Hallelujah

I wake early.  Can’t sleep.  I sing “Hallelujah” softly to myself in the 5am darkness.  Jeff Buckley saved me once before from the depths of a depression in my twenties. I’m not depressed now, far from it.  I was once told that depression is anger turned inwards and my anger is very much out.

At visiting we are again seated at the top of the hall right next to the guards whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly over our pitiful table-separated huddle. Tala knows that she can’t sit on Rob’s knee any more. She has her T-shirt tucked firmly in too, and a jumper for good measure.  Her long legs are bare though.  She doesn’t even realise that they, along with a ten year old’s lower back apparently, may be considered salacious and I am not going to dignify this lunacy by telling her.  As she gets up to make her way to the queue for the cafe (she loves to get the tea), she stops and gives him a quick, furtive hug, her eyes flashing guiltily towards the watchers.  She looks hunted.  Rob has lodged a formal complaint against the note on his file and just that morning has received a reply saying that the comments cannot be removed and apparently other guards also noticed the “inappropriate behaviour”. The closing of ranks.

A father and a daughter somehow managed to find a moment of intimacy and peace within that infernal visit hall, and that cannot be stomached.  No happiness here please.  No cheating the system.  Suffering only.

We have been dragged through the courts on a charge that, according to the tax expert should never have reached court.  We have been convicted by a lay jury against the ruling of a judge. We have been sentenced and separated and have taken all of this as our lot, but to have insinuations of sexual abuse, which would make Rob a paedophile, Tala a victim and me an aider and abetter, tossed carelessly into the mix is the proverbial straw breaking the camels back.  It is enough now. Enough.

I know that what is happening to us is nothing in the scale of human suffering.  I think about Aleppo, North Korea and the bereaved everywhere and know that I have nothing to whinge about, but if I don’t allow myself to let it be significant that this separation and this Dickensian prison dis-service are destroying the lives we once had, I would feel as if I had done what I am expected to do and just rolled over and died.  So I am letting myself roar on this page instead.  I dedicate my life to being as free as possible, as much of a foil to his incarceration as possible.  I want to tear the doors off all the cages – those imposed upon us and also those of my own making.  I want to live and I want it to be wild and free.

Fortunately for us all there is mostly too much basic housework and admin to do just to keep our heads above water for me to really devote enough time to the ML crisis to action this brief, but I do my best to indulge in defiant happiness when I get day release from my duties now and again.  Today has been fun though.  I have been interviewed at the BBC about prisonbag.com by my intellectual crush Jane Garvey for Woman’s Hour – intense, impossibly brief, but nonetheless exciting! It will be aired tomorrow (Nov 1st) at 10am.

Back to reality now and I plod through the laundry between writing, dog walking and Halloween preparations.  I open the lint tray to peel off the satisfying pale violet down and think how a machine designed to do one thing – dry, is also imperceptibly eating the clothes as a side effect of its relentless tumbling: a slow thinning and ageing of everything it touches.

Our family, and thousands like us are suffering a similar fate as we are thrown into the system and left to spin endlessly around in it, the reality of our lives together slowly eroding.  What will be left when he comes out? Will we still be recognisable to each other or will be just be a mush of lint, homogenised into something new but useless and unwearable?

Rob looks remarkably well at visiting.  He has become known as the yoga guy and is being asked to teach by other inmates.  The prison won’t let them have a room despite an abundance of potential available spaces, so they modify a cell and make it work.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nick Brewer, an extraordinary man who served a six year sentence in South America for drug smuggling. (He had also spent time in a UK jail many years earlier and found Buenos Aries infinitely preferable). He somehow came by a yoga manual during his second year and spent the next five years entirely reforming himself physically, emotionally and spiritually with twelve hours a day of practice and self awareness, by putting himself into a kind of voluntary solitary confinement and immersing himself in this one book.  He now runs his own yoga centre and attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to teach in prisons. You would be hard pressed to meet a more charming and interesting man, or a system less interested in the reformation of anyone in its “care”.

At jolly old Lowpoint North Rob’s cell mate who is erudite and principled is trying to study for an upcoming exam without any of his books which have been stuck in the system for months now.  Perhaps the books need to be read in their entirety prior to approval and are just to tedious for anyone to be bothered with the task? The thought of creating any kind of peaceful study or rehabilitation space here is ludicrous.

