South London Photographer: Prison drama, community and obsession

“You’re obsessed!”, Son No. 1 accuses me.  He can talk!  During the last decade I have had to endure his obsessive interests in planes, trains, Dr. Who, Lego, trains again and finally back to planes.  He must be one of very few 11 year olds who knows so much about international airline liveries, who has strong and passionate opinions on the efficacy of airline corporate colours, lettering shapes and flag placement; and who regularly designs, in his opinion, improved versions of well-known airline logos.

“I’m not obsessed”, I reply.  I’m just lost without it.  I’m referring of course to Orange is the New Black, an award-winning American prison based drama produced by Netflix and originated by Piper Kerman who was, like the main character, indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. I watched all three series in a matter of ten days and now that I’ve finished gorging on it I don’t quite know what to do with the time I’m allowing myself to have for such activities.  I say ‘allowing myself’ because for the last three years or so I’ve watched very little TV and have instead filled my free time with work, study and more work.

“You are, you’re obsessed with prison!” Son No 1 insists.  Aaaah!  He’s not referring to the Netflix programme but to my current interest in all things prison related, including of course, the drama.  Perhaps ignoring them all, and by ‘all’ I mean the feral small ones in my charge, while I watched my new prison friends dressed in beige (yes, beige, not orange at all except for their initial few days in penitentiary – I guess Beige is the New Black is not as catchy…) and then announcing that I would be taking my lovely family to a summer fair at the local prison is what’s informing Son No 1’s diagnosis about my state of mind.

The truth is I have long been fascinated by the idea of prison and Wandsworth Prison, or thoughts of it, in particular have featured on my internal landscape for years.

My first home in London was a rented room in an artist’s flat in Southfields.  I loved my landlady who was the only person advertising ‘no deposit required’ when I was looking for somewhere to live that wasn’t my friend’s floor in Kilburn.  A friend whom at the time was heading for a relationship breakdown, so the floor in her flat was even more uncomfortable than it might have been and I don’t suppose my presence on her carpet was terribly helpful for her either, or the soon-to-be-dumped boyfriend.

In my new flat I had a bed which meant sleeping several inches above the floor for the first time in a while and a lovely landlady whose relationship was stable and blossoming.  I felt I had truly arrived and my adventures in London could begin.  I say adventures but those first couple of months felt anything but adventurous.  Instead bewildering, lonely, or frightening depending on my mood and events or more accurately even, lack of events – at least to start with anyway.  However, intriguingly I had a neighbour whom I was told spent much of his time in Wandsworth Prison whilst his wife and children got on with their own lives.

One day said neighbour came home.  Soon I heard a man’s voice through the thin walls of that ex-council flat from next door, which at first seemed fine.  Until the night I heard him beating up his wife.  The sound of his fists landing on his wife’s body and face was the most sickening thing I had ever heard and I lay awake, feeling petrified and horrified but frozen, not knowing what to do.  My landlady had heard it as well I discovered the next day. She too did nothing.  (Many years later I read a book by an ex-probation officer called Living with the Dominator which looks at domestic abuse.  Craven seems to have been a remarkable woman who worked with offenders caught up in a pattern of abuse towards their partners. She devised the Freedom Programme, a project aimed at educating, recognising and changing abusive behaviours.  I hate that I didn’t do anything that night and have no idea how I’d handle things differently now, but what I  can do is recommend that book to anyone who feels they might be, or know someone who might be, involved with domestic abuse in any way whatsoever.  It’s a very powerful book which looks at overt and covert misogynistic trends in our society and clearly describes the sort of behaviours partners and women in particular should expect from spouses and boyfriends. There are some useful numbers to call on this link if anyone has concerns in this area.)

I didn’t hear the sound again.  Instead a few days later what we heard was the sound of people banging on our door and running down the corridors.  Suddenly one morning before we’d eaten breakfast there were detectives making their way through our flat and on to our balcony.  I looked out the window and a long line of police in riot gear stood quietly in front of our building apparently waiting for my neighbour to appear.

