We arrive early at the prison. By some miracle the sun is shining so we book in and throw our coats down in the grassy fields beneath the razor wire. I taught Tala to do a handstand here before our first ever visit, fighting nerves with forced cheer. Now Okha is making daisy chains, Tala and I are racing each other barefoot to the trees and back and the easiness is real. This is our life. Our Sunday.
As we lay on our backs catching our breath and soaking up the long awaited rays, a small blond child approaches. He is one of those genial irrepressible characters who assume immediate friendship and settles himself down comfortably in our midst.
We show him how we are making the garlands, but his fingers are jumpy and impatient so we gift him one of ours. I suggest he gives it to his dad. He looks at me darkly “My dad’s in jail”. That’s code for “I can’t give him anything”. “Our dad’s in jail too” says Okha. The kid looks surprised and volunteers “I really miss my dad”. We tell him we miss ours too. He looks at me suspiciously. I’m patently too old for a dad. “I miss mine times 1000” he counters. We concede defeat.
We’re good at missing. We don’t expect relief from the sensation. It is our constant companion and almost comforting in its familiarity. The consolation is this: each passing day takes us one step closer to him. My friend lives with the opposite reality. It is the 7 year anniversary of her son’s death. Every day takes her a step further away. There is no future relief for her, just the passage of time: a double edged process whereby pain fades alongside memories. I think of her when I need strength.
There is a man on Rob’s unit whose hands are missing. Both have been cut off at the wrist. It’s a humiliating, almost unthinkable thing to live with. He uses a cup with a special handle through which he hooks his stump. He needs help with the simplest of things and yet he looks happier than anyone Rob has ever met. He is in prison, with no hands and he never stops smiling.
Against all odds one of the guys on Robs unit has been seen by a prison dentist who has recommended the extraction of three teeth. They send the guy off to hospital for an op under general anaesthetic. When he comes round he discovers that every single tooth from his top jaw has been removed. Whether this was a medical necessity or an administrative error is unclear: this is prison – no-one tells you anything: the teeth are missing, that’s all you have to go on.
He thinks he’ll get new ones on the NHS and has been told he won’t have to wait long. On this promise he is electing not to let his wife visit until his nashers have been re-instated. The more experienced residents snort in derision. Dream on Toothless.
I’m not quite sure what state my beloved will be in today. It’s Ramadam and his cell mate is on a somewhat antisocial timetable, arising at 1.30am for a fully illuminated, no holds barred midnight feast, then back to bed for more snoring. Consequently Rob is missing sleep, so I’m heartened to see him looking cheerful and bonny. You won’t do well in the slammer without tolerance and compassion, qualities that are hard to maintain when you are hungry or tired. This is either boot camp for the soul, or simple torture.
As we enter the visit hall someone mutters to their companion “Blimey, I didn’t realise they were locking up wizards now”. I follow the line of his gaze and realise that he is looking at Rob, who is waving and grinning enthusiastically at us from across the room. With his sparkly eyes and mad professor beard, he is indeed looking uncannily like a swarthy Gandolf on the run.
We might well have a smattering of wizards banged up: we seem to have just about everyone else… but let it not be said that we are stuck in the dark ages. Herb lovers were once burned at the stake as witches, now worst case scenario its a mere 5 stretch for possession and a meagre 14 for supply…of weed…seriously? God bless the Lib Dems. People please…back them up! No one in the slammer for weed unless you’ve dropped a block of it on someone’s head and killed them.
It’s odd though because although half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, no political manifesto, not even Corbyn’s mighty tome, includes prohibition. A bit of consistency would be nice…I just want to know where I am: deciding what to put in one’s own body is terribly taxing.
Taxing the wacky baccy is probably not a bad idea though. According to the Institute of Economics and Research up to £900million could be raised annually through taxation of a regulated cannabis market. Add to that the several hundreds of millions we currently spend policing and prosecuting the trade and the numbers aren’t looking too shabby. Bring all drugs under government control and we’re really talking.
I don’t smoke weed because it turns me into a gibbering paranoid wreck. I don’t do crack because, much as I’m not a fan of the prison wife gig, I am blessed with love and support and the reality of my life is not so terrible that I want oblivion. I still want to feel. Those who don’t need help and they certainly won’t get that in prison.
People use drugs. They always have and always will. You ban something, you drive it underground, you make it dangerous. I’m sick of seeing kids missing their Dad’s x 1000 because we legislate for an imaginary world and parliament has its fingers in its ears shouting lalalalala, to drown out the dull roar of it’s meaningless slogans and missing values. Forget strong and stable. How about innovative and intelligent, or God forbid, kind and wise.
