Going To Prison

Posted: 29 August 2011 in Prisons, Understanding Others
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Recently I went to prison. I feel so much is wrong in British society that I felt like rioting too. But that would such a childish thing to do, a “temper tantrum”, “must have, must have”. I have recently started working for Prison Fellowship and it was high time to have a look “inside”.

Odd – there’s much that seems familiar from the documentaries on HMP Manchester and the YOI institution on the TV.  And I’ve worked in a disabilities college, which in mild ways had some echoes (individual assessments, small bedrooms, security awareness, collective living and catering). Yet there was nothing like seeing it in the flesh.

There was always the background of security. The locking and unlocking (and the noise of clanking keys and clamming doors).  Counting people in and counting them out again. No photos, no mobiles, no notes please. The netting to prevent tennis balls of dope being hurled over. The Prison Officer always “shooting the bolt” before going into any room/office/cell, to ensure the door does not slam shut and leave you locked in. Interestingly, the smell was not bad. All institutions have aromas, and this one was not too awful. Really.

When we passed though a very large chapel, I asked whether there was a lot of takers. “In Oh yes. Two services on Sundays for the Anglicans, two for the [Roman] Catholics. And there’s two more on Fridays for the Muslims, plus things for the others too. When inside, a lot of prisoners get religion, and some of it is for serious”. “Some of it is for serious” was not meant cynically. But he did add that Sunday services often can be lively in the wrong sort of way, giving the opportunity to sell Simm cards, sell drugs, have fights, etc.

Underneath the seemingly sanitised and controlled environment, I got to know:

  • the ethnic balance did not reflect the catchment
  • over half had mental illnesses
  •  on spot checks, 7 to 20% were drug positive
  • bullies possibly made up over 10% of offender

We had curious and unthreatening stares from offenders, plus the occasional nod and hallos. But the environment did not foster conversation. I asked someone who was an old hand at prison visiting who commented “they won’t say much to visitors like you as the Prison Officers would be highly suspicious. It’s all about control, keeping the lid on.” Underneath there was another world, quite different, that I could not get a glimpse of.

Interestingly, when I discussed with someone who has experienced prison from the inside, he commented “it is a polarising environment. On one hand, mental illness, physical abuse, drugs, violence while on the other, religion, education, and self improvement of various sorts.” Putting it another way is the prison proverb “you can either do prison, or it can do you.”

Bill

p.s. Prison Fellowship exists to help offenders engage with Restorative Justice, find faith, “do prison” and not be done-in by it.

p.p.s. Sources and location withheld for security reasons.

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