EMBERS

 

 

27/08/2018

EMBERS

Something nameless on the wind;
the chill scent of an eager autumn
breaking through an August too weary
of hotter days to complain.

Time folds
as I scan the space
left by the sinking sun;
I press and stretch a glassy sheet
and touch a stillness
like the forgotten smell of home
after weeks outside under rocky skies.

I rest
in gentle contentment:
I know you not, and yet
I know you are.
And in the shifting hush
of patient night
I tend the embers of remembering.

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Ode to a Waxed Gibbon

02/02/2018

Entreat me not, I pray,
to come sit with you on the fence –
for its thorns are much too bristly,
and your rabbit ears disturb me.
Hide all you will, behind the drifting fluff,
and seek the company of crows;
or loiter in the limbs of an indifferent pylon
to peek, furtive as the cloistered nun.
But, entreat me not, I pray:
I know your game cannot be won.

 

“A Miscellaneous Menagerie”

28/11/2017

There is a buzzard that has take to perching for extended periods on a particular concrete post just outside the prison fence.  A few days ago, I was watching it from my window, contemplating its elegance and majesty, when it lazily shuffled itself around to face away from me, carefully raised its tail feathers, and copiously defecated squarely in my direction.  Such is the way of nature.

We have a very healthy population of raptors around this prison, and there’s a pair of kestrels that sometimes perch even closer, on the inner fence or the lamp post only ten yards from my window.  I’ve seen a few sparrowhawks, heard many owls, and on one occasion I got a fantastic view of the underside of a red kite as it swooped quite low above my head.  Thankfully, it didn’t choose that moment to follow the ideas of the buzzard.

For a number of weeks, we had an explosion in the population of brown rats at this end of the campus, who presumably were thriving on the refuse bins around the wings.  They had become quite bold, scurrying hither and thither in broad daylight through the yard, and on several occasions I’d even describe their behaviour as ‘frolicking’; they genuinely seemed to be having fun, chasing each other about in the grass at high speed.

One morning, I watched as one of the smaller specimens (in general they appeared preternaturally plump) struggled comically to carry a slice of pizza that must have weighed about the same as the rat itself, and attempted to climb the wall of a compost bin made from large sleepers.  It was the repeated toppling backwards that provided the most entertainment.

Alas, their numbers had become so great as to draw attention, and the exterminators were called.  Undergrowth was cleared, the compost bin razed, and I’m guessing lots of tasty warfarin-laden treats distributed among the visible paths they had begun to make in the grass.  I haven’t seen a single one for several weeks now, and you may find it strange, but that leaves me a little sad.

The first frost has signalled the return of pleasantly chilled milk from my windowsill, and as the last leaves fall from the trees, my view has extended once more.  As I write this, I can see the shimmer of the lights in the nearby town, and if I had a good pair of binoculars I could tell you the price of petrol at the station on the roundabout where I filled up my Micra once, ten years ago.  I only recently realised I can see the railway from here, as I think the wind is mostly in the wrong direction to hear it.

On the weekend of Guy Fawkes’ Night, I was pleased to have an excellent view of a big fireworks display at the local rugby club.  I had a little fun working out it was slightly less than 1.4 miles away, by timing the delay between the flashes and the bangs (a consistent 6.6 seconds).  Whoever said that science wasn’t entertaining?  When I was a young teenager, I recall measuring the distance to the Moon using a garden cane, a coin and some Blu-Tack (other adhesive putties are available).  Yes, it’s true, I was an unusual child.

Speaking of no longer being young, I recently became slightly older.  Admittedly this is happening continually, but in this case I was happy to note a change in my numerical age that makes it not only a prime number, but also prime if reversed, and both digits are prime in and of themselves.  I can therefore say that I’m unquestionably now in my prime. Thank you for your cards and well-wishes.

During my several months of working in the Education department, I spent eight weeks of afternoons attempting to be a British Sign Language interpreter in a maths class. (I can add this to the long list of things that never even crossed my mind I might be doing in prison).  Previously having engaged in only casual conversation in BSL, this meant that I had very quickly to learn to use numbers.  With my relatively limited vocabulary, I was also in permanent ‘thesaurus mode’, whereby I spent much of the time scrabbling for combinations of words to explain a concept for which I knew no specific sign.  ‘Mental arithmetic’, for example, might become use-number-think, ‘factor’ could be number-split-nothing-left, and of course ‘donkey’ is easily understood as small-grey-Jesus-horse.  Hilarity frequently ensued, with sudden and apparently unprompted laughter often baffling the majority, who had no idea what had just happened.  I have to say, I learnt an awful lot by being persistently mocked for using the wrong sign.

One unexpected side-effect of all this language-mangling only became apparent when I went back to my study of German after a six-month hiatus.  Bizarrely, I suddenly found I could understand it significantly better.  I can only conclude that in exercising the parts of my brain that extract meaning from incomplete information (i.e. only understanding half of what was being signed to me and filling in the blanks with educated guesswork), I became better at it in a general context.  This also seems to be true for my comprehension of Geordie, which is a bonus.

Anyway, I’m still in the Education department, but as of last week I’m on a two-month sabbatical from teaching; I’m studying the principles and methods of running a business, and getting together what passes for a business plan for my ideas of self-employment.  So far this is proving to be useful, if somewhat intense.  To my slight surprise, they’re even letting me use a computer to do it, which makes life a lot easier.  Ultimately, my work will be burnt onto a CD, which I will be able to take with me into the wide world when I leave.  All of which is startlingly sensible for HMP Arbitrary.

Periodically, I make a request under the Data Protection Act, to find out what comments are being made about me on my file by various staff.  I’ll leave you with a selection of extracts.

I am:

‘. . . a positive force . . .’;

‘. . . polite and respectful . . .’;

‘. . . fully compliant . . .’;   (with which British Standard, I wonder?);

‘. . . eventually getting to a final answer . . .’, but taking ‘. . . longer than expected due to [my] communication style . . .’;

‘. . . trying to be clever . . .’;

and my personal favourite, ‘. . . smug and sarcastic . . .’.

I feel…

known.

 

“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.

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.