Extracted from an article about Kathy Page’s experience as Writer in Residence in Nottingham Prison, published in The Big Issue, 19 July 2004
A neatly dressed, balding man with some alarming facial scars leaned back in his chair and treated me to a list of already familiar complaints about the state of the prison showers and so on. Suddenly he brightened, changed tack and told me: ‘But of course, there’s one good thing. My marriage is far, far better since I came in here.’ We both laughed; he went on to explain how, inside, he had become more thoughtful about his wife and their relationship. He had plenty of spare time and could give her the kind of attention she had always wanted. They wrote every day; he had begun to know her in ways which he never had before. ‘The honesty can be heavy. She has to have her say. But it’s like a kind of honeymoon,’ he aid, cutting the conversation midstream to take up his turn at the computer.
I soon realised that a man being in prison is of course far more likely to have a negative effect on romantic and family relationships: economic hardship, lack of contact, the stress of travelling to visits and the jealous imaginings of the inmate can be a fatal combination. Nonetheless, over the coming weeks I met others who felt their relationships with their partners had been improved by incarceration, and I became aware of the many ways in which men inside actively sought out and found new attachments while serving their time.
In any workplace there are attractions between people; men in prison have few other flesh and blood options. The barriers between prison staff and inmates, in theory strongly demarcated, may, for some, be a catalyst to romance. I was both shocked and touched when one of the inmates I worked with sought me out to explain that he had a ‘crush’ on me, knew it wasn’t reciprocated and would only be a wind-up, and so would be dropping out of the writing workshop.
Because it is such a harsh reality, prison is a place where fantasy flourishes. Any woman coming into a men’s prison is liable to become, as another man informed me with a frankness I could perhaps have done without, ‘wanking material’. Likewise, a female member of staff may well find herself teaching a class full of semi-clothed men who spend hours a day working out and who, despite their dangerousness are, in many ways, under her control. All the same, it seems that a surprising number of ‘real’ relationships do develop inside. While meetings between men and women in a men’s prison often take place in a grim, highly regimented context that is the very opposite of romantic, they can, because of the context, be surprisingly emotionally intimate. There is frequently a degree of vulnerability on the part of the man that would be unusual outside. Relationships spring up between inmates and female lawyers, teachers, probation, officers, visitors and even governor grades. And, I discovered in my year at Nottingham, many inmates seek out official or unofficial pen friends who may later become visitors, partners or wives. Many men put an extraordinary amount of time into their correspondence.
Some of these prison relationships are no doubt duplicitous, exploitative, or plain bizarre (for example, those women who seem only attracted to violent offenders behind bars), but some were genuine. As Angela Devlin shows in her study, Cell Mates, Soul Mates, many prison marriages last and survive the transition to the outside. I found myself thinking a great deal about these relationships. What would it be like to be a man negotiating, for the very first time, an encounter with a woman that was not entirely on his terms? What would it be like, as a woman, to have to cope with the reality of a lover’s terrible past and all the questions it posed?
I could easily see the advantage of a relationship for the man inside. What was in it for the woman? As with every question I asked myself in that year at Nottingham, there were no simple answers. Some women are compulsive rescuers. On the other hand, roles in prison relationships often seemed to me to be to some extent reversed, with the woman appearing to have more control and more rights than she might outside. Another thing to consider – and this was interesting to me personally, since I was involved in a long-distance relationship at the time – was that the writing of letters and the restrictions on meetings created by the regime impose on the would-be lovers an old-fashioned courtship very different to the fast pace of modern relationships. This makes for a particular kind of verbal intimacy and at the same time allows fantasies about the other person to remain unchallenged by everyday reality.
Occasionally I would hear talk from prison professionals as to how a prisoner’s relationship was causing concern. I could see the logic and there is no doubt that some prison relationships are dangerous. Anyone being hurt or abused by their partner needs, in my view, to get out. But increasingly, during that year and afterwards as I wrote Alphabet, I became interested in the grey areas, in the flawed relationships that were also, somehow, good. I came to realise that even downright destructive partnerships contain shreds of contact with another, and are potentially catalysts for transformation. Our sense of self arises out of out intimate relationships, and one of the most irreducible aspects of our humanity is that we do, as Ethel Spector Person writes in Dreams of Love “desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others.”
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
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