“Humanity and Economy: The Way Forward”

16/10/2017

It’s a Friday morning, 2am.  I’m sitting in a fairly comfy mini-armchair, in a room about 15’ square, with just about enough of a glow from the rolling BBC News and the lights in the yard to write with some hope of legibility.  There are two other chairs like this one, set around a functional coffee table that sits on an understated Ikea rug.  The other chairs are empty, and I can hear soft snoring coming from the bunk beds against the far wall.  A blackbird is twittering insistently outside, and the smell of rain drifts in with the cool air coming through the window vents.

This place is known as the Care Suite, and we use it when someone is at a point of crisis, and needs Listeners to be available through the night.  There are always two Listeners on the rota, and my opposite number is on the top bunk getting some rest (one of us must be awake at all times).  The man on the bottom bunk has just returned from a four-day stay in hospital after taking a serious overdose.

I’ve seen quite a few people in this prison after, and sometime during an overdose, and it’s often more of a cry for help than a desire to actually end their life.  I’ll always ask what they’ve taken, to assess what might happen.  Thankfully, most of the time it’s clear that it’s unlikely to kill them, but nonetheless they usually end up in an ambulance by their own volition.  We have a policy of self-determination that’s in line with that of the Samaritans, meaning if someone chooses to take their own life, we will not stop them by notifying anyone.  Certainly, we will offer all the support they may want, exploring the emotions around their intentions, but we will not try to talk them out of it.  This gives prisoners the freedom to approach a Listener without fear of interference.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is the best way to minimise the chances of someone actually going through with it.

There is a caveat to the policy, but we will always make this clear to someone who presents claiming to have overdosed.  If someone starts to show signs of unusual drowsiness or slurred speech, then we must call for help, lest we be accused of encouraging or assisting a suicide.  If, however, a person leaves before any such symptoms are seen, then the decision is up to them.  I’m grateful I’ve not yet been put in that position, though I know others who have.

The man with us tonight did not call for anyone when he took nearly a hundred sedative pills, and was found only on a routine staff check.  He has little memory of what happened.  These are the ones we have most concern about; when someone is talking about suicide, that’s a good thing, as those most liable to make a significant attempt are those who have not reached out for support.  We have been lucky here in that for many years nobody has succeeded in taking their own life.  I like to believe that this is at least in part due to our 25-strong Listener team: we try to be proactive, and in theory there are enough of us to keep at least half an eye on everyone.  But there is a growing crisis of mental health in the UK prison population as a whole.

Last year there were 113 suicides in UK prisons, and there were around 40,000 recorded incidents of self-harm. Currently, these numbers are increasing appreciably year-on-year, and have been on the rise since the tenure of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary began back in 2013.  We can’t put all the blame onto one man, as the problems continue to worsen.  But Mr Grayling oversaw a number of changes that marked the start of the decline.  Responding to the usual outraged and exaggerated rantings of the gutter press, he decided he was going to look tough on criminals by taking control of the minutiae of prisoners’ lives.

“Prison is too soft!” they cried, and so he decreed that nobody shall be allowed a choice of more than nine television channels.  “Prisoners are watching violent films!” they shouted, and so he declared that nobody shall be allowed to watch anything with an 18-rating (unless of course it happens to be shown on one of those nine TV channels).  “Prisoners have far too much sheet music!” they almost certainly didn’t exclaim, but nonetheless he commanded that no prisoner shall be in possession of more than twelve printed sheets of music.  And he also banned friends and family from sending prisoners books – presumably because of their subversive and corrupting influence.  Thankfully this last one was overturned after much wrangling, and the intervention of various celebrities.

All of these trivialities, however frustrating, will in all probability have had only limited effect on rates of suicide and self-harm.  Far more damaging is the ongoing reduction in prison budgets, and the consequent decrease in staff numbers and the overall morale of those who remain.

Some prisons are now so short-staffed that people are routinely left confined to their cramped and under-ventilated cells/toilet-rooms-with-beds for 23 hours a day.  Purposeful activities such as education, work, or visits to the library are becoming rare luxuries, and rehabilitation – to paraphrase Red in The Shawshank Redemption – is just a “made-up bullshit word”.  This is human warehousing on a grand scale.

