Today is the day! Our first ever family visit… at last. It’s a big day. Too big perhaps. Tala is bouncing off the seats with unbridled excitement but Okha, who has metamorphosed into a nocturnal creature of late, is unslept and unprepared as we arrive at the prison, this being the middle of her night. The visitor centre is eerily quiet with only a handful of families on the list. It is cold.
We almost slip up at the first hurdle when Oki discovers the dreaded “phone in the back pocket” only moments before the gates shut, plus she has a hell of a job getting tampons through security but, after discussions about “ heavy flow” that seem brutal and unenlightened even in this Dickensian environment, a compromise is reached and we enter the hall at last.
We launch ourselves predictably at our favourite prisoner, revelling in the freedom of movement that is the hallmark of this visit, but I know immediately that I have already become too institutionalised to be comfortable with this changing of goalposts. I don’t know how to be in the space.
Tala is at no such loss however and is already charging back from the playroom, eyes glittering, with a towering collection of board games and pens and all the paraphernalia of 11 year old fun.
We bag the table football while we can but are soon surrounded by a small contingent of under 5 spectators and the aim of the game quickly shifts from goal scoring to avoiding infant eye gauging with the the reverse ends of our pins.
Undaunted we sit back at our table… the one we had vowed we wouldn’t sit at because we didn’t have to and Rob and Tala launch into Connect 4. Oki is looking white and fraught. I understand how she is feeling. Orminston Familes who run the day really go the extra mile to make it cozy and welcoming. The attending prison staff are unimposing and smiley. There is a magnificent lunch laid on including a delicious and authentic curry (racial prejudice in sentencing does have its advantages) and cake for a little girl’s birthday. Everyone does everything they can but… this is still prison. There are bars on the windows and the doors are locked. Two hours, five hours, whatever. He won’t be coming home with us.
The space and the early start are particularly tricky for a twenty year old. 5 hours of phone deprivation is torture in its own right but worse than this there is no way for her to get what she needs here: no place for her to begin to broach her fears or her fragility. Whatever was left unsaid before prison began has remained so and the hurt festers painfully in her. Teenage is a terrible time to lose your father… again.
This is Tala’s visit: her chance to catch up on the thousands of hours of missed play since his departure. I sit as close as possible and hold him tightly, just a squeeze or two short of strangulation. I retract back into myself. I expected too much. I had hoped that this visit would refresh the parts that other visits can’t reach, but the sepia tones of dreams translate poorly into reality. This is not the time or place for the kind of play I need.
I can feel myself going under already on the journey home. A strange feeling like sliding down the sides of a giant mixing bowl. I know that if I hit the bottom I may not be able to get out again. I’m shaking inside. A week later it is still there… nervous wide-eyed anxiety: a perpetual feeling of having drunk too much coffee, reminiscent of exams and trouble.
I know things are bad when I find myself in bed with Donald Trump. Calm down, it’s only a dream… but still. Although one cannot rightfully be held responsible for the depravity of the subconscious I have debated long and hard with myself over revealing such debasement to my loyal and long-suffering readership but I have very little shame left besides which this is honestly the funniest thing that has happened to me all week.
In the dream I am stroking Donald’s (I think we’re on first name terms now) face and with that genuine depth of tenderness that is the preserve of lovers (breathe through the nausea people) I am asking him what happened. I want to know what has broken his heart and made him so obnoxious, though, in keeping with my empathic dream self, I phrase this somewhat more sensitively. I think I actually call him “sweetheart”. He thinks about it. I see him soften. Goddammit I see him self reflect and then, just as he is about to make the break through, the alarm clock sounds and it’s dream over.
I know I ought to be relieved to regain consciousness from what could only be termed a nightmare objectively speaking but the dream is beautiful. Unlike Real Josie who has been a crotchety depressive old cow all week, Dream Josie is kind and clear. In the dream I understand what eludes me so often in reality: that genuine compassion and kindness, even and especially towards those who hurt us the most, is the only way. “Love your enemy” is profound wisdom indeed… I only wish this lesson had been slightly less literal.
Whenever longer jail sentences are lauded as a cure all for crime (this week for acid attacks – horrific events that leave the victims scared for life), I slump. Incarceration is not a cure for crime. The data is now conclusive that increased sentence length neither reduces crime nor disincentivizes offending. Long sentences are categorically not a deterrent, (except with regard to white collar crime) and we are Flat Earthers if we say otherwise.
But what about the victims? Consideration for the wronged is vital and persuasive. It is against the needs, rights and suffering of victims that I stress test every opinion I hold about prison. I understand the concept of an eye for an eye but doesn’t that just leave us with lots of half blind people trying to find their way in what is already a dark world? How much vengeance is enough? Could the death of one person cancel out that of another? Surely our lives are more than account books to be balanced?
I don’t know how I would feel if someone hurt or killed one of my children. I hope I never find out, but if you want to see something beautiful, something that gives me hope and something to aspire to, watch this.
