I am nervous and I don’t know what to wear. For the first time in almost a year I am going to visit Rob alone. I chose something simple in the end: a white dress, and add silver shoes for a bit of quirk. I am getting to know the reception ladies now. They’re lovely and ask about the children: they have never seen me alone. I explain that this is a date, and we chat as if my husband wasn’t a bad person.
From the back of the queue I can tell which guards are on body search this week just from the way the children are squealing and giggling and waiting to be searched by the girl who always tickles them. She has colourful tattoos and dip dyed hair and would look at home sitting in my kitchen with Okha’s mates. It’s a little thing, but the sound of children laughing is precious in this place.
When it is my turn to be searched she surprises me by telling me that she has been reading my blog. I flush immediately pink, regretting the photo on the title page and mentally rescanning past entries at speed, hoping that I’ve stuck to the Socratic ideal: is it kind, is it interesting, is it true? I do my best with interesting and true, but sometimes kindness eludes me which is sad because it’s the only thing that really matters in this world.
Sometimes I’m mean because I’m tired and weary of this charade. I’d like to blame Grayling, the anti-Midas of politics (everything he touches turns to shit) for simultaneously doubling sentencing and cutting staff, thereby creating a system that pits officers, prisoners and families against each other, but he is in any case about as popular as the clap and that would be unkind. True… but unkind.
I don’t know what I’m expecting from the date, but whatever it is, it doesn’t really happen. The table between us is too wide for a clinch without rib damage or mooning the person behind, the food is truly terrible, and I happen to be married to a man who hates PDA’s, and you don’t get much more public than this – strip lights, cameras, patrolling guards… so in the absence of the kisses I want, we talk.
Mercifully Rob’s new cellie S is a good guy. He’s a family man. Clean and quiet. S was away on holiday when he received a call to say that one of the workers at his carwash had electrocuted himself in a freak accident using the shower out of hours. He owned the business with his brother whose kids are younger than S’s, so S took one (or rather 4) for their team and accepted liability. Like so many of the men Rob meets inside, S couldn’t risk an innocent plea, (roughly a third on your sentence if it doesn’t go your way), so he cut his losses and “went guilty”. Probably best in the current climate for anyone with Eastern European intonation or visible colour.
The one fly in the ointment is S’s snoring, which is very problematic in a cell mate. After a night from hell Rob’s buddy K insists that he can help and claims that a loud clap causes most snorers to awaken enough to change sleeping positions, thus curtailing the snore. I’m sceptical as my friend trialled this method extensively and to no avail with her husband, (although she did favour the slap above the clap, – who can blame her? – nor was she fussy whether he was asleep or awake).
That night it sounds as if an itinerant flamenco troupe have materialised inside Rob’s pad. By the morning his hands are red raw and he can barely wrest them from his pockets to “flick the V’s” at K in their customary morning greeting, but, stinging palms aside, the method works and cell harmony is retained.
To give the new arrival a bit of space, Rob has taken to hanging out with the Tamil Tiger and his Jamaican cellie of an evening. The mood is deadly serious as the three are watching Master Chef and the cultural mix in the cell is engendering “lively debate”. The Jamaican speaks only broad patois, in which he has also instructed the Tiger, resulting in largely indecipherable conversation liberally peppered with shouts of “bumboclart” ,(that’s bum cloth to you and me), emanating from all parties. Casually the Jamaican interjects that he used to be a chef at the Ivy. Prison is full of surprises.
The Tiger, like so many of the men inside when you get to know them, has had a life that would make you weep: orphaned by the army at 4, a child soldier by 10… the stuff of history books too sad to dramatise, and yet his spirit is irrepressible. With inimitable Asian style he has taken to wobbling his head at Rob and waggling his finger delightedly for good measure, repeating for the umpteenth time that day: “You very junior Robert… I getting out soon. You have long time left my friend… long time!” before erupting into guffaws of hearty laughter and clapping Rob jovially on the back. If it were anyone else they’d get an effing slap.
Swearing is good for you. The science f**king proves it: the ruder the better apparently. It reduces the need for physical violence, raises your pain threshold and gives you enhanced strength, which goes someway towards explaining both the small fortune that Tala is accruing in her “Swair Jar” at home, and the tenor of all conversations in the nick. I stand corrected. Prison is good for something: you’d be hard pressed to find any other institution that delivers such a thorough grounding in expletives from around the world.
Suddenly it is time. Nanny rass! (that’s grandmother’s backside fyi). The lights are flashing on and off and I have to leave. I have violated Erwin James’ prison rule number one: expect nothing, and now I’m disappointed because I still feel empty inside… cold almost. Something must have happened between us however, because surprisingly and despite (or probably because of) the “alone” time together, the wrench of leaving again is worse than ever.
