Prison never lets you down. Just when you think that there is nothing to write this week, because we are saving our visit for Christmas Eve and because no-one has done anything actively stupid and we are all ticking along nicely and trying to get Christmassy, Rob calls to say that he is getting shipped out of the wing that has become his motley family and thrown into a single cell on a trouble maker’s “basic” unit. The reason? Hooch. Except that there is none of course. Rob is famously teetotal.
Perhaps the guards were a little bored today and decided to spin some cells for a laugh. Maybe they were frustrated in their efforts to uncover any contraband or perhaps they genuinely think that you could consume rotting garlic and ginger in adequate quantities to induce inebriation, whatever the reason, the Nigerian concoction is gleefully seized this morning whilst Rob is in “education” and disciplinary measures are now in process.
This being the prison system no reasonable conversation can be had. The fact that there is neither sugar nor yeast involved in the immune tonic recipe and therefore no possible alcoholic content is utterly uninteresting to the bright sparks in control here, nor is the fact that this bottle has been sitting in plain view on Rob’s window sill for the past month, including an afternoon when the governor had sat in his cell, chatting convivially with Rob about families and visiting, whilst touring a guest around the more presentable wings of the establishment.
Rob’s cell mate who wouldn’t have drunk the foul smelling brew if you’d paid him, and certainly had no hand in its creation, is subject to the same punishment. They will loose their enhanced status and are now on basic: two visits a month, no money (which means no phone), no TV and very little unlock. Merry Christmas. There will be a hearing tomorrow where he can plead his case, but nothing he has said so far today has made any difference, and they are told to pack up their scant possessions.
Unfortunately he is on speaker phone as he relays this sorry tale and Tala has heard it all. I watch her swallowing back the dismay and the anger, blinking hard. She doesn’t really understand what has happened but she knows from the sound of his voice that he is hurting and getting ready to lose everything: cell mates, friends, pupils… again. Anything you build is prison is an illusion. She’s learning fast. She knows that it is now unlikely that we will get to see him before Christmas. She is also now well versed in how to run to the bathroom and splash her face with cold water to stop the rise of the tears which will hurt him more than anything they can do to him inside. I don’t tell him where she has gone or that I can hear choked sobs from upstairs. I do not mention what I can read in her eyes.
An hour later he calls back. Apparently cells in the naughty wing cannot be found as the current occupants have refused to move and so they wait, bags packed, for new instructions. The awful thing is that even as my mind is boggling with the Kafkaesque insanity of the accusation and although I am deflated and worried for him all over again, I am simultaneously bugging him for the details I will need to write here, and he knows it. It’s a little mercenary, opportunistic even, but then there isn’t much point in wallowing in victimhood. Prison clouds don’t really have silver linings sewn in: you have to make them yourself, and this page is my sanity. Some people live to write. I write to live.
If you can take a good, basically law abiding citizen (give or take a film business of two), who hitherto believed in the rule of law and the validity of our institutions and make of him, in only 6 months, an angry man who feels increasingly radical and militant, what can you create from someone more dangerous or marginalised?
If just one of the officers at Highpoint North has taken the trouble to get to know Rob, they will be in no doubt whatsoever that he is exceptionally unlikely to have embarked upon a batch of moonshine, but whether anyone will be able to override the system is doubtful. Everyone’s hands are tied. I hear from the politicians and the think tanks that they want introduce reform but can’t get anything except a “tough” message past the general public. Frankly I’m sick of it and I don’t really buy it: I don’t see that the public are particularly enthused about cuts to the NHS, but those are happening none the less. The cost of re-offending is hard to measure exactly but it is at least £15 billion a year, which I can’t help feeling might be better spent on the health service or on schools, and if the pubic need convincing about that, then a little dinner party with Tony Gallagher and Paul Dacre might be in order.
In Birmingham they are rioting. There is no hot water and not enough food. The government line is that Mamba is to blame. It isn’t. Riots are a side effect of deteriorating conditions and the despair of men who have nothing left to lose. Men are literally starving in some prisons around the country and only those who can bribe the servery staff or who can afford to spend all of their canteen on top ups can survive. This is a recipe for disaster.
Chris Grayling is another apparently. He presided over a 30% cut in prison staffing levels, amongst other “tough” measures, after which point suicides and violence escalated with astonishing rapidity. Now he has been let lose on the railways with similarly disastrous effect. Perhaps he is just unlucky. Perhaps he is a good man with a difficult job, or perhaps he and other career politicians should stand up and be counted. The last person to do that on prison reform was Ken Clarke and he was duly sacked. It is true that you can’t change anything unless you are in power, but if you are, please use it, and use it fast before we brew something truly monstrous in our festering penal institutions that cannot be put back in the box.