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Authors: Tanya Levin

Crimwife

Copyright

Published by Black Inc.,

an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd

37-39 Langridge Street

Collingwood, VIC 3066 Australia

email: [email protected]

http://www.blackincbooks.com

 

© Tanya Levin, 2012

 

All Rights Reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

 

The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

 

Levin, Tanya, 1971-

Crimwife : an insider’s account of love behind bars / Tanya Levin.

ISBN for eBook edition: 9781921870750

ISBN for print edition: 9781863955744 (pbk.)

Levin, Tanya, 1971- . Prisoners’ spouses--Australia--Anecdotes.

365.608655

 

Some names in this book have been changed to protect identities.

 

To “Jimmy”:

Thank you for allowing me to tell this story, or my version of it; for showing me your world and teaching me I was stronger than I ever imagined. I wish you freedom.

FFL

 

And for my son:

Thank you for living with this whole

book thing. I am so much richer for

knowing you. You make me prouder and happier every day.

 

And here’s to Love. I think it’s amazing.

 

Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light. This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.

—Margaret Atwood,
Negotiating with the Dead

 

Andrew Denton: You spent almost half your adult life in prison – how many women made approaches to you for relationships while you were in prison?

Mark “Chopper” Read: Oh, you know, stacks, but oh, you wouldn’t wear them on a brooch. I mean, ah …

Applause

W.C. Fields said that he, he’d never be a member of any club that’d have him and that was my attitude too. I mean, you’re in jail, you’ve got no ears, and you’re getting written to by these ha ha, oh come on, oh ha ha, just don’t be ridiculous you know, ha ha.


Enough Rope
, 4 June 2007

 

CASSIO

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part, Sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

 

IAGO

As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound; there is more offence in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.

—Shakespeare,
Othello

 

Some twenty years ago, in the old Californian Café on Oxford St, my razor-sharp friend and I were discussing our respective dating situations over coffee. “Ahhhhh,” he sympathised, in his deliberately condescending way, “you really weren’t made for marriage, were ya, love?” He then burst into fits of laughter and started singing the words to “Young Hearts Run Free,” closing with another “Ahhhhh.”

“Love really don’t love you, does it, Tan?” He smirked into his latte.

It’s funny because it’s true. I’ve never been a hopeless romantic, merely hopeless, at romance among many other things. Now, since we tend to dislike activities we are no good at, it follows that I am in no way charmed by this crazy little thing called love.

The term “falling in love” covers a range of erratic and otherwise inexcusable behaviour. It usually seems to do far more damage than good. People change, suddenly and shamelessly. Perfectly normal individuals become manic, irrational, obsessive and boring. You lose friends over it. They say it’ll always be the same, but it’s not. Some stranger ends up moving in with your mate, and suddenly it’s their vote that counts when it’s time to choose the movie. Then your mate becomes their wife. They move away and post photos all over Facebook of their new life. Or worse, they don’t move away and you have to hear in person every detail of their first date, first week, first month, first fight, first year, engagement party, wedding, honeymoon, home loan, pregnancy attempts and everything else until their offspring fall in love themselves. Rinse and repeat.

I resent falling in love. Every time it happens to me, it derails me. It makes me feel queasy, I can’t get things done and I think strange thoughts. While it’s distressing when I see it happen to others, I outright detest it when it happens to me. I don’t mind it so much when the initial scary part is over, when the vomiting stops and everyone feels comfortable, but before then it’s revolting.

So, given that romance is a topic I both recoil from and resent, the idea of writing about one of my own is, at best, difficult. The other major problem is that the relationship in question was with a man, let’s call him Jimmy, who committed so many armed robbery, driving and drug offences in the states of Australia that he has spent the bulk of his adult life in jail.

While others at the office were comparing restaurants or movies, it was impossible to join in. Why would you tell them that while you had a life lived outside here on Earth, your man lived on another planet, which you visited on weekends? How could they ever understand? And was there any chance they wouldn’t judge you?

It was fine to tell people we didn’t live together, but that later we’d get a small place of our own. It was another thing to explain that when we met, my boyfriend lived in a jail cell about the size of an average home’s bathroom. He shared that usually with one other inmate, so they were two-out, but he sometimes was four-out. With four of them the room was sometimes slightly bigger.

The room he and his cellie occupied had a toilet and a sink. Sometimes they got a desk and a chair, but because they are more popular as weapons, they were rare. There are some things that voyeurs need not know, but from my understanding Jimmy was particular about the toileting rules in the cell, the breaking of which could result in violence. Food poisoning or not. There are things that a man simply learns to control while incarcerated.

