Rubber Band

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.

By | January 30th, 2017|

Sorry but…

Perhaps it is just January and the onset of the cold snap?  Perhaps I would be feeling this way even if my life hadn’t just been turned on its head and shaken violently, or perhaps I am just starting to come out of the state of shock that I have been in for the last 6 months?  It’s hard to pinpoint why now exactly, but suddenly I can cry.  Not pretty sniffy cute crying, no. Proper face contorting, mucus factory events that only those who really love you can witness without pity or revulsion.  Once the switch is flicked I’m at its mercy and utterly incontinent (in the eye department), which is awkward in public.  It’s good though.  I am a ship that has taken on water imperceptibly every time I have said “I’m fine” and I need to be bailed out.

I have an article in the Sunday Times Magazine which is great, but then, in the interests of balance I suppose (God forbid I should get anything good out of all of this), trolling also begins. I’m sort of flattered and sort of appalled at how badly brought up we are.  I was raised not to say anything if I couldn’t say something nice.  Admittedly I can’t say I always stick to that on this page: sometimes I just feel fierce and the dragon escapes, but I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to point out to someone that they deserved their pain.  The idea that my loss and that of my children is a good thing because it will strengthen the power of prison to act as a deterrent to speculative criminals, is dubious to say the least.  It has been common practice over the centuries to use women as weapons of war and persuasion but we tend to rather look down upon that sort of approach from our lofty enlightened Western perspective these days.  The whole idea rather assumes that I’m a chattel who should be added to the funeral pyre.  People are “sorry but” he should have thought about us when embarking upon his “crime”.  There is no “but” in “sorry” people.

I wouldn’t mind if prison was a deterrent or actually worked.  As Ken Clarke says, prison might work, but almost anything else you could think of works better.  The notion of crime as a considered choice is outdated and ill-informed in any case, without even taking into account the fact that miscarriages of justice, even just the ones we know about and overturn, are happening twice a day, every day, every week, every month of every year.  Add to that accidents, the arbitrary nature of our drug laws and the fact that crime is primarily driven by social factors, and the whole idea of deterrent becomes so pompous it’s embarrassing: the bray of those who believe they are where they are because they deserve to be, never considering the thousand advantages they don’t even know they have.

There.  I’ve done it again.  I’ve opened my mouth and said something that isn’t entirely nice.  The thing is that I don’t want to go along with the idea that I’m expected to be quiet about what I see in the visit halls: the children screaming to stay with their dads, the way the men sit and look at their hands whilst their families leave.  200,000 of our children will have a parent in prison every year and 1000 children (16 – 18 year olds) are actually incarcerated every year.  That’s a lot of sad children: a whole blighted swathe of our future and still we fight to curb our lust for retribution and tougher sentencing in this country.

Given that prisoners with strong family ties are 40% less likely to re-offend than those without, you would have thought that us “sorry” wives would be welcomed at the prison gates, but we are not.  Holding prison families together is the single best thing we can do to cut crime and yet the very mention of a conjugal visit will be met with derision and outrage.  I suspect this also has to do with our concept of wives and mothers generally:  sexless Madonnas for whom abstinence is a relief.  But many a prison relationship will break down over time.  Endless time, stretching out far over the horizon.

In Holland conjugal visits are routine.  The reason for them is less altruistic than you might think however.  If a conjugal visit is cancelled due to a prisoner’s misdemeanour, a wife will give a prisoner much more grief than any official disciplinary process can deliver.  It’s a skill us women have perfected over generations, and a tragically underutilised resource.  If we are to be used as weapons, at least let us be a force for good, and have some fun into the bargain.

Rob’s prison family continues to come up trumps.  C works in the gardens and so it is that as I chat to Rob on the phone, C walks past and presses a small bunch of fresh rocket into his hand.  I can hear chewing and then exclamations of rapture as raw pepperiness bursts onto a palate that is unaccustomed to anything fresh.  I didn’t even know that there were gardens at Highpoint.  Nothing that is grown in them seems to end up on the prisoners’ plates.  Presumably this little harvest is the result of some kind of initiative that no longer has funding or ticks the correct boxes. Kale is promised forthwith, and eagerly awaited.

