Seat of Mercy

We have Grandma in tow at visiting this week. She has become so frail that I have taken to linking arms with her wherever we go just to keep her upright. Sitting isn’t any easier. In stark contrast to my derriere which never leaves home without its convenient inbuilt padding, hers has rather lost its stuffing over the years so that an un-cushioned chair has become little short of torture for her.

Prison isn’t big on soft furnishings, so I decide to smuggle something in. It’s a bold move. The last time I brought an unauthorised item with me into prison (my phone), things didn’t go well, but I consider Grandma worth the risk.

We start off strong, secreting the vital bolster successfully through the entry gates, sandwiched unobtrusively between Grandma and me, but that is as far as we get. Bootleg butt protection is a flagrant breach of protocol and no one on the “body search” team is in the mood for any funny business.

Once inside the visiting hall however I spot a familiar face amongst the staff and when I explain about Grandma’s bottom she disappears at once, returning minutes later with the contraband and a massive smile.  For all any of us knew Grandma could have stuffed that thing full of drugs, but our angel of mercy took a chance on us. She gave us the benefit of the doubt and along with it our humanity.

S (the subject of last week’s funereal travails) is working in the visiting hall on rubbish and tray collection. With inimitable charm he has persuaded every member of unit 12 to entreat their visitors to buy him something from the cafe. As unit 12 are legion today, (a dozen or so of them at least), his pockets are bulging alarmingly with a growing collection of fizzy drink cans and assorted confectionery.

By the time we hand over our Fruit Pastilles he is looking as green as a Jamaican can reasonably look without the production of actual vomit. Anything not consumed in the hall is potentially subject to confiscation and so S is chowing down resignedly, puke or no puke. Reckless consumption of everything and anything is the result of this infantilising system and a hallmark of the prison experience: you get what you can when you can.

I watch a young boy take a chocolate bar over to The Man with No Hands (whose visitors are late) and offer to open it for him. It is common practice for other visitors to look after even unknown men who are still waiting. They do enough of that, and we are proud to take care of our own. We know that there are many reasons a family can find themselves in that room. More than 1/4 of UK adults have committed an imprisonable offence, it’s just that most of us don’t get caught.

The man with no hands is beautiful. It’s the first time I have seen him. Hands were the price he paid for finishing on the losing side of an African armed conflict where mercy is for the weak. When his wife and daughters arrive he wraps them in his stumped arms, folding them into himself easily, conveying with shoulders and biceps and neck everything hands could. His girls look so proud. You couldn’t not be. I have never seen a more radiant man.

I really think that Liz (HM, not Truss – she has already been deposed – someone tell Katie Hopkins) ought to pop in and see for oneself what is occurring in one’s dungeons these days. Ignorance is not bliss. I’d give HRH 20 minutes in that visiting hall before she started granting pardons, although Rob, looking as he does these days like a cross between Guy Fawkes and Osama Bin Laden is unlikely to be first in line for her mercy.

I’m tired. This week I have driven over 500 miles collecting and returning Grandma to the Midlands via Cambridgeshire. There is also water coming through my bedroom ceiling again (the work of a rogue rodent gnawing though plumbing in the loft) and scary confiscation issues to contend with.

By Sunday night a potent cocktail of exhaustion and unwanted responsibility catches up with me. I miss touch. I miss it so much I have taken to having multiple baths just to let the water hold me. When an oven ready lasagne fails to induce pleasure, (orally, not topically people… I do have limits), I admit defeat and settle in on the sofa to face this beast of loneliness down. “Bring it on… Do your worst!” I scream silently. Big mistake.

During the ensuing hours I run the full gamut of hopelessness and wretched self-pity, landing finally in downright depression. Not an evening I’d repeat in a hurry, but the letter I write to Rob at the end of it is such a roller coaster of unbridled hyperbolic emotion that it at least gives us something to laugh about when he receives it two days later and long after I have come back to the light.

The thing that pains me most amongst all the stresses and strains of the single mum/prison wife gig is the remorseless draining away of my fecundity. Not that I actually want to do anything with it (two kids is at least 1/2 a kid too much for me), I’d just like to carry on looking as if I could.

My friend B reassures me that I am still looking pretty fecund, which is generous, but there is no denying that there is little point to looking even slightly fecund without someone at least slightly attempting fertilisation, and my fertiliser is on library duty for the foreseeable…

The library is something of a sanctuary in prison: somewhere to escape the tensions of the cell. In his wisdom the prison governor has vetoed the men’s request to be allowed to cell share with people they get on with and who share similar routines where both parties are agreeable, stating that if you can’t get on with your cell mate that is your problem.

Prison is a very diverse community. Having experienced the joys of cell sharing with an incurable snorer during a lengthy nocturnal celebration of Ramadan, Rob is dispirited by this response. It belies a lack of empathy that ill fits the head of an institution that purports an interest in rehabilitation. Lord (of Highpoint) have mercy. There is only so much adversity any man can take. Less is more, unless we are talking bootie of course, when more is always more comfortable.