Unless you are an Albanian mafioso, (lot’s of them at Highpoint North incidentally – exceptionally generous and hospitable people), you probably have no idea how much a severed thumb bleeds. Think burst water main. T demonstrates by lopping his off with a circular saw in carpentry by mistake and spraying the workshop red like a Halloween themed geyser.
The bloodshed continues when Rob’s mate W loses the plot in gardening and attacks someone (psychotically intent on provoking him) with an edging tool just days before his release date. It makes no sense, but curiously, when you cage humans together in the underworld for years on end you tend to bring out the dark side.
Another man is demonstrating his frustration/madness/distress (is there a difference?), by throwing himself against the walls of his cell and knocking his own teeth out, (clearly no one has warned him about the horrors of prison dentistry). The results are ghoulish and messy. Bloody prison.
Surviving or God forbid occasionally enjoying hell essentially comes down to people, (staff and inmates) and not privileges, which means that despite the heavenly freedoms of Units 6 and 7 over in Highpoint South to which Rob could have requested a move months ago, Unit 12 has remained his favourite haunt.
Hallowed is it therefore that the mountain is coming to my Mohammed: a Category D style regime has been promised to the whole unit! That’s the treat. The trick is more responsibility which for Unit 12 means cleaning on the Sabbath. As a council member it is Rob’s unfortunate task to verify that all members of the wing are honouring the new rosta.
Persuading children to clean things is tedious even when one controls all sources of food and shelter but prison youth only really respond to drugs, intimidation or Trump administration standards of spin. The thought of bathrooms relying exclusively on male attention for their cleanliness has always filled me with horror, but prison is another realm.
Rob’s mate K cannot understand why there are so many pubes on the ceiling of the shower until Rob discovers S (possibly not the sharpest knife in Dexter’s drawer) cleaning the shower by throwing a bucket of water as hard as he can at the floor thus displacing all ground filth to the walls and ceiling. Mystery solved.
When I hear Rob muttering about how it’s easier to just do things yourself I feel suddenly tender towards the prison system. All women really want is for men to understand the unique nightmares of motherhood and if incarcerating orphans and film producers together is the only way to do that, so be it.
Finally the all important new door is fitted granting freedom of movement around the unit until 9 pm. It’s not life or death but it means a great deal to the men. In jail trust is the Holy Grail and this ramshackle, remarkable community have pulled together and earned it. The greatest blessing is bedtime phone calls: so worth the occasional pube in the eye.
Halloween comes and with it the hoards of polite, creatively attired children accompanied by adults in Nigel Farage masks (I do love Stokey). Both of my girls have now reached the stage where dressing up is primarily about looking good (black lipstick is surprisingly glamorous even on an 11 year old) with a vague nod to horror, or in Tala’s case, cats.
Both girls go out (one with her feline friends and loot bag and the other to a Turbowolf gig) and I am left manning the door, handing out the sweets, hoping someone will nick the pumpkin like last year curtailing the festivities before only the Bounties are left so that I can drown my sorrows with chocolate eye balls.
This week the real bloody mess is me. Prison conjunct with Halloween will apparently awaken every rattling skeleton in your closet. I’ve transcended the demon ‘HOPE”: it has burnt me at its stake too often already, but I can’t find much to replace it with which leaves me facing LONELINESS… the kind you get in a crowded room full of people who are all not the one you love. Now I’ve hit DESPAIR again. Every time I think I’ve slain that monster it rises like a zombie from the dead to spite me.
I dramatically declare to my friend that I would cut body parts off to get Rob home again. Which ones? He asks. I imagine myself as an amputee and reconsider. Rob is probably expecting to come out to a whole wife, plus dancing is one of the few sanctionable pleasures I have left.
I consider having a breakdown and staying in bed. Forever. But as I lie awake watching dawn temper the night I can see the shadowy face of my youngest (still sleeping with me on account of the nightmares and the warmth) and know that I can’t do it. A prison family is a virtuous circle and it only takes one person to fall out of formation for the structure to turn grotesquely in on itself.
Loving a prisoner is like loving a ghost. Prison time stretches on and on like an evil enchantment way beyond what is fair or bearable and into unchartered territory where there is only fear and desperate faith. Love without flesh or bone? It’s a sorcerers riddle I cannot solve.
This week has seen me hurtling through emotions handcuffed to a macabre ghost train that never stops. I have to remember that there will be an end. One day this ride will be over and I’ll climb off and into real flesh and blood arms that will hold me tight until sunrise, One day I’ll wake up and he’ll be here, but for now this is a dark wood and no place to be alone. Fortunately I’m not.
After the little trick or treaters are all away to bed leaving only occasional rabid teenagers on sugar or crack still prowling the streets, I nip out to fetch in the novelty cobwebs from the hedge and find in their place an immaculate cotton wool heart, pristine and perfect: not a stab wound in sight: A snowy mark on our house, a slightly tipsy? sign (from next door bless them) that love rules, even in the darkness.