J is worrying about his skin and asks Rob for advice.  The concept of vegetables is tentatively muted, and Rob’s heart sinks as he realises that he ought to do the right thing and hand over some of the contraband greenery.  Quick as a flash J tells Rob that he is all right, and points out with a wink that his Terry’s Chocolate Orange must count as at least one of his five a day!  Sorry but he just doesn’t like green stuff.

By | January 20th, 2017|

Brick in the Wall

Good news!  Rob is top of the list for the next Ormiston Trust Family Visit Day.  This is the Holy Grail of visiting days.  They only happen every five weeks and are booked up 6 months in advance, because what your kid will get is something approaching a normal afternoon with their dad: a whole five hours for entire families to be together in an open room that you can move around in – no desks and tables and chairs.  You can walk together and see each others’ faces from an angle that is not straight on.  You can maybe even dance.

Tala is wild with excitement!  The elaborate costumed dance routines she has always choreographed for him, involving complex lifts and spins for the express purpose of showing herself off to maximum effect continued up to the wire of his exit from our home life.  She doubts that they’ll have the space to really do themselves justice, and they’ll have to sing if they want music, but still… she is dreaming of her name in lights again, and of him in tights, and it is making her laugh and giggle in anticipation.

For a moment I forget this that is prison we are talking about and dare to look forward to a gentle ooze of time together.  The thought of being able to sit as one, on the floor maybe, resting against a wall perhaps, nestled into the crook of his arm, with the luxury of time just to be and breathe, is dangled tantalisingly in front of us.  To slip under the cloak of his protection just for a moment, and stop with the holding it together and the toughing it out.  To kick off the lead shoes and balance the seesaw of responsibility for just an afternoon.  To feel weightless and light the way I used to with him.

But then of course the bubble pops.  He is refused security clearance.  We aren’t told why but we know.  The “inappropriate touching” allegation is still on his record and spreading its malicious poison, and not even the incredulous House of Commons headed letter to the prison Governor, from sympathetic, hard working Diane Abbot MP, (a copy of which is pinned to my fridge) can remove it.  The crushing annihilating sense of impotence bears down menacingly once again.  Prisoners don’t have rights, nor do their families, not really.  An ill-educated, twisted guard can decide that a ten year old sleeping on her father’s lap while he stokes her back is paedophilia, and make it true.

If you have ever held your child or touched their back to soothe  them to sleep consider how it would feel if they were only allowed a paltry 2 hour visit 3 times a month with you.  Would they cry a little?  What is their crime?  Would they like a snatched moment of closeness?  If there is a concern about the safety of my daughter, then surely social services should be involved?  To steal from Alfred Doolittle, “I am willing to see them, I am wanting to see them, I am waiting to see them”.  I would deal with them any day of the week not to see Rob groping his way in the dark down the dead ends of the prison complaints procedure, always thwarted, the heel of the boot grinding him ever deeper into the dirt.  The injustice cutting into him.  Another brick in the wall.

Tala is quiet on the back of my bike as we cycle home in the dark from town.  She is tired.  The comfort blanket that she never had as a baby, fashioned now from Rob’s scarf in which she wraps herself ceremonially each night before sleep, isn’t working any more and her nightmares are back.  Bloody dreams where the dog has had her eyes removed or my face is beaten and swollen or Rob has had his legs removed below the knees.

I offer a penny for her thoughts as I pedal our joint weights laboriously through the night air and she reveals that she is thinking about where she will go if something happens to me.  With Okha gone I am her only buffer against the outside world.  Who would take her?  It’s funny because Rob has just had the same fear and has asked me to think about it and formalise the decision, so I swallow and run through some options with her, matter of fact and sensible as we glide through the cold January night.

She decides on her godparents, because they are amazing, live near her school, have a little boy who adores her, and a car (which is vital for prison visiting).  Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.  It’s a motto that has served us well.  She will climb peacefully into bed that night.  She is one of the lucky ones.  There will always be someone there for her.

