Yesterday I had to visit the prison to pick up money left for me by an inmate. He doesn't have much obviously but whatever he does have, he's been putting aside for my son. I couldn't just bang on the front doors of the prison, so I went into the little outbuilding that is the visitor's first stop. She seems to know me by name and she is a kindly sort, working on the coalface of humanity as she does. The room was plastered with friendly, cartoon-style warnings about drugs and sex. She was playing a CD by the Sex Pistols. She rang me through and then I stashed my bag in the lockers and walked down the pathway of dying agapanthus towards the gates and razor wire.
Beep. A goon (sorry, but his unfortunate genetics and choice of occupation made me decide that he would otherwise be a 'doorman') opened the door and said, "Sit there please." Brown, filthy couch.
I sat on the couch. Everyone worked on, ignoring me so I studied the lockers and the retina scanner.
"Excuse me." A warder was waving a manila envelope at me. "Hello."
It's a small town. The warder was an ex work colleague's husband and had played quizmaster with natural authority on a night when my table won. We won a plastic frangipani-shaped candle holder, if I remember rightly.
He waved the envelope at me again. "Do you want your money?" His tone had a grudge beneath it, like it was his money and I was diddling him a bad deal.
All of the other warders in the waiting room pretended not to be interested. I walked to his counter. He pulled some bank notes from the envelope. "Make sure you count it out."
So I counted the notes. A radio played somewhere. I went to put the money back into the envelope but he whipped the envelope away and held it up by his shoulder. "You need to sign it to say you've received your money. I have to keep it for records. Sign here, please."
After I signed the envelope, he put it on a desk behind him and handed me 'my' money. What was I supposed to do with it? My bag was across the compound in another locker. Stuff it down my fucking bra and give them all a wink? Fuckers. Failed fucking parking inspectors. I crushed the notes into my palm and he nodded at the goon who pressed the lock and let me leave. Beep.
After prison visits, getting out the front door and heading for the car park always makes me inhale deeply, look at the sky and think, thank God I'm outta there. Imagine years ... two hours in there and I'm gasping. I'm headed straight for the nearest bottle shop.
But this was the first time I've had to pick up money and, hear me, I've never been made to feel more like a two-bit hooker dysfunctionally attached to some piece of banged up gutter trash than I did yesterday.
This dirty feeling and the undertone of the guards' behaviour really bothered me as I drove away. C'mon Sarah, I tried reasoning with myself. You know how this all works. It's Sociology 101. Bentham's panopticon. Hobbes. Foucault's Of Other Spaces. The Milgram and Stanford experiments. Come on Sarah. You know this shit.
But, while driving, my education was stormed over with a personal indignation and gathering rage. The magistrate in her tight designer dress wriggling into her SUV outside the local supermarket. The lack of even a token rehabilitation or counselling. Being put in this position by an idiot family member. Tears outside the courtroom. Dragging my son out of school to give him the news. That glance between the quizmaster and the goon. (You can let her out now.) The covert demonstration of power and class that I saw, condensed into a single room, yesterday.
And so this, from Anna Akhmatova's Requiem:
No, it is not I, it is someone else who is suffering,
I could not have borne it. And this thing which has
Let them cover it with black cloths,
And take away the lanterns ....