How do you treat a sick fish? It’s not a trick question and the answer is simple. You change the water.
At a recent inspection at HMP Liverpool, men are found to be living in rooms with missing and broken windows, exposed wires, cockroach infestations, blocked and over-flowing toilets. There are vermin infested rubbish piles in communal areas too dangerous to touch. A man with multiple mental illnesses is found in a damp room containing only a bed and has to be rescued by the inspector. Violence has tripled since the last inspection. This prison is a sewer and will produce only rats. This is not the fault of the governor. This is the result of a culture that thinks it can cure its sick fish by adding cyanide to their tank.
I thank our lucky stars for Highpoint North. The Ritz it ain’t but Unit 12 is tentatively becoming a flagship wing for rehabilitation culture. It’s corridors are now painted a sunny yellow and embellished with positive quotes. It boasts a vibrant council. Residents (who are unlocked almost full time) manage all the cleaning and look out for each other. There is hope and friendship and possibility. There are even cake clubs for heaven’s sake!
Syndicate members contribute ingredients and the resulting delectable concoctions are shared between all. Admittedly the prison palate is easily pleased, but standards are reputedly high. D, the unofficial Bad Boy’s Bake off King, has recently shipped out to D cat, leaving Rob to contend with a glut of digestives and another poignant farewell.
There is nothing bitter sweet about saying goodbye to the mysterious poo that has been found in one of the unit’s toilet cisterns however. It’s removal, though logistically complex, is good riddance. It is unlikely that its prior owner genuinely mistook the water tank for the bowl, so one can only assume that the rogue pooper deposited his load in this curious location to remind us all that this is still prison. When you deprive a man of his liberty the chances are he will seek to assert his freedom in a variety of un-envisaged and undesirable ways.
This week we drive to our convict through flurries of snow. It is almost romantic: even razor wire looks beautiful in white crystal. I am however feeling somewhat less lyrical by the time I’ve waited unsheltered and prone by the gates for 20 minutes and have developed blocks of ice where once were feet. Visiting wives unfailingly dress to impress whatever the weather and I will not be the exception.
Credit where credit is due though, there is light in the visitor tunnel. Children under 14 no longer have to wear wrist bands, and identification requirements at check in have been reduced down to the levels required for foreign travel, i.e. a passport will now suffice. This speeds things up to the point where the lovely and long suffering admissions ladies actually have time to make eye contact without risking heckles from the back of the queue. Powers that be, our collective blood pressure salutes you, but please, can someone change the lightbulb in the visitors’ cloakroom? It expired months ago and in a building that houses hundreds of relatively able bodied men perhaps one of them could oblige?
Steaming gently in the tropical visit hall, I fancy I appear rosy cheeked and quasi bridal with my hair up and dusted in snow, but alas melting mascara icicles ensure that I look more like a bedraggled panda. Rob looks hot and cool enough for us all though: Long hair knotted at the back, protest beard positively resplendent, edgier than his nickname, Gandalf, suggests. My God, this man is beautiful!
By the time we are homeward bound the roads are greasy with slush and we battle back into the city through relentless driving rain. I arrive shaking with exhaustion, adrenalin, longing and loss (a crazy cocktail regularly imbibed by us prison wives) and, although it is only 7pm, climb under the duvet and gratefully accept the delivery of tea from my eldest. Nothing heads off a nervous breakdown like a supine British cuppa and the unsolicited love of your offspring.
Living with an officially adult daughter and her childhood best friend (who has moved into our shed) is hugely more successful than I had anticipated. Although neither of them are fully reconciled to the fact that, although all bathroom furniture is frequently baptised in water as a matter of course, these fixtures do still need additional cleaning, we live pretty harmoniously together, pitching in on the cooking and childcare and keeping our respective living costs low.
When do children become adults? It is a pertinent question with regard to maternal patience as well as criminal justice and incarceration. It seems that brain and hormonal development both continue well into the early 20’s. As a result psychologists have now recategorised adolescence into three stages: early (12-14), mid (15-17) and late (18-25). Since 2013 UK children have been eligible to see a child psychologist until 25. Why then are we prosecuting and incarcerating under 25’s as if they were fully formed rational adults? 17% of the UK prison population are under 25 despite the fact that the science proves that they are not yet in their “right” minds. I (and certainly my parents) can vouch for the fact that I was a lunatic until at least 23 when early onset motherhood cured me via exhaustion and the love of something other than myself.
I am not suggesting mollycoddling or God forbid the infantilisation of young adults – those under my roof contribute rent, food, cleaning and the DIY services of a wide pool of male admirers, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that this 18 – 25 group are dealing with a lot and are wont to make dubious choices before reluctantly embracing responsibility.
Where our youth are out of control and under parented they may well need an intervention, but no-one in their right mind would make that prison. Worse still are “Young Offender’s” Institutes, AKA child prisons, which are more violent and dangerous than any adult lock up.
How children become adults is a further question. With sweat, tears and forgiveness on all sides it seems. If we must perpetuate the cycle of life and fish and egg should meet, a little love and compassion in the tank is probably the way to go.
I’ll give Philipp Larkin the last word today.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.