I think about the nation’s orphans: a quarter of them will end up in prison, drawn inexorably into a current of crime and made to feel once again that no-one is there for them: just numbers, and never number one. It is a shameless waste of human potential.  Prison is a dead end sign for all who enter it: a resounding NO to everything they might have been. There are so many other solutions that are more fitting and effective interventions for the majority of cases: like gears on a bike we need to use the lowest gear for the terrain and stop the spiral of reoffending and hopelessness: personalised smart solutions.

I have watched my husband: a bright, entrepreneurial optimist with a loving family and a good education, brought to his knees by this blunt system that uses sledge hammers to crack nuts.  It cares not for the individuals in its grip and smashes them in the process.  Dostoyevsky said that the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.  What would he think about the state of our nation, fettered to an ailing prison service that is holding back not just our humanity, but our collective potential too?

By | January 11th, 2017|

New Year’s Eve

It is three minutes to midnight at Highpoint North and Keith decides that he is going to bed.  It’s a curious decision, not just because having come so far he may as well tough it out and share in the moment such as it is with his brothers in arms, but also because his cell mate C has been crystal clear throughout the day that on the strike of midnight he will be playing God Save the Queen, (the Sex pistols version obvi) at full volume. Sleep will not be a viable option.  Keith’s mind is made up however and so he will lie, long suffering in his bed throughout the deafening rendition, running over the past year perhaps and wondering why oh why oh why?

Rob likes C a lot.  He is interesting and thoughtful.  As a lifer he has had the chance to re-educate himself – he has the time.  He is generous too and is often to be seen bouncing around Unit 12 rattling a tub of Quality Street, dapper in a date night shirt (he has an array of these, all garnered from a previous prison job on a recycling unit), re-homing the toffees which he daren’t eat for fear of unwittingly expatriating his one remaining tooth which still clings valiantly and with unique alignment, to his upper jaw.

The New Year gets off to a good start when Unit 12’s B team win the Highpoint Four Aside Football Tournament, (indoor of course – God forbid anyone should be given access to actual fresh air or grass). Rob’s roommate J is their star player and Rob and C feel stirrings of quasi paternal pride as he returns home victorious.  J’s mum doesn’t know what to make of it when she comes for a visit and hears her boy talking posh and using big words all of a sudden.  Cellmates are the luck of the draw, but she wasn’t expecting this.  Wait ’til they get him started on the scrabble.

I wonder how a Nashville-bearded 54 year old yogi and a 22 year old boxer from Bermondsey manage so well together?  Division of tasks apparently: Rob is in charge of cell temperature and manages the window and air flow, and J controls the TV.  They both educate each other.  Rob is new to Big Brother and Undatables, but he confesses to finding popular culture more interesting than he had feared.  Acceptance is another key to surviving the shared cell: Rob will be deep breathing his way though his asanas well before seven which can, (and I speak from personal experience here), be mildly annoying.  Mostly though it is the realisation of how much they have in common that connects them: fatherhood, prison, adversity.

In Stokey we know how to let our hair down.  My sister-in-law Sarah pops in for a cup of tea with Grandma and me, and we sip and chat whilst keeping an eye on her dog Foxy who is recovering after an unfortunate space cake stealing incident at a teenage party and is still looking queasy and finding co-ordination of all four legs challenging.  She (Sarah, not the loose-living dog) has brought champagne but we can’t be bothered to open it, and stick with the tea.

Death, prison and divorce have rendered us all single tonight, and a combination of arthritis, canine drug abuse and baby sitting mean that we can’t go out, but it is one of the sweetest, cosiest New Years I can remember, with Tala asleep on the sofa and Okha awake in Thailand, texting in her greetings.

Rob and I used to have a pact never to leave the house on this night after a string of incidents in my twenties, most involving intoxication, unwise use of kitchen equipment and A and E, so it is no hardship for either of us to forgo the outside world and greet the New Year with sleepy sobriety, counting our blessings and feeling in spite of it all, that we are where we should be and that all is well.

By | January 4th, 2017|
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