My sat-nav decides to deny me the font of its precious knowledge at key moments during the journey to Cambridge and so we arrive with a screech of tyres and moments to spare, only to find that an entire south London family have been left off the list and refused entry. They are categorically not ‘avin any of it, causing those of us unfortunate enough to be queuing behind them to remain bottle-necked in the visitor’s centre watching the clock tick slowly as our visit evaporates uselessly in their wake.
Finally the girl behind the desk manages to reach someone from the bowels of the prison and begins, leisurely, to process them. I am going inwardly nuts. I can imagine Rob sitting, waiting, wondering, and so when we are finally handed the precious visiting order I run, both children at my heals towards the prison entrance in case the guard should elect to shut the gate and go off for an extended fag break in lieu of letting the stragglers in.
I throw my loose change, locker key, visiting order and phone down on the desk prior to the body search. The guard looks at me aghast. I follow her line of vision and clock the phone. She looks stunned. “You’ve got a mobile phone!”. I apologise profusely, explain about the processing problems and the rush and ask if I can just leave the phone on the desk and pick it up on the way out rather than having to go all the way back to the locker room again. I haven’t realised what is about to happen yet.
She shakes her head sadly at me. “I can see that it was a genuine mistake, but I’m afraid that you have just committed an offence and you will have to wait here now until someone can come and deal with you”. I can’t believe it. More delays. I’m literally hopping from Converse to Converse with impatience. Finally an officer trundles down the corridor to see me. “Guilty as charged?” she jokes. I breathe a sigh of relief. “We know that it was a genuine mistake” she begins, but then “unfortunately though, you have just committed an offence punishable by up to ten years in jail, and if you want the visit to go ahead today it will be a closed visit through glass.” We have just got up at 6.30 on a Sunday morning (one of our party has only had an hours sleep and still smells strongly of ethanol), and driven fast down a motorway for and hour and a half. It feels like a slap.
Tala is sobbing uncontrollably. It’s the first time she has cracked since that first horrific shock. It has been two weeks since we have seen him due to the dearth of visiting at Highpoint (only 3 a month), and she has been planning all week to sit on his lap for the entire visit. Now she won’t even be able to touch him. I am engulfed by a wave of despair. Everyone here knows that it was a mistake: I threw the damn phone down on the desk, so clearly I wasn’t trying to conceal it. We all know it and yet the punishment is still being enforced.
It is a classic example of “computer says no”, where none the individuals are able, even if they are willing, to let common sense prevail. Besides, the staff here are so inured to suffering that this is most likely all in a days work for them, and I have certainly not yet learned the art of kicking off effectively enough to try that on for size now.
I should probably consider myself lucky that no charges have been brought and take my mistake on the chin, and yet the bloody mindedness of the system grabs me by the throat and manages to do what the 3 months of separation we have already endured have not. It breaks me. I realise that I am entirely without power. Worse still, the people inflicting the punishment seem to be in the same position. We are all in thrawl to a system that doesn’t have a heart, nor seemingly a head. I am sobbing like a small lost child. Utterly wretched.
We are being herded towards the closed visiting booths. I can see Rob standing behind the glass at the end of the corridor. The look on his face almost makes me retch up the cocktail of guilt and love that is percolating inside me. He is silently watching the spectacle of us crying and being asked to take sips of tea and offered Kleenex before they will take us further. I keep saying that I just want to see him, but they insist that I calm down and clean the running mascara away first. The cons in the tea shop ask me what is wrong and shake their heads sadly when I reveal my mistake, but they have been here long enough to know that the dye is cast. Finally Okha takes over. She tells us both, with instant results, that it is enough and that we have to stop. If ever there was a girl for stepping up, it’s my girl.
Finally we are locked into the glass booth. He picks up the phone on the other side. Only one of ours seems to be working. We put our hands to the glass. It’s like in the movies, but real. I try to explain and apologise for what I have done to us all, but I can’t seem to get any words out and the waterworks are on again. Okha shouts at the door, eventually manages to get some service and points out that there are three of us and only one working phone. They shrug in response. She asks if her little sister can please get to hug her father at the end of the visit. They promise to see what they can do, but don’t return. This is it.
We try to make the most of it, but Rob is honest about the fact that this is a huge blow to him. He doesn’t blame me – it’s a big conceptual shift to think of a phone as contraband, (indeed I am still actively trying to remember to have mine on me), but the thing is that there is nothing kind or soft on the inside: He relies on us to recharge something vital inside in himself which he is attempting to preserve against all the odds. Touch is precious. Talk is cheap.
We find that if we all huddle around the receiver we can hear each other faintly and so we carry on a conversation of sorts, prompted mostly by Okha who has resolved not to be beaten by this. Tala gives up after a while and drifts off, bored by the adult talk. Eventually the ordeal is over and we are unlocked and told to finish up.
Outside in the relief of the fresh air I talk to a beautiful Columbian woman with a 4 year old daughter who has been coming since she was pregnant. She only visits now because of the child. They had been married for a long time and kept the relationship together for a couple of years into his incarceration, but after a while it just got too hard: His paranoia, the struggle to just survive as a single parent coupled with the loneliness, ultimately proved too much. He has put in a request for a transfer back to Columbia.
The reality is that we are fighting to maintain a relationship that is only really a memory of a relationship now and a collection of promises and desires for the future. Love is an action, but trying to give and receive it within this system is like trying to touch through perspex: it looks as if you are meeting, but underneath, all the nerves can feel is the smooth lifeless surface of plastic.