Good news! Rob is top of the list for the next Ormiston Trust Family Visit Day. This is the Holy Grail of visiting days. They only happen every five weeks and are booked up 6 months in advance, because what your kid will get is something approaching a normal afternoon with their dad: a whole five hours for entire families to be together in an open room that you can move around in – no desks and tables and chairs. You can walk together and see each others’ faces from an angle that is not straight on. You can maybe even dance.
Tala is wild with excitement! The elaborate costumed dance routines she has always choreographed for him, involving complex lifts and spins for the express purpose of showing herself off to maximum effect continued up to the wire of his exit from our home life. She doubts that they’ll have the space to really do themselves justice, and they’ll have to sing if they want music, but still… she is dreaming of her name in lights again, and of him in tights, and it is making her laugh and giggle in anticipation.
For a moment I forget this that is prison we are talking about and dare to look forward to a gentle ooze of time together. The thought of being able to sit as one, on the floor maybe, resting against a wall perhaps, nestled into the crook of his arm, with the luxury of time just to be and breathe, is dangled tantalisingly in front of us. To slip under the cloak of his protection just for a moment, and stop with the holding it together and the toughing it out. To kick off the lead shoes and balance the seesaw of responsibility for just an afternoon. To feel weightless and light the way I used to with him.
But then of course the bubble pops. He is refused security clearance. We aren’t told why but we know. The “inappropriate touching” allegation is still on his record and spreading its malicious poison, and not even the incredulous House of Commons headed letter to the prison Governor, from sympathetic, hard working Diane Abbot MP, (a copy of which is pinned to my fridge) can remove it. The crushing annihilating sense of impotence bears down menacingly once again. Prisoners don’t have rights, nor do their families, not really. An ill-educated, twisted guard can decide that a ten year old sleeping on her father’s lap while he stokes her back is paedophilia, and make it true.
If you have ever held your child or touched their back to soothe them to sleep consider how it would feel if they were only allowed a paltry 2 hour visit 3 times a month with you. Would they cry a little? What is their crime? Would they like a snatched moment of closeness? If there is a concern about the safety of my daughter, then surely social services should be involved? To steal from Alfred Doolittle, “I am willing to see them, I am wanting to see them, I am waiting to see them”. I would deal with them any day of the week not to see Rob groping his way in the dark down the dead ends of the prison complaints procedure, always thwarted, the heel of the boot grinding him ever deeper into the dirt. The injustice cutting into him. Another brick in the wall.
Tala is quiet on the back of my bike as we cycle home in the dark from town. She is tired. The comfort blanket that she never had as a baby, fashioned now from Rob’s scarf in which she wraps herself ceremonially each night before sleep, isn’t working any more and her nightmares are back. Bloody dreams where the dog has had her eyes removed or my face is beaten and swollen or Rob has had his legs removed below the knees.
I offer a penny for her thoughts as I pedal our joint weights laboriously through the night air and she reveals that she is thinking about where she will go if something happens to me. With Okha gone I am her only buffer against the outside world. Who would take her? It’s funny because Rob has just had the same fear and has asked me to think about it and formalise the decision, so I swallow and run through some options with her, matter of fact and sensible as we glide through the cold January night.
She decides on her godparents, because they are amazing, live near her school, have a little boy who adores her, and a car (which is vital for prison visiting). Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. It’s a motto that has served us well. She will climb peacefully into bed that night. She is one of the lucky ones. There will always be someone there for her.
I think about the nation’s orphans: a quarter of them will end up in prison, drawn inexorably into a current of crime and made to feel once again that no-one is there for them: just numbers, and never number one. It is a shameless waste of human potential. Prison is a dead end sign for all who enter it: a resounding NO to everything they might have been. There are so many other solutions that are more fitting and effective interventions for the majority of cases: like gears on a bike we need to use the lowest gear for the terrain and stop the spiral of reoffending and hopelessness: personalised smart solutions.
I have watched my husband: a bright, entrepreneurial optimist with a loving family and a good education, brought to his knees by this blunt system that uses sledge hammers to crack nuts. It cares not for the individuals in its grip and smashes them in the process. Dostoyevsky said that the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. What would he think about the state of our nation, fettered to an ailing prison service that is holding back not just our humanity, but our collective potential too?