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.
After months of waiting and multiple postponements, the “BAFTA membership renewals committee” are ready to discuss Rob’s expulsion from their club. I am keen to meet with them and discuss the salient details in person, but apparently only the member in question may attend the hearing. I point out that Rob’s freedom of movement has been somewhat curtailed for the time being and that I’ll have to do, but they won’t speak to me, or his lawyer, or anyone. They are all too important and busy to meet me in person clearly. I had always thought, erroneously perhaps, that control of our nation’s nuclear deterrent lay with the PM, but I now suspect that the infamous red button in fact resides in Piccadilly, safeguarded by the lofty BAFTA renewals committee.
They throw Rob out unanimously of course, kindly sparing themselves the uncomfortable spectacle of doing it to my face, and ignoring my written representation where I point out, reasonably I feel, that if Lord Archer wasn’t stripped of his Peerage for his criminal conviction, then perhaps they might spare Rob?
A quick perusal of Rob’s IMBd reveals that he produced 39 films during his career. The film business for which he is now quite wrongly (according to the presiding judge), serving a 9 year sentence, gave development money to over 300 producers and resulted in the production of over hundred films. The British film industry depends heavily on the sort of innovation, creativity and hard cash that he brought to it.
I have to confess to being slightly relieved – the screeners (the only reason anyone joins), are two a penny round here, and I can’t afford the membership, but that doesn’t stop them being mealy mouthed rhymes with bankers. If you must have your little club, then let it at least stand up for its own. No-one can do anything about the massive bomb that has gone off in my life since Rob was convicted, but it is this lack of solidarity and heart that hurts the most.
Rob couldn’t give a monkeys of course, having long since given up caring what anyone out in the free world thinks of him. In prison there are codes of conduct that are simple and sacrosanct. Top of these is staying loyal to your own: you don’t grass. Solidarity between the men against the system is all they have. No-one wants to be inside, (and if they do, then what does that say about the life they have come from?) and so you never, ever risk giving another man any additional grief from your oppressors whatever has gone down between you.
A big guy arrives on Rob’s unit on a transfer from the South Side and violates this golden rule by picking a fight with someone and then blabbing to the screws. Rob is genuinely worried about the potential repercussions of this faux pas. Apparently the new guy was being bullied on his previous unit, (now everyone knows why), and the peace and harmony that usually abounds on the wing is beset by an uneasy hum of unrest.
In any other jail this sort of indiscretion would have been redressed with social isolation and/or disfigurement of some description, but here it probably only means he won’t be invited into any of the supper clubs that have sprung up since Unit 12 have been awarded a cooker. No one really really knows the reason for this benevolence, but it appears to be an acknowledgement of attempts on the wing to build community. Whatever it’s origins, it is a total coup.
Prison food is gastronomically very hit and miss, insubstantial and nutritionally barren. Hitherto, the men bolstered their diets either with biscuits or with eggs (boiled in the kettle) and tinned kippers, depending on whether you are in the gym brigade or the backgammon posse, but now people are getting together and making dishes of okra or chick pea curry. Smells of mamma’s cooking and far-flung homelands abound: there is considerable racial diversity in prison (you are twice as likely to go to jail if you have made the unfortunate mistake of not being white), and remarkable dishes are being created from unlikely ingredients: all cut and prepared using the flimsy plastic prison issue knives judged too pathetic to pose genuine stabbing hazards.
It’s not all peace and harmony though. Rob is furious. He has forked out £2 from his canteen purchases for some Lenor to make his kit smell fresh for us at visiting, and is disgusted to find that his laundry is returned to him smelling, as always, only slightly damp. He enlists J’s nose for confirmation. After multiple deep inhalations, neither of the guys can detect even a suspicion of the scent of Springs First Rain promised by the “Uplift” fragrance from the “Unstoppable” range – apparently not so unstoppable in prison.
They march into Newboy’s cell as J happens to know that he’s a Lenor user too. They demand he fetches a T shirt from his cupboard. He looks worried, wondering if this is some sort of bizarre initiation ritual. My guys demand Newboy sniffs the shirt. His fears are confirmed. They sniff it too, as Newboy becomes increasingly anxious. They knew it… Nothing….! Either the Lenor is stoppable or there is foul play.
Militant, Rob and J march out in search of Laundry Guy. They state their business: they’re not happy, but Laundry Guy is on their side… and he has an explanation. He isn’t allowed to put the clothes on a long enough wash to let the Lenor do its Lenory thing so there simply isn’t enough contact time for any infusion to occur!
It’s a bit like visiting itself… too short for the transferal of anything good. I have to admit that I’d have liked a waft of something other than olive oil and that inert prison odour during our weekly rendezvous. It is the little things that you miss the most. He is so stripped bare in that room, with his empty smell, and his uniform. Just a glimpse of a familiar old t-shirt underneath his prison shirt makes my heart race now.
