Today is the day! Our first ever family visit… at last. It’s a big day. Too big perhaps. Tala is bouncing off the seats with unbridled excitement but Okha, who has metamorphosed into a nocturnal creature of late, is unslept and unprepared as we arrive at the prison, this being the middle of her night. The visitor centre is eerily quiet with only a handful of families on the list. It is cold.
We almost slip up at the first hurdle when Oki discovers the dreaded “phone in the back pocket” only moments before the gates shut, plus she has a hell of a job getting tampons through security but, after discussions about “ heavy flow” that seem brutal and unenlightened even in this Dickensian environment, a compromise is reached and we enter the hall at last.
We launch ourselves predictably at our favourite prisoner, revelling in the freedom of movement that is the hallmark of this visit, but I know immediately that I have already become too institutionalised to be comfortable with this changing of goalposts. I don’t know how to be in the space.
Tala is at no such loss however and is already charging back from the playroom, eyes glittering, with a towering collection of board games and pens and all the paraphernalia of 11 year old fun.
We bag the table football while we can but are soon surrounded by a small contingent of under 5 spectators and the aim of the game quickly shifts from goal scoring to avoiding infant eye gauging with the the reverse ends of our pins.
Undaunted we sit back at our table… the one we had vowed we wouldn’t sit at because we didn’t have to and Rob and Tala launch into Connect 4. Oki is looking white and fraught. I understand how she is feeling. Orminston Familes who run the day really go the extra mile to make it cozy and welcoming. The attending prison staff are unimposing and smiley. There is a magnificent lunch laid on including a delicious and authentic curry (racial prejudice in sentencing does have its advantages) and cake for a little girl’s birthday. Everyone does everything they can but… this is still prison. There are bars on the windows and the doors are locked. Two hours, five hours, whatever. He won’t be coming home with us.
The space and the early start are particularly tricky for a twenty year old. 5 hours of phone deprivation is torture in its own right but worse than this there is no way for her to get what she needs here: no place for her to begin to broach her fears or her fragility. Whatever was left unsaid before prison began has remained so and the hurt festers painfully in her. Teenage is a terrible time to lose your father… again.
This is Tala’s visit: her chance to catch up on the thousands of hours of missed play since his departure. I sit as close as possible and hold him tightly, just a squeeze or two short of strangulation. I retract back into myself. I expected too much. I had hoped that this visit would refresh the parts that other visits can’t reach, but the sepia tones of dreams translate poorly into reality. This is not the time or place for the kind of play I need.
I can feel myself going under already on the journey home. A strange feeling like sliding down the sides of a giant mixing bowl. I know that if I hit the bottom I may not be able to get out again. I’m shaking inside. A week later it is still there… nervous wide-eyed anxiety: a perpetual feeling of having drunk too much coffee, reminiscent of exams and trouble.
I know things are bad when I find myself in bed with Donald Trump. Calm down, it’s only a dream… but still. Although one cannot rightfully be held responsible for the depravity of the subconscious I have debated long and hard with myself over revealing such debasement to my loyal and long-suffering readership but I have very little shame left besides which this is honestly the funniest thing that has happened to me all week.
In the dream I am stroking Donald’s (I think we’re on first name terms now) face and with that genuine depth of tenderness that is the preserve of lovers (breathe through the nausea people) I am asking him what happened. I want to know what has broken his heart and made him so obnoxious, though, in keeping with my empathic dream self, I phrase this somewhat more sensitively. I think I actually call him “sweetheart”. He thinks about it. I see him soften. Goddammit I see him self reflect and then, just as he is about to make the break through, the alarm clock sounds and it’s dream over.
I know I ought to be relieved to regain consciousness from what could only be termed a nightmare objectively speaking but the dream is beautiful. Unlike Real Josie who has been a crotchety depressive old cow all week, Dream Josie is kind and clear. In the dream I understand what eludes me so often in reality: that genuine compassion and kindness, even and especially towards those who hurt us the most, is the only way. “Love your enemy” is profound wisdom indeed… I only wish this lesson had been slightly less literal.
Whenever longer jail sentences are lauded as a cure all for crime (this week for acid attacks – horrific events that leave the victims scared for life), I slump. Incarceration is not a cure for crime. The data is now conclusive that increased sentence length neither reduces crime nor disincentivizes offending. Long sentences are categorically not a deterrent, (except with regard to white collar crime) and we are Flat Earthers if we say otherwise.
But what about the victims? Consideration for the wronged is vital and persuasive. It is against the needs, rights and suffering of victims that I stress test every opinion I hold about prison. I understand the concept of an eye for an eye but doesn’t that just leave us with lots of half blind people trying to find their way in what is already a dark world? How much vengeance is enough? Could the death of one person cancel out that of another? Surely our lives are more than account books to be balanced?
I don’t know how I would feel if someone hurt or killed one of my children. I hope I never find out, but if you want to see something beautiful, something that gives me hope and something to aspire to, watch this.