Stress test, the other side: part 3 (A day out in Isleworth)

A day out in Isleworth

The letters from Chris keep coming. Some are very amusing, some are not so. I’m frustrated at having to keep in touch at a very long arm’s length. It takes on average 3 or 4 days for my letters to get to him and vice versa, so often our news has crossed as it were. He’s keeping in touch with football news and views and also the courses seem to going as well as we can expect. Going over Chris’s early life is proving hard for him. It’s also bloody hard for me as I’m continually trying to sort out where I’ve gone wrong. I realise to my horror how much was going on in his mind that I knew nothing about. What’s worse is that his mother and I were still together then. The time since he left school has been terrible, seeing his life develop without really being able too much about it. There has at times been a “bury my head in the sand” attitude and this is something that we’ve got to address during this next difficult period so that when the time comes his future is more stable that his past has been. I’m not sure though that’s what Chris wants, although for the foreseeable future he’s don’t going to be able to make too many demands.

According to Chris’s brief, he’s now looking at the short end of 1-3 years. Phil’s coming to court with Ann and me so at least we’ll provide some support there if we haven’t provided much before. I’m not looking forward to driving to Isleworth early morning for a 10.00 start so am relieved after ringing the court listing office that day before to be told that Chris is “not before 12.00”. Leaving Salisbury after a hearty breakfast, we get to the Court without too many problems apart from driving 3 laps round a nearby supermarket car park, who’s nervous? In my previous life I’ve been in enough Crown Courts not to be intimidated by the surroundings and am well used to poesy barristers strutting around like the superior beings most of them believe that they are clutching their briefs wrapped in pink tape as if they’re state secrets. A quick look at the list and there is something I never ever thought I’d see…Reg v B******. Talk about bring it all home, how the hell have we got to this?

Coffee (awful) in a very depressing cellar cafeteria where bored looking staff just about raises enough “enthusiasm” to take my money and then we’re waiting again. The business of the normal court day is going on all around us but we’re just not taking anything in. It’s a busy Thursday in Isleworth. I know that we won’t be allowed to talk to Chris today either before or after the hearing so we’ll just have to rely on seeing him in Court in the dock, bloody hell again that empty feeling of my son in the dock. I’m not looking forward to that particular experience. His solicitor and barrister come and introduce themselves to us, they both look young and frankly the barrister’s looking more nervous than me and doesn’t fill me full of anything much other than a sense of pending doom. They’re going down to see Chris, who’s probably been here rather longer than us and won’t have bothered himself with having to read a map to get here but only today’s copy of The Independent courtesy of our friendly Du Can Road newsagent! They’re back with us now. Chris is ok and reasonably calm. She’s looking at 3 years if we’re lucky… Bloody brilliant! What happened to the lower end of 1-3 years?

“Those in the case of B****** to Court 2”. Without being too dramatic, those words are about to change our lives. The court room is small and we file into the public gallery. Chris looks smart and tidy but very red in the face and obviously worried. This is not the time or place for misplaced bravado. Ann waves discreetly to him but we all exchange glances, nervous this is the moment of truth and the old blood pressure must be sky-high. Prosecution outline the case and surprisingly play down Chris’s part, used as a pawn in a larger operation, a “mule” in the jargon. Strings pulled by people higher up the “chain” who remain nameless. Chris is stereotypically in debt and with a drug habit so “used” for this to pay off the debt and definitely not for his own gain/profit. Bloody hell that’s a turn up. Chris I know isn’t looking forward to the mitigation as it brings up more from his past. The girl (barrister) is none too fluent either, but after hearing that his family is there to support him as well, the Judge delivers a not too damning speech, takes into account his guilty plea and sentences him to 36 months. Chris has already served 3 months; the sentence is reduced by ½ as a norm so we reckon he’s 15 months to do. My first reaction leaving the courtroom is that we’ve or rather Chris has got a decent result there. Easy for us to think as it won’t be us spending the next 15 months inside. We manage just about to exchange glances with Chris before he returns “downstairs”. We’re left to thank his legal team who are going to see Chris again. They did say that they were happy with the sentence but then like us they’re also going home tonight, he’s not. Oh, they say, did we tell you he will be back in court for another hearing in about 6 weeks to determine his means… If it wasn’t so serious that would be funny. Chris’s means? A converted horse-box somewhere in Dorset and frankly very little else apart from what little’s in his HMP Gold Account. That’s it for the day so let’s get away from here, drop Phil off and get home; after all I’m in work tomorrow. God, that’s to look forward to.


Stress test, The other side: part 2 (West London, re-visited again).

The worst aspect after my visit was reporting to my ex, Chris’s mother. Frankly, I wouldn’t have bothered. But I was “persuaded”. I won’t dwell on the brief telephone conversation as it won’t happen again. I don’t know why she wanted to know as most of the World’s problems originate from Chris and/or me according to her. But she’s no doubt trying to prove the those who give a monkey’s that she’s a caring mother. Which is rather like Ghengis Khan being called a man of the people.
Chris’s trial is set for early September at Isleworth Crown Court. The last time I was in that area I was watching rugby at the old Twickenham.
I managed to speak to Chris’s lawyer who was arranging a video conference call to discuss the hearing. A custodial sentence is inevitable, so it’s just about how long. 2 years seems to be the current thinking and she manages to instil some confidence, as she’s clearly dealt with a number of similar cases. My every day thoughts are just how terrifying that place must be and I’m bloody sure that I couldn’t cope there.