“Too right!”, shouts the indignant Daily Mail reader, “Why should they be put up in luxury at my expense?  They broke the law, and now they should suffer!”.  Yes, we have broken the law, but our punishment is meant solely to be the deprivation of our liberty, and not the experience of prison itself.  Nobody would argue for five-star accommodation, but I like to believe that few would argue for conditions that lead directly or indirectly to prisoners feeling their best option is to head for the existential fire exit.  There must surely be a middle ground, where standards of safety and decency are maintained.

When staff numbers drop, prisoner welfare suffers.  Violence, drugs and bullying are able to proliferate, and along with the difficulties these things create in and of themselves, problems with mental health become endemic.  The few overworked staff members that remain are unable to get to know those in their care, and can’t keep a personal eye on their welfare, so problems are often missed until it’s too late.  This is not how any section of society should be treated, whatever crimes they may have committed.

Perhaps I sound like a bleeding heart liberal – a left-wing idealist – and naturally I’m at least a little self-interested.  But I’m one of the lucky ones.  This prison has had its share of cutbacks, but has so far managed to maintain what passes for a normal regime.  Most people are in purposeful activity, and general lockdowns are rare.  Even here though, cancellations of things such as gym and library sessions due to short staffing are becoming more common.  Fortunately, a culture of rehabilitation persists, and is even seeming to grow now that the Decency Committee has morphed and expanded to become the Rehabilitative Culture Committee.  Contrary to popular whinging, progress is being made.  And it could be like this in every prison.

Let’s suppose for a moment that you don’t share my liberal leanings; perhaps you’re a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing free-market capitalist who abhors the concept of basic human rights for prisoners.  Let me make for you then a purely economic argument.

A prisoner who is warehoused, maltreated, and given no opportunity to better himself will go out into the world angry and resentful, and perhaps feeling that society has done him an injustice.  Far from changing his ways, he will most likely have learned new criminal skills and formed new networks that will enable to him to return to a life of crime – which will be the only life he can realistically picture for himself – with, if anything, a renewed vigour.  His criminal lifestyle will produce no tax income for the government, and will in fact cost the economy money – either directly through acquisitive crime, or indirectly via increased insurance premiums or the difficult-to-calculate costs of lost productivity of his victims and/or the diminished quality of life in the areas where his crimes are committed.  Eventually, his inevitable return to custody will once again be a direct cost to the taxpayer.  Currently, around half of the general prison population will go on to be reconvicted once released.

The alternative is not a vote-winner, but would unquestionably be dramatically cheaper in the long term.  If prisons were properly funded – and this would mean a considerable increase in prison budgets – then the decline in prison living standards could be reversed.  Warehousing would turn to purposeful activity.  Education departments would be able to give everyone the opportunity to learn new skills to allow them to go out into lawful, gainful employment.  The culture of rehabilitation they had experienced would make them more prepared to re-integrate into mainstream society, and not come back to prison and be a further burden on the state.  Even if only half of prisoners ended up following this path, money would be saved.  Lots of money.  And as a bonus, probably far fewer people would end up killing themselves.

Whatever your political inclination, cutting prison budgets and trying to make prison life ‘tougher’ makes no human or economic sense whatsoever.  In my job as an Education Mentor over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a seed of change and optimism planted in several formerly habitual criminals.  Something as simple as learning to read and write coherently can make a surprising difference to a person’s outlook on life.  Perhaps it’s time we took control of the criminal justice system out of the hands of vote-seekers who must pander to short-sighted tabloid opinion.  Otherwise the blood on those hands may become too much for anyone to ignore.

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THE RIVER

27th August, 2017

First grief was a broken stone,
cleft by the troubled frost
of a season come too soon.
It fell clattering from the crag
to lodge awhile – jagged, sharp –
in the icy waters of the gill, until
a spring melt swept it down the scar.

And though I knew the sting of each
and every knock against unyielding rock,
by tick, by tock,
I watched the corners wear and flake
all in the ache of summer rain.
So slow it came to lower slopes
where patient depths could weigh a softer frame
against a brighter sky
reflected in the rolling swell.

Now tumbling with the flow,
each turn of days erodes a little more.
Ahead perhaps are falls
and rapids yet unmapped;
the fleeting squalls can dark the glass
and yet they pass
to leave a stillness deepened.

Some day, out on the spreading plain I’ll stand
to watch the trees aflame with setting sun,
and find there on the bank
of a sandy wide meander,
such a smooth and weathered pebble
to fit neatly, lightly, in my palm.
Till then, I’ll keep you close,
and bear you gently through the storms,
on the moving currents of my heart.