From what I can hear on the phone it is like a a sort of macabre Butlins in there, with constant announcements over the Tannoy, but these are not Redcoats calling the happy campers in for fun and games, these are shouts to get back to the cells for lock up or out of them for exercise or blithe threats announced by dumb, power titillated 20 year olds in uniforms that “anyone who comes to the office asking for anything non urgent will get an immediate loss of all privileges”. Rob’s cell mate immediately heads off for the office and lets them know exactly what he thinks of this latest edict.  Nothing happens to him – It’s an empty threat blurted out by a boy with a toy and the tingle of power in his veins.

What exactly does he consider non urgent anyway? There are eighty eight people on the emergency dental list at Highpoint South including Rob’s old sheet ripping compadre K, and none of them have been anywhere near a dentist in all the time they have been inside, which probably adds up to centuries between them.  If you have ever had toothache for a day you will know what urgent feels like, but no-one here cares. They hand out the drugs and lock the cell doors.  There is always screaming in the night in jail.  Urgent was probably how it felt before almost a hundred people took their own lives and 32,000 self harmed last year in UK jails.  Good morning Campers.  Ho-de-ho!

By | October 31st, 2016|

Belieber

Yes I am! Scoff if you want to, but Justin Bieber singing “Love Yourself” is hot – end of story.  Okha, the barometer of all things cool and also my effortlessly groovy niece Lucca agree.  I rest my case.  There is something surprisingly beautiful about his cocktail of youth and overexposure, something unique and inimitable, which when coupled with the tats and that bod, is like catnip to me at this stage of life.  Yes sisters, our peri-menopausal surges can be pretty much on a level with a 17 year old boy’s, (not that I’m suggesting finding one…). It is as if the remaining eggs are jumping from the ovaries into the pre-fallopian void screaming “Come on love, there are precious few of us left down here…lets make this one count…!”

There are a lot of things that I am discovering about myself now without my beloved wingman.  It turns out for example that I don’t really like cooking as much as we all thought I did, and actually, it is vastly less time consuming to just eat children’s left overs or live on avocado, salmon and cherry tomatoes.

Also, I quite like eschewing the virtues of Radio 4 and listening to Grimmy on Radio 1 in the mornings (his irreverence just makes me laugh), and I really really like going out again – it’s fun! After years of being endlessly content to watch box sets snuggled up on the couch with Tala asleep upstairs and Okha being badly behaved enough for all of us, a new era of sociability is dawning.

Conversely I also realise that it is super useful to have someone around to do tall jobs…but fortunately Okha ensures a generous flow of DIY fodder through the house and we manage.  People are so good to us and we want for nothing socially or practically.  I am truly blessed.

Any doubts about the fact that I was embarking upon a full scale midlife crisis were dispelled when my deliciously stylish French friend Sophie handed me down a pair of leather trousers worth more than the entire contents of my wardrobe and I have not been able to take them off since.  If someone would just give me a Ferrari… The jury is no longer out (on at least two levels!). I’m forty three, my husband is in the slammer: I am ‘aving a crisis and I’m going to blooming well enjoy it.

I feel sassy and “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” about the whole thing.  I didn’t choose this, in fact there is probably nothing on earth that would have entreated me to get back into the world again and leave my contented bubble of domestic bliss and marital harmony, other than the precise situation that did occur, but here I am, in full breakdown, supervised only by a ten year old.

Viewed less derisively, some tentative trusting part of myself knows that it is invigorating to break down, and that change is good, or at least inevitable, but at the moment I feel like a landscape after a forest fire, charred and smouldering and devoid of the structures that hitherto dominated it, waiting to see what will grow.

It’s not a comfortable thing for a man to watch his family survive and change between the brief snatches of connection in the visiting hall.  Worse is to see them not surviving and sinking under the weight of the bills and the single parenting and the shame.  When you sit in your cell at night wondering if you are any use to your family anymore, or whether you will have any point for them when you get out, it must be like pulling at a loose thread in a piece of cloth and watching in morbid fascination as the life you dream of returning to unravels.

We talk about these fears in so far as we can in the fleeting 10 minute calls that are always interrupted too soon by the beeps indicating that we are about to be disconnected.  There is no other way through than to trust and to hope and to pray and to love each other. These will be long years.

