It was the month/year when this great Country of ours became a no smoking zone… I’d spoken to Chris a couple of weeks ago and he’d told me that he was going travelling in France and Spain and gave a mobile number I could contact him on. No worry there as I’d spoken to him and he’d said he was just north of Barcelona having spent some time in France. My only slight concern at the time was that he seemed unaware how he’d got to France except it was by ferry, but we’d had these vague conversations many times in the past mainly when he was telling me stuff he though I wanted to hear rather than the truth, the whole truth and so on.
My sunny Saturday was cut short after receiving a text from a girl friend of his who I’d never met. She asked me to ring her urgently…I’m immediately in panic mode, what the bloody hell’s he gone and done now? Girl tells me briefly that he’d been arrested for bringing drugs into Heathrow…..hadn’t he gone to France and Spain by van?…And was currently “residing” in Wormwood Scrubs!! Bloody hell, my first thought was well at least he’s safe. It seems that his mother and brother are both aware so why am I the bloody last to know?. Walking round in a complete daze not being able to concentrate on anything until I got home. It’s a horrible experience, the worst of it being not knowing what’s gone on. At least I suppose the Scrubs is “better” if that’s the description than some bloody prison in South Africa which is apparently where he’s flown in from. That’s a bloody long drive from Barcelona!!
I’ve so many questions that I can’t begin to understand or answer, but it’s going to get a whole lot worse with degrees of frustration and anger that I’ve never known before. I’m not a great internet person, but now at home I’m studying the HMP website for Wormwood bloody Scrubs looking at visits and anything else that I might need to know. Information is still hard to come by but it seems that he’s “imported” an amount of cannabis resin in suit cases. A small amount?? God this is a whole new and unwelcome world that I’m stepping into. I quickly realise that for the foreseeable future my life is going to inextricably entwined with the Prison service at varying levels. I can’t for example simply ring The Scrubs and ask how Chris is? I have to wait for him to write to me with his number, wing and lord knows what else. Mercifully I don’t have to wait too long.
A letter arrives, it’s going to be the first of many over the next 18 months (I’ve kept them all), and at least I have some detail like his number, wing details and so on. Chris has gone into some detail but not too much about the “how’s and whys” as the letters are of course censored and I suspect that for him silence is the best form of defence as I doubt he’s done all this without help. The form sent with the letter is to become my lifeline for all future visits. The visitor order or V.O is sent out every time a visit is to be arranged. I’m beside myself getting this as all I want to do is to get to see Chris as quickly as I can, not only to see that he’s ok but also to try to understand what the hell’s gone on and why?
I reckon it’s easier to get a direct line to Barack Obama than ringing HMP Wormwood Scrubs for a visit appointment. No-one answers and I’m left ranting at a taped message which is telling me to try later. My frustration is getting the better of me again. There are over 2 million people unemployed and HMP can’t get people to answer their phones… Clearly then they don’t give a toss about those of us trying desperately to get through. Every detail on this bloody form is wrong, my name, my address, so how was I supposed to give them 3 forms of identity, assuming I ever manage to speak to anyone. Eventually I get all the details changed, this only after having to get Chris to send another V.O to me and a visit is arranged for Saturday, only 2 months after I got the news. Again, with the prison service, nothing works at any sort of speed. They make all the rules and control obviously slavish compliance with them.
Come the day after studying multimap, I don’t trust myself to concentrate on driving, I go by train. For days now I’ve been feeling guilty myself and asking myself where did I go wrong with Chris and how in God’s name has it all come to this. No real answers except to say that his mother seemed to have a problem with Chris from the day we came home from the hospital. And, perhaps, I’ve over compensated too much. My dark mood isn’t helped by it being a hot summer’s day and the train’s filling up the nearer we get to Victoria. I’m clutching my V.O and all my I.D not knowing what to expect. This lot are going to London for theatres and so on. I suspect I might just be the only person on this train looking forward to an afternoon ,or rather an hour, in prison!!!!. All this farting about with V.O’s I.D and trains, just for an hour’s visit! My mind is all over the place coming into the daylight near Acton station. I turn the wrong way out of the station and head away from where I’m going and then have to ask someone where the prison is. I get a strange look.
Visiting hour is 2-3. I’m there by 1.30 looking at that “iconic” front view and not for the first time thinking what the hell am I doing here? To chat, find out truths and support my son of course. There’s a visitor centre (it sounds like a tourist attraction, it only sounds like) and I’m greeted by a very jolly lady. The whole area has been as tastefully as possible and there are even flowers ( real) on the tables. I’m not taking much in although I’ve managed to put my belongings in a locker. Nothing is allowed inside apart from a few odd coins and of course my ID.
