When you work in prisons or other extreme situations, certain snapshot images ink themselves on the walls of your memory. Hidden from view for much of the time, they appear like a tattoo when a sleeve is rolled up. I have one such image that often causes me to stop and think.
It came about on one of my morning rounds, walking from wing to wing gathering up the participants of my art class to accompany them to the art studio. I had a key for all the locked gates through which you had to travel to get anywhere in the prison, but not a key for the cells. Casting his eye over my list of names, a prison officer stuck his metal key into a cell door, turned twice and pulled. The door opened to reveal a small, wiry man sitting on a neatly made, metal-framed bed just staring at the narrow space in front of him. He was dressed and ready for another day of… nothing; of waiting for time to pass. The slight slump of his body and thin, grey hair combed back from his forehead accentuated his pallor as he slowly turned his head to face us. Blank eyes betrayed a hint of the resigned surprise of someone who had got used to the loss of all privacy and power. For a tiny moment our eyes met. Was it a flash of hope I saw before the officer, realising his mistake, pulled the door closed without a word and locked it once again? I stood motionless as he studied the list and moved towards another cell, imagining the tiny man turning back his head to continue staring through the tidy arrangement of objects on the table opposite him: a single mug, a jar of cheap instant coffee, a toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper.
I still see this man when I am running though wild garlic-filled beech forests or soaking in the exuberance of my mother’s colourful flower beds; when I feel the warmth of sunshine or the heat of a bath. I think of him still sitting there alone, just quietly waiting… wasting. And that basically sums up what our prisons are. One big waste: of time, of money, of opportunity, but, worst of all, of human lives. If you put aside questions of whether a person is guilty and deserving of punishment and, for one minute, place yourself into his cell and slip on his shoes… what do you feel?
I know I bang on about it, but I hate waste. And the illogic of locking people up in increasingly depraved conditions with nothing purposeful to do, and then ejecting them back into society with the expectancy that they will somehow be changed for the better, urgently needs to be addressed. We all know the benefits of exposure to nature, the arts, colour, fresh air, exercise, work, self-discipline, being listened to… the list is long. So why, why are we systemically depriving the people in our prisons of all those things? The prison service’s self-declared mission is to help offenders lead “law-abiding and useful lives on release.” Yet in practice, it too often does the opposite.
As Brexit procrastinations continue to drag minds and resources away from pretty much all other societal issues and constant changes in Justice Secretaries and Prison Ministers prevent anything from getting done, our prisons are becoming even more overcrowded, understaffed, drug-infested, inhumane, dangerous and failing institutions. There are thousands of my ‘small, wiry man’ sitting on beds in tiny cells, over half of them with literary skills of an eleven year old, many of them victims of violence, neglect and abuse as children, each costing £38,000 per year, each just waiting and wasting while we become increasingly guilty of ‘looking away’.
So what can you do? There are lots of wonderful initiatives, charities and people trying to make our prisons better places. Let the government know the current situation is unacceptable by supporting their work. Here are a few suggestions: Prison Reform Trust or Howard League for Penal Reform or The Forgiveness Project or The Koestler Trust or contact your local prison and offer to teach literacy, become a prison visitor or mentor to someone on their release. You will probably find it incredibly rewarding!