The pretty guard smiles at me on the way out. Prison does all it can to smother individuality with its ugly uniforms and inherent lack of humanity, and yet when you bother to look, the place is teeming with personality, inside and out: a quiet refusal to accept the greyness of this world. It really is full of surprises.
I drive home like the clappers, cussing as loudly as I can in every language I know until, surprisingly, I feel better.
It’s Mayday and Tala’s school gathers in Witches Hollow in London’s Queens Wood to celebrate. It’s a glorious mish mash of dresses and wellies, flower garlands and ivy crowns as skipping children weave pattern after intricate pattern on and off the maypole, colours fecund against the earth. There is no signage and no selling: only the aberrant sound of fiddles and folk song in our English wood.
I have to drag Tala away before the last dance so that we can make it to prison on time. I navigate away from the festivities though densely growing bluebells, feeling heathen and wild, but wishing I’d never seen the Wicker Man. The car when I spot it, looks safe and familiar, for all that it is a symbol of sterile civilisation.
We power on to prison, merrily spewing out CO2 across Cambridgeshire as we go, and arrive to find Rob quiet and thoughtful. His cellmate J is to be released back into the wild. It’s a bittersweet moment – sweet for J and bitter for Rob. J is integral to the wing. Constantly audible, he’s an inherently likeable kid: respectful and irrepressibly good natured. He’ll be sorely missed and it will certainly be very, very quiet without him.
As a testament to J’s high standing on the unit, extensive preparations are underway to send him off in style. Having been egged, floured, oiled and repeatedly doused with water, J entreats Rob to search the area for any sign of his nemesis D, who is indeed discovered lurking with a suspicious pan of water. Not to be outdone, J considers his reprisal options, and ask’s Rob if shitting on D’s pillow is disproportionate. After a respectful pause for consideration, Rob nudges him towards the marginally less unsavoury option of availing himself of D’s soap dish instead, though in the event, time runs out and it’s goodbye and farewell.
Before he leaves, J bequeaths Rob his duvet, a hanger, beard trimmers, mouthwash and floss, and promises not to get married until Rob gets out, which is, lets face it, a way off. It’s possibly not the best way to re-ingratiate himself with the mother of his child, but it does bear testament to the bond between the men. Rob is older than J’s father and they couldn’t be more different on the face of it, but these are details that fade into insignificance when you’ve shared 7 square metres of space together for the last 6 months.
On the outside I come up against the idea that I am not a “typical” prison wife (whatever the hell that is). It’s a gross generalisation and belies a set of assumptions that annoy me intensely. It is also totally at odds with my experience of visiting and of other prison families who know as I do that the blight of prison transcends notional ideas of class and difference. We all experience the upheaval and separation. The love and the missing are the same, and no prison wife has ever made me feel ostracised. It’s the same with the inmates: you live and die by your character, not your diction or your past.
Just a short distance away from the festivities on Unit 12, something very different is going down. A lifer has raped a new arrival. The victim, just a kid, was only in on a motoring offence. They move the lifer onto “The Block” (the punishment wing where Rob was headed during the “hooch” fiasco), but it’s tricky with lifers… not much incentive for good behaviour.
You’d think they’d send the boy home, but they don’t. You’d think a lot of things, like that someone would have a handle on who amongst the prison population is a potential threat to the increasing number of under 25’s we incarcerate these days, 50% of whom come out of “care”… but the system treats all prisoners with the same ubiquitous disrespect, so no-one knows anything about anyone.
A recent report commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that about 1% of prisoners will be raped courtesy of Her Majesties Prison (dis)Service. Most won’t tell. The reason that there aren’t more incidents like this is that most people in prison are not a threat to anyone and therefore shouldn’t be there: other punishments are available and being used in places like Noway, Holland and Sweden with embarrassing efficacy for a fraction of the cost.
Most of the burgeoning UK prison population basically act as an unwitting peace keeping force, making sure that the problematic individuals who do need to be separated from society are too overcrowded to go medieval on the vulnerable new boys… most of the time at least. I hope the kid sues, but it’s unlikely he’ll want to become the poster boy for jail rape, and the inevitable “sorry but” barrage of abuse: he’s a criminal after all – let that be a lesson to him!
And where were the officers? Oh… I forgot! We don’t have any, or certainly not enough to maintain the safety of inmates and also ensure that my daughter’s letters are all rigorously checked and then refused, even though they are (and I know, I’m the mother and thus inherently biased) almost certainly drug free. Nope. Sorry. No one available to hear this kid’s Mayday call. Poor little bugger.
It’s Easter Sunday and Unit 12 smells of poo. Rob’s mate B has resourcefully diluted a capful of Lenor into a diffuser bottle and is spraying it liberally in the general vicinity of their pad to see if the “unstoppable” fragrance can stop the poo. B isn’t just doing this out of the goodness of his heart however. It has to be said that he is at least partially to blame for the ripeness in the air, though several factors are at play.
