Visits are the worst days. People with experience tell me this often. Initially I can’t relate to it, living as I do for every moment of connection, but now I understand: You arrive after whatever ordeal you have been through to get there on time, (in our case today an unintentional tour of Cambridgeshire in an attempt to avoid a pile up on the M11). You check in, receive your visiting order and number of admittance, wait until the entry time, then wait some more until someone bothers to unlock the doors and begin processing. (At Highpoint the entry queue wouldn’t look out of place in an Essex nightclub.) When you pass all the searches and sniffer dogs you are finally let into the visiting hall. This one consists of four chairs, three blue, one red, bolted to the floor around a table. You take your places. We pick blue chairs, correctly supposing that the red seat is for the inmates. You wait again until in dribs and drabs at around 3pm the men start to arrive. We have already lost half an hour out of the precious two.
When I tell Rob in the morning that we have managed to book in for today he sounds worried. Apparently if you don’t have your prison issue jeans and blue and white shirt (which is surprisingly fetching), you can’t get into the visiting hall. Knowing that everything takes forever in jail, and at Highpoint worse than Hewell due to the very low staff numbers (this is the downside of the Cat C), Rob is not at all sure that he will be able to swing it in time, but eventually, heavily bearded and looking like something out of Cheech and Chong, he does arrive.
He is thinner again and seems to be bowled over by seeing us. He has already been so dehumanised by the system that he can’t relate to himself as attractive or worthy of our love and time. Already I am fighting back the tears. Prison is a place where men are worn down and made to feel both worthless and powerless. The very essence of their masculinity is consciously gelded in the crazily mistaken belief that to break them is to reform them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the men fight and kick off to assert themselves, some just bleed out hopelessly until such time as they are released.
There are no conjugal visits in the UK. How does a relationship survive without touch, tenderness or intimacy? In that crowded, watched visiting hall we all try in vain to get as close as we can. The longer into the sentence, the more separated experiences each of us has incurred and the harder it seems to be to reconnect. I try to tell him where we have been and what we have done and am aware only of how far the beauty of the nature and the kindness of strangers that I am describing, is removed from his experience.
As I go to fetch tea, Tala immediately tells him that I have been hugging “other men” on the yoga retreat. Guilty as charged – a good yoga retreat is by definition a hug fest by the final days. Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother him in the least. Having owned a yoga centre himself he is more than familiar with open displays of affection, but locked away as he is, on a playing field that is so very far from level, this unsolicited, naively delivered information stabs at him. Jealousy and reproach cloud his face. He confesses to emotions arising in him that he hasn’t experienced in years. Jealousy and self doubt. I am powerless to help. I can’t not be me, and honestly, the love and support of friends new and old is a lifeline to me.
Our relationship is strong – one of the strongest. If we are struggling to negotiate this time, what chance do so many other partnerships have? Men need their womenfolk and their families to mitigate their maleness and to ground and soften them. I am constantly surprised by the instantaneous transformation of the men’s faces and body language the minute they spot their women and children. What women need no-one here cares about. We carry on, try to keep the cupboards stocked and the children sane, but it is a fight, often conducted alone.
As the visit races by, a full hour shorter than at Hewell due to a reduced allocation and the tardiness of the men’s arrival, we do manage to reconnect. It’s not easy, broken as the atmosphere constantly is by Tala’s requests to play “rock paper scissors” and her incessant beard bashing. She just wants to have fun and mess about with him as she used to and have a tiny snippet of what she took so very much for granted for ten years. She is shocked by how many children are visiting and worries that so many little souls have to go through what she does. She knows that she has extraordinary coping skills that put me and Okha to shame. She is an unassuming but powerful child who could probably devise an incredible outreach program for other children given the opportunity. Whatever she does and is, I am in awe of her.
With the experience of two prisons now under his belt, Rob is beginning to fully comprehend what needs to, and could, change instantly and without financial implication in our prisons. The most self defeating rule here is the policy of withholding canteen money in the initial weeks of the sentence: If you have no money and you need to wash, or smoke a cigarette, or phone your wife, or watch the game, you will need to borrow. All borrowing is “double bubble”: You borrow a cigarette, you pay back two. When Friday comes and you can’t pay back, because actually you have no control over your canteen sheet and there are frequent deductions for start up packs etc that you may not have understood in processing, especially if, like many here, you can’t read, then you will be beaten up, and double bubble kicks in again. You now owe twice as much and so the cycle of debt and bullying continues.
There is no reason for holding back the small allowance (paid by the families not the state). Someone in Westminster, who knows nothing about life on the inside, just thought it would be good to be tough on prisoners. But for the grace of God go I. Remember that when your star is shining.
On the drive home I cry the whole way. Tala falls asleep in moments and I have the luxury of a whole 2 hours to indulge myself in despair. It is the first time I have cried for longer than three seconds. The brokeness of the system, the futility, the waste, all get on top of me. I’m buried again. I feel selfish and utterly foolish to think that I could manage this. I can only see one solution.
I call our lawyer Jim, and like a child on a car journey asking if they are nearly there yet, ask him again if there is any hope of some kind of reprieve. It is a pathetic question and we both know that I know it is hopeless. It is Friday night. He must have so many better things to do than to listen to me crying on the phone, and we are not even on the clock(!) but he talks to me, without any hollow reassurances until he makes me laugh again and I have put myself back together. I tell him about hug-gate. He is unphased and gives me the simple advice that regret will tear you apart.
This is a war. You just have to survive it. In time it will end and then there will be healing and perhaps even peace, greater and more profound than before. Perhaps.