 

“Concerts, Deaf Culture and Coffee”   

01/08/2017

How do you make your coffee in the morning?  Perhaps this seems like a non-question, with only trivial answers, but humour me for a moment in my introductory digression.  I only relatively recently fell off the non-caffeine wagon, having spent several years ‘dry’ following a period of excessive consumption that I concluded was bad for my overall mental health.  During this time I did sometimes sorely miss a good cup of coffee:  while decaf has its merits, I don’t really count it as the same drink.

Having returned to a state of carefully-controlled caffeination (one or two cups, mornings only except if Listener duties or similar demand communicative consciousness in the small hours), I was a little excited to see basic filter coffee appear on the list of things we can buy.  Of course, in the absurdist tradition of HMP Arbitrary, we have naturally been offered no means by which to brew it.  The Polish, it seems, are apt to make it in the cup and rely on a combination of settlement and filtration through the teeth.  I (in company with others) am not a great fan of this method, and went through several iterations of attempts with J-cloths, paper towels, and even old (and, I would add, clean) boxer shorts, before I came up with a practical and re-usable solution.  But nothing’s ever straightforward in prison.

First, I had to barter for a plastic Ovaltine jar, because I’ve established that when inverted, its slightly conical lid will sit neatly in the top of a mug. Second, I needed to cut the jar in half, across the widest point of its barrelled cross-section.  This necessitated the careful application of a pencil sharpener blade, which is always hazardous to the fingers (how to remove said implement from its mounting is an issue in itself, of course).  Next, I wanted to cut out a disc from the lid, leaving only the conical threaded section, but found the pencil sharpener was too feeble to pierce its thicker plastic.  So I turned to my trusty small bent piece of metal, which I found somewhere about three years ago and decided it could be useful for something and kept it.  Indeed it’s turned out to be just the right shape for so many things – in this case, heating over a lighter and sort of melt-sawing through the lid.  I would add that subsequently, lighters have been banned, which has caused its own problems that I shan’t go into here, for the sake of some semblance of brevity.

Finally, I needed a filter material of some sort.  About a year ago I plucked up the courage to attend the slightly intimidating macho environment of the gym to play badminton, only to be told (Arbitrarily) that I couldn’t wear a T-shirt for this, and must instead wear a vest.  I solved that problem by simply unpicking the T-shirt’s sleeves and just calling it a vest.  Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure at the time why I kept these sleeves, but it turns out that when stretched over the end of the Ovaltine jar and held in place by the threaded part of the lid, the mesh of T-shirt material is just right for filtering coffee.

All of this is of course the quintessence of #FirstWorldPrisonProblems, and I’m under no illusions that any of it really matters.  Indeed, I’m grateful to have the option of good coffee.  I just wanted to give you another small insight into the mundane minutiae of my day-to-day reality.  I hope you’ve found it mildly diverting.

Speaking of diversions, I recently left my job at the Craft workshop to start work as an Education Mentor.  The workshop instructor has moved on to a job with better pay and conditions after (as I understand it) serving a term of over 20 years.  He is much missed, and whilst the two men who’ve been brought in to replace him are nice enough chaps, they don’t have his experience and skills.  The function of the workshop has had to shift towards furniture reconditioning, and although this is a worthwhile enterprise, for me it’s removed most the creativity from it, so I decided to move on.  And it seems I’ve not been the only one – they’re struggling to plug the brain drain, and have developed a bit of an employee turnover problem.  I do hope it settles down eventually.

Meanwhile, over in the Education Dept., I’m doing my Andy Dufresne bit in trying to help teach what’s known as ‘Functional Skills’ English and Maths.  As I’ve noted before, literacy levels in prison can be startlingly low, and these courses are designed by City & Guilds to cover what literacy and numeracy people might need in day-to-day life.  In theory, this goes up to the equivalent of about a grade C at GCSE level, but the range of topics is much smaller than a whole GCSE.  It’s meant to be mostly a tick in a box for a potential employer if someone missed out on getting a pass grade at school (or indeed managed to avoid school entirely).