Queuing, that’s another part of prison life that I am going to get used to, everywhere and anywhere. Outside it the hot sun (yes I know it could have been worse) before the warders -only those inside get to call them screws or worse-, for us they must be obeyed as they make and keep the rules. I’m front of the queue now nervously handing over all my I.D and the V.O praying that at this stage there’s nothing wrong. All ok so through the first set of doors for a photo, then thumb print, then more doors, each set opened lets you into another secure capsule as those behind are shut immediately. God this is intense. A scan and body search, oh I can keep the coins but have to give up my handkerchief?? no explanation, and no argument from me.
The next capsule contains a shop where I can spend my coins on a range of sandwiches, drinks pies and so on..Bloody hell can you believe we can have a picnic in this place. Everything is put in a clear polyethelene bag which is then sealed and handed back for me to take to the next level, which is the visiting area. Before that though, there’s yet another area. I’m told by more experienced visitors that I have to put my V.O through the hatch, it’s then collected and I wait again. I am so het up and nervous by now. There’s a window between this and the actual visitors room. The tables and fixed chairs are all numbered, prisoners are drifting through and each time a warder calls the name of the visitors and tells them where to sit. “B******!” No Mr for me. “Table 15!” At last, it’s after 2 now so our hour might well be less. Great, all because of their dawdling approach.
Chris is there in the room looking ok but a little flushed. We can have a hug, even if this is an oppressive environment, as others have done before. Prison/visitor etiquette is an odd thing and something else that over time I have to get used to. Seats are arranged so that prisoners do not face each other. Yet another thing, no eye contact with anyone, certainly not in this room. It’s bloody hot but at least we have a window table. The room’s nearly full with a general hubbub of conversation, until a small eruption by an inmate who’s obviously not as pleased to see his visitor as I am. He’s whisked away in double-quick time and we all carry on as is nothing has happened. Chris and I hug. I’m welling up but desperate not to cry. It’s difficult but I’m determined not to show Chris up in that intimidating atmosphere. I’m still shaking and then realise that my bag of goodies contains only 2 cans of coke (the sugary brown liquid not the powdery stuff!!) And a couple of bars of chocolate. Note to self: do better in the picnic stakes next time. Chris is happy with this though as they don’t get much of either on the inside.
Chris explains to me what’s occurred. 45kilos of cannabis resin in 2 suit cases landing at Heathrow at 6 in the morning. Nothing too suspicious looking then. He’d been in South Africa for 2 weeks before and this was the end product. He adopted a silent no comment with the police interview and then carrying on the silence, pleaded guilty to importation. He couldn’t really much else, so it’s sadly only a matter of how long he’s going to spend with H.M.P and where. We spent the whole hour talking really about why, how and I’m trying not to show how angry I am. Chris asks me to send a Postal Order to the prison so he can open an account as he’ll then be able to buy stuff rather than my fear of doing “favours”, I’m very happy to oblige. Oh and can I order a daily newspaper, not the Sun (he’s taste my boy) There’s a newspaper shop further along Du Cane Road and they do daily deliveries.
A shouted order to end conversations breaks our as the warders who drift around all the time want us all out as quickly as possible as the second hour of visiting has been cancelled. Another hug and we go our separate ways, Chris back to his confinement on the Wing and me back to Acton station for the journey home. I don’t look back as I can feel myself welling up again and certainly don’t want to be seen crying for Chris’s sake on the way out. Going out is a mirror version of going in, checking thumb prints, body search and then in the fresh air across the drive to the visitor centre. Pick up my belongings from the locker and away, at least next time I’ll know what to expect and hopefully be less in a daze.
It’s been an odd experience. I’ve been in prisons before but it’s surreal seeing my own son there. Part of me is quite happy as at least I know where he is and what rehab programmes he’s on. I just hadn’t realised how wayward his life is and how dependant on booze and drugs he’d become. Maybe we’re both a little at fault. Him for only telling me what he thinks I want to hear rather than feeling that he’s able to confide in me and try to share his problems and me for burying my head and not asking enough difficult questions about what I suspected and/or knew.
On the way back, just around the corner there’s Braybrooke Street, which is a cul-de-sac bordering the prison wall. Here I remember almost to the day in 1966 3 policemen were gunned down in cold blood. It’s etched in my memory because 1 of the murdering bastards called Harry Roberts was caught near where I worked in 1966. It just another sobering effect and makes me reflect on the day and the problems Chris may have to deal in such a forbidding place. Pressure cooker is a bit of a cliché but none of us who visit really know what goes on and the sheer panic and fear which hangs around every wing. I know that date now of his appearance at Isleworth Crown Court for sentence and will fix another visit before then.