By | September 28th, 2017|

Wild and Free

It is the morning of S’s Dad’s funeral. A sombre and elegantly cut suit and Italian leather shoes have been sent in to the prison so that S can pay his respects looking dapper and dignified. It is unlikely that the addition of a guard shackled to each arm will enhance the look, but if anyone can pull it off it’s a wild Jamaican hardman like S.

Inevitably, come the hour of departure, staff are still attempting to unearth his threads. Finally they confess to having lost the entire shebang. This sort of ineptitude is commonplace inside and not usually of much concern to anyone: disappointing and humiliating inmates is the only thing prison is really good at… but this is S.

Ever resourceful, officers riffle through lost property and emerge triumphant brandishing an ensemble last seen in a bargain bin at Burton’s circa 1980: the kind of abomination of a suit only worn by Americans. S is unimpressed. To complete the look officers are proffering a pair of pointy slippers “fashioned” from black moulded plastic with no differentiation between sole and uppers.

A nervous glance at the set of S’s jaw persuades the officers that returning to the staff room to hunt for the bereaved’s mislaid property is now the most sensible course of action. The clock is ticking. Death waits for no man.

The unit is buzzing with gossipy indignation and unbridled excitement about what will unfold next. S is vowing to strip off to his pants and bear the coffin away in his boxers before he’ll touch that nasty get up and everyone knows he’ll do it.

Happily the staff come up trumps in the end. The idea of spending the day shackled to a near naked locksman has apparently had a positive effect on their collective eyesight and so S and his officer entourage are whisked away to attend the solemnities properly attired. Filial duties are completed, cousins are intimidated and all coffin bearers are wearing strides.

It’s a barely concealed fact that I like a wild man. Wildness in general is dying as “civilised” man encroaches on the vestiges of the natural world with his burgeoning statute book and his tarmac and his convenience canned living. We have become like helpless babies who can neither hunt nor farm nor shelter ourselves outside of a hulking infrastructure paid for with our freedom and tolerated only under the medication of drink, drugs and the anaesthetic of our screens.

Jay Griffiths concludes from her travels to the edges of civilisation that when we lose our connection to the wild earth the wildness of man’s spirit implodes. “When the maelstrom of adolescent wildness begins” she writes “many societies send their adolescents out into the wilderness. Teenagers jousting at petty or parental authority need real authority: Ice Fire Hunger Thirst Predator.”

Traditionally girls birthed their way to responsibility and boys underwent initiation rituals. In our troubled times initiation has been warped and appropriated by gangs who exploit the appeal of “belonging” and confuse wildness with violence.

We all need to feel capable, empowered, consequential and free. We are all mammals who need to belong. This is never more true than for those in whom something has gone wrong.

The antidote? The eradication of poverty and dismantling of the current world order probably, but in the interim I’ll plump for the great outdoors: the polar opposite of our current “solution” of internment.

Although I am not officially locked up myself, I am increasingly feeling like a caged beast in a society I don’t believe in or want to be a part of. I think the correct term for this is radicalisation. I begin to fantasise about a life of crime (Rob is impeccably connected these days). Perhaps some kind of Robin Hood heist to buy back the rainforest… or at least a bit of the New Forest? The thought of dinner parties where people will ask me what I do (professional prison wife is rarely an expected response) makes me twitchy. I am most at home at the prison gates.

My friend K is panther like in black sparkles this week to make up for last time when she arrived in her pink cleaning overalls – no time to change in-between the two jobs she now works to keep the family afloat.

Today her mood is as dark as her dress. She relates how her 65 year old husband was taken into hospital for three days and shackled to a bed for the duration. No clothes, no money, no toothbrush and no phone calls. No one bothered to tell her why he had stopped calling or where he was. When she rung the prison herself, sleepless nights later, she was met with a wall of silence. He broke down on the phone to her upon his return: a grown man and grandfather, crying. We wouldn’t treat a dog like that.

Not to be outdone in the prison wife style stakes, I’m wearing a gold strapless jumpsuit upon which I have blown an entire week’s housekeeping because I could not think of a single occasion for which it would not be perfect, plus it’s as wild as I can get for now without really landing myself in trouble.

After months of quietly enduring the nightly torture of sharing a cell with a man who snores like a pneumatic drill, Rob wakes up one morning praying for help. His mind is fragmenting. He is unable to face the day let alone another night. Hours later a rare single cell suddenly becomes available and miraculously Rob is awarded the upgrade.

As a result he looks fantastic at visiting. He loves working at the library. The right book at the right moment can change a person’s life. One of his mates is interested in mindfulness but hasn’t checked a book out of the prison library in the 6 years he has been inside. He is IPP and in the nightmare position of trying to convince the board that he is ready for release. He’s just been knocked back again for another two years. He has no idea when or how he’ll get out. If he gets angry or upset that will be proof they were right. He has hives from the stress and frustration.

Rob reserves him “Mindfulness for Dummies”, hoping the title won’t cause offence. A few days later the guy comes running up. He is almost crying as he bear hugs Rob and tries to explain “I understand” he says, profoundly moved…. “I’m the observer. It doesn’t matter if they never let me out”.

At the end of the visit Rob pulls me in close and whispers conspiratorially in my ear, “Don’t let on darling, because they think they’ve locked me up, but they haven’t… not really,… I’m actually completely free!”

