And Lo, A Miracle

Underneath the “Free the Garlic Two” sign, that is mysteriously displayed on one of the official prison noticeboards, another message appears: “And lo, a miracle”.  The governor has taken one whiff of the offending “hooch” and declared that whatever is in that bottle, it certainly hasn’t been brewed for pleasure or intoxication.  He cancels the appeal, rendering Rob’s three page essay on the by-products of carbohydrate breakdown without the presence of sugars or yeast, and the chemical composition of methane as opposed to ethanol, a waste.  The Garlic Two unpack the bags containing their scant possessions that have been underneath their beds for the past two days and are welcomed back from punition like returning prodigal sons.  Both of them are £20 short on their canteen allowances for the week, but given that Rob was set to hunger strike if the authorities had continued with the disciplinary process, sighs of relief are breathed all round.  I know my husband.  I can hear the stubborn set line of his jaw over the phone, righteous and defiant, and I do not want to think where this might have gone.

And so we visit on Christmas Eve on masse, the two girls, grandma and I.  Rob confesses to feeling like a mother bird trying to feed a nest full of chicks who are all vying for the juicy worms of his attention.  The smallest chick mostly seems to win out and by the end of the visit I will feel as if I haven’t managed to extract enough of him to last me until next week.

The visiting hall and “visitors centre” are bereft of even the most perfunctory seasonal cheer.  There is not a bauble or faded plastic holly sprig in sight.  Most institutions manage to resurrect some kind of ravaged seventies tinsel tree construction out of storage for the occasion, but there is not the merest suspicion of grudging celebration at HMP Highpoint North, and this despite the fact that the big man himself (Jesus Christ), was a fellow “criminal”, tried and condemned by the authorities of his time.

It is a strange Christmas Eve.  The long familiar journey, the fight to stay awake at the wheel in the dark as the passengers slumber uncomfortably in their seats, the disengagement with the soft part of myself that knows how to feel.  Rob is well though.  Irrepressible in fact.  He has found something remarkable in the commune of convicts on Unit 12 and confesses that the prospect of being ejected out of there into the single cells of the “basic” naughty block was at least traumatic as leaving us.

Perhaps I should feel slightly miffed about this admission?  I don’t.  We are in this for the long haul: another 4 years at least.  We have to do what we can to survive this.  Living where we are is our only weapon of defiance in this unfolding Kafkaesque nightmare.  The fact that he feels connected and integrated into his new life is a huge relief.  I will not roll over and die as I’m supposed to and neither will he.

Christmas day is rubbish.  For some reason, although Rob’s mum and brother are with us and although Tala is still full of childish excitement about presents and the endless chocolate opportunities, it feels pointless to baste the turkey that will be dry anyway, and fuss with the stuffing and the trimmings when he cannot eat them.  Five hours later when I finally get the cremated bird on to the table with the roasties and red cabbage and cranberry sauce, we toast Rob, who has just called after eating what has been, even by prison standards, a disappointing lunch in his cell with J and I feel emptier and lower than I can remember.

Three days later and I have cabin fever.  Okha leaves for Thailand with all of her savings.  I will miss her more than I can say, but I am glad for her. Someone should escape.  She sends me an incredible poem about her first night in Bangkok and I know that she is where she should be, far away from the cold grit of our London lives, and nonetheless realising how much we have.

I prevail upon uncle Tim’s good nature and get him to man the fort for a night whilst I jump on the Eurostar to Brussels and visit Carolyn, (usually resident in Portugal, but visiting her husband’s Belgium family for a few days), because she has always somehow been able to inspire me again when all seems lost.  We spend a wonderful day gorging on each other’s news and soaking up the connection.  It is like oxygen.

Then the train I am on breaks down and I miss the last Eurostar home. There is no room at her inn for the night but bless her she books me into a beautiful little hotel in the heart of Brussels where I waste the gorgeous room in solitude.  I don’t even go out to forage.  There is however something wonderful about being alone on this adventure.  I take a 30 minute shower and lie on the white hotel sheets in the sympathetically lit room, looking out onto the bustling unfamiliar city below.

The following day I am on the first London bound train out of there. Twelve miles into our journey it too succumbs to the frosty conditions and short-circuits irreparably and so we wait, without power or heat.  The hours tick by and I begin to scan the cabin for who to eat first.  They send round Twixes to appease the people which is worryingly successful.  We receive news that we will be towed back to Brussels.  I send uncle Tim the Samaritan’s number, fearing for his sanity after a text where he describes his toss up between the living room where Tala is glued to endless repeats of eye twitchingly bad American teen soaps and the kitchen where Grandma is confessing that she wants to die.