First and foremost there has been a lot of lock up. National holidays mean anti-holidays for the men: staff shortages ensure that no-one gets off the wing, resulting in the entire bodily output of 70 men being deposited into two groaning crappers.
There has also been considerable gambling on recent big footy games. This may appear unrelated to the fetor, but as canned tuna is the gambling chip of choice, consumption is up, and constipation is down – healthy overall, but detrimental to the prevailing bouquet.
B has too much Skipjack in the game and is so peeved at being four cans down, that he launches a pan full of water over the loo door at the precise moment that his creditor is curling one out. The unsuspecting victim is furious but the culprit is long gone before he manages to regain sufficient dignity to exit the cubicle and B has changed his shoes and is looking insouciant… angelic almost. I shudder to think what the payback would have been had mackerel been in play… at £1.55 a tin (tuna is a snip at £1.15) and with its denser, meatier, protein kick that is so coveted in this resolute gym culture, vengeance would surely have been biblical.
Angels are causing headaches for another prisoner too. V, a charming and diligent Russian in for importing a trailer load of duty free fags, is both Rob’s star English student and a devout Christian. After listening intently to the chaplain’s story of the three angels Gabriel, Michael and Lucifer, it dawns on V that by casting Lucifer out of heaven and sending him down to earth, God in fact created evil.
Disturbed by this unsettling own goal by Christianity and the apparent debunking of religious duality, V challenges the man of the cloth to explain, at which point the chaplain mumbles something about an urgent phone call and adjourns the session.
V is devastated and more than a little daunted at the prospect of considering the world from this new vantage point of oneness. Best put a couple more cushions out for Buddhism next week then or hope that the chaplain managed to reach the Big Man on the blower, but please God let the chaplain not question his religious calling. He gets more done for the men at Highpoint North than anyone else, except perhaps the gambling support guy, who is also active and helpful, but like everyone who is keen to make prison an effective place of rehabilitation, is battling the boredom and pointlessness of prison life.
It hasn’t been V’s week. He suspects that he has picked up the mild stomach bug that appears to have been doing the rounds on Unit 12. Rob knows better however, having witnessed B and his naughty compadre Ginger Q surreptitiously spiking unsuspecting victims with laxative for a laugh. As V excuses himself after yet another resonant fart, the pair can no longer keep straight faces and, unable to smoother their glee, exit the cell hastily, their hysterical laughter clearly audible from the other end of the wing. Rob hopes that he has reached untouchable status, but it’s hard to be sure, so until the bottle is empty he is operating a nil by mouth strategy in their presence.
At home the Easter holidays seem long and intense, particularly when the prison suddenly cancels visits on Good Friday, now rebranded Bad Friday in our house. I get an apology email which I consider framing. Now the following weekend is fully booked too, making it three weeks of separation from Rob. It is becoming hard to visualise him and I fall back on photographs, but he was younger then and clean shaven. He is slipping inexorably through our fingers…
Tala finally manifests her frustration with a tantrum of demonic ferocity. Unfortunately I’m the only one left to bear witness to her desperation. As she boils over, limbs erupt into slaps and kicks that leave me feeling inadequate and outplayed. They hurt too. I want to run away and keep running, but I cannot abandon her: fear of aloneness is likely what has caused the outburst in the first place. Inevitably I lose it in the end and fight back until we reach an uneasy truce and fall fitfully asleep, curled up into protective balls on opposite sides of the bed.
For a bit of light relief I read Erwin James’ memoir “Redeemable”. It is a remarkable piece of writing and his story is visceral and haunting. He served 20 years in jail and is unflinchingly remorseful for the crimes he committed, and yet the description of his childhood leaves me scratching my head and searching the narrative for the non existent exit routes he missed. I can find only moments where he narrowly avoids his own death. It is astonishing how many times he and his father were not just failed, but utterly overlooked by perfunctory systems of “care”. His “break” didn’t come until eventually he became eligible for one to one psychotherapy in his Cat A lockup and lucked out with a psychotherapist who had skill, compassion and a belief that he was “redeemable”.
No one Rob has ever encountered in prison has received a single meeting with a professional who could help them. He does witness a man walking back and forth between unit 15 and the health wing however. He is recognisable from the lattice of self harm wounds that adorn his painfully scarred arms. With horror Rob notices that the man has begun to remove body parts now too. The tips of both little fingers are missing above the knuckle. Self harm rates are at their highest ever level in British prisons with over 32,000 reported incidents in 2015.
I wonder where the severed finger pieces are now. In the bin I guess, rotting slowly alongside all those sinners who have fallen and been cast out of sight and mind of the rest of us angels in the free world.