The Burbs

Suddenly the foxes are gone to greener Hackney pastures. An eviscerated nappy, a collection of gnawed bones of unknown origin and a smelly dark hole are all that are left behind. I’m sort of hoping that I’m going to wake up on June 10th and find that something similar has happened with the Tories, and that the bones will be May’s… but then I have always been a hopeless optimist.

To keep the local body count up in the absence of our furry friends, next door have blessed the street with a baby girl, and as a result our entire all-female household appear to be high on dopamine or oxytocin or whatever it is that gets released when you hold something so damn cute and adorable that you consider turning nasty when asked to hand it back. Hormones. Bless them. Nature’s little drug stash: the original and still the best. They do take a bit of managing when circumstances force build up though…

I am constantly amazed at why anyone thinks that corralling large numbers of men together into the myopic, mutated beasts that our prisons have become is advisable. I am even less convinced that the concept of freewheeling wives is a goer. Even the laundry lint is turning pink in our house, not to mention the fact that severe sexual deficit is making me ratty and unpredictable which are poor qualities in a mother.

I find Tala weeping into her duvet having hand crocheted me a bracelet that she has been unable to bestow upon me, because every time she calls my name to lure me upstairs for the gifting ceremony I shout things like “If I don’t get five minutes without hearing the word Mummy I’m going to scream”.

My girls are fabulous and deserve better. All prison kids should get a medal just for not shitting in the visiting hall, (though I did spot something suspicious under the toy table last week…). If I could pass for an under five there’d be little steaming piles of dirty protest poop in every corner of that place by the end of the day. Youth certainly is wasted on the young.

C’s girls make the four hour trip to visit him only to be told a sniffer dog has detected drugs on one of them and that they will therefore be having a closed visit and should consider themselves lucky they are getting that. No one checks for the non-existent drugs, notices that this kid is one of the cleanest cut teenagers on the planet, or feels any need to justify the protocol because this is prison and prisoners’ kids don’t have feelings like normal children, so the family accept the horrid, glass separated hour, cry through the first 40 minutes at the unfairness of it, and then huddle around the single phone, with two chairs between the three of them, pretending to C that they are alright.

I’ve been there. I’d go home empty hearted before I’d do the closed visit charade again: the metaphor for what prison does to families is just too apparent in that soundless, senseless box. Another wife doesn’t let their daughter sit on her dad’s lap at visits now. She knows what has happened to us and isn’t prepared to risk it.

And still the children visit fathers who aren’t allowed to walk around or play with them. What are these kids learning from this experience? I’m 100% confident it is more likely to be be “Stick It To The Man”, than “Crime Doesn’t Pay”.

Prisoners aren’t really people and therefore can’t vote, so unsurprisingly there is little to no interest in the general election, however the men are allowed to put forward someone from the wing to sit on a council with the prison hierarchy. Rob makes the mistake of saying something insightful in a discussion group and the guys on the wing get excited and decide that he should represent them. I can hear him slumping over the phone about the “appointment”. It’s a poisoned chalice. The men will all have different requests of varying sanity and the prison will likely ignore almost all of them. Satisfied customers will be thin on the ground.

Currently there is talk of making Rob’s unit into a quasi open block with full daytime unlock, all day phone access and an extra monthly visit. Such a wing exists on the South and is considered highly desirable (in prison terms). Rob has reservations though, because what makes Unit 12 so great is the fact that it is composed of a random selection of men. His fear is that as soon as the unit gets special status, it will also require special prisoners.

Actually there are lots of prisoners who are very special indeed… possibly a little too special to make it through the selection process. The more colourful characters are unlikely to access to the top drawer of prison accommodation: only certain types will make the grade, risking a unit full of People Like U’s. Who wants a packet of bourbons or even a stack of custard creams when you could have a selection tin? Bring on the Family Circle.

Some of the men on unit 12 are awkward bastards: uncouth, loud, and possibly utterly charmless in the eyes of polite society, but they are also funny and irreverent and honest… (well sort of). Everyone brings something unique that contributes to the vibrancy. Everyone is a member of the community. Surely there is enough grey in the world already?

Privileges are great. Sure. But you have to read the small print. The last thing Rob wants on his conscience is any part in the creation of a leafy suburb at Highpoint North. If the price of pseudo daytime freedom is twitching curtains, lights out by 9.30 and swapping cell mates for kicks, it’s a no thanks.

Diversity isn’t easy. It’s a hard won, tensioned thing, but its opposite is inbreeding (unlikely to happen directly at Highpoint North), but metaphorically speaking we all know what happens when cousins get it on with cousins. Like Hackney, prison is a mixed bag. It’s one of the things that Rob has come to love about it, which is one of the things I love about him… and Hackney.