I learn that there will be no release on a tag for Rob. Only those serving sentences of four years or less are eligible, so there is no hope for us with his nine year stretch.  Eventually he will get to a cat D and there will be day release but when or where and if and how are all unanswerable questions.

Prison is already a terrible punishment.  There is more deprivation than you can imagine if you have not experienced it first hand.  It is disempowering and dehumanising.  The only thing that could possibly save these men from what they could become in this environment is connection with their families.  For the families, having a father or husband or son or brother inside is like a constant gaping wound.  It serves no-one to increase the collateral pain by making visiting and communication so hard.

Why does it have to be so inefficient?  I write Rob an email every day, not because I have anything meaningful to say, (in fact my mails are mostly senseless drivel by the time I have finished cleaning up after the day and have crawled bedwards), but I want him to have a daily snippet of kindness and love.  No one processes the emails until boredom has reached some kind of zenith in the staff room however, or the doughnuts have run out and someone cracks and delivers the week long backlog, so that suddenly there are four or five missives awaiting him after work in his cell, and then a dearth of humanity until the next sporadic delivery.  Ditto with his letters to me.  Four at a time drop onto my doormat, then nothing.  Books take roughly 5 weeks to clear security.  Does the prison actually read them in their entirety before green lighting them?
If we have any aspiration at all towards rehabilitation we need more humanising influences, more love and more meaning in these mens lives, and even if we are utterly intent on punishing them to the point where they are entirely broken into some kind of utopian submission, could we at least improve family access for the children?  Supposedly there are family visits at Highpoint roughly every month – a 5 hour session that has the potential to actually facilitate some kind of half normal interaction.  Rob applied in August.  The next one that might have spaces is in February.  Maybe.  If you are a believer.

By | October 25th, 2016|

Goodbyes

Friday afternoon and I miss a call again – the result of the incompatibility between iPhones and wet fingers.  It is a distressed, bordering on depressed message.  Rob is to be moved to Highpoint North – only five minutes down the road, but a whole different ball game.  He has been offered this supposed upgrade several times now and turned it down, but today when he refuses to move he is told that if he doesn’t go he will be put on report and “basic” – no money and potentially no visits.  He packs his scant possessions together and is gone within half an hour.

There are no goodbyes.  Friendships are hard won in prison: people are perhaps understandably wary, but these relationships are simultaneously the only thing that make the inside bearable.  Rob will be starting again…again.  Anyone who knows prison knows that every time you get comfortable, they move you.  The rug is constantly being pulled from under your feet and you either live with the ill effects of this ever present stress or find a way to relax into the perpetual free fall.

Keith is also moved, but not to the same spur.  Charlie will supposedly follow next week.  Rob is in the dreaded induction wing again, sharing the tiny, bunked cell with a Somalian who seems to be using the entire pad as a bin.  Dirty plates, general rubbish and clothes of dubious cleanliness litter the floor.  He is a slob, but is otherwise inoffensive.  It could be so much worse.  Rob spends the entire night awake listening to the rattling snores of this stranger, enforced intimacy reiterating the loneliness with each shuddering respiration.  He comforts himself by imagining my arms around him; Nothing to hold on to except memories and dreams and projections.

We are due to visit the following Monday with Grandma.  It has been a complicated operation to procure her from Worcester now that she doesn’t drive and is too frail to travel alone.  She is a tiny bird like figure, always immaculate, increasingly forgetful and disheartened by her diminishing usefulness. She is a delight; A beautiful selfless presence.  It is incomprehensible to her that her son should be incarcerated.  She has told no-one except her sister.

It’s Sunday morning and I check the Monday visiting hours for North. There is no Monday visit.  This is a disaster.  Rob’s mum has invested in a new salmon pink jumper and has had her hair done.  Her longing for him is palpable and I feel desperate for her.  I ring the visiting line but it’s a weekday service.  I ring the prison itself and am surprised to eventually get through to an actual person.