I wonder if the train debacles are just an outward manifestation of my desire to evade responsibly for a bit longer, but then Tala sends me a selfie and I am suddenly desperate to return to her.  The people I love are scattered, frustratingly out of reach, but unlike my fellow passengers who need more Twix sedation, I think I might be learning patience.  And lo, just as I resign myself to living out the rest of my days in coach 8, a miracle occurs and we finally begin to move again.  Where we are headed now is anyone’s guess, but then, isn’t that the beauty of it all?  The past is history, the future is a mystery.  Happy New Year.

By | December 30th, 2016|


Prison never lets you down.  Just when you think that there is nothing to write this week, because we are saving our visit for Christmas Eve and because no-one has done anything actively stupid and we are all ticking along nicely and trying to get Christmassy, Rob calls to say that he is getting shipped out of the wing that has become his motley family and thrown into a single cell on a trouble maker’s “basic” unit.  The reason? Hooch.  Except that there is none of course.  Rob is famously teetotal.

Perhaps the guards were a little bored today and decided to spin some cells for a laugh.  Maybe they were frustrated in their efforts to uncover any contraband or perhaps they genuinely think that you could consume rotting garlic and ginger in adequate quantities to induce inebriation, whatever the reason, the Nigerian concoction is gleefully seized this morning whilst Rob is in “education” and disciplinary measures are now in process.

This being the prison system no reasonable conversation can be had.  The fact that there is neither sugar nor yeast involved in the immune tonic recipe and therefore no possible alcoholic content is utterly uninteresting to the bright sparks in control here, nor is the fact that this bottle has been sitting in plain view on Rob’s window sill for the past month, including an afternoon when the governor had sat in his cell, chatting convivially with Rob about families and visiting, whilst touring a guest around the more presentable wings of the establishment.

Rob’s cell mate who wouldn’t have drunk the foul smelling brew if you’d paid him, and certainly had no hand in its creation, is subject to the same punishment.  They will loose their enhanced status and are now on basic: two visits a month, no money (which means no phone), no TV and very little unlock.  Merry Christmas.  There will be a hearing tomorrow where he can plead his case, but nothing he has said so far today has made any difference, and they are told to pack up their scant possessions.

Unfortunately he is on speaker phone as he relays this sorry tale and Tala has heard it all.  I watch her swallowing back the dismay and the anger, blinking hard.  She doesn’t really understand what has happened but she knows from the sound of his voice that he is hurting and getting ready to lose everything: cell mates, friends, pupils… again.  Anything you build is prison is an illusion.  She’s learning fast.  She knows that it is now unlikely that we will get to see him before Christmas.  She is also now well versed in how to run to the bathroom and splash her face with cold water to stop the rise of the tears which will hurt him more than anything they can do to him inside.  I don’t tell him where she has gone or that I can hear choked sobs from upstairs.  I do not mention what I can read in her eyes.

An hour later he calls back.  Apparently cells in the naughty wing cannot be found as the current occupants have refused to move and so they wait, bags packed, for new instructions.  The awful thing is that even as my mind is boggling with the Kafkaesque insanity of the accusation and although I am deflated and worried for him all over again, I am simultaneously bugging him for the details I will need to write here, and he knows it.  It’s a little mercenary, opportunistic even, but then there isn’t much point in wallowing in victimhood.  Prison clouds don’t really have silver linings sewn in: you have to make them yourself, and this page is my sanity.  Some people live to write.  I write to live.

If you can take a good, basically law abiding citizen (give or take a film business of two), who hitherto believed in the rule of law and the validity of our institutions and make of him, in only 6 months, an angry man who feels increasingly radical and militant, what can you create from someone more dangerous or marginalised?

If just one of the officers at Highpoint North has taken the trouble to get to know Rob, they will be in no doubt whatsoever that he is exceptionally unlikely to have embarked upon a batch of moonshine, but whether anyone will be able to override the system is doubtful.  Everyone’s hands are tied.  I hear from the politicians and the think tanks that they want introduce reform but can’t get anything except a “tough” message past the general public.  Frankly I’m sick of it and I don’t really buy it: I don’t see that the public are particularly enthused about cuts to the NHS, but those are happening none the less.  The cost of re-offending is hard to measure exactly but it is at least £15 billion a year, which I can’t help feeling might be better spent on the health service or on schools, and if the pubic need convincing about that, then a little dinner party with Tony Gallagher and Paul Dacre might be in order.

