My world is collapsing. Literally. I return from a sunny amble with the dog to find that roughly a third of my bedroom ceiling has fallen in, covering my entire dress arsenal (a collection which has been compiled over many years, with much angst and the appropriation of enough dough to buy back the house) with builders rubble, plasterboard and hunks of blackened water-sodden loft insulation. Damn that Saniflow! Putting a blender in a loo is not only a vile concept, it also doesn’t work. It is an abomination on every level from conception through to execution and is responsible for the fact that my erstwhile sanctuary now looks like Kabul on a rough day.
Nothing stirs in my chest as I survey the carnage. Zero. Zilch. It just makes me feel tired. I stare at the devastation for a while, briefly consider dislodging the rest of it with a broom handle and creating my own tomb, and then go and water the geraniums.
I’m not sure what to do, so I adopt my default response and go next door. My neighbour, high on sleep deprivation, slaps her newborn in a papoose and comes round to inspect the damage. She takes one look and tells me to dial it in. We need immediate professional help.
This is my second insurance claim this year. I feel rather sorry for the company. They obtained me as a client only last summer after an awkward call from their predecessors who had discovered our blacklisted names on some kind of database of shame, and (16 claim free years notwithstanding) ditched us overnight. At the time I felt rather aggrieved. Now I realise they were on to something.
I am not a good bet. I am a wounded animal and the odds on my survival are poor. Prison leaks steadily into everything you try to do to stay above water at home and pulls you under. This week we have been late to school every day. Forget homework or nutritionally balanced suppers. I’m happy just to get to the other side of bedtime without screaming. De-escalating family tensions is particularly important in summer due to OWS (Open Window Syndrome): no-one needs the happy sizzle of their barbecue overlaid by the ominous and unmistakable sound of a mother on the turn.
I am an accident waiting to happen. My other neighbour preempts disaster by volunteering to lop my olive tree which has gone feral over the course of this untended year. I am already a shouty, occasionally tearful, harassed person and the loss of digits is unlikely to improve my disposition or the tranquility of his summer evenings, plus, he is just kind. I am lucky. I am sandwiched by love and care. I look as though I am standing up, but really I’m just leaning on everyone around me.
I pick up a fellow prison wife en route to Highpoint. Rob has volunteered my services to a friend whose Mrs has hitherto been spending her Sundays battling with the grueling 12 hour journey by public transport. I tentatively ask what the guy is in for. Rob hasn’t got a clue.
Neither of us knows what to expect when I pull up outside J’s flat, but we hit it off immediately. She is smart, interesting and passionate about her neighbourhood where she is setting up local community awards in her “spare” time alongside her full time job. Not bad for a prison wife.
My old friends are awesome: without them I would have cracked months ago, but not one of them can tell me how it was for them when their husband went inside. None of them knows how the first year feels compared to the second, or that summers are quick and winters slow. They don’t know how to put a part of themselves to sleep to survive the separation, or how to dream into a future so far away.
It also transpires that J has a remarkable knowledge about the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, both on and off the set. Impressed, Tala relegates herself selflessly to the back seat and we all chat the journey away rendering the weekly pilgrimage educational for Tala, anti-soporific for me and thus less potentially lethal for us all.
J’s partner’s story is another shocker. With pitifully diminished access to legal aid and a backlogged appeal process our courts are becoming a farce and like most farces (not my favourite genre), it’s not all that funny, particularly when it’s happening to you.
The wife of one of Rob’s literacy students has had their children taken away from her. After her husband went to prison she couldn’t cope, so now the kids are in care. Prison is a truly terrible thing to do to a family. The dad is devastated. On top of it all the children are not receiving his letters. He is an enhanced prisoner with a flawless record who has relentlessly taught himself to read with the help of other inmates. He is doing everything right, but how much can he take? He carries on writing to the children and keeps the letters in his cell. One day, when he gets out, he will give them a great big stack of envelopes tied up like a present. He’ll try to show them that he never stopped thinking about them.
As we pass through visitor security I see a newspaper cutting proudly displayed on the side of the scanner. “Mother of four jailed for six months for passing a £5 wrap of cannabis to partner at HMP Highpoint”. It makes you proud to be British doesn’t it? We are so marvelously tough on crime…. and children.
Prison is like a wrecking ball to a family and Paul Dacre is twerking shamelessly on its chain yelling “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”. Households crumble. Children get taken away and become prison fodder in their turn: 50% of under 25’s in British jails come from “care”. No one wins.
The fires are raging. In light of recent events my petty challenges feel like a minor footnote on the epic arse of tragedy. Money is a God and this is his pound of flesh. There is shock and horror. As a nation we are basically OK with sacrificing the comfort, well being and ultimately the lives of the “have nots” as long as we don’t actually have to listen to them scream. I pass the Grenfell Tower on the Westway, it’s blackened shell macabre and tragically defiant: a charred middle finger to the pretty surrounding affluence.