I explain.  He also tries unsuccessfully to contact the visiting office.  I explain again and beg for help.  He calls the assistant governor and is reliably informed that the monday visit will be honoured.  Phew – panic over.  But something niggles at me.  I know this system now and it seems increasingly unlikely to me that we would get access on a non visit day – there is just too much red tape.  I call back and speak to a woman who incredulously assures me that I will certainly not be able to visit on Monday.  I would have made a 3-4 hour round trip for nothing!  The previous phone operator was at best a fantasist, at worst a sadist, but probably in reality is just a bit thick.

I ask if there is a way to put me on the list for today – impossible apparently. I dig deep and channel my powerhouse of a mother again – she never fails me. “Do you mean to tell me that my mother in law has travelled hundreds of miles at great expense and in poor health to see her eldest son, for a visit that has been confirmed by the prison, and we now won’t be able to see him? Can’t you make a phone call and make an exception?” She puts me on hold and then, miraculously, informs me that I can come today.  I don’t really believe that it will happen, but I’ll take the chance.  I thank her profusely and begin to reorganise the day.

Tala has to choose between visiting and a ballet rehearsal for a West End performance for which she is contracted not to miss rehearsals.  She chooses to honour her word and forgo the visit.  Watching the development of this maturity makes my heart swell and then ache, as if it is being held too tightly by a fist.

We arrive to find that we are not on any list, but we luck out with a super competent receptionist who promises to work some magic.  Within half an hour she has sorted it, (this is exceptionally speedy in prison terms), and we join the entry queue along with several new born babies whose father’s surely missed their births.  Until I see Rob there in the hall I will not believe that we have pulled this off.

At last we are in and lo and behold so is he.  He wasn’t on the visit list either apparently, but somehow managed to persuade one of the screws to process him anyway.  He looks happy to see us, ruffles Oki’s sea green hair and hugs his mum as she sinks into him, but I can tell something is wrong.

On the way in one of the officers has told him that he has been seated next to the surveillance point as there is a note on his file to say that he has been observed stroking his daughter’s back.  There is a suggestion that social services should be involved and visits with Tala are now in question.  Okha looks as if she is going to be sick.  Fortunately his mum can’t hear anything at all over the din in the hall and is content just to hold his hand and smile devotedly and ask him if he is sleeping any better at various intervals whilst we try to work out where to go with this.  When it is time to leave she is shaking with the unsuccessful effort of holding back the tears.  We are all aware that she may not see him again.

Where the link between film fraud and paedophilia lies it is hard to tell, but this is not a joke.  A dismal sense of powerlessness bears down on us all.  We are at the mercy of a system that is an ass and it is hard to keep faith.  When I finally get home I am left trying to explain to Tala why she won’t be able to sit on her dad’s lap again.

Goodbye childhood.
(All emails and letters (which are so very gratefully recieved), need to be sent to the same address but to Highpoint North now. If you want to reply please enclose an SAE as stamps and stationary make a massive dent in his earnings!)

By | October 16th, 2016|

The Happy Mondays

In an attempt to get “Enhanced” (more visits, more canteen money), the boys have taken on roles on their spur.  Rob is now the official go to guy for Racial Equality, Charlie is Disabilities (somewhat appropriate as he is currently dealing with severe back pain for which he is receiving precisely no treatment or care) and Keith is Sexual Orientation (I think it may be something to do with the hair – all those corkscrew curls).

A large black guy comes to give Rob a special T shirt and looks him up and down with evident misgivings.  He is clearly a huge disappointment.  With his usual perma-tan pretty much erased by the months inside, and despite undeniably impressive facial hair, it’s going to be a stretch to pass him off as anything other than 100% white male.  The other day, someone did call him “blood” though, which is as good as it gets in terms of respect from the brothers, and no mean feat in a place where the exercise yard is almost entirely racially divided, just like in the movies.  It was a big moment.

Of course the well honed skill sets that each of the men will bring doubtless bring to their new positions will be entirely surplus to requirements.  All that will happen now is that their names will be put up on a noticeboard somewhere so that everyone can ignore it.  If they are lucky they’ll get laminated.

The big news is about what happened last Happy Monday on G block. (Mondays are always happy as that is when all the meds for the entire week are handed out and generally consumed immediately.)  Added to this, a large batch of hooch was released onto the market, and these two elements proved to be rather volatile bedfellows, engendering a massive riot and causing great excitement on the other spurs.  Small acts of violence don’t raise an eyebrow here – (last week a badly beaten body was found by chance, locked inside a cupboard to which no prisoner should have had keys), but mass actions like this are less frequent and altogether more thrilling.

