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.
I wonder if the hurricane of distemper that buffets me through my waking hours will blow itself out one day and drop to a kinder lull. On the outside I smile a lot, but inside I feel stormy and disconsolate. Not for myself. I’m ok. We all are. I have nailed myself to this prison life consciously. I believe I can beat the shame and the label… but most won’t. Prison is a curse that hangs like a dark cloud over the future life of every soul it has held. I want to tear apart the comfortable conversation about wrong doing and right punishment that underpins our national lust for ever longer periods of incarceration because we are truly being fed lies about why people commit crimes or why they desist, and the madness of it has built up a head of steam inside me.
I am kindly invited to an awards ceremony celebrating the most inspiring charities of the year. Three of the six winners are prison linked which ought to take the wind out of my “outraged in Stoke Newington” sails for a moment, but actually just makes me want to be violently sick on someone’s black tie. The good, the bad and the ugly of politics are benevolently patting these good causes on the back whilst running a government that is directly creating more prison fodder than anyone here can ever hope to mop up. It’s like cheering the cabin boy on for bailing water out of a sinking ship with an egg cup whilst the captain is down bellow merrily blowing holes in the hull with a shotgun. I know. I’m chippy as hell. So shoot me, or shoot the bloody captain (metaphorically people… this is not – repeat not – a call to arms!).
I meet a beautiful girl at visiting. She is just 27 and stunning. Her boyfriend was attacked in the street and defended himself. No-one died, but the boyfriend had made the fatal error of being black, so now they are 4 years into a 15 stretch. I bow down to them in the face of that future. Such loyalty so young. So much love, such insurmountable obstacles.
In the queue to be searched she frets that she’ll be pulled up for her outfit. It has happened to her before. She’s in jeans, trainers and a long sleeved top. Admittedly she looks sinfully good in it, but I am stunned that this could be seen as a problem, or indeed, anyone else’s effing business. I suggest some choice phrases in the event of any adverse commentary and we giggle our way successfully through the checkpoint, with me balancing out her voluptuous youth with my lines and incumbent child.
Whilst we in the UK are apparently intent on protecting the prison population from the female form, in the US, in what is a particularly cruel kind of torture, prisoners are busy propping up the economy by manufacturing bra’s for Victoria’s Secret. Prisons are big business in the US, in fact there are currently more incarcerated black men (87% of them for non violent, mostly drug related crimes) than were indentured at the height of Slavery. If you want a good predictor of the US prison population in 15 years time, illiteracy levels in 9 year olds are a pretty accurate measure, because it is lack of education and opportunity that creates a perfect storm of poverty and desperation and a convenient bargain basement labour source.
Although we don’t have actual illiteracy issues in this family, we are struggling to read each others letters. Tala and Rob both write and draw to each other regularly. He spends considerable time depicting various animals inhabiting large socks (don’t ask why: I’ve yet to illicit a satisfactory explanation), whilst she constructs activity sheets for him to while away his hours, but virtually nothing is getting through at the moment. Rob can’t bear to look at her when he has to explain that in lieu of her precious cards, he has been handed a curt note stating that all four of her offerings have been confiscated. An article in the Telegraph about prisonbag.com, that I have sent for his perusal meets the same fate. No mention of why. No universally applied logic. No recourse, no explanation, no accountability, no compassion, no decrease in the abundance of every possible narcotic…. No-one bloody home!
The bizarre thing is that if I had photocopied the cards and sent in copies, they would probably have made it. God forbid there should be anything authentic or original inside these walls. There is no heart in anything that a prisoner can receive…. except inside us visitors perhaps, such as these tattered hearts are, are after the ravages of prison-time and longing and loss.
Rob visits a quiet isolated chap who is soon to be tossed back into the wild after six years of internment. As usual Rob is not the bearer of good tidings. There will be no-where for this man to go upon release. He confides in Rob that he used to have a council house. In fact this is why he is inside: for blowing the house up. The sad thing is that he was actually trying to blow himself up, but mistimed it, with disastrous consequences for the bricks and mortar. He survived to face prosecution for arson and destruction of public property. It’s not funny, but they laugh together none the less. What else can you do. When Rob leaves, the man retreats into himself once more; no trace of the laughter remains. Rob looks back into the single cell and sees a man who looks as one might expect him to look when he has been so desperate that he has tried to take his own life and has then been thrown into the slammer for his troubles. He is a burnt out shell whose humanity and possibilities have been blown away by the icy indifference of anyone who might have intervened to help.