In Birmingham they are rioting.  There is no hot water and not enough food.  The government line is that Mamba is to blame.  It isn’t.  Riots are a side effect of deteriorating conditions and the despair of men who have nothing left to lose.  Men are literally starving in some prisons around the country and only those who can bribe the servery staff or who can afford to spend all of their canteen on top ups can survive.  This is a recipe for disaster.

Chris Grayling is another apparently.  He presided over a 30% cut in prison staffing levels, amongst other “tough” measures, after which point suicides and violence escalated with astonishing rapidity.  Now he has been let lose on the railways with similarly disastrous effect.  Perhaps he is just unlucky.  Perhaps he is a good man with a difficult job, or perhaps he and other career politicians should stand up and be counted. The last person to do that on prison reform was Ken Clarke and he was duly sacked.  It is true that you can’t change anything unless you are in power, but if you are, please use it, and use it fast before we brew something truly monstrous in our festering penal institutions that cannot be put back in the box.

By | December 21st, 2016|

She Brings the Rain

The weekend is a washout and the concrete prison exercise yard is not improved by the conditions.  No hoods in the slammer so, even if you do have a flimsy prison issue coat, when it rains you’ll get a wet head.  Rob goes out whatever the weather in an effort to remain somewhat free range and retain a semblance of an immune system.  He embraces the rain.  All the elements seem precious against a backdrop of cheerless institution and razor wire.

Immunity is an issue in prison with rubbish food, depression and stress high on the list of successfully delivered outcomes.  Rob and his ex-cellie have a secret health weapon based on an old Nigerian trick that involves a bulb of garlic, two fist-sized rhizomes of sliced ginger, boiling water and an empty Coke bottle.  The ingredients are combined and left to ferment until the solids decompose into a syrupy glob of barely liquid culture that is administered daily and with much grimacing.  I outright forbid him to partake on visit days.  He already smells strongly of salad as a result of moisturising with olive oil, and garlic is rarely considered an aphrodisiac on the breath.

Not that there is any point in cultivating desire at this point.  At a Christmas party for a Conservative party think tank on prison reform I ask Ian Duncan Smith about conjugal visits, not because I think anyone will get one any time soon, but just for the hell of it and because I want to make him think about sex and remember my blog name: it works for the advertising industry.  Perhaps I should print some cards though…?

I have arrived in this room by virtue of a philanthropist friend of Keith’s who has taken a paternalistic interest in our story and the Prison dis-Service.  My white knight is a big lad and exudes something so genuine and unthreatening that within five minutes of the Justice Secretary’s arrival he manages to introduce me to her as “a prison family blogger”.  I seize my chance.  Experience has taught me that announcing in polite circles that your husband is doing 9 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure stops conversation for long enough to make any point you like.

I bear in mind Tala’s parting shot as I set off for the evening “Don’t bore her Mummy” and then, resigning herself to reality and settling the bar a little lower after considering me realistically for a moment or two, “Well…. just don’t babble”, and so I plump for something practical.  Does she know that phone calls are charged at 3 times the national rate to prisoners?  She doesn’t.

I consider telling her that anyone who wants to use a mobile phone for drug dealing can get one in five minutes and isn’t particularly bothered about legalities, and that most people just want a phone to keep in touch with their families.  Rob spends his entire weekly earnings to make nine ten minute phone calls a week.  It’s also interesting that mobiles are rife in places like Wandsworth where the 23 hours-a-day lockup makes phone access tricky during the remaining hour and forces prisoners to choose between joining the phone queue, showering or exercise.

I don’t want to rain on her parade however, so I get Christmassy and ask her what she would do with the Prison Service if she had a magic wand.  I know what I’d do with it, but I doubt she’ll admit publicly to buggery.  She just wants things to be better run apparently: no rats in the kitchen or cells out of use because of mould or dirty protests.  (Cells are often made uninhabitable with blood or faeces, and there are crews of prisoners in every jail tasked with the unenviable job of cleaning up.  It’s what people come down to when they don’t have art materials or a voice).  Fair enough, but lady, I offered you a magic wand! Dream a little! Think big!