The fox who lives underneath my garden shed has cubs. I spend so long watching them tumbling skittishly over each other in the midday sunshine that they become quite unperturbed by my voyeurism. They strew the garden with litter, jump on all the plant pots and smell pretty rank, but I feel too kindred with their mother to evict them. She grooms them all meticulously yet looks moderately bored with the whole thing and rather as if she’d prefer be out on the town rummaging through recycling boxes… but perhaps I’m projecting?
It’s a year to the day since Rob’s conviction. My little cub needs minding so I stay home and break out a packet of chocolate corn cakes. I know how to celebrate. They say the first year is the worst, and although we aren’t even a quarter of the way up this mountain, when I turn and look back I can see that there is distance behind me, and I’m still standing.
As if to mark this ignoble anniversary Rob’s yoga mat finally clears security, it’s vivid purple sponge incongruous in the cell. The sight of it jolts him uncomfortably back to an old life he does his best to forget: it doesn’t do to dwell. We are a hazy memory preserved in a rose tinted bubble, comforting and distant: a nebulous dream from the past, a hope for the future, but rarely his present.
Rob’s sentence plan also arrives this week, only a year late. Given the time it has taken to compile, we are expecting great things because at some point during the next eight years, someone will, God willing, see fit to release him back into the fray, so I’m hoping for society’s sake that in the interim they are also planning to address his deviance.
With anticipation he unfurls the paper:
“Carry on in full time work. Continue as an enhanced prisoner”.
That’s it. Oh dear! Truss has been telling porkies again: this is written evidence that there is in fact no plan to rehabilitate anyone, no second chance and no consideration for the fatherless children at home. Prison is just what it appears to be at face value – men in cages being fed drugs and biscuits until they are eventually tossed back into society, hard, homeless and certainly more desperate and dangerous than before.
At least the sun is out in jolly old Blighty though, and what better way to celebrate this anomaly than with a BBQ? Unfazed by the fact that this is a working day, Highpoint staff put the prison on a full 7 hour lock-down, considerately deliver packets of crisps to the men for lunch and take to the outdoors to bond over a burger and a bit of bronzing, all neatly captured on those pesky camera phones and leaked to The Sun, who to their credit, put in a word for the prisoners.
Tory MP Phillip Davies has no sympathy for the men however: “If you don’t like the time then don’t do the crime”. Congrats on the rhyme Phil, but this comment is asinine and frankly so dumb it hurts. We live in a world of soundbites. May is proving the sad truth that politicians just need to repeat target phrases X number of times per minute to ensure election. It therefore also stands to reason that when you label someone a criminal, talk down to them and remind them over and over with every turn of the key and every rebuttal that they are bad, the chances are they’ll hear the buzzwords, they’ll believe them and they’ll be what you tell them they are.
I’m on the screw’s side on the jolly though, and so are plenty of the men. Guards are saddled with appalling working conditions and pay, insultingly unflattering uniforms and are legally bound not to strike. Their recent foray into industrial action elicited an icy reaction from government, but it seems that no one actually gives a rats backside about lock-downs as long as their purpose is kept resolutely frivolous. The staff’s best hope of an improvement in working conditions then is to adopt an approach of as much dereliction of duty as possible until prisoners finally crack, organise mass riots and go Guy Fawkes on parliament.
The only real hope for anyone in prison, (and thus obvi for our society as a whole… join the dots Phil), is self education, ‘cos prison ain’t educating no-one. Unlike the majority of prisoners who lack basic literacy, Rob’s nose is rarely out of a book and so the good ladies who run the library offer him a job. Could it get any more Shawshank?
Predictably the note on his file about inappropriate touching threatens to derail the process, but for once he is dealing with people who treat him like a human being. They listen to his story, do their own “digging” and give him the first break he has had at Highpoint by calling his treatment what it is: bullying. To his great joy the appointment goes ahead. I never thought I’d be married to a librarian.
He is emotional on the phone that evening. Acts of kindness are so far and few between inside: belittling, derision and contempt are systemic and so being treated considerately is shocking and almost painful. I feel something vital wake up in him again. A man remembering who he used to be.
The prison governor has confirmed that Rob’s behaviour was (and I quote) “The innocent act of a father comforting his child” and yet the comments on Rob’s file have prevented family visits, almost sabotaged the library position and are being dropped into conversation by staff with other prisoners (which is frankly terrifying) and still the prison claim that they cannot remove the allegation from his record. Really? Can’t or won’t?.
Rob has unsuccessfully pursued every option available to him because if he can’t get justice on this issue who can? Orwell and Kafka eat your heart out. It might have taken us until 2017, but we are not just living your dream, we are basking in it, out in the midday sun.
I am nervous and I don’t know what to wear. For the first time in almost a year I am going to visit Rob alone. I chose something simple in the end: a white dress, and add silver shoes for a bit of quirk. I am getting to know the reception ladies now. They’re lovely and ask about the children: they have never seen me alone. I explain that this is a date, and we chat as if my husband wasn’t a bad person.