If you follow Prisonbag on Instagram you can even see the heart and my hedge in all its fluffy glory…
To cut a man up in prison you only need a tooth brush and two small disposable razor blades. You set the blades close together into the brush handle. That way the slashes won’t heal and the scars remain forever. “Razoring” is common practice on the inside. It costs very little to get a man cut up: lucrative employment is thin on prison ground. Desperation has only ever bred brutality.
Scores left over from “the out” are often settled this way. You will not know where they will will strike. The ambush can be anywhere, anytime.
A victim arrives from Highpoint South, skin in ribbons, jumped by four men in the gym in a well planned, deftly executed assault. HMP Knifepoint is living up to its nickname. Experienced staff will no longer work South: give them sleepy little North any day. And so it gets worse. At least two units are now almost entirely prisoner run. No one is safe.
The outside isn’t much better. Knife crime is rising 24% year on year. Prison sentences will only, can only, make everything worse. When we pen our youth away from all humanising influences will they learn a lesson?
Certainly. They will learn the law of the jungle and the price of weakness: these kids are survivors so they’ll step up to the plate. Many have been abused, abandoned and syphoned into gangs since primary school. Do they need help? So much and in so many ways. Will they get it in our prisons? Absolutely not. The longer we lock them up the more they harden and the violence spills back out into our communities again like some kind of monster. When we throw the book at our bad boys, they’ll rip off its spine and eat it for breakfast.
There is a video doing the rounds on Facebook called “The Race of Life”. A throng of teenagers from all walks of life stand ready to run a race. The winner win collect one hundred dollars. What’s not to like? Tension crackles. You can cut the air with a knife, but before the race begins there are some provisos.
“Anyone whose parents are still together take two steps forward”, shouts the umpire. The children from broken homes deflate a little “Anyone who grew up with a father figure in the home. Two steps forward”. The gap widens. “If you had access to a private education, advance two paces”, the ref yells. The kids at the back are getting twitchy. “Two more if you have never had to contribute to a family bill” he shouts. “Step forward if you have never worried about having your phone cut off. If you’ve never wondered where your next meal is coming from, take two steps again”.
Some of the runners are half way down the field already and the race hasn’t even begun. The course is dotted with young people spread out over the field. Some (mostly black) kids haven’t even stepped off the baseline. They’re looking down at their shoes now. There are no short cuts for these children. They know they can’t win. It’s a familiar feeling but you can see the frustration in their faces. And the shame.
When the ref shouts “Go!” amazingly most of the contestants run, but not those right at the back. Why would they? The hundred dollars is not for them. They never even leave the starting blocks.
I see these young men every week at the prison. I don’t know their stories, but they all have one. No one wants to end up in this place. Perhaps they wanted to run a race they thought they could win. There is no victory here though. Now they are in prison they are not just on the base line of life, they are walking backwards barefoot over glass.
There is a young man who comes to book club. At first he was only in it for the biscuits. As the son of a preacher man Rob knows that a month of sermons has nothing on the humble biscuit. Staff grumbled about the guy’s attitude: he needed to learn respect; he was a taker, cut from the wrong cloth.
Over the months however, slowly, tentatively, his manner has changed. With painful trepidation he has become a part of what is probably the most diverse book club in the western hemisphere: a tiny brave new world far from his smash and grab past. Now he helps and passes the biscuits around. Someday soon he’ll read the book.
Another man, a lifer in his 50’s, comes every week to the library. He has never once smiled at Rob when he checks out his pile of novels nor said goodbye when he leaves. Never a whisker of reconnaissance nor a flicker or warmth until out of the blue one day the man requests a title.
He’s after “A thousand and one places to visit before you die”, “because… see… I’ve done my time. They’re cutting me loose.” he explains and breaks into an extraordinary grin that lights up his face. The sun emerging from behind clouds. They find the book and flick through its suggestions together. “They should have this place in here!” the lifer jokes.
Perhaps they should. Prison is an extraordinary place. Utterly counterproductive to anyone who might on the face of it belong there, but an invaluable lesson for those who think they don’t. It is sometimes unspeakably tough to be cut off from the ones you love but I thank God that prison happened to us and jackknifed me in my sleep. Like a bad boy’s kiss it has shocked me awake. Now I know the difference between an artery and a luxury.
At visiting we are let in earlier than usual. Prisoners are still filing into the hall and being allocated their tables. Somehow we converge with Rob at the front desk and he and Tala find themselves walking together to our places. It is the first time in 16 months that they have done anything apart from sit. She is wildly excited by this coup de grace and clasps her arms tight around his waist as they traverse the room, stealing glances up at him from this long forgotten angle, matching him pace for pace with long legs just like his, smiling upwards like a sunflower in the light. Every moment of every life is precious. Even and especially those that cut you to the quick.
If you haven’t seen The Race of Life here it is: