It is remembrance Sunday and I listen to the sombre reverent tones of a memorial service: An honouring of our brave boys, except that 1 in 10 prisoners are ex-servicemen and are living in squalor courtesy of Her Majesty. PTSD is just one of the plethora of mental illnesses at the heart of offending, poverty and incarceration.
“The Secret Life of Prisons” (shot on illegal camera phones inside) airs on Channel 4 and I watch a father’s face as he sees his mentally ill son volunteering to be punched violently in the head in exchange for mamba. I see the anarchy, the addiction, the violence and the hopelessness. Rob has seen all of this and so much more. It’s nothing. He doesn’t even warn me that I will be shocked and scared for him.
Prison officers are striking nationwide over safety: theirs and the prisoner’s. I hear nothing at all from Rob all day. I hope it is because he is locked up. The thought of what else would keep him from the phone is something I don’t want to consider.
The Minister for prisons is on the radio blaming “new psychoactive substances” (he means mamba/spice), for the upsurge in violence. How convenient. Nothing to do with staff shortages then and the inevitable lock downs and human caging that results. The 2,500 extra part-time guards promised by 2018 is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed, even if they can be recruited on pitiful pay and dire working conditions. Nothing to do with the fact that most of the inmates are addicts whose illnesses are not being treated.
A heinous fart of pressure is building up in the holding pens that pass for prisons in the UK and they are beginning to blow in the form of suicides, escapes, riots and strikes. This is not going to be pretty.
Luckily however the minister has a solution to the spice problem. Random drug tests. Ta dah! Now we can make lists of the people we already know are taking drugs, punish them more (because that really works), whilst simultaneously sparking an internal trade in child pee as prisoners everywhere make like Withnail and carry a sachet of unadulterated urine with them at all times.
In the interest of balance (between idiocy and common sense) they also get Ken Clarke on the program. He describes British prisons as “overcrowded slums” into which we funnel a greater percentage of our population than any other European country with no positive effect on crime figures whatsoever, and explains in a single sentence how to sort it out: Lock up only those who are a danger to others or themselves, rehabilitate, treat addiction and mental illness and use fines and tags where punishment is necessary. Attaboy Ken.
Fortunately we are not alone in Europe (well not yet anyway) in having a problem with our prison service. Holland is in trouble too. A BBC news headline reads “Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners.” Ah. Slightly different problem to ours then.
Their reluctance to lock up anyone but the most violent or persistent offenders, coupled with a shift away from a war on drugs in favour of the pursuit of human traffickers and terrorists means that most criminality is effectively dealt with using community service orders, fines and tagging, leading to the closure of 19 prisons, and this despite having had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe a decade ago.
You see it really isn’t that hard. We could turn this ship around, but we are currently plotting a very different course across the Atlantic towards the American Nightmare.
I go for supper at Cyril’s house. The one who got away. Since mentioning the shamefully (for a nutritionist) erratic eating habits I have occasionally adopted of late, I have had more dinner invitations that I can shake a stick at. It’s fantastic. Might I add that I have criminally little (all right not any at all) Chanel in my wardrobe?
I remember meeting Cyril at the film industry mecca of Cannes in a jaunty suit and trainers, looking impossibly dashing and fresh faced when he started out working for Rob 14 years ago. Now he is tasked with re-homing the staff and dismantling the business they built together. Rob’s space on the desk where they worked side by side is sterile and tidy; the banter between them silenced by absence.
As the judge pronounced his co-defendants guiltily one after the other Cyril saw the bullet with his name on it suspended inches from his forehead. Despite being pronounced not guilty, the bullet has lingered and follows him still months afterwards in his dreams. In a supermarket car park he is paralysed with fear and cannot get out of the car.
I ask him somewhat selfishly to relive the sentencing. I fantasise that perhaps he might have experienced the euphoria of the reprieve that I had longed for. Did he make the ecstatic call to his wife – the call I had played out a hundred times in my mind when it seemed there were still two paths ahead?
But no-one really got out of this jail free. There was no happy call, just a rising tide of tears that overtook Katja so savagely as she sat at her desk at work, that she could not stem their flow or speak or explain herself. Not tears of relief. Tears of bitter sadness for our sake.
Empathy is a beautiful thing because without it we could just imagine that other people don’t suffer or love or hope or fail as we do. In our cellar there is a broken neon sign that spells out “Namaste” in a looped font. It was damaged in transit on one of the many house moves that have punctuated our life together and belonged to Rob before I knew him. I plan to repair it and never do. It’s a sanskrit word that can be translated in many ways. The most powerful for me is this understanding: “I recognise myself in you and you in myself”.
One day, (and I trust, naively perhaps, that it will be soon), we will look back at the way we treat the most vulnerable section of our society: our soldiers, our sick, our poor, our disenfranchised, our foster children, our weak… and our inability to see more in them than their mistake will shock our children. We will shake our heads in wonder at the barbarism of it all, of the “them and us” mentality, of the shameless superiority and schadenfreude.