The weekend is a washout and the concrete prison exercise yard is not improved by the conditions. No hoods in the slammer so, even if you do have a flimsy prison issue coat, when it rains you’ll get a wet head. Rob goes out whatever the weather in an effort to remain somewhat free range and retain a semblance of an immune system. He embraces the rain. All the elements seem precious against a backdrop of cheerless institution and razor wire.
Immunity is an issue in prison with rubbish food, depression and stress high on the list of successfully delivered outcomes. Rob and his ex-cellie have a secret health weapon based on an old Nigerian trick that involves a bulb of garlic, two fist-sized rhizomes of sliced ginger, boiling water and an empty Coke bottle. The ingredients are combined and left to ferment until the solids decompose into a syrupy glob of barely liquid culture that is administered daily and with much grimacing. I outright forbid him to partake on visit days. He already smells strongly of salad as a result of moisturising with olive oil, and garlic is rarely considered an aphrodisiac on the breath.
Not that there is any point in cultivating desire at this point. At a Christmas party for a Conservative party think tank on prison reform I ask Ian Duncan Smith about conjugal visits, not because I think anyone will get one any time soon, but just for the hell of it and because I want to make him think about sex and remember my blog name: it works for the advertising industry. Perhaps I should print some cards though…?
I have arrived in this room by virtue of a philanthropist friend of Keith’s who has taken a paternalistic interest in our story and the Prison dis-Service. My white knight is a big lad and exudes something so genuine and unthreatening that within five minutes of the Justice Secretary’s arrival he manages to introduce me to her as “a prison family blogger”. I seize my chance. Experience has taught me that announcing in polite circles that your husband is doing 9 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure stops conversation for long enough to make any point you like.
I bear in mind Tala’s parting shot as I set off for the evening “Don’t bore her Mummy” and then, resigning herself to reality and settling the bar a little lower after considering me realistically for a moment or two, “Well…. just don’t babble”, and so I plump for something practical. Does she know that phone calls are charged at 3 times the national rate to prisoners? She doesn’t.
I consider telling her that anyone who wants to use a mobile phone for drug dealing can get one in five minutes and isn’t particularly bothered about legalities, and that most people just want a phone to keep in touch with their families. Rob spends his entire weekly earnings to make nine ten minute phone calls a week. It’s also interesting that mobiles are rife in places like Wandsworth where the 23 hours-a-day lockup makes phone access tricky during the remaining hour and forces prisoners to choose between joining the phone queue, showering or exercise.
I don’t want to rain on her parade however, so I get Christmassy and ask her what she would do with the Prison Service if she had a magic wand. I know what I’d do with it, but I doubt she’ll admit publicly to buggery. She just wants things to be better run apparently: no rats in the kitchen or cells out of use because of mould or dirty protests. (Cells are often made uninhabitable with blood or faeces, and there are crews of prisoners in every jail tasked with the unenviable job of cleaning up. It’s what people come down to when they don’t have art materials or a voice). Fair enough, but lady, I offered you a magic wand! Dream a little! Think big!
She gives a good speech. What politicians will say to a room of smart, well-vetted (except for me) reformers and what they will say in the public arena where their main brief is not to lose votes every time they open their mouths (an art never learnt by Ken Livingstone), is very different. She genuinely seems to want to encourage rehabilitation and a reduction in re-offending, which is heartening given her dull public message about security, but I can’t help feeling that everyone is still missing the point because, and this becomes increasingly clear throughout the evening, no one actually speaks to the Service users, and no-one in power has ever been to prison except on a day trip. Prisoners do not need or even want new buildings. They are pretty much ok with the rats too. What they want is to be treated with respect. Rehabilitation begins and ends with the relationship between officers and inmates and the attitude of the institution to its charges.
I watch Liz (I think we are close enough now for me to call her that, and she did express an interest in reading my blog), claiming somewhat mystifyingly in parliament, that barking dogs deter drones and I can’t help wondering if she wouldn’t be better advised to go down the Californian route, where petting dogs (and now also a pig in a tutu apparently) are used in the airport in LA to reduce stress and improve the well-being of passengers. Any schemes where prisoners are permitted to train and care for animals are immensely successful in terms of reducing re-offending.
So we know that children, wives (especially with the odd conjugal thrown in), dogs and probably pigs have a positive effect on re-offending. It’s a pretty sad indictment of our system when the only way to make it work is to use the unpaid services of the families who are also being passively punished by its failings. At our last visit we were let in so late that my seven hour trip yielded only 80 minutes with my beloved, and they wonder why we tarry at the end and have to be shouted at to clear out. And what about all the prisoners without families? According to the Centre for Social Justice, whose Prosecco I’m quaffing at said Christmas party, half of all prisoners under 25 were previously in “care”.
Until we create a familial environment within prison itself – a prison family where all of the individuals from governor to guard to prisoner, contribute and care for each other, nothing will change in our jails no matter how many extra screws you throw at the problem. Human beings need purpose and meaning in their lives, whatever they may, or may not, have done in the past. They need self respect and the impression that they matter.
There is so much untapped potential from within the prison population: chefs who would like to share their skills and recreate family meal times rather than receiving a plastic tub of deadness to eat alone in their cells, traders, graphic designers, businessmen, IT experts, sportsmen, even politicians (I’m having tea with Jonathan Aitken in the New Year), you name it, you’ll find one in prison, and all anyone wants to do in there is to pass their endless sentence doing something useful.
Meanwhile milestones are being reached on the out in our broken homes: Keith’s daughter Elizabeth turns 11 without him. The girl is a legend: she is miniscule, but she can fly a plane (honestly), and drive a stick shift Land Rover. She invites Tala to her party (they have an unshakable bond born out of mutual loss), where the guests all give themselves such big sugar rushes they have to hold each other down. It a massive success.
Charlie’s girls forgo anything seasonal that would interfere with their visits. They have never missed a single one. In the pursuit of fairness he has to rotate their hands over the separating table. They never let go.
Okha and I crack and go halves on a packet of razor blades having finally accepted that Rob isn’t going to be able to change the brutally blunt one that predates his departure, and Tala finally admits defeat and consigns the “She Brings the Rain” t-shirt to the wash, unable to detect even the faintest whiff of father underneath the layers of pre-pubescent b.o. that undeniably dominate its odour profile. I watch it circling in the foamy tides, another layer of him washed away in the artificial rain of the machine.