I’m consoling myself that probably (almost certainly) for the first time, in a long time, Chris is looking clean and tidy. Ok, just, on the outside, if that’s not too stupid a phrase given his current accommodation. And his life has some order and self-discipline albeit enforced. Still we’ll see how things pan out until his sentencing. I try to send Chris at least 1 letter a week trying to keep a light touch and hopefully give him something to chuckle at. His letters have a black humour about them and also make me very aware how boring his life at present. He has nothing to do, he’s not working as he’s on alcohol and drug awareness courses. I find that an amusing title as he’s already “aware” of these bloody things, hence the trouble he’s in, but maybe I’m just being pedantic. The frustrations for us both are like  ever decreasing circles. He’s not working so not earning, no money is potentially dangerous and he can’t even ring his brief. My funds are limited but I’m able to send another PO for what we jokingly call his HMP Gold account.

Another letter, another VO. This time Ann’s going to come and again I have a repeat performance trying to get through to the prison to arrange my 1 hours’ worth of visit. Chris’s letters tell me about his physical state. His back hurts due to the ancient mattresses and he’s having the odd nose bleed. Although he knows where he is and why, I’m still annoyed that he’s blaming all and sundry for his dilemma. This attitude could grate a bit as time goes by. I don’t think he can complain about where he is and he ultimately has to take responsibility for his own actions. God knows I’ve asked myself enough questions. Another major matter for concern to me once again is the amount of time he (and the other 1000’s there) spends in their cells. There’s the possibility of a warders strike or go slow and then they’ll all be locked up 24 hours a day* and I can only imagine the tension inside that that will create and Chris has to “live with it”.

Mercifully before our visit the strike is called off. Another happy sunny Saturday and it’s off in the car. My neighbour asks where we’re going… “Oh only a day in London.” ” Have a good time” he says in all good faith… Bloody hell… If only.  Uneventful journey and parking in Du Cane Road presents no problems. But then I suppose H.M.P Wormwood Scrubs isn’t on the “must see sites” for your average tourist! This time it’s a little less stressful as having been before I know the procedure with the lockers and then trip across the entrance road to join the queue. I’ve stressed to Ann the un-written rules about eye contact and never ask why someone is inside and for how long. It’s bad enough being here, without her breaking one of those. While we in the queue an unpleasant situation arises. The black girl in front of us has 2 young girls and 1 of them steps off the path just into the road as a female warder drives past in her open sports car…no harm done, no one was ever in danger but the warder seems to want to impress us all how important she is. We can all do without that and it just creates even more tension. After about 20 minutes the door opens and in we go again clutching more ID and the VO. I’m still unsure how Ann will react to the searches and the cold way that we’re all treated. As far as the warders are concerned, we’re all tarred by the same brush and a nuisance to their natural order. Whatever we are and wherever we all come from, we all have one thing in common and that’s we have a loved one inside so there’s no room for airs and graces. The tension is the same as before although I’ve had some letters from Chris and he’s been getting some dosh and his papers, I know that he’s as ok as he’s ever going to be in here. It’s a horrible B Category place and there are some pretty horrendous people in the place. That overwhelming feeling frankly of fear, intimidation and obviously that you’re every action is watched on CCTV never leaves us. It’s only my second visit and it’s a place that you can never feel relaxed in or get used to.

Ann’s been fine. This time we really “splash out” on the “picnic” with drinks, chocolate and a real “homemade pasty”! Waiting in the reception area alongside the actual visiting room, Ann almost commits the cardinal of asking questions but I manage to stop her just as our name is called. Table 23, no window seat this time. Chris is looking quite healthy given his recent history and tidy, haircut and beard gone, although to be hyper critical; the coloured tabard doesn’t go with the rest of the prison uniform!!!! He’s pleased to see us both and Ann greets him like her own son. Chris and Ann have always got on well. We try to make more sense of what’s has happened and also what the short/long term future holds in store. Chris thinks that he’s likely to be moved to a C Cat prison soon after his hearing to serve the rest of his sentence. I’m not sorry that this might be the last time I have to come to this oppressive place. Picnic’s good. The chocolate is devoured and drinks with sugar quaffed as both needless to say are in short supply. The pasty, however, is awful…no, not even that good…pity the warders didn’t confiscate that as well.

The hour’s gone, the warders circle us like vultures ordering conversations to be ended so that they can get us lot out and normal order can be restored in their domain…. You’ve no bloody worries as none of us would want to stay. We have more hugs with Chris and off he goes back to his restricted environment and off we go back through more searches, thumbs being checked along with our photos. I can understand the need for searches etc on the way and don’t have a problem with that, but on the way out? Am I likely to have smuggled some contraband out? It’s a life that I have to get used to. I’ll never agree with what you did Chris but I’ll always support you despite my current visits to the most unlikely places! Don’t forget it’s not wholly my fault that you’re in there and the likelihood of this or any Government making drugs legal before your day in court is, well, non-existent. It may only have been “herbal” but that amount is still classed as smuggling, importation or call it whatever you will. If’s there’s a saving grace, then it’s at least not Class A, you weren’t picked up in South Africa and as you’ve remained silent about the details, I’m not likely to have some hairy arsed dealer banging on my door for his shipment!! Oh and the programmes that Chris is on do seem to be having some beneficial effect as a visit from the well as local priest!!



*the strike did eventually happen. we were banged up for 48 hours. we were climbing up the walls. and I believe 1 inmate topped him self and many mattresses were burnt. chris*

Stress test, The other side: part 1 (Summer months in west London)

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.