She gives a good speech.  What politicians will say to a room of smart, well-vetted (except for me) reformers and what they will say in the public arena where their main brief is not to lose votes every time they open their mouths (an art never learnt by Ken Livingstone), is very different.  She genuinely seems to want to encourage rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending, which is heartening given her dull public message about security, but I can’t help feeling that everyone is still missing the point because, and this becomes increasingly clear throughout the evening, no one actually speaks to the Service users, and no-one in power has ever been to prison except on a day trip.  Prisoners do not need or even want new buildings.  They are pretty much ok with the rats too.  What they want is to be treated with respect.  Rehabilitation begins and ends with the relationship between officers and inmates and the attitude of the institution to its charges.

I watch Liz (I think we are close enough now for me to call her that, and she did express an interest in reading my blog), claiming somewhat mystifyingly in parliament, that barking dogs deter drones and I can’t help wondering if she wouldn’t be better advised to go down the Californian route, where petting dogs (and now also a pig in a tutu apparently) are used in the airport in LA to reduce stress and improve the well-being of passengers.  Any schemes where prisoners are permitted to train and care for animals are immensely successful in terms of reducing re-offending.

So we know that children, wives (especially with the odd conjugal thrown in), dogs and probably pigs have a positive effect on re-offending.  It’s a pretty sad indictment of our system when the only way to make it work is to use the unpaid services of the families who are also being passively punished by its failings.  At our last visit we were let in so late that my seven hour trip yielded only 80 minutes with my beloved, and they wonder why we tarry at the end and have to be shouted at to clear out.  And what about all the prisoners without families?  According to the Centre for Social Justice, whose Prosecco I’m quaffing at said Christmas party, half of all prisoners under 25 were previously in “care”.

Until we create a familial environment within prison itself – a prison family where all of the individuals from governor to guard to prisoner, contribute and care for each other, nothing will change in our jails no matter how many extra screws you throw at the problem.  Human beings need purpose and meaning in their lives, whatever they may, or may not, have done in the past.  They need self respect and the impression that they matter.

There is so much untapped potential from within the prison population: chefs who would like to share their skills and recreate family meal times rather than receiving a plastic tub of deadness to eat alone in their cells, traders, graphic designers, businessmen, IT experts, sportsmen, even politicians (I’m having tea with Jonathan Aitken in the New Year), you name it, you’ll find one in prison, and all anyone wants to do in there is to pass their endless sentence doing something useful.

Meanwhile milestones are being reached on the out in our broken homes: Keith’s daughter Elizabeth turns 11 without him.  The girl is a legend: she is miniscule, but she can fly a plane (honestly), and drive a stick shift Land Rover.  She invites Tala to her party (they have an unshakable bond born out of mutual loss), where the guests all give themselves such big sugar rushes they have to hold each other down.  It a massive success.

Charlie’s girls forgo anything seasonal that would interfere with their visits.  They have never missed a single one.  In the pursuit of fairness he has to rotate their hands over the separating table.  They never let go.

Okha and I crack and go halves on a packet of razor blades having finally accepted that Rob isn’t going to be able to change the brutally blunt one that predates his departure, and Tala finally admits defeat and consigns the “She Brings the Rain” t-shirt to the wash, unable to detect even the faintest whiff of father underneath the layers of pre-pubescent b.o. that undeniably dominate its odour profile.  I watch it circling in the foamy tides, another layer of him washed away in the artificial rain of the machine.

By | December 13th, 2016|

A Thousand Wasted Years

It has not yet struck eight on Sunday morning and Tala is to be delivered to a West End theatre in full hair and makeup within half an hour.  I can’t find a hair net for love nor money and several kirby pins have already been inserted at such vicious angles that good will is in short supply on all sides.  When the doorbell rings I suppose that the cabbie has gone old school on me and renounced the phone for legs, and so I am surprised when I find my firstborn, with slightly different coloured hair to yesterday plus two policemen, on the front step.

I react reasonably calmly but a little uncharitably with a long suffering “Oh God, what has she done?”.  They assure me that she hasn’t done anything at all, and that they have only escorted her home out of concern.  I can see why.  It is below freezing and she is only wearing a T shirt.  The blue hair is also adding to the Elsa effect.  She is attempting to smile reassuringly at me, though it is clearly hard for her to bring me into focus and so the result is midway between a leer and a gurn and yet I suspect she looks a darn sight better than she did when they found her.