I haven’t yet completely decided how much I’m enjoying it:  there have been a number of rewarding moments, but they’re interspersed with periods of relative boredom.  It can certainly sometimes stretch my lateral thinking – finding new ways to explain something that to me seems utterly self-evident can be a challenge.  Somewhere between assuming too much and being insultingly patronising there is surely a happy medium, but I have the impression I don’t always find it.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I didn’t get on so well when I tried teaching Secondary School Science ten years ago.

One of the things that has certainly held my interest is working with a Deaf student who has been improving his English, essentially as a second language (after British Sign Language).  Though I’ve had no formal training in BSL, I’ve now got to a level where I can hold a reasonably fluid conversation with occasional stumbles over a particular concept that might need ‘fingerspelling’.  The wonderful thing about BSL is that even if I don’t know the exact sign for something, I can often get quite complex concepts across using a combination of near-synonymous signs and a kind of mime.  This also leads to a fantastic new world of possibility in visual jokes, which probably wouldn’t be funny in English by the time you’d finished explaining them.  I’m also beginning to get an insight into Deaf culture, which I hadn’t even really known was a distinct thing until perhaps 18 months ago.

It has made me realise that the way we think about things can be strongly influenced by the structure of the language we use to express them.  I don’t claim any new discovery on this front – it just hadn’t really been quite so clear to me before.  Because of the lack of specific linguistic subtlety in BSL – for example, the same sign can be used for ‘why’, ‘reason’, ‘because’, and ‘purpose’, dependent upon facial expression and context – when using English, a Deaf person might come across as abrupt or rude.  In fact this is often better interpreted as directness, or perhaps a kind of habitual ‘cutting to the chase’.  The nature of BSL does tend to invite this, and once you get the hang of it, it can be quite liberating.  I can see now that Deaf people across the country (and to some extent, the world) form as distinct a community culture as, say, Italians with varying levels of English living in a British city.  This is where the capital ‘D’ comes from, to distinguish cultural users of BSL from those who have little or no hearing but still communicate principally or exclusively in English.  This is a potentially controversial topic which I’m sure is discussed elsewhere on the Internet in great depth, so I will leave it at that, at least for the moment.

Something that will have been of little interest to our Deaf community is the pair of concerts we recently held to raise money for the Red Cross Grenfell Tower Relief Fund.  Having taken over the B-wing dining hall for a day, we found the demand for tickets was such that we did it all again two weeks later.  In the end, perhaps 250 people (mostly prisoners) came, and the total raised is looking like it should come close to £1,000.  I’ve been quite impressed by the range of talent we have here, with acts varying from classic ‘60s covers, through home-spun rap to modern pop.  I did a few solo guitar pieces, but having listened back to the recording of my drumming I’ve realised I really need to let go of any illusions I had about being the next Phil Collins.  It was all a lot of fun though.

I forget whether I’ve previously written about being a part of a psychology research group here, whereby a small number of prisoners is consulted by staff from the Psychology Dept. (which is linked to a local university) about how they conduct their research into prisoners’ rehabilitation and reoffending.  This is often fascinating, and also frequently involves cake.  Recently one of the researchers has taken to giving me research papers for proofreading and comment before they’re sent for peer-review, which feels like quite a privilege.  For a while now, I’ve been considering a career in proofreading, copy-editing and technical writing, and so far I’m enjoying the practice.

I shall end this post by sending my best wishes to Larry back at HMP Different, whose birthday is later this month – I hope you’re well, and continuing to make ever more impressive constructions from matchsticks.  My regards also to the keeper of the incunabula, whom I have not forgotten.  And to you who choose not to (or cannot) be in touch, thank you for reading.

DIVIDING LINES

May, 2017

There’s a no-man’s land between you and I;
a band of grey, brown tufted through,
bare metres wide and lined in razor heights:
a margin,
where Nature scribbles her faltering pen.

My side, she writes constrained:
a close-controlled, redacted chapter;
for you the land’s bestrewn with reams
cast by her sweeping arm,
where kestrels dive from blue
through wanton arcs of vivid ink
to sink in yellow fields
and rise triumphant.

Yet heedless are the ones who perch
plump and unconcerned,
this side or that,
to murmur greetings that disturb our faith
in the rulings of the clumsy quill of man.

