Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Repost: A Feminist Issue

It is four years today since the events I described in the first part of this post.  The grumpy sleepy baby is now six.  I got his name for this story from the Latin word for frog, which used to be his nickname; now he is old enough to object and explain the ways he is not like a frog: "Am I green? Do I croak?" Everyone else in this story is older too - and different, although not in such easily quantified ways.

But the prison is still there.  There was a visiting hour this morning.


When I knocked on the door at 7.15 that morning Anura was still asleep. Anura, aka the frog, is two, and his godless father was in prison. It was the first day any of us could visit Thomas,* and I wanted him to be able to see his godless son.

The visit didn't start until 8.30, but Rimutaka prison is half an hour's drive from Wellington and I was told to get there half an hour early. So Anura's mother woke him up, and I strapped a grumpy, sleepy baby into his carseat. We talked about the visit on our way up, me and Anura. "We're going to visit Thomas" I said; "Yeah" he said". "He's in prison" I said; "Yeah" he said. But mostly I just drove.

I'd heard that you could take property (which is corrections lingo for stuff) into the prison while you were visiting. I had my bag of baby stuff in one arm and my bag of prisoner stuff in the other as we went from the visitor's carpark to the gatehouse. We were a little late, and he was walking really slowly so I slung him on my hip, with my two bags. "Takahe" said Anura - although actually it was a Pukeko.

When we got to the gatehouse it was clear that I wouldn't be able to take anything in - everyone was putting everything they had into lockers. So I did too and we were the last to go through the metal detector. "One at a time" the guard said - so I sent the baby through first. Neither of us set off the metal detector - I'd worn my black pants rather than my jeans to make things easy. After searching my bag he let me take my nappies and a museli bar down to visiting. I wouldn't let Anura walk to visiting, but carried him instead - I wasn't going to cut into our hour.**

When we got there the guard made me go back and leave my bag in the entrance way. I could see everyone else hugging their prisoner, but I couldn't see Thomas. The guard told me that they would get him and I should sit down.

Visits at Rimutaka were in a prefab - bigger than the ones at school - but the same basic shape. In one corner was a small fenced in area - like it should have been for children to play in, but there were no toys.

Then Thomas was there in a bright orange Guantanamo bay jumpsuit and I was hugging him and he was OK. The next fifty minutes weren't how we'd normally talk, and not just because the guards would come over and tell him to put his feet on the floor. Although when Anura got bored (even a prison visit hour is a long time for a two year old) he came over and grabbed my face - just like he would have in any other conversation (although he's a better talker now so when I wasn't paying attention to him yesterday he just said "Stop Talking").

Prison visits are too short - they tell you it's over and you try and get one last hug, and say one last thing, and then another last hug, and then it really is over.

The prisoners were taken away and we were sent to the entrance way. They don't let you out of the visitors centre right away. While waiting in the I got a nappy from the bag they hadn't let me take in. Anura had needed changing for a while. I put my hand under his head as he lay down and changed his nappy just outside the door to the visitors centre - there was nowhere else.

Once they let us out we walked back to the gatehouse at two year old pace - he wouldn't be carried.

But in the end, my experience was as borrowed as the baby. When I was waiting to visit the following week,*** I noticed a woman who visited every day. Later she pointed me out to a friend - "She's with the terrorist" and glared at me. I don't know what her problem with me was, but I would think part of it is that I was so obviously there temporarily.

I saw people I knew when visiting, and I wasn't surprised to see them, although they were very surprised to see me. I don't belong to any of the groups whose existence is criminalised or for whom jail is a life hazard. I visited five times in four different prisons before I saw other pakeha visiting pakeha.

So I don't want to talk as if I know anything about having people you love in prison - because twenty-five days is nothing - people are on bail for months and are sentenced to years in prison. There are families and communities, poor and non-white families and communities, where people in prison isn't a horror or an aberration, but a fact of life.

I kept coming back to how much I had, when working to support people in prison. Most important was that there were heaps of us doing this together. I was in a good position for other reasons I had a car, I didn't have a job, I didn't have a child, English is my first language. While I love my friends who were arrested, their disappearance did not change the fabric of my life. I wasn't trying to live without their income, or what they did around the house.

Despite all this trying to support people in prison took everything I was able to give. Even prison visiting - which was the high point of my weeks - is work, doubly so if done with a two year old. The work of having people in prisons, and keeping families and communities functioning while they're away, is done by women. Female visitors outnumbered male visitors three or four to one. It was mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends and friends who were there, with or without kids, to do what needed to be done.

The week after I first visited Rimutaka, I visited Arohata - the women's prison. I'd gone to the prison half a dozen times already, to drop off books, letters, newspapers and visitors forms; I knew the prisons were different. At Arohata they weren't set up for supporters. At Rimutaka there were signs, forms and boxes for anything we might want to do. At Arohata they weren't as rigid, but after a week they wouldn't let us drop any more newspapers off, because they'd never seen this number of newspapers.

I got to Arohata half an hour early - just like I did at Rimutaka. When I rang the bell they told me that visiting didn't begin for half an hour and I'd have to wait outside. About ten minutes later another woman came, she was Maori and there to visit her mother. She'd come down from Palmerston North and we talked a little bit as we waited. I leaned against the fence, and she sat on the grass. She was pregnant, and needed to pee. I wanted to fight for her to get in and get a proper seat, but I'd already spent long enough in the prison system to know that it would just make me tired and get us nowhere.

Theoretically women prisoners on remand have much more visiting time than male prisoners on remand. Visiting time was in two hour blocks, rather than one hour blocks. All visiting time is cut into by the slowness of the prison system, but at the men's prisons they at least seemed to be expecting visitors. At the women's prisons they didn't even realise we were coming, until visiting time began.

As I said, from 12pm Monday 15 October to 4.01pm Thursday 8 November my happiest hours were spent prison visiting. While I was visiting I knew that they were really there, and that they were still them and fears that I couldn't even acknowledge dissipated.

But visiting at Arohata made me so sad, sad and angry, because the other female prisoners didn't seem to get visitors. The woman I'd waited on the grass with was the only other visitor the day I was there, and when other friends had visited the day before, none of the other remand prisoners at Arohata had got visits.

There are fewer remand prisoners at Arohata than there are at Rimutaka (18 vs 81 in the 2003 prison census).  There are only three women's prisons in the country, so women as far away as Gisborne would be held in Wellington. But even taking the numbers into account there were five times as many visitors over two days at Rimutaka, than two days at Arohata.

I don't think that I can extrapolate out total support from two days of visiting, but there's other evidence that implies this is a pattern. Three times as many women as men had custody of children immediately before they were locked up (35.5% vs. 12.1%). For men, almost 80% of the children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner. Whereas for women less than 25% of children were looked after by their partner or ex-partner (full figures here). Instead it's immediately family, larger whanau or CYFS.

Women do the work when men go to prison, and when women go to prison there isn't necessarily anyone to fill the gap.

I'm not pointing out anything new when I say this makes prisons a feminist issue. The invisible work women do is even further from the public eye when it is to serve an institution designed to hide and conceal.

There are different ways of knowing. I've believed in prison abolition for years, but I believed it different on Tuesday 16 October when I stood outside barbed wire fences and thought about people on the other side. And I knew that prisons were a feminist issue when I changed a nappy at the entranceway to a prison visitors centre.

* I have a car, and in a crisis situation I like nothing better than I really long to-do list, so I'd gotten myself approved first.

** That's the guard's job

*** A visit that never happened - but the way the corrections department at times seems deliberately set up to make your life worse is a topic for another post.

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