To cut a man up in prison you only need a tooth brush and two small disposable razor blades. You set the blades close together into the brush handle. That way the slashes won’t heal and the scars remain forever. “Razoring” is common practice on the inside. It costs very little to get a man cut up: lucrative employment is thin on prison ground. Desperation has only ever bred brutality.
Scores left over from “the out” are often settled this way. You will not know where they will will strike. The ambush can be anywhere, anytime.
A victim arrives from Highpoint South, skin in ribbons, jumped by four men in the gym in a well planned, deftly executed assault. HMP Knifepoint is living up to its nickname. Experienced staff will no longer work South: give them sleepy little North any day. And so it gets worse. At least two units are now almost entirely prisoner run. No one is safe.
The outside isn’t much better. Knife crime is rising 24% year on year. Prison sentences will only, can only, make everything worse. When we pen our youth away from all humanising influences will they learn a lesson?
Certainly. They will learn the law of the jungle and the price of weakness: these kids are survivors so they’ll step up to the plate. Many have been abused, abandoned and syphoned into gangs since primary school. Do they need help? So much and in so many ways. Will they get it in our prisons? Absolutely not. The longer we lock them up the more they harden and the violence spills back out into our communities again like some kind of monster. When we throw the book at our bad boys, they’ll rip off its spine and eat it for breakfast.
There is a video doing the rounds on Facebook called “The Race of Life”. A throng of teenagers from all walks of life stand ready to run a race. The winner win collect one hundred dollars. What’s not to like? Tension crackles. You can cut the air with a knife, but before the race begins there are some provisos.
“Anyone whose parents are still together take two steps forward”, shouts the umpire. The children from broken homes deflate a little “Anyone who grew up with a father figure in the home. Two steps forward”. The gap widens. “If you had access to a private education, advance two paces”, the ref yells. The kids at the back are getting twitchy. “Two more if you have never had to contribute to a family bill” he shouts. “Step forward if you have never worried about having your phone cut off. If you’ve never wondered where your next meal is coming from, take two steps again”.
Some of the runners are half way down the field already and the race hasn’t even begun. The course is dotted with young people spread out over the field. Some (mostly black) kids haven’t even stepped off the baseline. They’re looking down at their shoes now. There are no short cuts for these children. They know they can’t win. It’s a familiar feeling but you can see the frustration in their faces. And the shame.
When the ref shouts “Go!” amazingly most of the contestants run, but not those right at the back. Why would they? The hundred dollars is not for them. They never even leave the starting blocks.
I see these young men every week at the prison. I don’t know their stories, but they all have one. No one wants to end up in this place. Perhaps they wanted to run a race they thought they could win. There is no victory here though. Now they are in prison they are not just on the base line of life, they are walking backwards barefoot over glass.
There is a young man who comes to book club. At first he was only in it for the biscuits. As the son of a preacher man Rob knows that a month of sermons has nothing on the humble biscuit. Staff grumbled about the guy’s attitude: he needed to learn respect; he was a taker, cut from the wrong cloth.
Over the months however, slowly, tentatively, his manner has changed. With painful trepidation he has become a part of what is probably the most diverse book club in the western hemisphere: a tiny brave new world far from his smash and grab past. Now he helps and passes the biscuits around. Someday soon he’ll read the book.
Another man, a lifer in his 50’s, comes every week to the library. He has never once smiled at Rob when he checks out his pile of novels nor said goodbye when he leaves. Never a whisker of reconnaissance nor a flicker or warmth until out of the blue one day the man requests a title.
He’s after “A thousand and one places to visit before you die”, “because… see… I’ve done my time. They’re cutting me loose.” he explains and breaks into an extraordinary grin that lights up his face. The sun emerging from behind clouds. They find the book and flick through its suggestions together. “They should have this place in here!” the lifer jokes.
Perhaps they should. Prison is an extraordinary place. Utterly counterproductive to anyone who might on the face of it belong there, but an invaluable lesson for those who think they don’t. It is sometimes unspeakably tough to be cut off from the ones you love but I thank God that prison happened to us and jackknifed me in my sleep. Like a bad boy’s kiss it has shocked me awake. Now I know the difference between an artery and a luxury.
At visiting we are let in earlier than usual. Prisoners are still filing into the hall and being allocated their tables. Somehow we converge with Rob at the front desk and he and Tala find themselves walking together to our places. It is the first time in 16 months that they have done anything apart from sit. She is wildly excited by this coup de grace and clasps her arms tight around his waist as they traverse the room, stealing glances up at him from this long forgotten angle, matching him pace for pace with long legs just like his, smiling upwards like a sunflower in the light. Every moment of every life is precious. Even and especially those that cut you to the quick.
If you haven’t seen The Race of Life here it is: