Doing Time in the SoE

This is the dark time, my love,
All round the land brown beetles crawl about
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow
This is the dark time, my love,
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass
It is the man of death, my love, the stranger invader
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

—This is the Dark Time, My Love Martin Carter

There’s something about going to prison that cures you of all desire to know what it’s like to not have your freedom. I spend the few hours on the inside fantasising about the hour of my escape. But I’ve chosen to be here, volunteering my time in a women’s prison in north London, working with hardened criminals whose smiles are sweet and light, who tell jokes and hug their children like there might not be a tomorrow. Oh but for them there is no tomorrow and this is a rare moment for them to spend time with their loved ones. I am struck again by how normal these women seem. How regular their needs, their names, their pet peeves.

They are not the most disagreeable people I have ever met. And I have a hard time seeing them as anything else but just like me. It always surprises me the women that I meet in these prisons, the ones who are the best behaved and so they get to come to the gym and play with their children and us the volunteers get to work with them on creating toys and tools and mementoes that have special significance to them and their families. This day it’s a woman from Barbados, who drops her English accent when she hears my unapolo- getic singing Trini-ness. My voice reminds her of home, she says. Her smile is wistful and I am dying to ask her how she ended up in this place of high walls and not very much light. But it’s not the time and it’s not my place.

We are in outer space today, and I help the mothers and children make fantastic spaceships to take them to outer galaxies in a sky we cannot see from this room. But the imagination is a hell of a thing and I am astounded by what they manage to do, without blades, without scissors. They construct magnificent vessels of escape out of paper plates and straws. To take them and their children away from this place of walls and mistakes and punishment for sins they may or may not have committed. The time drags for me. The doors locked. I have to get a guard’s permission for the toilet. I find it unbearable. The minutes  go so slowly and I fear that three o’clock will never come. Or the guards will forget us here. Locked up in this gymnasium where I cannot see the sky.

Perhaps they love their children more. Perhaps they will love freedom more now that they have a chance to reflect on it. I am thinking of spaceships and prisons on the flight back to Trini-dad. It is sunset and we are circling the Caroni Swamp and the sight of a flock of Scarlet Ibis flying like a red arrow below us makes me smile. From up here  everything looks so green, so beautiful in the light of a golden hour. There are no walls here. No walls that I can see from up here.

Later I listen to the silence descend at 11 pm. By 11.11 I am weary of it. It closes in like the walls of the prison’s gymnasium. I wonder what the rest of the people in the neighbourhood are doing. I cannot hear a television or a thought. Even the dogs have fallen silent as if they too are fearful that some boots will come trampling through the night and deal them a blow of silence like their scared masters. I remember one of the women in the prison in Babylondon telling me that for some people, prison is a far easier choice. Freedom comes with too much responsibility and so they prefer to be in a place where their meals are prepared, where their time is managed, where someone else has the keys and someone else makes the decisions.

Other people to manage your freedom so that you don’t have to take responsibility for your mistakes, for your shortcomings, for the fact that you’ve made a mess of your life, your children, your community, your country. It is a terrifying statement that haunts me well into the hours of the morning. And I want to believe that it’s jetlag that has me awake and watching the road, hoping for a sign of life, something, anything that has the freedom to move, freedom to own its body enough to not care who says not to go where.

But the silence is all that I can see or hear. Silence like a gate that I do not have the keys to. It is terrible and deafening. I wait for the dawn. For the time when the gate of silence opens. When I can own my body again and do with it what I must. I find that I am not rushing to run through the streets proclaiming freedom. I am trying to think of ways to make it through another night in this prison.