Perhaps it is just January and the onset of the cold snap? Perhaps I would be feeling this way even if my life hadn’t just been turned on its head and shaken violently, or perhaps I am just starting to come out of the state of shock that I have been in for the last 6 months? It’s hard to pinpoint why now exactly, but suddenly I can cry. Not pretty sniffy cute crying, no. Proper face contorting, mucus factory events that only those who really love you can witness without pity or revulsion. Once the switch is flicked I’m at its mercy and utterly incontinent (in the eye department), which is awkward in public. It’s good though. I am a ship that has taken on water imperceptibly every time I have said “I’m fine” and I need to be bailed out.
I have an article in the Sunday Times Magazine which is great, but then, in the interests of balance I suppose (God forbid I should get anything good out of all of this), trolling also begins. I’m sort of flattered and sort of appalled at how badly brought up we are. I was raised not to say anything if I couldn’t say something nice. Admittedly I can’t say I always stick to that on this page: sometimes I just feel fierce and the dragon escapes, but I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to point out to someone that they deserved their pain. The idea that my loss and that of my children is a good thing because it will strengthen the power of prison to act as a deterrent to speculative criminals, is dubious to say the least. It has been common practice over the centuries to use women as weapons of war and persuasion but we tend to rather look down upon that sort of approach from our lofty enlightened Western perspective these days. The whole idea rather assumes that I’m a chattel who should be added to the funeral pyre. People are “sorry but” he should have thought about us when embarking upon his “crime”. There is no “but” in “sorry” people.
I wouldn’t mind if prison was a deterrent or actually worked. As Ken Clarke says, prison might work, but almost anything else you could think of works better. The notion of crime as a considered choice is outdated and ill-informed in any case, without even taking into account the fact that miscarriages of justice, even just the ones we know about and overturn, are happening twice a day, every day, every week, every month of every year. Add to that accidents, the arbitrary nature of our drug laws and the fact that crime is primarily driven by social factors, and the whole idea of deterrent becomes so pompous it’s embarrassing: the bray of those who believe they are where they are because they deserve to be, never considering the thousand advantages they don’t even know they have.
There. I’ve done it again. I’ve opened my mouth and said something that isn’t entirely nice. The thing is that I don’t want to go along with the idea that I’m expected to be quiet about what I see in the visit halls: the children screaming to stay with their dads, the way the men sit and look at their hands whilst their families leave. 200,000 of our children will have a parent in prison every year and 1000 children (16 – 18 year olds) are actually incarcerated every year. That’s a lot of sad children: a whole blighted swathe of our future and still we fight to curb our lust for retribution and tougher sentencing in this country.
Given that prisoners with strong family ties are 40% less likely to re-offend than those without, you would have thought that us “sorry” wives would be welcomed at the prison gates, but we are not. Holding prison families together is the single best thing we can do to cut crime and yet the very mention of a conjugal visit will be met with derision and outrage. I suspect this also has to do with our concept of wives and mothers generally: sexless Madonnas for whom abstinence is a relief. But many a prison relationship will break down over time. Endless time, stretching out far over the horizon.
In Holland conjugal visits are routine. The reason for them is less altruistic than you might think however. If a conjugal visit is cancelled due to a prisoner’s misdemeanour, a wife will give a prisoner much more grief than any official disciplinary process can deliver. It’s a skill us women have perfected over generations, and a tragically underutilised resource. If we are to be used as weapons, at least let us be a force for good, and have some fun into the bargain.
Rob’s prison family continues to come up trumps. C works in the gardens and so it is that as I chat to Rob on the phone, C walks past and presses a small bunch of fresh rocket into his hand. I can hear chewing and then exclamations of rapture as raw pepperiness bursts onto a palate that is unaccustomed to anything fresh. I didn’t even know that there were gardens at Highpoint. Nothing that is grown in them seems to end up on the prisoners’ plates. Presumably this little harvest is the result of some kind of initiative that no longer has funding or ticks the correct boxes. Kale is promised forthwith, and eagerly awaited.
J is worrying about his skin and asks Rob for advice. The concept of vegetables is tentatively muted, and Rob’s heart sinks as he realises that he ought to do the right thing and hand over some of the contraband greenery. Quick as a flash J tells Rob that he is all right, and points out with a wink that his Terry’s Chocolate Orange must count as at least one of his five a day! Sorry but he just doesn’t like green stuff.