By | June 9th, 2017|


We arrive early at the prison. By some miracle the sun is shining so we book in and throw our coats down in the grassy fields beneath the razor wire. I taught Tala to do a handstand here before our first ever visit, fighting nerves with forced cheer. Now Okha is making daisy chains, Tala and I are racing each other barefoot to the trees and back and the easiness is real. This is our life. Our Sunday.

As we lay on our backs catching our breath and soaking up the long awaited rays, a small blond child approaches. He is one of those genial irrepressible characters who assume immediate friendship and settles himself down comfortably in our midst.

We show him how we are making the garlands, but his fingers are jumpy and impatient so we gift him one of ours. I suggest he gives it to his dad. He looks at me darkly “My dad’s in jail”. That’s code for “I can’t give him anything”. “Our dad’s in jail too” says Okha. The kid looks surprised and volunteers “I really miss my dad”. We tell him we miss ours too. He looks at me suspiciously. I’m patently too old for a dad. “I miss mine times 1000” he counters. We concede defeat.

We’re good at missing. We don’t expect relief from the sensation. It is our constant companion and almost comforting in its familiarity. The consolation is this: each passing day takes us one step closer to him. My friend lives with the opposite reality. It is the 7 year anniversary of her son’s death. Every day takes her a step further away. There is no future relief for her, just the passage of time: a double edged process whereby pain fades alongside memories. I think of her when I need strength.

There is a man on Rob’s unit whose hands are missing. Both have been cut off at the wrist. It’s a humiliating, almost unthinkable thing to live with. He uses a cup with a special handle through which he hooks his stump. He needs help with the simplest of things and yet he looks happier than anyone Rob has ever met. He is in prison, with no hands and he never stops smiling.

Against all odds one of the guys on Robs unit has been seen by a prison dentist who has recommended the extraction of three teeth. They send the guy off to hospital for an op under general anaesthetic. When he comes round he discovers that every single tooth from his top jaw has been removed. Whether this was a medical necessity or an administrative error is unclear: this is prison – no-one tells you anything: the teeth are missing, that’s all you have to go on.

He thinks he’ll get new ones on the NHS and has been told he won’t have to wait long. On this promise he is electing not to let his wife visit until his nashers have been re-instated. The more experienced residents snort in derision. Dream on Toothless.

I’m not quite sure what state my beloved will be in today. It’s Ramadam and his cell mate is on a somewhat antisocial timetable, arising at 1.30am for a fully illuminated, no holds barred midnight feast, then back to bed for more snoring. Consequently Rob is missing sleep, so I’m heartened to see him looking cheerful and bonny. You won’t do well in the slammer without tolerance and compassion, qualities that are hard to maintain when you are hungry or tired. This is either boot camp for the soul, or simple torture.

As we enter the visit hall someone mutters to their companion “Blimey, I didn’t realise they were locking up wizards now”. I follow the line of his gaze and realise that he is looking at Rob, who is waving and grinning enthusiastically at us from across the room. With his sparkly eyes and mad professor beard, he is indeed looking uncannily like a swarthy Gandolf on the run.

We might well have a smattering of wizards banged up: we seem to have just about everyone else… but let it not be said that we are stuck in the dark ages. Herb lovers were once burned at the stake as witches, now worst case scenario its a mere 5 stretch for possession and a meagre 14 for supply…of weed…seriously? God bless the Lib Dems. People please…back them up! No one in the slammer for weed unless you’ve dropped a block of it on someone’s head and killed them.

It’s odd though because although half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, no political manifesto, not even Corbyn’s mighty tome, includes prohibition. A bit of consistency would be nice…I just want to know where I am: deciding what to put in one’s own body is terribly taxing.

Taxing the wacky baccy is probably not a bad idea though. According to the Institute of Economics and Research up to £900million could be raised annually through taxation of a regulated cannabis market. Add to that the several hundreds of millions we currently spend policing and prosecuting the trade and the numbers aren’t looking too shabby. Bring all drugs under government control and we’re really talking.

I don’t smoke weed because it turns me into a gibbering paranoid wreck. I don’t do crack because, much as I’m not a fan of the prison wife gig, I am blessed with love and support and the reality of my life is not so terrible that I want oblivion. I still want to feel. Those who don’t need help and they certainly won’t get that in prison.

People use drugs. They always have and always will. You ban something, you drive it underground, you make it dangerous. I’m sick of seeing kids missing their Dad’s x 1000 because we legislate for an imaginary world and parliament has its fingers in its ears shouting lalalalala, to drown out the dull roar of it’s meaningless slogans and missing values. Forget strong and stable. How about innovative and intelligent, or God forbid, kind and wise.