“The Chamber of Insanity”

26/04/2017

One of the (many) frustrating things about prison life is the limited control I have over exactly where I’m living.  The accommodation in this prison covers almost the full gamut of possibilities, from reasonably-sized rooms with en-suite shower and windows that actually open, down to the human equivalent of a rabbit hutch a mere 5½ feet wide and a little longer than a bed.  The latter unfortunately necessitates sleeping with your head only inches from a toilet and having a sink double-up as a desk by means of a covering board.  Having temporarily relinquished my right to self-determination, I’m unfortunately at the whim of the machine, and could at any moment be told to move anywhere.  This in theory extends to a movement to any prison anywhere in the country, with the only required justification being the slightly Orwellian phrase “for operational reasons”.

Thankfully, however, those in charge of such decisions are – especially after recent inmate uprisings – well aware of the concept of governance by mutual consent, so in practice we do tend to have some say.  The degree of influence a person has will, it seems, mostly depend on how much of a pain-in-the-arse he’s made himself in the past.  This is one of many reasons it’s best to try to avoid biting the hand that feeds you.

Having been in the same room for nearly 18 months – by far the longest I’ve stayed in one place – it was with a little trepidation that I received the news I’d likely be ‘asked’ to move upstairs in a few days; much as the rooms on this block are all basically the same in terms of layout (barring left-right reflection), there are always differences – for example in state of repair, temperature, and cleanliness (I’ll get back to this one).  Neighbours are also a consideration – they can be friendly, noisy, complainy, helpful, needy, or indeed genuinely insane.  I’ve mostly been lucky, but you never can tell.  So, there’s always apprehension at a potentially adverse change – although I suppose it’s not so much the fear of the unknown, as the fear of the loss of the known. There’s a comfort in the familiar, however uncomfortable it may be in truth.  As it was, I was quite content with my lodgings, so just didn’t really much fancy moving, but… ho-hum.

Now, the previous occupant of my proposed new room was well-known for not quite being the full shilling.  Nice enough chap, but had a tendency to rave-dance to a soundtrack only he could hear, and rant aggressively at passing helicopters – I get the impression he took a lot of pills in the ’90s.  It turns out he also wasn’t that great at looking after himself or his surroundings.  I remember this room under the tenancy of its previous occupant, and it was immaculate.  In the space of only a few months, however, it somehow deteriorated to one of the worst states I’ve seen at HMP Arbitrary.  With hindsight, he probably should have been having help from one of the volunteer Social Care Advocates before it got anywhere near as bad, but it was a little late for that.  I’ll spare the full details, but I still don’t understand how he got dried food splats on the underside of a bottom drawer, or managed to make the outside of the windows worse than the inside.  I did however take encouragement form the fact that it didn’t actually smell too bad.

One of my new neighbours wanted to help out, and has the added bonus of literally being an Obsessive Compulsive cleaner; if he notices a mark on his floor he’ll stay up until the small hours to make sure everything has been done to remove it.  I understand this is actually quite debilitating, but he likes to put it to good use if he can.  So the two of us donned gloves, broke out the bleach, and spent about three hours of the morning scrubbing every surface back to its native hue.  This included parts of the ceiling.  It was actually quite rewarding, and once we were done, I was feeling much more comfortable as I moved my things in.  And then it started.

At first, I thought it was a passing aircraft, or perhaps the tractor from the Gardens Dept. trundling past, but it did not fade.  Indeed, it gradually built, until the sound was comparable to the engine of an articulated lorry idling a few inches from my window:  a deep, rumbling bass note, overlaid with a moderate rattle like there was a loose panel in the door of the driver’s cab.  With my door closed, it resonated around the space in such a way that I wasn’t sure whether I was hearing it or feeling it.  I became perturbed.

Some experimentation led me to pinpoint the source of the rumble: it appeared to emanate from the centre of my ceiling.  The vibration was quite palpable, and resting a hand next to the light fitting the movement seemed to have an amplitude that was a significant fraction of a millimetre.  Pushing hard on the ceiling had the effect of temporarily stopping the loose-panel part of the noise, but somehow this seemed to make the remaining rumble all the more ominous.  It was like that tense part of a horror film where you just know something terrible is about to happen because all you can hear (aside from the ragged breathing of the ill-fated protagonist) is a low, droning note from a double bass.  Suffice it to say that this was not an ideal accompaniment to restful sleep.