As the situation deteriorated, the alarm was repeatedly sounded as wave after wave of screws failed to cope, so that eventually the remaining wings were left almost entirely unguarded as even the really reluctant officers hit second gear and broke into ungainly trots in the vague direction of the action.

I have to confess to feeling rather as if Rob has missed a trick here.  Surely this was his chance to pull off a well executed prison break?  We have the box set after all and watched it faithfully to the end, long after it stopped making any sense at all.  What were all those years of script reading and film making for God dammit, if not to rapidly devise a faultless escape plan, parachute in through my window, pausing only for a bit of long overdue ravishing, gather the children and enough pots of Nutella to dangle in front of them on fishing rods to get them to swim the channel, and blend seamlessly into the Calais camps before they all get burnt down.  Despite my earlier disparaging comments, I reckon that with couple of days of autumn sun and a bit more growth on that beard, he’d be a dead ringer for the Syrian terrorists that are presently occupying Northern France en masse according to the Brexiteers.  The girls and I have had our niqabs ready for months.

Finally however, the situation was brought under control and the cells were spun, (searched to you and me) and it will be busy in “seg” for a few weeks.  The massive hooch raid will doubtless make Christmas rather dull this year, but there may still be time to get the Jacobs in and rustle something up with a few apples before the scurvy hits after the inevitable blanket decision to ban fruit (and presumably Jacobs, though perhaps they don’t know about that one and I should watch my big mouth), in the interests of removing all possible sources of fun from the lives of the condemned.

Out in the free world a bailiff from HMRC turns up at the house on Friday, as it happens on an entirely unrelated matter pertaining to estimated corporation tax for 2015 on a company that has been dormant since 2012 and doesn’t even have a bank account, so can’t possibly have received income or owe tax! Is it a good thing that my heart doesn’t even miss a beat over things like this nowadays?  The very charming collector asks if I will give the letter he is brandishing to my husband.  I say that this might be tricky, but offer to pass it on to an accountant which seems to satisfy him and he dispatches himself forthwith.

Tala is frightened that this will mean more years for Rob.  When she hears about the fight she fears he has been involved and either hurt or in trouble.  An extension of the sentence is something she worries about a lot.  We all do.  It seems that Highpoint keep turning people down for category D transfers, particularly if there are any overhanging issues.

The confiscation of our assets is going to be a long and drawn out process exacerbated by the fact that due to current disputes in the legal profession, Keith doesn’t even have a lawyer yet, and there is every possibility that this won’t be resolved prior to the cat D transfer date.  Cat D means that, if you can get to the right prison, (usually one of the really bad ones where they just haven’t got time for the noncy blue collar guys who are unlikely to stab anyone), there is a chance you will be sent home on a tag.

This is what we are dreaming of.  We have already talked about moving to another area of the country to provide reasonable grounds to get Rob to an alternative prison that is less draconian.  It would be a disaster for us: Okha would have to move out to keep her job, Tala would have to leave school and ballet which are the love and light of her life with Rob gone, and I would lose the support network upon which I feel entirely dependant at the moment,  but it could effectively make two years difference to our separation – of course I’ll do it.

Everything is uncertain: shifting sands over which we have no control.  I try to reassure Tala, but her angst comes from a deep, visceral place that doesn’t respond well to logic or lies. There is nothing to hold onto in our lives anymore.  Curiously though, if you stop trying to grasp on to certainties and unfurl your fist, there is real liberation in going with the flow and trusting.  I feel like a beggar with my bowl held out in front of me, waiting to see what will be thrown in.  A little scary, but also exciting and fresh.  New and alive.  Strange as this may sound, the overwhelming feeling I have in my life at the moment is one of gratitude.  There is so much love in the world.

In Rob’s last letter I read the words that have brought me the most relief of all in the time he has been gone:
“I don’t feel “locked up” . There are obvious physical constraints, but they fade into insignificance compared with the freedom that I increasingly feel in myself.  Sounds kind of cheesy, but “awareness awareness awareness” my darling, nothing more, nothing less.”
(Highpoint South, 27th September 2016).

By | October 6th, 2016|
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