I’m settling down to watch “Dear Dumb Diary” for Valentine’s day with my date Tala (my preferred squeeze being otherwise engaged), when the doorbell rings. It is the bailiffs serving me with a tome of papers written in the now familiar legal double dutch that I (and Foucault) believe is specifically designed to baffle the lay person into submission. Fortunately I have a secret weapon: my lawyer Jim’s phone number. It seems I have been served with a restraint order. It sounds appropriate to my current mood, but means only that I now can’t sell my house or empty my bank accounts. Wasn’t planning on it anyway, so “woteva”.
Jim, frank as ever, warns me that if I thought the trial that resulted in Rob’s conviction was rough, I should wait ’til we get to asset confiscation. The difference now is that we have already been pronounced guilty, and therefore hold no cards. The only thing I want to retrieve from this mess is holed up at HMP Highpoint North and unless I sign whatever piece of paper they decide to put in front of me, I won’t get him back. The alleged hiding of assets is punishable by years. Lots of them.
I honestly don’t care about losing my home. I am deeply grateful that we didn’t have the third (or fourth) child that I wanted. Preventative damage limitation on Rob’s part. The splicing of a family is so brutal that losing all worldly goods can’t hold a candle to it. Don’t take this as a cue to decide that prison works as a deterrent – it doesn’t. It just wrecks lives and leaves all those who are touched by it feeling like murderous outlaws who want no part in society. I speak for myself.
The recent undercover documentary shot at HMP Northumberland is headline news and there is a spasm of interest nationwide whilst everyone feigns surprise. I suspect the film makers have deliberately shot this on a “drugs wing”, and they have certainly selected only the most salacious material. Although I welcome the focus of attention on a crisis that is otherwise occurring behind closed doors, my heart drops when I see this kind of footage.
There is certainly copious drug taking in prison and precious little help for addicts, or anyone else for that matter, but there are also lots of rather ordinary people not involved in the mayhem, people who are trying to build a community inside and make the best of where they’ve ended up.
Rob’s Tamil Tiger buddy has taken to cooking for him; insistent as a Jewish grandmother. I get excited, imagining fragrant Sri-lankan curries, but as everything has to be cooked in the microwave and ingredients are in short supply, the gastronomic result is disappointing. Now and again someone who works in the servery can rescue a bit of left over chicken from yesterdays dinner, rinse it off and reuse it somehow, but mostly it’s rice, potatoes and noodles with boiled onions, and copious, bottom burning amounts of curry powder.
Now I am screaming at the radio because Liz Truss is busy pretending to feed the (80) five thousand with fishes and loaves and suggesting that the answer to our prison crisis is to reduce reoffending. Yes dear, but how are you going to do that? And don’t you dare mention your paltry 2,500 untrained guards who won’t even replace the 6000 culled by Grayling. Reoffending is tricky. You won’t solve it with an 8 week “box ticking” course. It will take individualised solutions that actually address the root causes of recidivism: drug and alcohol rehabilitation, anger management, employment, housing etc and there is not a cat in hell’s chance you can afford to do that for the 85,000 plus people currently squashed into our heaving, ineffectual jails. What is more, you know that! You are just putting a giant rhetorical sticking plaster on the situation and hoping it will hold until Trump invades Sweden, or something, and everyone loses interest. Our penal system is the equivalent of a health service that only has an A and E department. Incarceration ought to be reserved for the dangerous and the deranged and we need someone in charge who can see past the end of her own career path and actually do something that works.
Just when the MOJ must be thinking that things can’t get any worse, an event with the potential to bring down the administration occurs. Prisoner A8003DT, aka Mr Bevan, is discovered missing. A full search of all units on the North side fails to unearth him and Liz is a whisker away from receiving the dreaded call that a murderous film maker is on the lose. It is panic stations at HMP Highpoint North, until finally Rob is discovered sitting quietly in the computer course he has been attending for the last month.
The officer in charge in new and clearly hasn’t received the briefing stating that all prisoners are wrong always, and so he breaks with protocol and admits to being at fault, concluding the incident peacefully. Safely back in captivity the epic scrabble battles have been ended with the transfer of a key American player back South. Rob is somewhat relieved to have concluded the series without any life threatening altercations. Now Boxer J is playing cards instead with the new guy, prison style – 20 push ups a pop for loosing.
There are always penalties when you lose, but I have cards. I have love. It’s all I need.
Forget everything I might have said about the dubious merits of eschewing tags, fines and community service orders and incarcerating white collar criminals in high security facilities at huge cost to the tax payer. I now understand the master plan. Basically prison wouldn’t work without a generous smattering of middle class guys on hand to do all the admin. I haven’t had a letter from Rob all week, (and he is usually a two letters a week kind of guy), because he is run off his feet checking coursework or filling out applications of various sorts for all and sundry on Unit 12 and beyond.
Tonight he is doing his cell mate J’s tax return. Oh, the irony! Clearly J doesn’t know that Rob is reportedly a top level fraudster who may be a teensy bit unpopular with HMRC. On the upside J may also soon be surprised to discover that he is miraculously entitled to a large rebate…. but possibly also an extension of his sentence…. it’s swings and roundabouts with cell mates.