When Jimmy complained to me that there was no steak or cigarettes or chocolate in jail, I would say, “People who don’t rob banks …?”

“Get to eat steak,” he’d say.

“People who rob banks …?”

“Have to wait their turn.”

This line of discussion was never very helpful in either his rehabilitation or our relationship. But it was very black and white for me. You don’t need to go to prison if you don’t want to. Or do you?

These are not common topics of conversation with your co-worker or next-door neighbour.

 

*

 

I conducted a romance in a world where life is cheap, justice and truth are determined by which staff member’s on shift, and your partner’s death is viewed as doing society a favour. Jimmy wanted a life where there were toilet seats, sugar for coffee, and no one telling gangster hero stories all night inside the small concrete block that was his home. Somewhere between the two of us, we collided and called it us.

Jimmy is smart and funny. You wouldn’t think so if you consider where he is, but you would if you met him. He always made me think of that extra-helpful guy at Bunnings who has the energy to check out the back if there’s any more of what you want. He, like a lot of armed robbers, looks like anyone else. Except for the prison greens.

The main reason it was never easy to bring him up at dinner parties is that Jimmy was not a political prisoner. He is no Nelson Mandela; he said his cause was big bags of money. He was not an innocent man wrongly convicted. He was not in a fight that turned bad, or trying to save someone’s life. There were no accidents, he would tell you, except that he got caught. No mistaken identity, it was him alright.

There is no excuse in the eyes of the law or the community when it comes to criminal behaviour. Victims of Jimmy’s actions who have claimed compensation get some financial reimbursement. Jimmy gets a period of time to extricate himself from his actions; victims get a dollar amount to make amends for irretrievable loss. But it doesn’t end when time is served or cheques are cashed. Society portions justice out, but after these token gestures are made, the damage has still been done.

As much as I will make light of some experiences, I don’t defend what Jimmy has done, his selfishness and the harm he has caused. The best way I have seen it described was by an anonymous counsellor, in a 2002 interview with the
Guardian
, who fell in love with a criminal: “I have never sought to justify my partner’s criminal past and I never will. But to me he has always been and will always be more than the worst thing he ever did.”

My involvement in this relationship could make me look all kinds of crazy. Still, there’s no way I would have learned what I did if I hadn’t allowed the love disease to progress. As squirmworthy as it is to recount much of this, I had to tell someone. And, since it’s easier to tell people your secrets when they’re strangers, I’ll tell you.

 

7.34 am.

The phone rings.

I am nowhere near a morning person, so I appreciate the wake-up call. It’s Big Ben reliable. Every single morning, soon after 7.30. The voice is an Australian male’s, possibly the same man who tells me that “the train on platform 18 goes to Hornsby via Strathfield.” It sounds like him, but he wouldn’t be doing this gig. Still, his recorded prelude is my own special alarm tone:

“You are about to receive a phone call from an inmate at the Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre.”

Pause.

“This call will be recorded, and may be monitored. If you do not wish to receive this call, hang up now.”

Long pause.

“Go ahead, please.”

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

By that first beep I am conscious. It is 7.35 and morning muster is over for my boyfriend Jimmy. He would have been woken at 6 for a head count and then been left till 7.30 muster. At muster, if everybody is where they’re supposed to be, then there is let-go, when inmates are let go, out of the wing, to start their days.

The remand centre, or “M double R,” as it’s known, is a maximum security jail and the nine hundred men housed there are allowed out between 7.30 and 3.30 every day. They go to work, attend appointments or educational classes, or wait around in the yard. Today the remand centre must be running smoothly according to its SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure, because I’m awake and there’s my boyfriend on the phone. On the odd occasion when the wake-up call doesn’t happen, there’s something wrong at the jail. It could mean a lack of staff, or that someone’s dead.

“Good morning, my baby,” he starts. He is bouncy and happy, very much a morning person by now, having spent over ten years in jail.

“Hello?” I try to cover up the fact that, no matter what I do, I can’t join the morning people’s bounciness.

For the next five or so minutes (the phone calls are six minutes, including the beeps and taped intro) we exchange the how-are-yous and the weather chat. We talk about our plans for the day. There’s no time for detail. I have to pay bills and do some research. Jimmy is booked in to see the psychologist and the doctor but doesn’t know if either will eventuate. He tells me he’s sent a letter, even though I’ll get it today or tomorrow. I tell him I love the letters, because I do.

