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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Not Public Property

There are a lot of stereotypes that go with prison; the bully guard, the cruel warden, the flirty nurse/teacher/librarian, the tough convict, the wimpy convict, and of course the inmate's wife. How do stereotypes become? In most cases, it is because there are indeed a very small number of people who do act/look/behave in such a way that is extreme. And because these are extreme cases, people tend to talk about them, and so the myth evolves into a stereotype that most people recognise and many people actually thinks is the real thing.

There was the first episode of a new drama on BBC 1 last night, called "Prison Wives". It's not a documentary, it uses fictional characters and a fictional prison, but it portrays the lives of an assortment of women whose husbands are locked up in the UK. I really was in two minds whether to watch it, and saw the first three or four minutes after the credits started before I turned it off. But the tiny bit that I did see, made me think it would be a good drama, probably addressing some of the issues that British inmate wives face in a sensitive and unsensationaistic way. Of course it is entertainment, but the BBC often has a way of commissioning dramas like this that handle topics in a far more grown-up way than many so-called "documentary" makers do.

One of the reasons I decided not to watch the programme was that I'd had enough of prison for one day. I don't do my husband's time for him, and I don't feel obliged to make it the centre of my universe in the way that it is for him. While I have an interest in prison issues and I like murder-mysteries, that doesn't mean it is the only thing that interests me.

When I got home from work last night there was a message in my inbox on one of the prison forums I inhabit, from a woman from Associated Press UK, asking me if I would like to take part in a film about "women who fall in love with inmates". Most of the time, I just delete messages like that, especially when there is a specific section on that particular forum where the media can post their requests for guinea pigs. Last night though, it really rubbed me the wrong way.

It is one thing to post a general request for all to see, but quite another to invade my inbox with a request, especially when they have obviously not taken the time to read what is publicly available about me and my husband. If they had done so, they would know that I did not fall in love with an inmate, I fell in love with a free man who then went on to comit a crime and is now an inmate. Not the same thing at all. They would also know, if they chose to find out, that I also write to several other inmates across America - why don't they want to know about friendships with inmates? Why don't they want to talk to me about two of my pals who have both spent time on Death Row (in different states) and who are now in general population serving life sentences?

But what really got me was the old ploy of "your chance to tell your story". Am I expected to bite their hand off and cry "Of course I'd love to take part in something that would lead to so much ridicule and pity being sent my way, and may damage my chances of moving to the US or my husband's chances of parole at a later date". It would not be our chance to tell our story; it would be us being used to illustrate whatever whimsical slant the producer wanted to put on their own perceptions of what life is like for "someone like me".

I came to the conclusion several years ago that there is no way to show on film this life that my husband and I have without the majority of people either thinking we are sad, mad or bad. The minute you start to try and explain, it makes you sound desperate or dillusional, even to those who may not immediately think poorly of you. I even find myself thinking how daft I sound sometimes, so I can imagine what others must think. I decided that film is not the medium to use if I want to give a positive portrayal, at least, not someone elses' film.

I write this blog because I know there are people out there who face a similar situation to us, with the hope that they can find information and maybe a little solidarity here. I am open and honest with the people I meet face to face about where my husband is and why, but I don't parade around town with a banner to make a statement about it. I don't eat, sleep and think prison 24/7 and I have absolutely no intention of doing so.

If anyone is going to make a film or write a book or play about us, it will be us. We're not some Victorian freak show that you can amuse yourself with, and frankly we don't fit into the stereotype that the media seem desperate to show anyway. We're just two people making the best of a bad situation together.

If you want juicy scandal, try the Lohans or Hiltons of this world. 

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