In Portugal my friends watch in horror as it takes a forest fire 5 seconds to traverse the valley in front of their house. They escape with their lives… just. The children don’t even have shoes. No time to corral the cats who are left behind in the inferno. Scores of neighbours are incinerated in their cars as they flee. And all for money.
Central Portugal has been systematically turned into a giant and lucrative plantation. As a monoculture, Eucalyptus trees suck water and nutrients out of the earth like monstrous babies devouring their mother. They tower with reckless growth over the native species, which is marvellous for ticking EU grant boxes and producing cheap paper pulp, but deathly to the native flora and fauna and people. The dry, oil rich timber is petrol in the flames, feeding itself with demented abandon to the furnace.
This is not an act of God. I am not reconciled to it. These are not people without whom I can carry on. I am not calm. It is enough now with the sound bites and the short term thinking and the reckless gambling with the lives of “others”. This is our Earth and these are our people.
People are beautiful in a crisis. It is the love that will floor you every time. I have experienced it myself: the outpouring of solidarity from fellow human beings. Donations to the Grenfell survivors become problematic in scale. They have to ask people to stop giving. This is the human spirit when it is connected and perceiving common ground above differences. This alone gives me hope.
It’s hot in the city and tempers fray in our house. I just can’t seem to climb out from underneath the piles of washing up to achieve anything useful. If I get back to zero every day I feel like I’m ahead, but I’m not. Creative and financial productivity is dangerously low. Something has to give and currently that thing is threatening to be my sanity.
The girls’ birthdays dare to come around again. I am unsure about the ethics of leaving six 11 year olds with unsupervised access to a canister of helium, but the castrated squirrel voice effect of the gas undeniably renders the Harry Potter theme amusing to all present and negates the need to entertain them in a more wholesome fashion.
Grandma is in residence too. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. This lady has an indefatigable elegance that withstands even the humbling act of being observed trying to peel a carrot with a carrot. We try to laugh about what is happening to her but watching as your faculties diminish appears to approximate the horror of experiencing a slow lobotomy with insufficient anaesthetic. In her more virile days my M in L often implored me to to put her in the river at the bottom of her garden if she ever got too daft. Fortunately she has moved. We could both do with a dip somewhere today that is for sure, but I’m reluctant to add euthanasia to the family rap sheet.
In the slammer it’s scorching. At visiting, in the deafening hall that is thick with sweat, Rob looks as if he has been partially barbecued. An officer marvels at how the men all file out of their cells into the baking concrete exercise yard of an afternoon to fry. The thing is that an hour of hot air a day, unpleasant as it is, is all there is, and better than no air at all, AKA suffocation.
Speaking of hot air and asphyxiation Truss is gone. Her replacement David Lidington is an unknown whose voting records don’t bode well unless you have an intense dislike of foxes or gays, but I’m dying to be proved wrong.
For some reason, that I haven’t quite been able to fathom, I get invited to dinner at a Mayfair club to talk prison reform with a table of people whose services to the cause before breakfast today have likely eclipsed everything I have achieved in my lifetime. I attempt to make up for my poor credentials by looking certainly not hot, but at least slightly better in a dress than the majority of hairy ex cons with direct experience of life inside, and hope that the assembled company prefer anecdote to actual activism.
There are so many good people inside and outside the “service” pulling what remains of their hair out trying to mitigate a debacle perpetuated by one thing and one thing only: massive overcrowding. Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust is categorical that prison should be a last resort for as few people and for as little time as possible because, as he knows all too well having run Wandsworth for years, prison makes everything worse. In prison less is definitely more.
There are intakes of breath when I disclose the whereabouts of my husband. No-one really knows what prison wives look like because we are a hidden breed and don’t usually wear our name tags, remaining unknown even to each other unless in situ. Telling the world at large that you have lain with the enemy and intend to do so again, (though not for some time unless they get a move on with ROTL), is strictly against the rules but no-one told me that, so the cat is out of the bag and I’m shooting my mouth off, disclosing inside secrets like the fact that this system is totally f***ed, and dancing on HMP’s hot tin roofs with gay abandon (don’t tell Lidington).
At the dinner those with the unenviable task of running prisons confess to dreading the onset of a long hot summer. Prisons are tinderboxes at the best of times. Forget sprinkler systems, there’s not even a fan or an ice cube at the disposal of the people on the front line trying to stop this bonfire igniting.
Lidington, if you are listening, we need escape routes back, front and centre in Her Majesties fiery hell holes, and we need them now. You’ve got to get some (I’d say roughly half) of these men out before it is too late. The alarm bell has been sounded, ignore it at your peril, or more accurately at the peril of all those who have always had less opportunity, less care, less education and less power than yourself.
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.