From the back of the queue I can tell which guards are on body search this week just from the way the children are squealing and giggling and waiting to be searched by the girl who always tickles them. She has colourful tattoos and dip dyed hair and would look at home sitting in my kitchen with Okha’s mates. It’s a little thing, but the sound of children laughing is precious in this place.
When it is my turn to be searched she surprises me by telling me that she has been reading my blog. I flush immediately pink, regretting the photo on the title page and mentally rescanning past entries at speed, hoping that I’ve stuck to the Socratic ideal: is it kind, is it interesting, is it true? I do my best with interesting and true, but sometimes kindness eludes me which is sad because it’s the only thing that really matters in this world.
Sometimes I’m mean because I’m tired and weary of this charade. I’d like to blame Grayling, the anti-Midas of politics (everything he touches turns to shit) for simultaneously doubling sentencing and cutting staff, thereby creating a system that pits officers, prisoners and families against each other, but he is in any case about as popular as the clap and that would be unkind. True… but unkind.
I don’t know what I’m expecting from the date, but whatever it is, it doesn’t really happen. The table between us is too wide for a clinch without rib damage or mooning the person behind, the food is truly terrible, and I happen to be married to a man who hates PDA’s, and you don’t get much more public than this – strip lights, cameras, patrolling guards… so in the absence of the kisses I want, we talk.
Mercifully Rob’s new cellie S is a good guy. He’s a family man. Clean and quiet. S was away on holiday when he received a call to say that one of the workers at his carwash had electrocuted himself in a freak accident using the shower out of hours. He owned the business with his brother whose kids are younger than S’s, so S took one (or rather 4) for their team and accepted liability. Like so many of the men Rob meets inside, S couldn’t risk an innocent plea, (roughly a third on your sentence if it doesn’t go your way), so he cut his losses and “went guilty”. Probably best in the current climate for anyone with Eastern European intonation or visible colour.
The one fly in the ointment is S’s snoring, which is very problematic in a cell mate. After a night from hell Rob’s buddy K insists that he can help and claims that a loud clap causes most snorers to awaken enough to change sleeping positions, thus curtailing the snore. I’m sceptical as my friend trialled this method extensively and to no avail with her husband, (although she did favour the slap above the clap, – who can blame her? – nor was she fussy whether he was asleep or awake).
That night it sounds as if an itinerant flamenco troupe have materialised inside Rob’s pad. By the morning his hands are red raw and he can barely wrest them from his pockets to “flick the V’s” at K in their customary morning greeting, but, stinging palms aside, the method works and cell harmony is retained.
To give the new arrival a bit of space, Rob has taken to hanging out with the Tamil Tiger and his Jamaican cellie of an evening. The mood is deadly serious as the three are watching Master Chef and the cultural mix in the cell is engendering “lively debate”. The Jamaican speaks only broad patois, in which he has also instructed the Tiger, resulting in largely indecipherable conversation liberally peppered with shouts of “bumboclart” ,(that’s bum cloth to you and me), emanating from all parties. Casually the Jamaican interjects that he used to be a chef at the Ivy. Prison is full of surprises.
The Tiger, like so many of the men inside when you get to know them, has had a life that would make you weep: orphaned by the army at 4, a child soldier by 10… the stuff of history books too sad to dramatise, and yet his spirit is irrepressible. With inimitable Asian style he has taken to wobbling his head at Rob and waggling his finger delightedly for good measure, repeating for the umpteenth time that day: “You very junior Robert… I getting out soon. You have long time left my friend… long time!” before erupting into guffaws of hearty laughter and clapping Rob jovially on the back. If it were anyone else they’d get an effing slap.
Swearing is good for you. The science f**king proves it: the ruder the better apparently. It reduces the need for physical violence, raises your pain threshold and gives you enhanced strength, which goes someway towards explaining both the small fortune that Tala is accruing in her “Swair Jar” at home, and the tenor of all conversations in the nick. I stand corrected. Prison is good for something: you’d be hard pressed to find any other institution that delivers such a thorough grounding in expletives from around the world.
Suddenly it is time. Nanny rass! (that’s grandmother’s backside fyi). The lights are flashing on and off and I have to leave. I have violated Erwin James’ prison rule number one: expect nothing, and now I’m disappointed because I still feel empty inside… cold almost. Something must have happened between us however, because surprisingly and despite (or probably because of) the “alone” time together, the wrench of leaving again is worse than ever.
The pretty guard smiles at me on the way out. Prison does all it can to smother individuality with its ugly uniforms and inherent lack of humanity, and yet when you bother to look, the place is teeming with personality, inside and out: a quiet refusal to accept the greyness of this world. It really is full of surprises.
I drive home like the clappers, cussing as loudly as I can in every language I know until, surprisingly, I feel better.