Love Inside

Love Inside

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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