Monday, November 11, 2013
A common response from everyone I have ever tried to explain the nature of prison friendships to is puzzlement.
Outsiders, those fortunate enough not to have had the gates shut behind them, sometimes imagine prison as being essentially solitary. Thousands of people confined to little concrete boxes, with a meagre interaction between them at best. This is profoundly misguided.
Prison is a rich society. Even in the deepest dungeons the State has created there is communication...shouting out of windows, through the cracks around the door, through messages left in common areas such as the shower. There are exchanges, relationships of mutual obligation... "Guv, can you pass X the newspaper?"... And these strands of common humanity may even be forged without ever actually seeing the other person. Up on the landings the society is more fluid, more laden with the potential for a myriad exchanges. Many good, some bad, but all meaningful.
And yet...even as solid bonds of friendship were forged, there is the knowledge that physical proximity is never in our control. A mindless transfer to another wing, another prison, was inevitable and sometimes sudden. Someone you had spent every spare moment with could be at the other end of the country in a blink of an eye.
This is one reason why I – and other Lifers – tended to mix with each other rather than with short-termers. With fellow Lifers there was the grapevine, the near inevitability of bumping into each other again, even with years of separation. Conversations separated by a decade could easily be continued.
I was never a social animal. Rather than lurking around a pool table, I was more likely to be found sitting in my cell with the door open on Association. People came to visit me, not I them. Poor Gerry was visiting several times a week before I offered him a cuppa – and even then he had to bring his own cup! Not that I lacked the social graces; people came to me often because I listened, if nothing else.
This disjointed, unusual social community has had it's effects. Significantly, coupled with my neurological blindspot for the passage of time, it has rendered me rather useless at maintaining relationships. Unlike prison, your mates aren't within shouting distance, there is no inevitable meeting at the hotplate twice a day. Connections have to actively worked on, maintained, repaired....
And I am rubbish at it. With the blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, website, email, phone, text – just how many more means of communicating does a person need – I have "met" a vast range of people over the last year or so. Gauging the depths of the connections, separating the interlinked nature of the personal and professional (boundaries are always porous to me) and maintaining, building, these connections in meaningful ways seems to slip through my grasp. And I don't just mean professionally, I mean on a personal level.
I am having to learn a new set of skills, absorb new expectations, and grapple with my time-blindness. This has been a dawning realisation and I wonder how any opportunities I have squandered, how many valued people have slipped from my life, as I make this adjustment.