It’s Friday, it’s the afternoon and I’m gripping my VO (visitor order), making my way into the family building joining mums, kids, girlfriends, parents and well, I don’t know, just people; we’re all here to visit a prisoner, there’s a kind of bond.

Volunteers check us in, number us (I’m 21), but we are all treated civilly. Waiting, clock ticking, lingering only 100 yards away from those big prison gates. 2pm imminent, tension mounting and I sense my fellow visitors know the drill far better than I.

Prison gates

Prison gates

Somewhere, only just audible, a phone rings.

That’s the trigger; everyone seems to react. Mothers are dragging children, girlfriends totter in haste. Grabbing clearance passes from the nice lady behind the desk, they’re off; careering out of the building, down steps, breaking records in the dash to the gatehouse. All precious seconds gained means longer with their man.

Ahhh… bit of a misunderstanding by me – it turns out I am not in the first wave at all (ten at a time) but scheduled in the third. Slightly wishing I hadn’t just jumped up, feeling a little awkward I sit down again and try to quell my now pumping adrenaline by reading (quite intently) signs about ‘not smuggling drugs’, ‘how to deal with violence’ and I learn that if I did have some bad news such as ‘intending to end a relationship’ one should contact a member of staff first.

All very sensible, but by now I was figuring that little in the next few hours could or would be very private.

Eventually I reach the gatehouse; the woman in front of me is struggling to find her photographic ID, causing a delay. A senior officer is gently trying to say it doesn’t matter, that’s not the issue, but too late. All her paperwork is out, everywhere. He brings matters to a swift resolve…

“He’s not here, he got shipped out to Dartmoor this morning. Didn’t they tell you? Have you come far?”

“Oh”, her head bent low. “Ilfracombe”. That’s all she says, and walks out into the rain.

I was through, into the airlock, body searched and finally into the vast visiting hall. Three seats in front of one desk and prisoner sat ‘t’other’ side.  As time passed, the general atmosphere seemed to lighten, teas and toasties available from a little canteen, men reunited with loved ones, several I noted were not worried about privacy at all!

My man seemed well, looking forward to joining LandWorks in a few days; he had just received his release licence conditions stating he could not return to his home area. This is the first he knew of this restriction; after 27 months, he is given less than three days to deal with it!

Well, we both agree, good thing he was resettling here (LandWorks have arranged this)… otherwise it would be the next nearest hostel to his home area.

It’s difficult to fully capture the importance of these visits, especially the family visits, so vital. There should be more, many more. I left just before the finish time, not sure I could bear to witness them all parting.

I popped back to the family centre to retrieve a copy of ‘Inside Times’, a newspaper for prisoners. The front page had caught my eye.  A poem, called Prisoners, by Judge Dennis Challeen:

We want them to have self worth, so we destroy their self worth
To be responsible, so we take away all responsibility
To be part of our community, so we isolate them from the community
To be positive and constructive, so we degrade them and make them useless
To be non violent, so we put them where there is violence all around
To be kind and loving people, so we subject them to hatred and cruelty
To quit being tough guys, so we put them where the tough guy is respected
To quit hanging around losers, so we put all the losers under one roof
To quit exploiting us, so we put them where they exploit each other
We want them to take control of their own lives own their own problems
and quit being parasites, so we make them totally dependent on us.