As we exit the visiting hall I am fiercely proud to see Rob laughing with his mates as they retreat back into their world of men.  On our side of the hall it is last orders.  Families and couples are still being prised apart by increasingly curt shouts to finish up.  I am once more next to a silently weeping woman whose two perturbed children look confused and helpless.  It is the wife of the man who Rob is teaching to read.  The dreadful helpless feeling washes over me again. I ask her if she is ok, when clearly she is not.  She nods without looking at me, fighting to regain composure. I chat to the children to distract them from their mother’s cracking facade of coping.  I tell them that their dad and Tala’s dad are working together, and that Tala is really jealous that her dad gets to watch telly whenever he wants.  I babble a bit of nonsense and they laugh, prompting their petite, gentle, tired looking mum to tell me about the eldest’s boy’s ADHD and about another little brother of four who has Aspergers and is too tricky to bring visiting, who cracked the car windscreen last week by head butting it.  It all tumbles out of her in a rush: How hard it is to explain the situation to the kids, the musical beds at night, keeping so busy that you don’t have to think, the children who are missing out, the effort of keeping it all up and running and cheery; the guilt when you can’t.

The pattern of behaviours and thoughts are familiar to me, but for some reason it is not mostly what I live. Generally, I am able to watch these debilitating thought streams safely from the other side of the divide. When you take away the veil of self interest and the belief in a saccharine fairy tale life, everything is just as it should be.  This is not a spiritual or religious stance, it is just that nothing else works.

I feel wretched for them all.  I pray that he will be one of the few who come out improved with new skills, determined to brave the many obstacles to going straight: the criminal record, the inadequately paid unskilled work, the familiarly of the old ways and people.  For the straight life to stand a chance, it needs to be repackaged and sold as an entirely different story. That needs people inside our jails who have the ability to relate to the diverse population, delivering full time effective rehabilitation.  We have an exceptionally long way to go.

For our part a radical change of direction into a life of crime is something we could now contemplate .  Rob is acquiring the skills: jail is nothing if not an excellent networking opportunity and a hothouse for unscrupulous plans, besides which, we would be able to see a lot of our lawyer Jim, who we are very fond of, and who would doubtless be glad to get a good client for life. We are very lucky to have him.  I am shocked when Rob tells me that he has met guys inside who have already served eight years over their tariff.  I wonder who is advocating for them? This is a scandal that no-one seems bothered about.  It’s only criminals after all…

Inside the intimacies of sharing a cell continue. Rob finds Keith’s (washed) pants in the sink, wonders whether to postpone the washing up until after they have been removed, but then, after a brief but intense inner struggle, decides to get over himself and manhandle them from sink to washing line.  Keith and Rob do well together.  They are both considerate, generous and self sufficient characters.  Self-centredness in this environment does not fly and you will soon get a reputation if you accept favours without returning them.  In this barter economy, services and goods all have a value and respect is essential.  Anyone with a sense of entitlement, poor accounting skills, or unfunded addictions will not do well here and there are regular beatings to prove it.

Keith still struggles with the injustice of what has happened. The long hours alone with his thoughts (Rob really can be pretty taciturn if he’s not feeling the conversation) lure him into the same torturous circular patterns of disbelief that I have dabbled in myself:

How could a case, described by the judge as the most complicated he had ever heard, involving intricate tax law which provokes debate and disagreement amongst the top legal minds in the country, have been put before a lay jury with no fiscal credentials?

How was it possible that in such a case not one expert opinion was presented by the prosecution and none allowed for the defence?

Why did the Court of Appeal illegally overturn the ruling of the judge by disputing agreed facts between the two sides, thus returning the case to be heard by the jury, who, as the original judge knew, could not possibly understand it?

Rob gives him one afternoon to talk about it, after which he warns that the subject will not be revisited.  It is a little brutal, but probably for the best.  These irreconcilable facts wind themselves into the kind of slipknot that pulls itself tighter the more you struggle, and friends don’t let friends hang themselves, even metaphorically, in the night.

Besides, you never know who you might get as your next roommate: The wife of Rob’s literacy student also tells me that when her husband first arrived at Hewell he had the misfortune to land in a pad with a full on psychopath who warned him not to sleep at night as he was going to stab him in his sleep.  He stayed awake until 3 in the morning at which point his nerve broke and he decided to utilise the panic button in his cell. Fortunately for him this prompted swift relocation into alternative and infinitely safer accommodation.

I board the flight to Portugal. I am about to enter a country where drug use has been decriminalised with extraordinarily positive results, especially vis a vis the use of “legal” highs (which represent more of a threat to health than many more conventional established narcotics) and overdose mortalities.  Three small, confused children would still have their dad at home if they lived here.

How about we keep our jails for people who are a threat to society and let people choose what to put into their bodies? We did it with penises, we positively encourage it with alcohol, and the prison cafe is brimming only with goods guaranteed to cause long term health implications at the sort of consumption rates I witness all around me.  A little consistency people, and we could just create a situation where we could reduce penal overcrowding and use the cash for committed rehabilitation.  There are a few families, (families who love each other and feel pain just like “good” people), who would be very grateful.