By | May 29th, 2017|

Midday Sun

The fox who lives underneath my garden shed has cubs. I spend so long watching them tumbling skittishly over each other in the midday sunshine that they become quite unperturbed by my voyeurism. They strew the garden with litter, jump on all the plant pots and smell pretty rank, but I feel too kindred with their mother to evict them. She grooms them all meticulously yet looks moderately bored with the whole thing and rather as if she’d prefer be out on the town rummaging through recycling boxes… but perhaps I’m projecting?

It’s a year to the day since Rob’s conviction. My little cub needs minding so I stay home and break out a packet of chocolate corn cakes. I know how to celebrate. They say the first year is the worst, and although we aren’t even a quarter of the way up this mountain, when I turn and look back I can see that there is distance behind me, and I’m still standing.

As if to mark this ignoble anniversary Rob’s yoga mat finally clears security, it’s vivid purple sponge incongruous in the cell. The sight of it jolts him uncomfortably back to an old life he does his best to forget: it doesn’t do to dwell. We are a hazy memory preserved in a rose tinted bubble, comforting and distant: a nebulous dream from the past, a hope for the future, but rarely his present.

Rob’s sentence plan also arrives this week, only a year late. Given the time it has taken to compile, we are expecting great things because at some point during the next eight years, someone will, God willing, see fit to release him back into the fray, so I’m hoping for society’s sake that in the interim they are also planning to address his deviance.

With anticipation he unfurls the paper:

“Carry on in full time work. Continue as an enhanced prisoner”.

That’s it. Oh dear! Truss has been telling porkies again: this is written evidence that there is in fact no plan to rehabilitate anyone, no second chance and no consideration for the fatherless children at home. Prison is just what it appears to be at face value – men in cages being fed drugs and biscuits until they are eventually tossed back into society, hard, homeless and certainly more desperate and dangerous than before.

At least the sun is out in jolly old Blighty though, and what better way to celebrate this anomaly than with a BBQ? Unfazed by the fact that this is a working day, Highpoint staff put the prison on a full 7 hour lock-down, considerately deliver packets of crisps to the men for lunch and take to the outdoors to bond over a burger and a bit of bronzing, all neatly captured on those pesky camera phones and leaked to The Sun, who to their credit, put in a word for the prisoners.

Tory MP Phillip Davies has no sympathy for the men however: “If you don’t like the time then don’t do the crime”. Congrats on the rhyme Phil, but this comment is asinine and frankly so dumb it hurts. We live in a world of soundbites. May is proving the sad truth that politicians just need to repeat target phrases X number of times per minute to ensure election. It therefore also stands to reason that when you label someone a criminal, talk down to them and remind them over and over with every turn of the key and every rebuttal that they are bad, the chances are they’ll hear the buzzwords, they’ll believe them and they’ll be what you tell them they are.

I’m on the screw’s side on the jolly though, and so are plenty of the men. Guards are saddled with appalling working conditions and pay, insultingly unflattering uniforms and are legally bound not to strike. Their recent foray into industrial action elicited an icy reaction from government, but it seems that no one actually gives a rats backside about lock-downs as long as their purpose is kept resolutely frivolous. The staff’s best hope of an improvement in working conditions then is to adopt an approach of as much dereliction of duty as possible until prisoners finally crack, organise mass riots and go Guy Fawkes on parliament.

The only real hope for anyone in prison, (and thus obvi for our society as a whole… join the dots Phil), is self education, ‘cos prison ain’t educating no-one. Unlike the majority of prisoners who lack basic literacy, Rob’s nose is rarely out of a book and so the good ladies who run the library offer him a job. Could it get any more Shawshank?

Predictably the note on his file about inappropriate touching threatens to derail the process, but for once he is dealing with people who treat him like a human being. They listen to his story, do their own “digging” and give him the first break he has had at Highpoint by calling his treatment what it is: bullying. To his great joy the appointment goes ahead. I never thought I’d be married to a librarian.

He is emotional on the phone that evening. Acts of kindness are so far and few between inside: belittling, derision and contempt are systemic and so being treated considerately is shocking and almost painful. I feel something vital wake up in him again. A man remembering who he used to be.

The prison governor has confirmed that Rob’s behaviour was (and I quote) “The innocent act of a father comforting his child” and yet the comments on Rob’s file have prevented family visits, almost sabotaged the library position and are being dropped into conversation by staff with other prisoners (which is frankly terrifying) and still the prison claim that they cannot remove the allegation from his record. Really? Can’t or won’t?.

Rob has unsuccessfully pursued every option available to him because if he can’t get justice on this issue who can? Orwell and Kafka eat your heart out. It might have taken us until 2017, but we are not just living your dream, we are basking in it, out in the midday sun.

By | May 18th, 2017|
Load More Posts