As spring unfurls the buds and colour begin to daub the bleak prison gardens. Rob is entranced by the sound of a skylark overhead. He can’t find it at first but then eventually it reveals itself high above him, bouncing on the breeze. Suddenly someone shouts out of one of the open windows “You looking for Jesus bruv?” Rob confirms that he is indeed…. and that as a matter of fact he has found him too. Jesus loved a sinner. They were welcome in his club. Judas took his thirty pieces of silver, betrayed his friend…. and then went off to hang himself. He took the money and ran… sound familiar BAFTA?
I live in a world that shakes. It is imperceptible from the outside, but inside I flicker like a leaf buffeted by the wind. Not always, but often. I’m not sure why exactly, but I can hazard a guess. Today I am also gurning like a speed freak because the barista ignored the “de” part of my “caf” order.
I look and feel as if I’ve got a bad case of the DT’s. I roll with it. I cook in advance for the entire week, clean the bathroom, hoover up a storm and basically get down and dirty with all the little household jobs that I have been ignoring on the assumption that my remaining resident child will probably not notice the state of the skirting boards. My non-resident child is traveling in Vietnam but when I catch a glimpse of anyone with pale blue hair, my heart starts suddenly awake, alive with foolish optimism.
Caffeine is a revelation. Okay, the shaking is vaguely disturbing but the house looks great. I expect I’ll crash at some point because artificial energy stimulation, albeit from a relatively benign and legal source, is tantamount to sticking a plaster over the empty sign on a fuel tank and carrying on driving.
It’s like toothpaste. You can go on extracting stuff long after you first believed the tube to be empty but then, inevitably, one day there really is nothing left and you must live with un-freshness until you finally remember to negotiate the toiletries aisle.
I don’t want to end up like that mangled metal tube, knotted and bent out of all recognisable shape. I’m tired and emotionally wrung out but life doesn’t stop on compassionate grounds. It carries on squeezing.
Toothpaste is dual functioned in the slammer, doubling as a surprisingly effective glue. It is a rare cell whose walls are not be-speckled with calcified Colgate or Crest in various constellations where once was displayed another man’s family or perhaps his fantasy: The Sun is a prison stalwart, passed in hierarchical sequence from man to man, its third page a moment of escapism in a relentless world of men.
Rob refuses to risk damaging the cards that Tala sends him by affixing them thus to the wall. Blue Minty Gel is infinitely less sympathetic to paper than Blu Tack and he treasures her missives: arrows of love sent from her world to his. Today he is upset because he has been refused delivery of her latest offering. We try to work out why. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Is it the thickness of the card? Something in the content?
What comes into or out of prison depends largely on the disposition of whoever is on post duty that day. I’m not sure how to navigate these constantly shifting sands in order to avoid future disappointment. I do know this though. Tala spends hours drawing and writing those cards and if I hear Liz Truss utter the words “family” and “support” in the same sentence again when she is talking about my world, I’ll scream.
Most of the petty cruelties and indignities, to which prison families are subjected as they try against all odds to maintain relationships with the incarcerated, are the side effects of unsuccessful attempts to stop the flow of drugs into prison. Without exception Her Majesty’s Prisons are flooded with narcotics, brought in by drone, guard, prisoner, letter and visitor. All that happens when supply is squeezed is that the price goes up, for which read increased debt and violence. This week the MOJ claimed that prisoners take drugs because they can order them on their phones. Hmnnn, best not ruin 83 crack-free years for Grandma by getting her a smart phone for her birthday then…
It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the only way to stem the flow of drugs into prison is to decrease demand or that the only way to decrease demand is to treat addition, which is not at all the same thing as cutting off supply.
One of the most depressing things about prison is the lack of individual recognition or solutions. Everything is reduced to the lowest possible denominator. Hooch is a problem? Ban fruit. Drugs an issue? No more phones… or letters…, or human contact… for anyone. Lock everyone down, put everyone on a perfunctory course. Tick the bloody box. Never look below the surface or invest in a long term solution. Our current response to addiction, which is to criminalise it and try (always unsuccessfully) to intercept the product, is laughably shortsighted. What do we expect to happen when prisoners are released?
Best follow the advice of the Daily Mail then, the genius publication unread inside prison, which claims that us lefty liberals who argue that prison doesn’t work are ignoring the fact that if someone is locked up they can’t commit a crime. This isn’t true of course. There are plenty of crimes committed inside, but only against other criminals (who don’t count), or themselves (good riddance) or the guards (never mind). This reductive view also fails to take into account the fact that locking people up in perpetuity will either bankrupt the country or necessitate the reintroduction of the death penalty for anyone serving over 5 years.
If we really cared about our society we would ban diesel vehicles and address diabetes, but we don’t. We just love locking people up, and then squeezing and squeezing until there is nothing left.