After 20 minutes or so we saw the neighbour being led away to a waiting van, hands cuffed behind his back, his head pushed downwards by a plain clothed detective.  I remember having such strong and palpable sensations as I watched that man who had presumably caused terror and also physical pain in his wife; and sensations such as fear, revulsion and of course shame in me for not intervening when he had hit her.  This man who had warranted what looked like the entire South London police force to turn up on our Wandsworth Council estate now had all his size and force reduced.  The sense of dread had dissipated and been replaced with something entirely different.  He looked tiny, helpless, genuinely pathetic. I can’t find the words to describe how seeing that utter loss of liberty in a human being felt. It was sickening and devastating. Even though I was of course relieved to see him taken away. We heard he had been returned to Wandsworth Prison.

A couple of rented rooms and years later, I ended up living very near to the prison, although I have no idea if my old neighbour was still there.  Actually, I almost left the borough of Wandsworth as a friend and I rented a flat in Peckham, only to be told when we arrived in SE London accompanied by a van stuffed with our belongings that the flat was not habitable. After a week of sleeping on yet another floor, this time in a house ‘lent’ to us by the estate agents which had been bought by a family who were still living abroad and so had not been able to pick up the keys, we landed back in Wandsworth.  That was a stressful few days and there were times, especially when faced with the threat of not having our deposit returned, that I hoped the estate agents would be sent to prison.

Thanks to colleagues and friends we found a clean and light filled flat that was more than habitable in a tower block, overlooking Wandsworth Common and Wandsworth Prison, and where I would spend the next 10 years.  Although, to begin with I have to say, I was horrified by the height – we were 7 floors up, and the entire estate was filled with what I perceived then as a deathly silence.  In fact, I was convinced everyone who lived there must be dying and that I too would die there either by accidentally jumping out the building or just because I’d catch the sense of ‘deathliness’ I was convinced I sensed all around me. Mmmmm – it was a tricky time in the head of SJF.

What actually happened was that I grew to love the height, made friends with some of the people, old and young, and ended up moving from one flat to another across the corridor because I loved being there so much.  And I especially appreciated the peaceful quietness of the estate.

It became my home.  I found a life long friend there, lost her briefly when Mr. X moved in, got pregnant, lost a baby, got pregnant again, lost Mr. X briefly, then married him and got pregnant again.  I grew up there.

And the prison was a constant presence just across the road.  Where other people went through similar life journeys, only living inside that 150-year-old building.

The point for me is that the prison is part of Wandsworth.  Real lives are lived in there – both staff and inmates.  The building and the people inside are part of our community.

About a year or so ago I noticed some of my local friends posting photographs of themselves breeding pigs on Facebook.  What I hadn’t really taken on board was that my city slicker friends were part of a small farming co-operative that was based on prison land and which had been instigated by a local reverend.  I have since discovered that the Paradise Co-operative is a fascinating project with various long-term plans that connects the prison and its land to the community.  And that interests me enormously.  Modern communities and how they function have become one of my big interests over the years and Wandsworth community in particular, since it is where I live and have done since 1997 (despite attempts to leave), which is by far the longest I’ve ever been anywhere.

So, Son. No 1, I may seem a little obsessed with all things prison-related right now as I look at other photographers’ relevant work, watch dramas based in prison, and read pertinent articles and books around the subject.  But I think I must have picked this quality up from you – having learnt about real obsessiveness by watching you devour Thomas the Tank Engine etc and all the rest of it over the years.  Is that the way it works?  Or does he get it from me… either way, all three sons had a great time at the Paradise Co-operative Summer Fair which was my introduction to a project that I hope to document as it continues to evolve.

The land, just across the road from the main building, had been transformed.  It was kind of magical entering through coloured bunting and cloth to find lovely stalls with games, food and drink.  I hope the organisers were proud of themselves because it was a great way for local people to connect with the project.

(P.S. I do really have plenty to be getting on with during that ‘free’ time I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, but if you know of any great prison dramas I couldn’t do without, please let me know!  But don’t tell Son No 1 – he can be so censorious.  In fact he’s made me promise only to watch two episodes a day of the next thing I’ve discovered on Netflix.  Not a prison drama but it does have the occasional ex-convict popping up.  Role on September when I’ll start studying again, heh, before I turn into a TV drama addict!)

You can find out more about the project here:

And here are just a few photographs from the day. All (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015

Paradise co-op-8547 Paradise co-op-2484 Paradise co-op-2345 Paradise co-op-8616 Paradise co-op-2361 Paradise co-op-2439 Paradise co-op-2346 Paradise co-op-2473 Paradise co-op-2380 Paradise co-op-2426 Paradise co-op-2377 Paradise co-op-2469 Paradise co-op-2412

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