You can lock a man up, but you can’t imprison his soul… only he can do that to himself.

By | September 8th, 2017|

And Then There Were None

Men are dropping like flies on unit 12. It’s like an Agatha Christie novel over there. Every morning someone new has been axed in the night.

It begins with the eviction of charming Russian V to a detention centre from whence he’ll no doubt be deported to a gulag back home. This is routine for all foreign nationals regardless of the offence and even for those with children who have been born here and are thus forced to chose between their father and their home.

Then a mobile phone discovery sees K transferred back South to a wing unaffectionately known as Gaza. It’s not long before he ends up in Seg, (the isolation unit) where it reportedly takes 5 screws and a beating to “bend him in” to his cell, although that is probably just a malicious rumour and clearly highly unlikely. He is last seen in a meat wagon shipping out to pastures new. Check Mate… but to whom?

Without K’s steady influence on the youth emotions bubble over and the snitches are further emboldened. Grassing is the lowest of the low in prison because officers are rarely considered to have the best interests of their charges at heart. Telling “the man” leads only and inexorably to draconian punishment and never to help.

The internal politics of prison living are like chess: when you remove key pieces from the board you disembowel the community and destabilise the whole game. Suddenly guys are getting nicked and banished (a cruel and medieval torture involving the loss of everything you know) in their droves. A draw of tobacco here, a phone there and piece by piece the heart of the unit is surgically removed.

K didn’t do drugs or buy or sell. He was a fitness guy: smart, motivated and constantly frustrated by the lack of courses and education at Highpoint. His sole reason for having a phone was without a shadow of a doubt to call his Mrs. You’d want to call her too if she was your girl: she’s beautiful and trying to stick by him through a sentence that is well over a decade too long to impart anything except bitterness.

Prison phones are a joke. They’re charged at three times the national rate, cut you off after exactly 10 minutes and two seconds and are excruciatingly public. I defy anyone to really excel at phone sex at 4.30 in the afternoon (last slot before bang up) with a queue of guys cheering you on from the sidelines.

The unit’s best barber is also lost in the cull condemning the survivors to bad hair until a replacement can be found. The shame. Cake clubs collapse, friendships are severed and the once buoyant mood of the wing becomes tense and disconsolate. Outside it rains and rains.

My spirits are rather soggy too. Holidays are a mixed bag for mothers. On the one hand a less Nazi approach to bedtime means that the house is still blissfully peaceful at 7am. On the other I have 7 hours less childcare a day… and it is raining… biblically. I escape to the Sun. God bless Easyjet and everyone I know who lives somewhere with a sensible climate.

Children are infinitely preferable in small packs of mixed age groups who can be fed en masse and then turned outdoors and largely ignored. Left to their own devices without internet access it seems they will revert to the good old practices of playing together and messing about in the woods or the river, returning at sundown, grubby, hungry and wholesome. They form little communities and rub along together regardless of language barriers and age gaps, teaching each other to make bracelets and alarmingly sharp daggers. They spend bone chilling amounts of time in and under water whilst we soak up sun and adult conversation and regret that we even thought about smashing their precious tablets over their sweet little heads.

August brings another birthday without Rob. The numbers are beginning to stack up alarmingly. My mother is shocked by the profusion of grey about my temples. My neck is turning mercilessly to crepe. The clock ticks.

I toy with re-igniting the mid life crisis, but a week spent with our Great Aunt in Canada sorts me out. She is part of an ex-pat community of women who have all eschewed the lure of child bearing and husbands and are now retired from various high flying jobs and living companionably together in elegant condos, quaffing excellent wine and making the twilight years look remarkably desirable.

I am invited for a swim and dinner chez one of the “Friday Night Gang”. Gina (as in Re, not Va unfortunately… that would just be too perfect) ushers us in. “And they told us you were fat and ugly” she admonishes. I feel instantly perky. “You’d better not be wearing a two piece” she warns, “no-one has worn a two piece in that pool since the early 90’s…” These gals are feisty, feminist and deliciously glamorous – living proof that you are only as old as the woman you feel. If they can fuel their 70’s entirely on girl power, surely I can manage half a decade of my forties?

Finally, and when I least expect it I have “The Dream”: the one where Rob has been released and we are together again. This is the prison equivalent of the post bereavement dream: a blessed reprieve where the deceased returns briefly and you can talk and hold each other again in a dreamland that is somehow more than that.

For some reason probably related to the holiday spirit we push together two sun loungers and lie in each others arms. I can even smell his skin in the sunshine. After a while I dare to ask if he has to go back. He must of course because this is fairy time. Even in the visits – especially in those ridiculous wretched, noisy, visits – I never feel him as close as this. Actual prison visits are roughly as satisfying as bad sex wrapped in an entire 12 pack of Durex Extra Safe (zero intimacy and very little actual pleasure), but this dream stuff is the business.

I awaken reluctantly but remain intoxicated with the bitter-sweet cocktail of gratitude and loss for several hours, clinging to it until gradually the feelings fade and there are none.

He is gone again.

By | August 23rd, 2017|
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