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?