Beeeeeeeeeeep.

This beep lets us know we’ve got about thirty seconds. We wind up a conversation that can never go anywhere.

“Can you hear me? I love you,” he says.

“Love you too.”

“Ok, I’ll ring you after lunch,” he says.

Beeeeeeeeeeep.

“Are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Click.

The phone system is never perfect. Sometimes it cuts us off early and sometimes, confusingly, late. It’s OK, it’s only a local call, so as long as he has money on his phone account, he can call me a few more times before 3.30 lock-in. We may speak for twenty-four or even thirty-six minutes today, depending on how long and violent the lines are for the jail phones. Unless something goes wrong with the SOP, and then I won’t hear anything at all.

Even the beginning of the recording, “You are about to receive,” triggers its own emotion, because I know that within thirty seconds I will hear the warm and familiar voice of my partner. We have little control over our communications. We have learned to be cautious with our six minutes, not to upset the other, not to start something that will go unfinished. Our relationship is dictated by the state. Our time together is precious.

 

*

 

This was how my day started during the first two and a half years of the five years Jimmy and I were together. My first thoughts were of the one I loved, of the prison yard he was standing in, of how different our days would be.

Did I plan it this way? Not on your life. Was I in it just because I liked bad boys? Not this time.

I joined the show late, when the action was long gone, and the excitement was wrapped up in letters, phone calls and the faraway chance of parole. Jimmy was thirty-four. He’d been shot in the knee, bashed and smacked in the head so many times he couldn’t possibly remember them all – and that was just by the authorities. His shoulder had been pulled out while he was cuffed to a police car. Then there was the self-inflicted damage – to this day I have no idea how he’s still alive. Plus, there were plenty of men younger, quicker, stronger, angrier and more determined than Jimmy at thirty-four. And like sports professionals, without these essential qualities, retirement or redundancy can come early.

I do know for sure that when the doctor announced, “It’s a girl,” my parents’ hopes were not instantly drawn to their little orange-haired angel growing up to spend ninety-minute segments, three times a week, visiting an armed robber in maxo.

But, as it is tattooed on countless crims in honour of Ned Kelly, “Such is Life.”

When my thing with Jimmy started, I was near the end of my probationary twelve months as a drug and alcohol counsellor in the jail where he was doing his time. When I confided to Maxine, the only prison officer colleague I could trust, that I had fallen in love with an inmate, she was mortified. She loved her job. She saw it as serving the community. In Max’s mind, there were good guys and bad guys. Her uniform and keys demonstrated that she was a good guy making sure the bad guys were in their rightful place.

Jail is a great argument for evolution. Only the fittest and the adaptable survive. This holds true for screws and crims alike: they are two tribes coexisting as one family, knowing that a wrong move could see them savaged by the pack. The unforgivable sin for an employee of the jail is to cross the floor, to change teams, to consider an inmate an object of affection.

Every day or two for the first couple of weeks, Max would come to my house after work and pace around my living room. She tore most of the strips that could be ripped from me. It was a fantastic hazing. And my first real introduction to the bewilderment, disgust, contempt, disappointment and anger that people feel when you align yourself with an inmate, much less claim to love one. By the time it came around to telling other people, I’d already heard every possible worst-case scenario and guilt trip, courtesy of Max.

“He’s using you, you idiot,” she would say. This is the number one response to announcement of any such relationship, and of course it has its merits. Jimmy’s own family goes away on holiday when he gets out of jail, he says.

“As soon as he gets out of jail, he’ll be gone.” How ironic that would turn out to be.

“He’s a filthy rotten crim. That’s all he is. That’s all he’ll ever be. Is that what you want?”

I’d tell her about the letters he’d been sending. How I couldn’t help it that they made my heart race; just the sight of his handwriting on the envelope meant pure ecstasy lay within those pages.

“The crims put those letters up on the noticeboard and copy them down, don’t you get it? They pass them round so they can all make their girls feel special and put more money in their account.”

She chain-smoked, frustrated by my stupidity and that doe-eyed look I got when she talked about him instead of the clarity and recognition she was aiming for. “Why would you give up a job with the department, the best job you’ve ever had, to go to visits on weekends? This is a job that could give you a career. What are you going to do now that you’ve screwed all that up?”

The preceding year had got me believing that Corrective Services was not correcting much at all except for, very occasionally, its own mistakes.

