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.
It’s Monday morning. The living room is freezing and the sash window is wide open. Something is wrong. I can’t make sense of the scene, until I see the missing things and finally, reluctantly comprehend that we have been burgled. Rats. I run quickly into the hall and up the stairs, dreading what I will discover, but there is no-one and everything else is in its place; my bag, carelessly slung on the banister, still contains its vital organs: passport, car keys, purse.
There has been no forced entry. I have forgotten to fasten both the catches and the shutters, and nothing more than gloved fingertips were needed to slide the sash softly upwards, yielding access to our private world. Above we slept peacefully, far away in dreams and oblivion.
Tala is unconsolable. Everything that has gone was hers or Rob’s: his computer, her school bag, her purse. It isn’t personal, but it feels it. There are no other signs of violation: a glass and plate remain unbroken on a side-table suggesting a degree of care that jars with the way she feels. I wish I could feel more but I am, as always, fine.… and eerily numb.
The Stokey police force are prompt and helpful. According to the investigating officer, aside from leaving one’s entire technological arsenal in full view of an unlocked window, it’s the state of my front bush that is to blame. It desperately needs tending and is so overgrown that anything could be going on behind it. With tactful non-specificity I mention that my husband is away at the moment and promise to rectify the situation upon his return.
The nice officer proffers a further insight into the crime. In any given area there are only a handful of people who do these kind of robberies. When they get caught and removed from circulation for a while, the robberies tail off, but as soon as they are released the stats jump right back up again. This information couldn’t fit more squarely with everything that I already know prison to be: a senseless stop gap that does less than nothing to change the direction of anyone’s life, leaving perpetrators and victims to remain locked in a self-defeating cycle of endless recidivism.
Rob is predictably sanguine about the material losses but is broken by the sound of Tala’s sobbing in the car on the way to school. His mates are furious that this has happened to us: house breaking is very low on the honour stakes inside. The stolen goods are unlikely to fetch more than a couple of hundred quid at best on the black market, but the cost of their replacement will be ten times that at least, plus the hassle and the haunting sense of vulnerability: the fragile safety that I have been gently cultivating since Rob’s departure is shattered along with my prospects of undisturbed sleep. Unsurprisingly my little bedfellow is back, clinging to me sweatily in the night.
I am invited for tea with a kind prison reformer who entered the arena not out of necessity like me, but because he realised that no-one else would support the most maligned and betrayed elements of our society. “Wicked” people according to Liz Truss, “scum of the earth” according to the Daily Mail. It’s not hard to raise money for a children’s hospital or better still a dog sanctuary but Britons go selectively deaf, and apparently dumb, when it comes to “criminals”.
The mother I meet this week as we wait urgently in the dispiriting queue for the one ladies loo isn’t visiting a “criminal” though. She is here to see her son on his birthday. He is a danger to no-one, and is back inside having broken his parole due to homelessness and, I suspect, addiction. She loads up with the rubbish they sell in the visiting hall canteen. It’s a generous spread for a sad party.
There are so many good people working in the sector of prison reform, banging their heads against a status quo that suits too many people too well. If we really believed in rehabilitation we would do it. If we really cared about families we’d let them in for visits on time. If we really saw criminals as people, we could no longer countenance locking them up like rats, with rats.
Rat Park was an experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander in the 1970’s. He took male rats and put them in cages with access to food, water and heroin water. Pretty soon all of the rats were hooked on the heroin water. No surprises there, but then he took another group of rats, and put them into cages 200 times bigger with toys and wheels and female rats. In this setting the only rats to occasionally use the heroin water were the female rats (just to take the edge off the incessant advances one supposes). More interesting still, when the heroin dependent rats from the small cages where released into Rat Park, they more than any other rats, avoided the heroin water. Drug addiction, poverty, loneliness and living conditions are inextricably linked. If we want to tackle drug abuse in our jails then we need to first tackle the human abuses of incarcerating non-violent men and women in high security facilities designed for the Dark Ages.
This week there have been a spate of radio programmes about bent prison guards bringing drugs into jail. This is really not news but it serves the government to spin this story now and effectively blame criminals for the prison crisis. I listen to the fallen guard’s stories of how events spiralled away from them, tugging them into the current of crime, and yet “the criminals” who have enticed them away from the light are never afforded the same consideration: their context remains stripped from them. Relentless dehumanisation.
We were all born wanting light and love and fresh water. Some of us get Rat Park and some Rat Hell: it’s the flip of a coin. The irony is that every prison I have visited is set in beautiful countryside amidst acres of unused green space. We have the potential to create Rat Parks but we plump for Rat Hell because “they” are not like “us”, and that suits “us” just fine.
As the wife of a “rat” in hell, I’d happily be a heroine if only someone would let me in on time, or better still let me pitch my conjugal tent on the grassy fields of Highpoint North.