspect of his impending “holiday” and has already dropped an only marginally needed trouser size, but Rob, AKA by his droll brother Tim as “Mr No-bottom”, certainly wasn’t relishing the idea of prison grub.

Ideas of maintaining any kind of middle class standards disappeared almost immediately and, liberated by sheer hunger from the twin yokes of fear and fussiness, he now willingly eats almost anything he can get his hands on, excepting the white bread dished out at breakfast – they don’t even let you feed that to ducks these days.

So it is that when he is presented with two penguins on his first friday night he practically spontaneously combusts with excitement.  It is hard to imagine the humble penguin causing such strident emotions among a population of large tattooed men, but that’s what a mere week of sensory depravation (pleasurable senses in any case), in an induction wing will do to you.

Then, imagine the euphoria when, suddenly, a few weeks later the penguin quota is hiked to an almost unfathomable 8 bars – an entire strip of penguins: Unimaginable bounty. (No pun intended).
Had the “piece de resistance” of Gove’s prison reform bill been fast tracked into legislative reality despite his meticulously self-crafted ejection (In your face Brutus) from political relevance?

It takes Rob weeks of persistent sleuthing to solve the mystery, but in the fullness of time, whilst taking up a seat for a card game on an apparently innocent looking box, all is revealed. The aforementioned chair is in fact a construction composed of entire boxes of penguins. In truth the penguin allocation for all prisoners at Hewell had always been eight. The fact that only a quarter of these ever reached their rightful stomachs was the result of a masterful relocation effort by the kitchen boys.

Everything in jail is currency, and here, as everywhere, money is power, and only the industrious are rewarded. This was an especially slick and large scale operation however: When you calculate that there are over 2000 residents at Hewell, each entitled to 8 of the delectable chocolate coated and cream filled biscuits, with only a quarter of these reaching their destinations, you will deduce that over 12 thousand penguins were going awry on a weekly basis, that’s a lot of stray penguins…

But alas, the Lord giveth and he taketh away.  Rumour has it that there was some sort of internal argument over why there were only(!) eight weekly penguins awarded per capita. Apparently a proportion of the penguins were actually designated as part of a breakfast allocation…? (Please no-one tell Tala or she’ll be following in her fathers footsteps and pursuing that career in media that I have warned her about…) and so, after a failure to mediate in the dispute over exact penguin numbers and rationale, management resolve the disagreement by revoking all penguin rights, thereby making the remaining contraband phenomenally desirable, and simultaneously breaking the hearts and minds of grown men.

Who knew the dizzy heights of greatness that would be thrust upon this lowly, some may even say gritty, McVitie’s masterpiece.  Perhaps wisely, Highpoint have stayed out of the penguin game and inmates are forced to fall back on that stalwart the Bournville (invented over 100 years ago and still going strong) to get their sugar fix.

When I speak to Rob on the phone today he is bursting with excitement. “Baby it’s like Christmas in here”, he enthuses.  It transpires that a mate of theirs is moving out to a highly desirable outer block (the real estate market in prison is buoyant and closely followed by the inmates) and has handed over all his best stuff to Rob and Keith ahead of the pirañaesque picking clean of the cell that will occur literally minutes after it has been vacated.  The magnanimity of this gesture means that the boys now have a bin, washing up liquid complete with receptacle, sink cleaner and none other than the holy grail itself: a kettle. He is genuinely over the moon…. It really is the little things.

By | September 3rd, 2016|
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