Without kindness and empathy what are we? Life seems complicated but is it really? As Rob and I hold hands across the visiting table again and try to find a moment of intimacy whilst Tala pretends to be a pecking bird on our prone arms, I look around the hall and it is clear why family ties blow all other solutions to reoffending out of the water. We ache and wait and worry and write because we love and care and believe. The North wind may huff and puff and blow itself out but it will only make the man hug his protective layers more tightly about him. We are like the sun. When we shine he will take off his coat because he wants to. Because he is warm. Because there is love and because without that there is nothing.
Spring comes again like a miracle. The streets flutter pink and white with blossom and grey becomes green all around. In this world where the impossible has happened, even certainties like the seasons arrive like gifts. Prison time is counted by the inmates and their lovers in seasonal blocks: the first Christmas; the second summer. This new warmth in the air brings back sharp memories of last year when we won our court case and, for a few sweet days before HMRC’s ill fated appeal, spring promised to unfurl its buds into a world in which we would finally be free.
In keeping with the time of year there is a new addition to our family. It’s not an immaculate conception on my part, but rather a miniature Russian hamster called Lolly who is as fat as she is long and remarkably engaging as chisellers go. After dire warnings that the creature will die in her own filth before I will clean out the cage, plus the procurement of a declaration of ownership and responsibility signed by Tala, I finally agree to relax my “no more dependents” policy and the once silent wee hours reverberate merrily with the sound of nocturnal exercise routines and the frenetic and surprisingly loud toilet roll destruction habits of our new acquisition.
Hamsters invariably seem to come to sticky ends: death by glow stick consumption, blocked up bottom and starvation are all fates that have befallen previous generations of the species in the unfortunate care of the offspring of acquaintances and family members. Therefore, although the dog is both bemused that we would voluntarily invite a rodent into the house, and slightly miffed that her access to Tala’s bedroom is intermittently suspended during hamster handling sessions, we implement a strict pet separation protocol in the house: Ruby may look like butter wouldn’t melt, but I’ve seen her eviscerate a rat with astonishing rapidity, so she has to resign herself to staring mournfully into the cage and “freaking the hamster out with her eyes”, as Tala puts it.
Lolly’s cage is considerably larger proportionally than Rob’s, and I bet he’d kill for an exercise wheel, a bowl of Hamster Harvest, or even plentiful toilet roll. The showers and loo are being fixed on Unit 12, leaving only one functioning loo and two showers between 70 men. If Rob manages to complete two of the three S’s (shaving hasn’t happened for the entire 9 months of his incarceration), he feels the day has been a success.
Achieving anything at all in jail is like pulling teeth. Rob tries to help the men who are soon to be released on parole by typing up CVs for them on the resettlement office’s computer, but someone from the housing team is obliged to supervise him at all times. The system is really just set up so that the inmate orderlies can make the tea and mop the floor, and as with everything in prison, trying to make anything function in a vaguely intelligent way is a lost cause. Being used to operating in the real world where if you aren’t productive you don’t get paid this is tricky for Rob. He also genuinely wants to help the men his is locked up with, but his remit is mostly to help them fill in forms and then inform them that there will be nowhere for them to go to when they leave (unless they are high risk or registered addicts). Churchill said “There is treasure in the heart of every man if only you can find it”. We aren’t even looking.
At visiting I am almost treated to the glorious sight of the first ever prison flash mob. It’s a risky proposal as the guards are unlikely to see the funny side but the fact that three of Rob’s good friends have visits that day seems too fortuitous an opportunity to miss and the guys decide that at exactly 3pm they will jump up and do a flash mob Can-Can acappella style. Rob ruins it by forgetting, which is probably for the best in the interests of avoiding further criminal proceedings for the organisation of seditious dance plots, but he still spends the rest of the evening being mercilessly ribbed about his failing faculties.
On the up side I do get to meet two of his friends on my journey down the visit hall to the cafe. I stop for a quick chat with both of them before their visitors arrive. It is a strange thing not to know the people who have come to mean so much to Rob. I have pictured them as best I can from his descriptions, but there is no substitute for the real thing, and making this small connection with the people who sustain him where I cannot is significant and oddly precious.
I confess to C, an erstwhile traveler, that I don’t know how he gets up every day with so much time still left to serve: he is “just” 6 years into a 17 year stretch. His eyes twinkle. He grins revealing his legendary single snaggle tooth and muses that his previous lifestyle was killing him anyway. He goes on to declare that the prison experience is also revealing things to him that cannot be taught elsewhere. His acceptance and trust in the face of so much adversity floors me anew.
I buy him a caramel slice at the cafe despite his protestations. It’s the least I can do for a man who is living the stuff of nightmares and making lemonade from the bitter lemons he has been dealt. You can lock him up, but you can’t keep a good man down, especially when he’s a Can-Can, “can do” kind of guy.