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.
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.