Although the drone didn’t continue for the whole night, this somehow made it worse, as the periods of quiet were marred by the nervous anticipation of its inevitable return.  Against such an intrusion my earplugs were useless: the frequency was so low that they appeared to have almost no effect.  I began to consider that perhaps my predecessor wasn’t quite so crazy before he came to live here.  I resolved that my fate would not be the same as his; whatever it took, I would not be spending another night in this chamber of insanity!   I envisioned myself being forcibly dragged back in, screaming lunacies about impending doom, ultimately to be carried off to end my days in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario.  Such were the meanderings of my mind in the small hours.

When morning brought another suspenseful silence, I took my concerns to the officers of the wing – in tones more measured than the above, but still with the insistence of self-preservation.  My suggestion was that I could swap with one of the several Deaf people on the wing, for whom it should present no problem.  Unexpectedly, however, we were suddenly presented with a volunteer in the form of a generally-incomprehensible Geordie dwarf.  Apparently, he’d always wanted to overlook the yard, and was currently in the room opposite the Chamber of Insanity.  After making sure we’d understood his request (I considered calling a professional interpreter), we also made certain he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for.  He was bizarrely unconcerned, and accepted all disclaimers – even after having listened carefully to the Harbinger of Doom present (albeit at some distance) above his head.  So we swapped that very afternoon.

The transition – at least, for me – has been sublime.  I have long coveted the westerly prospects offered by the upper windows on this side, and I’ve not been disappointed.  I shall describe for you my vista.   Between this building and the inner fence is a band of grass, perhaps 10 or 15 metres wide, which is roughly mown on the near and far sides but left with a broad meandering middle that contains all manner of wildflowers, nettles, small saplings, insect hotels, and bird boxes – one of which appears currently to harbour a family of blue tits.  The twin parallel fences – with a sandwich filling of a few metres of coarse gravel – are probably around 18 feet high, but the whole of the inner and the upper half of the outer is made from a mesh which can be seen through quite clearly.  Beyond this is the outside world.

A long, slug-like embankment – apparently flat and grassy on top, and scattered with a variety of young trees and shrubbery – seems to rise gradually from the left before descending to a hedgerow on the right.  Behind the embankment and hedge, not far at all from the fence, snakes a small local road, where I can see the tops of taller vehicles as they pass by.  If I look at a 45 degree angle to the right, there’s a gap in the hedge where I can see the road and some farm buildings beyond.  Quite often, I’ll hear what I imagine is a farmer shooting rabbits with what sounds like a double-barrelled shotgun (the bangs come in pairs).  A few days ago I was slightly startled to see a man on the embankment nonchalantly walking his Staffordshire bull terrier.  If he’d glanced my way I could’ve waved at him.  Perhaps I’ll go and stand there myself one day.

On the far side of the road, beyond more hedges and trees, are acres and yet more acres of open fields, which are currently painted with the brilliant yellow of rapeseed flowers.  My horizon to the left is bounded by the lights and the traffic of the A-road that passes in front of the prison – close enough to count the lorries, but far enough to keep the peace.  To the right, some distant low hills and a few lazy pylons complete the panorama to give a near-uninterrupted view of a sunset sky.  As Spring rolls on, Orion is giving way to Auriga and Gemini – constellations that are much clearer with no lights shining into my window – and I wake each morning to the twitterings of sparrows and finches, and the occasional rasping call of a pheasant in the hedgerow.

As for the rumble, I’ve come to understand that it’s caused by an unbalanced extractor fan in the roof space.  Screws have now been put into the ceiling to curb the worst of the rattle, and the diminutive North easterner seems largely to have accepted the rest.  Maybe I’m just an over-sensitive Southern softie.  In any case, it was a stressful few days, but I think it all turned out rather well in the end.

“A Spring Wedding and Sundry Silliness”

23/03/2017

And so it is, that the mornings continue inexorably to lighten, the chiffchaff echoes its insistent call from the hedgerow beyond the fence, the daffodil shamelessly flaunts its luminous bloom, and the change of the seasons is marked by my concession that the UHT milk on my bran flakes – which was formerly kept passably cool on my windowsill – can now at best be described as disagreeably tepid.   And yet, still frequently when I go out, I find myself thinking – with a slight shiver – that I probably should have brought a hat.  This then, must be Spring.

Believe it or not, I went to a wedding last week.  There are currently three Chapel Orderlies: a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim.  This fine example of religious harmony – which is of course crying out for a punchline – is something I suspect is rare outside the unavoidably inter-faith context of a prison, but here it seems to be working rather well.  None of them, however, has yet quite got to grips with our various sound gear, and so I was temporarily seconded back to give them a hand for a morning down in the visits hall.

