Part I – The Powerful Story of a Friend of Families Outside
I was invited to visit by my youngest son, who had supported his brother throughout. He broke the law. At the jail, my son checks he had ID. “You coming?”, he says. I get out of the car. But I could not go through the door. I spent half an hour talking to the ladies in the visitors’ centre, run by Crossreach. I thought I had never felt so empty. But I had, when I would leave this tiny baby in the neonatal unit, every night for three months, until he was big enough to come home.
My son Joe had been sentenced for three years. I spent three weeks in total shock. Although he lives nearly 200 miles away, I made the decision to visit every two weeks, once I got my head round getting through the door.
Joe was 35. He would spend his birthday and Christmas in jail. But hey, I am ahead of myself! He had to get over his shame and invite me to visit. The first time was by no means the worst, but it was a steep learning curve. I found nothing untoward about the staff, the visitors, or even the prisoners in the visit room, but there was a sense of dispossession as you were asked to remove your outer clothing and leave it in a locker with your phone and bag. You sat there for an hour with no pen, no photos, no conversation point. I could not list the things Joe wanted me to bring, or send. I had to remember. But so did he!
Outside the family, I told three close friends. Not that they needed to know, but I needed to tell them. They were supportive, likening it to a temporary bereavement. I decided I didn’t need to tell anyone else, and that included my younger son’s in-laws and children. Imagine the shame if it came out in the playground! And so it was kept secret.
Joe rang me each week, and said he would serve half the sentence. The fog lifted slightly. Heading for winter, Joe’s house would need attention, so I stayed there for a weekend, so the journey was easier. There was no electricity, and I spent a cold couple of days with candles and cold water. It is a tied farm cottage, and to get the work done, the farmer had to employ temporary workers to do Joe’s job. They would be moving into the cottage on Monday for six months.
We have a large family. Joe has two brothers and three sisters, and his dad, who is no longer married to me. Joe is single. He has six nephews and three nieces. Questions would be asked in the family.
During our visits I learned about the admission procedure, how they decide whether a prisoner is at risk, whether he is to have a cell-mate or not. Joe tried both and ended up in a single cell when they decided he was low risk.
As a family we do not underestimate suicide. As the children have grown, I have not shielded them from the real world, and we lived in one of the toughest parts of Aberdeen for their formative years. Stuff happens. But there was a day, probably after Christmas, when there was a feeling of positivity. There was a release date. And so we could plan, but not become complacent.
Then there was the incident with the sniffer dog: I was picked out. It was an evening visit, my dog was in the car. Simple explanation. But, no. According to procedure there was the full search, and the upshot of this was that instead of spending an hour with Joe, my visit was cut to eight minutes. He was devastated. I was angry. So angry that I could not drive home and spent the night in a hotel.
I complained to SPS, who redirected me to Police Scotland. I got a result. They listened, replied, and restored my confidence. The next visit, the sniffer dog was there again, and the same thing happened.
In my letter of complaint I had outlined the need to ensure that visitors know the procedure should they be picked by the dog. This, I found, had been done, and I also pointed out that my son’s visit had been cut short through no fault of his, and that this should also be addressed. It was. I spoke with the Governor about a lot of issues, and his explanations were all backed by policy.
A couple of weeks later I noticed an advert in the Big Issue for Independent Prison Monitors. I took the ad home and did not look at it again for a couple of months. Then I filled it in and sent it, carefully wording the Conflict of Interest.
I was surprised to be welcomed onto this pilot scheme, but they had picked up on my professional qualities and so I began training a year ago, when Joe was transferred to Castle Huntly, prior to release on HDC. Life was looking up. He could have more visitors, and come out to the car. Not long to wait.
The tag, however, was a pest. The cottage had been left in a mess, damp and cold, but easily cleaned. Joe’s employers were sympathetic, but the dairy farm had almost collapsed with the milk marketing crisis, and they could only pay him half his salary.
PART 2 OF THE STORY WILL FOLLOW IN OUR JANUARY NEWSLETTER AND WILL BE POSTED ONLINE.