I do an interview for RadioTalk Ireland not really understanding how many people listen to it and receive a flurry of delectably Gaelic sounding sign-ups to the blog. Amongst the ensuing correspondence is a humbling letter from a woman who has lost her son but who nonetheless finds space in her heart to empathise with a random prisoner’s wife with a daftly posh radio voice. It reminds me that despite all the madness, this is still a beautiful world, because love is irrepressible.
Rob looks good at visiting. His forearms are becoming peculiarly erotic to me. I know the men are only issued with those short sleeved prison shirts to make the concealment of contraband trickier, but one is none the less treated to an almost obscene amount of bare flesh into the bargain. I roll my sleeves up too and we let our arms touch, skin on skin. It is immeasurably sweet.
February is a time of reckoning. There is simply nothing to hold on to. Christmas is a distant memory with only inflated adipose tissue and deflated bank balances to show for it, spring still seems impossible and the cold sky’s are white with apathy. Perhaps this is why Tala and I seem to hit a brick wall suddenly and succumb to arguments and quasi-despair when I suggest an end to a protracted period of laissez-faire parenting vis-a-vis sweet consumption? I get it, the desire to self-medicate and ease the pain of separation is strong in me too.
I long for an alternate universe where my life hasn’t been snapped in half. I want to fall down a rabbit hole and relinquish control. I want sunlight and flowers and summer dresses. But instead I have February. We all do. And how much bleaker it must be in jail. My parents attempt to escape on a cruise: a once in a life time luxury, and my poor dad promptly contracts pneumonia and spends the entire trip in the ship’s sanatorium on intravenous meds and fluids. You can run from a British winter, but you can’t hide. All we mammals can do is huddle together for warmth, which is tricky with a depleted pack.
The “inappropriate touching” debacle continues. I answer a phone call from the familiar Haverhill number that ordinarily denotes a communication from my beloved and surprise the unsuspecting lady on the other end of the line by calling her “baby darling”. She likes it. Apparently it’s a long time since anyone has called her anything so saccharine. She should review her friendships. She is calling from Ormiston Families: the wonderful organisation who run family visits at the prison. She has just been to see Rob and had a surprising conversation with him.
I had contacted Ormiston to see if they could help me in my fight to clear Rob’s name of the spurious allegation against him, and after doing her due diligence my “baby darling” had discovered that the reason we had been denied security clearance for family visits was in fact Rob’s hooch “conviction”. This being prison, despite the fact that there never was any hooch, (just a Nigerian wellness remedy), no-one has bothered to take the black mark off his file, thus disbarring him from family visits for three months: the age old and frankly distasteful practice of using children as bargaining chips to illicit prisoner compliance.
The Ormiston lady was all set to beg Rob to come clean about his hooch misdemeanour and quit lying to his Mrs about the reason for our exclusion from family visiting, and was thus a little surprised to find a teetotal bearded sage whose story was immediately believable to her. This kind of thing happens all the time in prison, because no-one is accountable and prisoners are guilty and therefore deserve neither explanations nor apologies for wrongs done to them.
“Baby darling” is a wonderful lady and promises not only to ensure that the hooch disciplinary process is halted, but also to help me with the “inappropriate touching” allegation which still stands as far as I know. The trouble is I don’t know much, because, although the Head of Security at Highpoint has written back to a few individuals who appear from their letter heads to be in high places, he hasn’t replied to me: I’m only the child’s mother after all, and a prisoner’s wife, and what decent woman would be one of those?
We all know that Grayling’s prison budget cuts have resulted in the miserable situation where neither guards nor prisoners are safe within our institutions, so it would be churlish of me to suggest that admin should be a priority, or that prisoner’s exam results, or educational achievements, or misdemeanours should be recorded correctly… they are only prisoners obviously… so I’m proposing that the proper response to all of this would be to embolden HMRC further and give them greater resources to pursue middle management. That way we could alleviate the funding deficit by turning over the entire administration of the prisons to the white collar guys. They are already all over most of it if Rob’s working day is anything to go by… and he thought he’d have time inside to contemplate within… and he bloody hates admin.
But here is the thing. The man who entered prison sure that the way through it would be to hole himself up, focus on spiritual evolution and become wider read, has come to understand that nothing you can achieve materially or spiritually in this world means anything if you are looking down on all the other poor souls who are starving and hurting. No-one gets through the gates of heaven alone. Unless what you do helps the people around you it is valueless. Love is the only true currency, and love is a doing word, so it’s out with the navel gazing and in with the biro’s… There is work to be done.
You can’t get hold of rubber bands in prison for love nor money. They are banned, and those that have escaped detection are already occupied with the noble task of securing illegal mobile phones to prisoner’s willies. This shortage is an issue if you have long hair like Rob and didn’t think about hair tie allocations when you were packing your prison bag. Knowledge of probable previous usage doesn’t exactly predispose one to trust the occasional stray renegade that may have broken free of its tether and deposited itself innocently in a hallway.
