In the charity shop I see a floor length vintage dress in dusky pink lace and chiffon. I try it on because, even though I am alone behind the flimsy pine door of the cubicle, and no-one will ever see me in this sumptuous creation, it feels decadent to shed my sensible insulating winter layers and dream for a moment that I have a life that requires such attire and that I’m not headed for a muddy park in an ageing parka with worn cuffs and pockets stuffed full of doggie poo bags. Then, in a moment of madness I buy the dress, mostly because I can do it up and didn’t think I’d be able to, but also because its good to dream. You’ve got to have dreams.
That evening I make a late night dash to the shops and see Thomas, a homeless man who always seemed slightly other to the desperate collection of rattling junkies who worked the street alongside him. Thomas never appeared to be under the influence of anything. He just didn’t have many teeth or a home. I hadn’t seen him for months and tell him I’ve missed him and was worried about him. He informs me proudly that he has a room now: a good clean place and that he is only out here tonight as there has been a glitch in his benefit this week. He looks well and I tell him so. He is pleased and replies in his gentle Irish lilt that he feels well too.
I ask him how he managed before the room: sleeping rough and hostels, until his brother bought him a caravan, which he could have sold now, but has passed on to another man in need, without fraternal support, and he is proud of his choice to re-gift and create the possibility of a second transformation. I ask him what is next. He looks longingly into the distance. “Maybe… a job? I think perhaps now that I can keep clean and I’ve got an address I might be able to get one”. This is his dream, as uncertain and tantalising to him as my Cinderella ball is to me, and a damn sight less frivolous.
I don’t see Thomas again. I hope that now he is “in the system”, someone will look out for him. The families of prisoners live with this same misguided hope that the system that has captured their loved ones will also care for them, but every three days one of these families will get a call to say that their husband or son or brother or daughter has hung themselves inside, and these numbers don’t even include homicide, accidental overdose or death due to lack of medical attention. Hope is a far cry.
When you enter prison, you no longer control your destiny. You are unlocked when and if someone comes, you are fed what there is, when there is, if there is and you will be released when the powers that be deem it fit to do so. This is true for all prisoners, many of whom incur extra years inside for perceived misdemeanours, but it is most particularly the case for IPP (imprisonment for public protection) prisoners who have to prove that they are no longer a risk to society. Often the box ticking for their release includes education that they may not be able to complete because they can’t read or because the prerequisite courses don’t exist in their particular prison(!) and it always relies on the goodwill of officers, governors and parole boards who are under no obligation to give it. In June 2015 there were still 4,600 IPP prisoners in Britain almost a tenth of whom had served five times their minimum sentence. When there is no hope, there will be no rehabilitation and we create men who have nothing left to lose; desperate and dangerous.
When I visit Rob the men are let out half an hour late so that we miss even more of our precious time than usual due to basic ineptitude and lack of consideration. When I finally see him traversing the visit hall, looking like thunder, he remarks that if the same thing had happened at Hewell there would have been broken jaws and probably a riot. Conditions are often better in the more high risk category B prisons because they have to be. When you have no rights, no voice and no future, violence is what is left over and it works, at a price.
It is Rob’s birthday tomorrow. I can’t send anything except cards and books, and there is no telling when and if the books will arrive – none have so far. He calls to warn me that he will be locked up all day tomorrow so I probably won’t be able to speak to him either, which somewhat dashes the girl’s plans for a three part harmony rendition of “Happy Birthday”.
Prison is a rarefied world. Many, like Rob, are serving sentences too long to wish away. You have to live as if this captivity was life. Prison life happens in prison time, which is punctuated by the locks and unlocks, the tannoy, the meals, the visits, the phone and shower queues (shorter than they should be given the paucity of facilities and the number of men) and the seasons. Summer, autumn, winter, spring and summer again, and again and again.
I can’t look after Rob tomorrow or any day, the institution certainly isn’t looking after anyone, and so it is left to the men themselves to care for each other. At Highpoint North which basically exists to house all the quiet easy men, a small community is forming. Laundry used to be overseen by a large, heavily muscled African with little time for the task in-between bench presses, and often arrived in a disheartening damp clump outside the cell doors, but has since been overtaken by an small Asian guy who drys, folds and delivers with pride, so that Unit 12 are now all looking and smelling (apart from the shower refuseniks), rather dapper.
As with all communities it takes all sorts. Some are fat and lazy, some are intense, some are funny and talented, some have frightful halitosis (a major downside to a cellmate) and some simply don’t bother to wash, but they are a kind of community now and you take the rough (and boy is it rough sometimes) with the smooth.
Rob used to be a diligent man. Now weeks go by where he doesn’t reply to letters, leaving me fielding the enquiries, but he doesn’t live in the world that the letters come from or play by its rules and etiquette anymore. He lives inside with his prison family now and if someone needs to chat, he will listen before he attends to anything on the distant out. I am still the exception to this, so it’s easy for me to say, but I am glad that he has a new life. I want someone to benefit from his wit and care and kindness. Let him be a light in that Godforsaken place. At least now with a new non-snoring cell mate, sleep is a possibility once more, and Rob can finally have some dreams of his own.