Sunday, December 14, 2014

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A Life-Shaped Hole

Alex Cavendish in Prison UK: An Insider's View explains the challenge for prisoners of concealing from a loved one the fact of their imprisonment. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation.

Although I’ve known a number of people who have died – some of them at their own hand in prison – the recent death of my father has been the first bereavement in our immediate family for over 25 years. It’s a strange feeling, not having him around even though, like many fathers and sons, we had our differences over the years.

Father and son
I have a confession to make. My father, who in his mid-80s was getting more and more confused as his dementia progressed, never actually knew I’d been sent to prison. He was so used to me being based abroad with my work and only visiting on the infrequent occasions I was in the UK that he really didn’t notice my absence. Even when I was in jail I always managed to send him birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day cards, so I gather from other family members who did know the truth that he wasn’t any the wiser about my involuntary stay as a guest of Her Majesty.

Once I was in a Cat-D (open) prison during the last year of my sentence, it was even easier. I used to phone him from a local payphone in town when I was out on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) or from my home phone line when I was out on resettlement leave for a few days each month. To be honest, I felt that he had quite enough to worry about without my predicament making the situation any worse. 
Since I had already emerged – physically, at least – unscathed from three nasty civil wars out in Eastern Europe, I don’t suppose that he would have been overly concerned for my personal safety while I was locked up. However, I really didn’t feel that it was necessary to inform him. I sometimes used to tell myself, without much conviction, that I’d explain everything once I’d been released. In fact, I never did. Was it moral cowardice on my part? Perhaps it was, if I’m being honest.
Keeping up the contact
By the time I’d been released – very unexpectedly, as well as eight months early – the opportunity just didn’t arise. By the time I’d reached his hospital bedside some months later, it was all too late to explain anything anyway. He was barely conscious and although there were flickers of recognition, we knew that the end would be just a matter of hours or days away. 

On balance, I think I’m glad that he never knew I’d been in the slammer. As I look around the room in which I’m sitting at the moment, there are framed photographs of various members of the family, including an embarrassingly high number of me at various stages of my life. Me as a baby, then as a young child, next at school, followed by university graduation portraits and then as a young, recently commissioned Army officer (as a Navy man, my dad wasn’t very enthusiastic about that, to be honest). I was his blue-eyed boy even though, like many men of his generation, he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and I’m sure that the thought of me having been a prisoner would have weighed heavily on his mind in his final years.
When I started clearing out some of his paperwork last week – including a cache of household bills from the 1960s – I even discovered a dog-eared paperback copy of a book I’d published some years ago. I hadn’t even realised he’d ever read it. Yet here it is, a blast from the past, heavily annotated in his handwriting. Sometimes our own parents never cease to surprise us.
"I've got something to tell you, dad."
If I had been able to speak to my father face to face about my time inside, I’d have told him how much I’d learned, both about myself and about the prison system, not to mention sharing in life-changing experiences with some of my fellow cons. I’d have wanted to tell him that I think I have become a nicer person as a result of being banged up. I’m much more willing to listen to other people, as well as being less judgmental, particularly about the faults and failings of others.

I’m not sure that he would have understood everything, but I do believe that I’d have been able to convince him that imprisonment has provided me with a rare opportunity of experiencing the system from within, as well as allowing me to give others an insight into the escalating crisis inside our jails. Perhaps, if he had lived long enough to see my future book about the social anthropology of prisons in print, he’d have worked his way through it with a pencil, highlighting questions and observations.
Funeral rites
On balance, however, I think I was right in not burdening him in his final months with what might well have been an inexplicable situation for him to grasp. During our telephone conversations over the past year or so he was aware that I was in good shape and at least he wasn’t worried about me as his own health declined. Sometimes the truth can be unnecessarily harmful and destructive, even if we convince ourselves that honesty is always the best policy.

During the planning for his funeral over the past week, I’m just very conscious of the fact that I – unlike so many fellow cons who suffer a bereavement while they are inside – have been able to participate in arranging the ceremony and preparing to say goodbye in an appropriate way. There will be a large photograph of him, from many decades ago, looking dashing and handsome in his naval uniform, my choice from the many pictures that chronicle his life. I’ll also be delivering the final address myself, something that I’m sure wouldn’t have been possible had I still been a prisoner at the moment.
Given the current staffing crisis in our prisons, I very much doubt whether I’d have been granted ROTL on compassionate grounds to attend the funeral had I still been banged up, especially in a Cat-B or Cat-C where such escorted visits are now becoming a rarity due to ‘operational’ constraints. I really feel for any serving prisoners who find themselves in a similar position and won’t be there with their families to say goodbye together. So, all in all, I have very much for which I should be grateful, even at a time like this.