One of the officers beckons me outside and asks as delicately as possible if my daughter is “all right”.  I’m not quite sure what he means and he clarifies by tentatively wondering if she has some kind of mental illness.  I explain as gently as possible that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with her.  Contrary to appearances, she is not special needs, just very, very pissed.  He seems relieved.  After all, he’s been there himself.

By now the cab has arrived and is lined up behind the panda.  I try as quickly as possible to ascertain where they found her (Vauxhall?) and how she got there but as everyone, including Okha, seems confused I have to leave or risk this year’s Nutcracker missing a vital snowflake stage left on the back row, and so I thank them profusely, tell Okha sharply to proceed straight to bed, and head off to the theatre.

Later when she has sobered up enough to field my questions, albeit through the veil of a raging hangover, I am still none the wiser, as she genuinely doesn’t really know how she got from a club in Shoreditch to a station in Vauxhall, or why she was alone or where her favourite coat is.  I wish I had thought to take the names of the officers who helped her.  I desperately want to thank them.  This is what policing should be about.  They saw a dangerously inebriated girl on her own and protected her from the elements, herself and God only knows what else.  This is crime prevention.

Furthermore they didn’t chastise her irresponsibility or berate my parenting and eclipse the lesson inherent in what was certainly an unpleasant and frightening experience for her, and thankfully seems to have shocked her into realising self-obliteration may not be the answer. They simply took care of her.  This is community.  I hope their superiors will agree that this was a good use of police time and that our saviours won’t be disciplined for providing a free Uber service to the nation’s drunken revellers.

I am lucky that there were officers to spare to look after my girl.  Most are busy engaged in fighting “The War on Drugs”.  I have just finished reading “Good Cop Bad War”, brilliantly written by ex-undercover agent Neil Woods.  £7 Billion a year is spent by the police fighting this war in a way that will only ever result in escalating violence as the untouchable gangsters at the top intensify intimidation of their subordinates to protect themselves.

Most “dealer” convictions are actually just users funding their habit, unable to seek help for their addiction because it is criminalised.  In general the police don’t care though as they, like so many of us, are fighting to keep their statistics (and budgets) up.

The illicit drug trade is also worth £7billion annually in the UK and £375 billion world wide: untaxed money that directly funds almost all other criminal activity; a booming unregulated industry that is also the underlying driver for the lion’s share of murders, robbery and gang violence.

Prison is full of men serving sentences for drugs.  Rob knows many who are there as a result of entrapment stings: good men with bad habits.  Others desperately need help for their addictions that they are not getting help for because addiction is penalised in jail, (though it is grounds for a yoga mat apparently, still denied to Rob who isn’t eligible for rehabilitation), and find themselves stuck in the revolving doors.  Some are born to the business and are prepared to trade years of liberty in exchange for a livelihood.  We aren’t all born to Eton families nor can we all be middle class users rather than suppliers.

Unlike so many in the police force Woods disagrees that the war on drugs can’t be won.  It will be won when we stop fighting it.  He has lived with the people that most cops just prosecute and the rest of us consider so “other” to ourselves that we can’t be concerned with their tarnished world.  Rob lives with these men too and is in direct agreement: custodial sentences for drugs offences are an utter waste of their time and our money.

Woods estimates, calculating generously, that during his entire career he probably only managed to stop the supply of drugs for a total of eighteen hours whilst simultaneously exacerbating turf wars as rival gangs lined up to fill the vacuum.  In direct contrast to the efficacy of his life’s work (or lack thereof), he also calculates that his investigations resulted in over a thousand years of prison time about which he says this:

“For me every single one of these is a year wasted.  These are a thousand years of wasted human potential; a thousand wasted years of possible creativity, learning and exploration; a thousand wasted years of people languishing in tiny cells rather than contributing to the world”.

In 2014 the government released a major report which found categorically that punitive measures have no impact whatsoever on drug use, in fact drug use escalates in line with increased punishment.  And yet we persist! Shall we stop now?  Please? All our addiction theories of the 1980s have been debunked.  Even “hard” drugs like cocaine only have the same addiction rates as alcohol (10%) which means that 90% of users do so without wrecking their lives.

Alcohol could have wrecked my life this weekend had not a kindly pair of young coppers noticed a small, blue haired drunk on the verge of freezing to death and brought her home to me.  I am deeply grateful to them, and not always as grumpy as I must have looked that harassed morning.

By | December 7th, 2016|
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