You can’t get hold of rubber bands in prison for love nor money. They are banned, and those that have escaped detection are already occupied with the noble task of securing illegal mobile phones to prisoner’s willies. This shortage is an issue if you have long hair like Rob and didn’t think about hair tie allocations when you were packing your prison bag. Knowledge of probable previous usage doesn’t exactly predispose one to trust the occasional stray renegade that may have broken free of its tether and deposited itself innocently in a hallway.
Hair ‘mares aside, Rob is well. Nepotism has resulted in a new job for him in resettlement where his role is to interface between prisoners and housing charities, allowing him access to different wings around the prison. He loves the job. Forget film production – this is hands down the most fulfilling thing he has done so far in his professional life.
The people and their stories humble him. Men of indeterminable age, eyes hollowed by hardship, beg to be housed away from where they grew up and the lure of the gangs they joined at primary school. They share details of their lives with him that move him to tears. Beginnings that are unimaginable to the people in Whitehall who have the power to change them but stick instead with “tough on crime” and “deterrent” and “punishment”: existences beset by poverty and violence and fragmented families. Some of them will transcend their destinies, but most won’t. It’s why they are where they are and prison just makes it worse. 60% of prisoners will be homeless by the time their sentence has been served. Incarceration and family breakdown are excellent agents of homelessness. And what then? A home is a basic fundamental prerequisite for employment and addiction treatment and anything constructive in the fight against crime.
So many of you write to the governor about Rob and Tala that the Head of Security at Highpoint drafts a generic letter and sends it out on masse. A thousand thank you’s for your kindness and time. The reply insinuates that we are lying and upholds the prison’s decision to deny us security clearance for family days. What they say goes because they hold all the cards.
I am fascinated by how truly voiceless and comprehensively powerless the prison population is that an allegation of inappropriate behaviour with a child can be made and upheld without the involvement of professionals in the field. And this sort of injustice is happening all the time in prison. Prisoners receive black marks for not attending work when in fact they were not unlocked that day. Prisons lose details of qualifications that inmates have spent years achieving. Accusations are made and the prisoner can never, ever be right, because he is a prisoner: he is guilty by default and he has no voice.
We begin legal action. We have exhausted every other avenue. We request to see the footage of the “incident” and have it evaluated by an independent person who is qualified to assess “inappropriate” behaviour. What is happening to us is not right and cannot be allowed to stand.
I attend an all party parliamentary group on prisoner’s families at the House of Commons. The Barnados spokeswoman delivers the shocking statistic that 7% of all children will experience the incarceration of one of their parents during childhood. The various speakers describe innovative pilot schemes designed to support the family unit. It is so far from the visiting experience as us wives and mothers know it that the optimism in the room begins to grate.
These incremental changes that are the preserve of politicians and the patient make no sense to me in the wake of the enormous ticking time bomb that we are facing. Just before I burst with irritation the Prison Reform Trust representative asks why it is that we are not addressing sentencing and fighting for prison to be a “last resort”. Hallelujah. I salute all those who can stomach the political game, but whilst sticking plaster is being applied to this rupturing system I am watching children weeping and collapsing outside the visiting room trying to fight their way back in to stay with their dads. It is a truly pitiful sight. The trouble is that these boys will get back in eventually. 2/3 of the male children of prisoners will become prisoners themselves. It’s their destiny.
Jonathan Aitkin kindly invites me for tea at his home. We sit by his fireside and chat. Having experienced prison at first hand he now spends a large proportion of his free time advocating for penal reform. I ask him how he can stand the torpid pace of change and our huge appetite in this country for locking people up. He is a realist. You chip away diligently at the block of stone fragment by fragment. There is no other way. He is generous with his time and his stories. I see his sadness that people still shout after him in the Tube calling him a liar and a crook. He wonders when the punishment ends. When is the conviction spent? What about second chances? He also wonders what exactly I want to do with my reforming zeal. It’s a good question that I have been asking myself of late to little avail.
At first I can think only about what I do not want. A negative campaign is all the rage these days after all. I do not want the family to be used as a silent weapon in the “fight against crime”. We are the solution and should not be pawns. I do not want to see an increase in the victims of crime, when men are released from prison in a worse state of dependency and mental health and with poorer prospects than when they entered. I do not want to see us continue to follow America towards escalating sentencing or ape its insatiable hunger for separation and incarceration.
I do want to have a voice. I want to fight stigma and shame with words and pictures. I want to matter. I want my children to matter. Most of all I want to tell the stories of the people who have taken my place in Rob’s life because I am locked out and they are locked in with him. The officers who somehow get up and try to work everyday in conditions that are frankly un-workable, the governors who want to innovate and personalise and don’t have the power, the wrongly convicted who can still raise a smile, the uneducated who have not been afforded the vocabulary of protest and vote with their feet and their fists, the abused who abuse, the depressed who survive, the hundreds of thousands of people whose humanity is eclipsed by a crime and a sentence, whose story is stripped away and replaced with a single lazy moniker “criminal”.
Hear my stories and reconsider what you think you know about the people we have given up on. We need to be flexible and think outside the cage because our present is showing us that where the people go the politicians will follow. Let’s fight the pull to return to the comfortable shape of what we think we know lest we should become tight and bound, condemning a whole outpost of society to remain forever strapped to society’s inglorious groin.