The couple in question have, as I understand it, been together for more than three decades, at least two of which the groom has spent behind bars.  They nonetheless have several adult children, and at least one toddling grandchild, who was among the dozen or so guests who came from outside in full formal attire, along with registrars and a photographer.  I have to say that in many respects it felt exactly like any other register office wedding – aside of course from the two uniformed officers lurking discreetly at the back of the room.  Parts of the service were quite moving – the chaplain had come prepared with tissues, which she distributed to grateful relatives – and even my own eyes weren’t completely dry, despite not having met the couple before the day.  There was sadly no alcohol for a toast, but the cake was delicious.

There’s always a degree of dark humour in prison, and perhaps we can take this too far sometimes – but I think it helps us all get through.  In any case, I couldn’t help but chuckle when the Muslim orderly turned to me during the service and, indicating his shiny black shoes, said “Last time I wore these I got a life sentence.”  His own laughter was perhaps a little too loud to be completely convincing.  Of course, it would be the Catholic who then, nodding towards the groom, chimed in with”…and now he’s volunteering himself for a second one.”  A time-worn sentiment I know, but it somehow has an added resonance in such a context.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that at the end of their wedding day, she will have gone back out into the world under the razor wire and through the gates, and he will have gone back to his cell, and slept alone.

Meanwhile, life in the rest of the prison goes on.  Finally, after much dithering, we have been allowed to wear our own clothes, most of the time.  Naturally though, this being HMP Arbitrary, they couldn’t make it simple.  Each person must make a choice, and if they choose to wear their own clothes they must relinquish all that is prison-issue, and they cannot revert.  But … there are odd exceptions … we must keep our green trousers, which must be worn in all workshops – but still never – ever – in the library.  We must also still never mix our own and the prison’s clothes.  Once it was pointed out that this would make all workshops potentially shirt-free zones, they had to hastily back-track and say we could keep prison T-shirts.  This was of course after many people had already surrendered them.  The tangles over ifs and buts continue to rumble a little, but the dust of the slightly bungled implementation is mostly settling, and on the whole it has made life slightly easier and a little more comfortable.

Since the smoking ban, tobacco has become a very valuable commodity, and increasingly rare (though if you know the right people and are prepared to pay the absurd prices, it can be found).  The latest craze, however, is smoking a (probably highly toxic) mixture of peppermint tea and the scrapings from nicotine patches, rolled up in Gideon Bible pages.  If I hear of people doing this, I’ve been trying to encourage them to at least start at the back, because, let’s face it, the Book of Revelation probably makes about as much sense in the smoking as it does in the reading.  Punishments for those caught smoking any kind of substance can be quite harsh, so in all it’s probably best to stick to the e-cigarettes, which are still permitted and freely available.  But there are those who just seem intent on finding new and innovative ways to destroy their lungs.

As I write, I am sat in the tea room of the Craft workshop, unable to finish the pine tables I’ve designed due to the required wood not yet having arrived.  I mention this as it’s a good illustration of the unintended and counter-productive consequences of target-based performance measures.  Every prison is expected to produce a variety of statistics, one of which relates to the proportion of prisoners engaged in so-called ‘purposeful activity’.  Despite my being unable to do anything of constructive value this afternoon, I’m required to remain in the workshop so that the statistics will show another body apparently being purposefully active.  This has been the case for several days now, and my requests to attend the library, gym, or indeed anywhere else instead have been (predictably) declined, because these don’t count in the stats.  So the need to show as many bums on seats as possible frequently has the effect of preventing people actually doing anything useful.  It’s something worth considering the next time you see an announcement of some target proudly met.  On the plus side, I have been able to get a lot of reading done.  Does that count as purposeful activity?

 

 

 

 

Scattered Mumbles

04/02/2017
SCATTERED MUMBLES

The pale and swelling chestnut shells,
their spines not yet staunch in purpose,
cast August in hanging shades of Autumn
while the air is yet to hang redolent
with the smoulder of gardeners’ rakings.

So too, February brings the scattered mumbles
of wood pigeons, as they clear their throats
in slow recall of how a Spring is made
not just from light and eager growth,
but with steady promise of what’s yet to come.