Doesn’t take much for a present day experience to bring to the surface, from those deep recesses of memory, a poignant recollection, does it? And so it was on New Year’s Eve, when I visited a dear friend’s father who’s incarcerated in the grim-looking Victorian prison in Lewes. The town boasts a Norman castle and a house left to Ann of Cleaves in her divorce settlement from Henry VIII, so the prison is comparatively new, being built in 1853! Looking out from the visitors’ room, out into the free world, I jumped back to 1955, locked up in St Christopher’s School in Bath, aged 8. That school stood high above the city; you could see lights, houses, life going on ….fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ night for instance …… and felt abandoned.
I told a friend I was making this visit, the first since the judge had sentenced the chap just over twelve months ago. Over a year incarcerated and my first visit: some friend? But that’s life. I have written most months, carefully adding his prison number to each page, but never visited. “What’s he in for?” ……. and when I told her, I could sense her recoil in horror …. probably about the offence but also that I was going to visit him. “So why are you going?” And then you get into that debate about guilty until proven innocent, or is it the other way around? How one person’s recollection of events can be chalk and cheese compared to the reality, but the reality is simply perception huh? When I learned from the father’s daughter of the events, of the cries of ‘foul’, of the cries of ‘this just isn’t possible’, I added my own cries and we both struggle to process the information and come to a conclusion.
Guilty? Well, the jury found him so. I am unsure ….. and only have the daughter’s version of the events …. and that’s the side that shouts “not guilty” but when all’s said and done the chap’s in prison and will not be out for another couple of years. So if there is a shred of doubt surely we should show humanity?
In the United Kingdom the number of people locked up has doubled over the last twenty years. Currently some 85,000 men and women are inside. Most prisons were built in the Victorian times, overcrowding is rife and less time is spent trying to reform the inmates. (As I write this in Brazil, I am conscious that British prisons are five star hotels by comparison to the more shocking state of some foreign ones.) The vociferous majority cry: “The bastard’s guilty so he should be punished.” But who knows which particular experience in his life lead him down the path towards incarceration. Was he willfully abandoned, orphaned, adopted, fatherless, abused? Were his parents alcoholics or drug-dependent? You could probably research the background of those in prison and find a higher proportion here. Our new Minister of Justice Michael Gove is trying to rethink how to balance crime committed with society’s expectations. It’s not working at the moment and reoffending is high.
The only time I’ve been up close to a prison was in 1975 when my Royal Artillery regiment, in Northern Ireland for four months, was responsible for inter alia the guarding of the perimeter of HMP The Maze. We had no say in the internal running of this place, built to lock up terrorists of both persuasions in the struggle for change in that part of the UK, and could only ensure no one was going to escape.
So here I was, on a gusty winter’s afternoon, gathered around the visitors’ entrance with others who had come to visit loved ones. I looked rather dispassionately on this group, mainly white, cheap, tartly clothes and all smoking: peroxide blondes: and felt slightly apart …. but we had the same aim, to bring some warmth into the heart of someone who, for whatever reason, was incarcerated. You can imagine the lengths the warders go to ensure no drugs enter the place, but first we had to get in! “Very sorry, Sir, but you’re not on the list of approved visitors.” We pleaded, we charmed and then it only took a telephone call to Trevor, I guess the duty office, to make it happen; we learned that often there’s a mix up or poor admin and ‘Cheryl’, who’s come all the way from Brighton on the bus, leaving her three children in the care of Nan, isn’t allowed in. Some staff can be really unhelpful!
One’s pockets are emptied into a locker, less for some loose change for a coffee, and eventually this sorry mournful group move through security checks, an open courtyard, up three flights of stairs and into a large hall with table & chair arrangements, past a sign telling us what we couldn’t do – the writing so small all I caught was something about not exposing one’s ….. ? Our man looks up, happy to see his daughter and actually to see me – anything to relieve the boredom that must hang heavily in a place like this, like a damp blanket around your shoulders.
We get some coffee and chat ….. about this and about that, about books and the open university course, and about being a nominated listener for those inmates at risk of self-harm or suicide. For some there will be a huge difficulty about being locked up, incarcerated, your life no longer your own. I was reminded of those first 6 weeks at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst when your life was certainly not your own! One of the statistics about modern Britain that saddens me is the number of adults who could be classified as functionally illiterate – over 10%, some 7 million people! It is believed that 75% of the prison population falls into this category. So here’s the challenge for a government. A prisoner’s sentence can be reduced if they can improve their literacy skills. I was told that generally inmates are disruptive in educational classes. “Don’t want to be here” “must kick against the system” but if there was some better incentive? These people are captive, and for the younger ones surely a golden opportunity? The cost would be an investment in the nation. Oh! If life were this simple!
I drove away with very mixed emotions but so pleased I had gone. I must go back, and not leave it for a year before I do so!
A sober scribble for the New Year!
Richard – 11th January 2016 – email@example.com