“How can you do this as a mother? What is your son going to think? That it’s OK to have a stepfather whose greatest achievement was an anger management course? That it’s normal to wait with your mates for muster six times a day? That bed time is at 4 pm right after a 3.30 dinner? He’s a violent criminal, Tanya. How can you even think of bringing this man into your child’s life?”

She had me there. It seemed a sure thing that introducing Fagin as a live-in father figure could produce only an Artful Dodger for a son.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I would plead.

And yet I was in that involuntary initial stage where nothing anyone says can make a difference. Because even when it’s blue and black scrawl on A4 lined paper nicked from the jail’s education department, love letters win out over reason every time.

Max was a screw and as desperate as a Christian begging me not to go ahead with my conversion to Satanism. But she started running out of arguments, and even steam, after a while. Her stance became simpler: this inmate was using me to get whatever he could and would ultimately destroy my life.

“It’s sad,” Max said to me one afternoon, when she could tell I was only getting worse. “The only thing you’re going to end up with is an MIN [jail ID number]. He’ll get out and he’ll do the only thing he knows. Only this time you’ll be going right along to jail with him. Too easy.”

I couldn’t argue that he was different, that she didn’t know him like I do – because that’s just plain embarrassing if you’re over fourteen.

Then she said something that really sparked my curiosity.

“It’s so sad,” she told me, “because you could have been something. You could have gotten to the top. You’re smart enough. But now all you’re going to end up as is just another dirty, scummy, rotten crimwife.”

“What’s a crimwife?” I asked her. Despite working for the department for almost twelve months, I didn’t know much about inmates’ families. I’d been in the visits room only for staff meetings. I had no idea what she meant.

Max laughed at me. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she said.

And, while being processed for visits, lining up for dogs to sniff us, standing outside smoking, waiting in the carparks of jails around the countryside, I met them. Crimwives. The women who devote so much of themselves to looking after a man who belongs to the state.

The faces became familiar, or maybe they just seemed to. The women, tired from travelling for longer than their visiting time would be, were often on edge because we were all on jail property under jail rules, which could change at any minute. The last time the fire department had gone on strike, visits were cancelled just in case. Security is foremost. A visit with an inmate is always to be considered a privilege and not a right for both parties. You can be turned away for any reason, particularly if your partner is seen as a troublemaker of any kind.

Any complaints could change how you, and then your partner, will be treated, which could mean anything. The visit could be cancelled or delayed, and either of you may end up being searched as thoroughly as possible. Your car may be searched. Upsetting the wrong person could cause your partner’s food to be lost that night. Jail rules are at the discretion of whoever’s on shift, a lot of the time.

These were proud women, women who put up and shut up and smiled at the right people to get to be with the one they loved. Women whose English was poor but who still knew what badges, guns and dogs meant.

I met young women who were frightened, believing their partner was having them followed. Older women, out of place and numb from shock, whose husbands had lived honestly for years until a secret from the past came to light during their retirement. Women who had lost everything because of their partner’s guilt, and women who protested his innocence still. Women with little children to entertain while they tried to discuss lawyers with their sullen husband, as he stared at the floor.

And the ever amusing new mother with a tiny baby promptly handed over to the inmate father. She watches him like a hawk, siphoning off any overt appreciation. He holds the bundle of sweet new life, so odd in these – his – surroundings, a strong, proud smile on his face, but with the body language of someone hoping the tarantula on their leg will crawl away if they keep still.

There are women who have always had inmates in their lives, fathers, brothers, cousins, and they treat jail as commonplace, as if they’re waiting in line at the bank. And women who visit when his wife or girlfriend isn’t there. Or any of the other scantily clad, heavily made-up girls who attach themselves to bikies or gangsters or drug dealers, visiting much older men in groups or by themselves.

Some will visit only for weeks or months, if his time or her patience is short. And others will calmly mention that their partner is halfway through a twelve-year sentence, and that this visit area is where they will be every weekend until his release.

There is a wide range of reasons why we ended up in these rooms together, glancing with concern at each other when the processing takes too long. We know that staff members view us as accomplices to crimes, as smugglers of contraband, as losers and as victims. It’s hardly a relaxed environment for dating.

But we also know that once the Powers That Be have signed our entry forms, checked our ID, scanned our irises, sniffed us for drugs, made an irrelevant remark and looked us over after we step through the metal detectors, there are only two doors left until we get inside the only room that matters. That knowledge is an oddly uniting force.

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