Page 7, 9th November 1990

9th November 1990
Page 7
Page 7, 9th November 1990 — A mother's tale of visiting days

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Locations: Surrey, London


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A mother's tale of visiting days

Marie talks to Rita Wall about the experience of waiting on the outside to see her imprisoned son

"MY son was convicted of attempted murder. I was horrified but not surprised. He's a drug addict and I had seen his behaviour get worse and worse over the years. But he had never done anything . violent, up to this." Marie shakes her head.

We are sitting in her neat new kitchen. Marie is a single mother iii her early forties. Her two other children are out and there's only the cat purring softly beside the radiator.

"I was preparing myself for something bad. I could sense Jack's growing desperation," Marie recalls. Jack, her son, was not living at home at the time. He had been up in court before for robbery and theft.

Marie had tried to reason with him, but he thought that his misdeeds weren't crimes because they weren't against people. Jack told his mother that if he broke into somebody's home and they were pensioners, or had very little money, he wouldn't take anything.

In fact he had told her, she says, that sometimes he'd leave obviously hard-up households something which he had pinched up the road.

Marie wasn't convinced. All crime is wrong she believes. An ex addict herself — she has been in "recovery" for the last six Years — she remembers stealing food to feed her children. "I was terrified, but because of my habit I was driven to do it."

When she received a phone call from the police station requesting a new set of clothes for her son because his own were covered in blood, Marie was not surprised. He had stabbed a police officer eight times and was charged with attempted murder.

"I did initially want to give him a good hiding, give him a good spanking. It was like I saw him as a little boy — but he's not."

The magistrates' court was horrendous, she remembers. The whole procedure was very difficult to grasp. But more shocking was the list of crimes read out that Jack had committed. She had no idea of the criminal activities Jack was engaged in because he was not at home at that stage.

"I do know that with addictions people are driven to t;I0 things that they normally would not do, and my son was crazy on drugs."

Marie decided to take her son home on bail. But she could not control him. He wanted to go out looking for drugs and alcohol. Having given up a habit herself and still feeling vulnerable around them, Marie knew that she could not cope. She was heartbroken, knowing that when she admitted to the authorities she could not keep hint. Jack would be held on remand until his trial. "It was the hardest decision I have made in a long time, but I had to do it — for myself."

"I think when you have a child in prison, you feel guilty yourself. You feel as if you have committed the crime. But I know I didn't. I deserved a chance to live."

This guilt is pushed on families by the system, she feels. `After my son was charged, going to the prisons to see him was a dark experience. The Orisons in London are dank, dirty, overcrowded, depressing and as a visitor you feel as if you are being punished as well. The visiting rooms are smelly and the toilets filthy." She shudders.

She has received valuable help from the Bourne Trust, she feels, with one of their full time workers calling on her regularly with information and support. "I think that the Bourne Trust has helped me as a person, to understand what has happened to me over the last two years."

Jack is now in a relatively new prison unit in Surrey.

The modern prison is much more humane. "It's pleasant. There are carpets on the floor and pictures on the wall."

"It's still a punishment. He has lost his freedom, but at least he is not being treated like some caged animal."

Marie hesitates as to whether he is recovering inside from his drug addiction.

"Jack did not go through a recovery programme in prison. He just had withdrawals. It would be good to have rehabilitation programmes in all prisons for ex-addicts."

She points out that some prisons have them. But in Jack's case — and perhaps for all addicts — they have to really want to give up drugs. She feels he has not reached that stage yet, that his prison experience has not cured his addiction in any way, and that it is this which is at the root of his criminal history.

What keeps Marie going — trekking up and down toSurrey to see Jack, keeping the baliff from her door (she has an eviction order on her house if she falls into arrears)? Without any hesitation she replies "God".

The names in this article have been changed to protect the interviewee's privacy

I HAD gone through a typical middle-class Catholic upbringing, boarding school run by monks, followed by 15 years working in the city. During this time, I never really gave a thought to prisoners and penal affairs other than to have a vague belief that "they must have deserved it" and to believe that the various arms of the criminal justice system must surely be working for the common good of society, the victim and the wrong-doer.

Overnight, through a uniquely grave but uniquely domestic offence, I left that "normal" community to enter the community of prison. A transition without any prior criminalisation process. A prison existence involving, for me at least, little criminalisation process other than an acceptance of that singular offence — no matter how grave and with its own personal pressures and considerations.

This has been due, partly, to the preferential treatment accorded to "lifers", partly, to age at entry and previous life experience and, partly, to outstanding support from my wife and family, with my home still intact and reasonable employment prospects on eventual release.

I can thus adopt two roles: the insider looking out or the outsider looking in and it fills me with shame. Shame that, when I was outside, I was blind to the needs of such a needing section of our society.

Vivien Stern, Director of NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offender), in her book Bricks of Shame, says "society has .left it to the prison service to get by as best it can with a certain amount of money, an unpredictable supply of prisoners, a vague hope that nothing really bad or scandalous will go on behind the walls and a strong desire not to have to think about prisoners or, worse, see them".

The criminal justice system is, of course, about much more than just prisoners or prisons: the victims of crime; the families involved; the prison staff; the police; the judiciary; sentencing policy; crime prevention policies; after care and reparation.

Mgr Richard Atherton, the

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