Hair ‘mares aside, Rob is well. Nepotism has resulted in a new job for him in resettlement where his role is to interface between prisoners and housing charities, allowing him access to different wings around the prison. He loves the job. Forget film production – this is hands down the most fulfilling thing he has done so far in his professional life.
The people and their stories humble him. Men of indeterminable age, eyes hollowed by hardship, beg to be housed away from where they grew up and the lure of the gangs they joined at primary school. They share details of their lives with him that move him to tears. Beginnings that are unimaginable to the people in Whitehall who have the power to change them but stick instead with “tough on crime” and “deterrent” and “punishment”: existences beset by poverty and violence and fragmented families. Some of them will transcend their destinies, but most won’t. It’s why they are where they are and prison just makes it worse. 60% of prisoners will be homeless by the time their sentence has been served. Incarceration and family breakdown are excellent agents of homelessness. And what then? A home is a basic fundamental prerequisite for employment and addiction treatment and anything constructive in the fight against crime.
So many of you write to the governor about Rob and Tala that the Head of Security at Highpoint drafts a generic letter and sends it out on masse. A thousand thank you’s for your kindness and time. The reply insinuates that we are lying and upholds the prison’s decision to deny us security clearance for family days. What they say goes because they hold all the cards.
I am fascinated by how truly voiceless and comprehensively powerless the prison population is that an allegation of inappropriate behaviour with a child can be made and upheld without the involvement of professionals in the field. And this sort of injustice is happening all the time in prison. Prisoners receive black marks for not attending work when in fact they were not unlocked that day. Prisons lose details of qualifications that inmates have spent years achieving. Accusations are made and the prisoner can never, ever be right, because he is a prisoner: he is guilty by default and he has no voice.
We begin legal action. We have exhausted every other avenue. We request to see the footage of the “incident” and have it evaluated by an independent person who is qualified to assess “inappropriate” behaviour. What is happening to us is not right and cannot be allowed to stand.
I attend an all party parliamentary group on prisoner’s families at the House of Commons. The Barnados spokeswoman delivers the shocking statistic that 7% of all children will experience the incarceration of one of their parents during childhood. The various speakers describe innovative pilot schemes designed to support the family unit. It is so far from the visiting experience as us wives and mothers know it that the optimism in the room begins to grate.
These incremental changes that are the preserve of politicians and the patient make no sense to me in the wake of the enormous ticking time bomb that we are facing. Just before I burst with irritation the Prison Reform Trust representative asks why it is that we are not addressing sentencing and fighting for prison to be a “last resort”. Hallelujah. I salute all those who can stomach the political game, but whilst sticking plaster is being applied to this rupturing system I am watching children weeping and collapsing outside the visiting room trying to fight their way back in to stay with their dads. It is a truly pitiful sight. The trouble is that these boys will get back in eventually. 2/3 of the male children of prisoners will become prisoners themselves. It’s their destiny.
Jonathan Aitkin kindly invites me for tea at his home. We sit by his fireside and chat. Having experienced prison at first hand he now spends a large proportion of his free time advocating for penal reform. I ask him how he can stand the torpid pace of change and our huge appetite in this country for locking people up. He is a realist. You chip away diligently at the block of stone fragment by fragment. There is no other way. He is generous with his time and his stories. I see his sadness that people still shout after him in the Tube calling him a liar and a crook. He wonders when the punishment ends. When is the conviction spent? What about second chances? He also wonders what exactly I want to do with my reforming zeal. It’s a good question that I have been asking myself of late to little avail.
At first I can think only about what I do not want. A negative campaign is all the rage these days after all. I do not want the family to be used as a silent weapon in the “fight against crime”. We are the solution and should not be pawns. I do not want to see an increase in the victims of crime, when men are released from prison in a worse state of dependency and mental health and with poorer prospects than when they entered. I do not want to see us continue to follow America towards escalating sentencing or ape its insatiable hunger for separation and incarceration.
I do want to have a voice. I want to fight stigma and shame with words and pictures. I want to matter. I want my children to matter. Most of all I want to tell the stories of the people who have taken my place in Rob’s life because I am locked out and they are locked in with him. The officers who somehow get up and try to work everyday in conditions that are frankly un-workable, the governors who want to innovate and personalise and don’t have the power, the wrongly convicted who can still raise a smile, the uneducated who have not been afforded the vocabulary of protest and vote with their feet and their fists, the abused who abuse, the depressed who survive, the hundreds of thousands of people whose humanity is eclipsed by a crime and a sentence, whose story is stripped away and replaced with a single lazy moniker “criminal”.
Hear my stories and reconsider what you think you know about the people we have given up on. We need to be flexible and think outside the cage because our present is showing us that where the people go the politicians will follow. Let’s fight the pull to return to the comfortable shape of what we think we know lest we should become tight and bound, condemning a whole outpost of society to remain forever strapped to society’s inglorious groin.