Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Tale of Two Prison Visits: Part Two.

If you have ever tried to find out how a young person is feeling or what they are thinking you will know what a futile thing it is to ask. Increase that futility tenfold at least if the young person in your life has suffered trauma. I am sure that, like me, you long ago abandoned questions like "What's wrong?", "How was school?" or "Are you OK?" We learn new techniques, new ways of saying the same things, we begin discussions with an interested expression and a thoughtful "I wonder if....." Sometimes it works but often it doesn't, particularly when you are dealing with a teenager who hides beneath his hood with eyes glued to his phone or simply walks off and refuses to engage.

Conversations with a young person in a visits hall often have a different quality which contradicts the negativity of your surroundings. Firstly this visit is the highlight of their week. On the most basic level you are a break from the monotonous routine of life in custody but also as a visitor you represent the outside world. You bring hugs, news, smiles and thoughts from the other side of the impenetrable wall. You bring hope too, hope that there is still someone out there that hasn't forgotten them, who cares enough to give up a day to travel to the prison and back, who will still be there when their sentence is over. There are few diversions: it's just you and them staring across a table at each other for two hours. They can't leave the room when you refuse to change the subject, you don't have to compete with Facebook or texts from the girlfriend. There is no reluctance to talk, they jump at the opportunity. However it is still possible to talk without actually saying very much. Thankfully this has not been the case on this most recent visit to OT.

I have written about OT before, most notably in the post Offending Behaviour which attempts to explain the turn his life has taken. He is twenty now and his sentence ends in just a few days. He has been counting down to release day for the last month at least and has shown excitement during visits and optimism about his ability to turn over a new leaf when he returns home. There has been a fair amount of bravado, many unrealistic expectations of his ability to cope with no issues at all after almost two years of being removed from all the situations that he finds challenging. So yesterday I was relieved to spend time with a very different young man. Yesterday I listened to memories of the family who have rejected him: some of them happy and some horrific. I witnessed barely suppressed tears, quiet moments where he struggled to regain his composure. Once or twice he became quiet and the, usually futile, question "Where have you gone in your head?" elicited an honest answer.

For a couple of hours he revealed the vulnerability and fear which I have always known about but which he has gone to great lengths to mask. It was as if he consciously made a decision that it was time to trust me with his anxiety about rejoining the community. He was telling me for the first time that he wants to succeed but he is frightened that he doesn't have it in him. He was putting his pride to one side and saying "I'm scared. I can't do this alone. I need help. I need to know you're going to be there."

It was emotional and beautiful. I drove home feeling optimistic for OT's future for the first time. He did a very difficult thing yesterday and I am proud of him but I am also relieved that the bravado has gone because now I have a young person I can truly support and work with.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Tale of Two Prison Visits. Part One.

The first thing I learned was that you get there early, to this particular prison that is. There's no need at some of them, you would just be hanging around, but here they call you in the order that you arrived, so if you are early you get a longer visit. Furthermore the car park is tiny so you take a chance getting there at the last minute. My second lesson was to wear shoes that slip off easily. They will make you take them off and show the soles of your feet so you don't want to be messing about with tricky buckles and laces. Thirdly you empty your pockets before you leave the car because if you accidentally forget something the metal detector might go off and you cause a delay in the queue: your ID and a tenner, that's all you take in.

I'm a bit of an expert now, I have visited this particular lad in almost every establishment in the South of England. Well not really, it just feels like it, but I have become familiar with a few and know the rules and routines. I know which visit halls have vending machines (coins needed) and which have a tea bar; I know which days the drug dogs operate and when they don't; I know if I will be given a wrist band or a stamp on the back of the hand; I know if I will need 10p for the locker or not; I know which visitor centre loos are best avoided. As we wait to be called most of the faces around the room are familiar, we are creatures of habit and tend to visit on the same day of the week each time. You can spot a first-timer: there's someone new today and she asks about the form she's filling in, how much cash she can take in, where we have to go when we are called. A regular visitor shows her what's what, we all hope we are not behind her in the queue.

The phone rings, we all sit up a little straighter and strain to hear. The Prison Officer reads the first 4 names, the one familiar to me among them, and I run across to the main entrance to avoid the worst of the drizzle. Another short wait, a shorter queue, "Next family!" - I am a family of one and not actually family at all but his only regular visitor. Paperwork and ID are checked, another short walk, another short wait. Empty contents of pockets onto a tray, hands out at your sides please, turn around, open your mouth, shoes off now please and show me the bottoms of your feet, thank you that's fine. Another short walk and I am let through the final locked door and into the visits hall. He is already seated and waiting, I know he will have spotted me the second I was let through the door and his eyes will follow me as I walk to the desk, hand over my visiting order and am given a table number. I turn in the direction pointed, make eye contact with him for the first time and his face lights up with a broad grin as I cross the length of the room. We share a long, tight squeeze of a hug and sit down to spend our two hours together.

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Significant Date

Christmas Day seems far more than a week ago and the New Year hangover has faded but, in the midst of the back-to-work to-do lists and the annual battle to return the tree to the loft, I spy a significant date on the calendar.

Two years ago today OT returned home after absconding since New Year's Eve. An optimistic trio of magistrates had granted him conditional bail on the 31st itself, the condition being that he remain at home from 8pm  each night, including that particularly tricky night. Fat chance, what were they thinking? I managed to keep him in the house just long enough for a shower and change of clothes before he disappeared again.

But on the 2nd of January the Prodigal Teen returned: tired, grubby, fed up with sleeping on floors and sofas, sick of hiding from police. He had decided to face the music, and the warrant out for his arrest, and we called 101 together to let them know that he was back. The paperwork hadn't kicked in yet, the police were in no rush, so we had some waiting time on our hands and we hatched a plan. December 25th had been a bit of a wash-out (for reasons described here - Ghosts of Christmases Past) and the turkey was still in the fridge with 24 hours left on its expiry date. With the pressure now off, why not do Christmas now? What followed was possibly the best and then worst memory of OT's placement with me.

The food preparation was relaxed and laid-back, we would eat when it was ready as there was no need for a schedule. The part of my role description that mentions helping the young person develop independent life skills had been somewhat redundant during this turbulent placement. It's hard to teach a young man to cook and clean when he is more often in a cell than in his bedroom, so OT's training began with sprout peeling and turkey basting. At about 5pm we sat down to share the result of our work...and it was good! After our late turkey dinner we took our pudding into the living room and watched his favourite film which I had bought him on DVD for Christmas. It is Titanic in case you were wondering. My hardened, challenging, persistent young offender's favourite film is Titanic: you couldn't make it up.

Shortly afterwards OT went to bed and while I was having a sneaky, late Yuletide glass of Bailey's the knock at the door came. Two police response officers stand outside, surprised to be told that OT is exactly where he is supposed to be and is already asleep in bed at 11pm. I ask if I can wake him up rather than them, they lurk behind me on the landing in case he tries to escape but there's really no need. He gets dressed in three layers of clothes he wants to have with him in prison, grabs his book of stamps and list of phone numbers, gives me a hug and then walks downstairs to wait with me and the officers for the police van.

This was the arrest that began the custodial sentence he is still serving, which will end exactly a month from now.

When you agree to a Supported Living placement for a young person with a history of offending and challenging behaviour, you realise quite early on that you are going to have to be flexible. I don't think I imagined that this would mean Christmas Day on the second of January but I am very glad it did. What a fantastic memory for us both to have of his last evening at home.