It is my belief that there is always truth in the compassionate perspective. This perspective is sometimes lost in otherwise intelligent, intellectual academic writing. Narratives are able, without self-consciousness, to express truths in the spaces of interpretation.
The connection point between mind and heart must be recovered. By ‘heart’ I mean the place, wherever it may be physically in the body, that burns when one cries for others, or when one loves fiercely and selflessly. This centre seems to be more accessible in some cultures, but in the West it seems that a deadening pseudo-rational coldness has crept in, and we have forgotten the fire that makes us feel alive.
Truth is sought for, often by tortured souls, and considered unreachable and intangible. But perhaps it is simpler than the realities a complicated mind tries to grasp. Truth, like water, cannot be held cupped in one’s hands. It can be felt, clearly and simply, like the straight line of light, but then immediately evades one again. In every impulse of compassion there is the breath of truth. Compassion is merely light that meets the dark, and understands it; even to the point of becoming it, though temporarily. The light of compassion runs to meet with darkness; but the world decides who are the Dark Ones, and divides us all into offenders and victims with surgical precision. And the world says that he who is darker deserves greater darkness; not that he who is darker needs more light.
If we know darkness, we can understand it. If we know light, we can understand it. Surely if we know both, we can know truth.
The building is typical. Red brick. Victorian. Picture the prison building in your reliable BBC One historical drama, and that is what it looks like. The chaplain and I walk from the car park, and I feel the quietness. Sobriety seeps into my body, creating an inner environment of calm concentration. It isn’t my first time visiting the creatures enclosed behind high walls and barbed wire. But today is different: I’ll wander the wings, and meet the eyes of the men in the narrow corridors, and like a shadow, I’ll observe.
The world is a land of shadows. A shadow wants substance, but whilst it safely observes, it can only remain a shadow amongst shadows. I am one of the world’s safe observers. I cannot be locked behind bars: I will merely change shape and slip back through into the shadowlands. Here I am, a whisper of being, about to meet the hot-blooded ones: the creatures who stand and press themselves against the cold iron of the cage.
A familiar expectant pulse thuds loud enough for me to hear; I am about to cross the boundary between worlds. I feel a little of what Lucy perhaps felt when she stood again in front of the wardrobe, knowing she was to re-enter Narnia. The magic and myth will probably escape me here, but Narnia is that paradoxical thing: a mythical kingdom of realities. The suffering is raw and the wounds run deep, and the land murmurs with homesickness for the joy it lived before the deep cold of endless winter. In Narnia, the prize to win is fullness of life, and the price to pay is death. Somewhere inside me, further down beyond the loving of comforts, I yearn to be renewed and matured by the scratching of talons and the drawing of blood. I yearn to be the one putting up a brave fight like every heroic character on the page or screen. Here behind the deep walls is a place where battles we know nothing about are fought, where Time is warped, even deep-frozen, as the punished attempt to swallow jagged mouthfuls of recompense. Here are the Unworthy, dwelling together in the stench of their transgressions, separated and kept apart from the mass of the Worthy who parade the streets outside.
When people are ‘banged up’ they are sent away, locked behind walls and fences. The language of being imprisoned – ‘locked up’, ‘sent down’, ‘put away’ – denotes this removal of the person to someplace else, where punishment is enacted. As a consequence of this ‘removal’, what happens to prisoners is rarely witnessed by the rest of society. (Crewe and Bennett, 2012, 143)
Cars trickle by, unawares. I have my passport in my pocket, and my fingers grip it invisibly. I anticipate that I am entering the lair of hundreds of alpha males; I hope to be boring. Free from hungry stares. At the same time, I want my face to be noticed. I dressed it today with the expression of one who is not afraid; of one who is eager to show some sort of human solidarity. My clothes are baggy and colourless: it is the technique of a social chameleon. A chameleon survives. A drug addict also survives. And a thief survives. The human animal adapts and survives as it can, it seems.
Do they really think we like going and breaking into people’s houses? Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do to survive[…]it’s the pain of withdrawal symptoms[…]you’re in agony[…]the people I care about and the people that I’ve done wrong to…I wish I could give them back everything I’ve robbed off them, but I can’t. I know I’ve done wrong; I’m paying the price for that. (Crewe and Bennett, 2012, 104)
We walk through the first door; the only one without a lock. Here we wait in the outhouse, the camp outside the camp, which consists of toilets, sofas, and a noticeboard. I am issued a visitors’ badge, which declares that I belong to the class of the Unbranded and Uncondemned. Across come the sliding doors and we walk through into the next layer, where Fr(1). retrieves his keys. The next door leads outside
The outside here is different from the outside I know. Sounds have a muffled quality; after all, the outside here is enclosed on four sides by the tall red brick, like an inverted house with a window to the sky. Even this window is locked and barred, keeping in stale air and keeping out cool fresh northern breezes.
We cross the yard and go through more doors. Each door has to be unlocked and locked again after passing through, so that the jingle of keys becomes an intermittent cadence breaking up the sound of our footsteps. Up a narrow flight of stairs, through another two doors and into the amphitheatre that is the multi-faith chaplaincy room. Incongruent images decorate the walls. A white Jesus in a sentimental depiction hangs next to a small wooden copy of the sixth-century Sinai icon of the Christ Pantocrator. On one of the side walls there is a poster depicting Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. Up through the door at the top, down some steps, and we reach a circular balcony. Peering down through the bright blue bars, I see all the different levels of the A-wing. The scattered sounds of raised male voices echo up the tube. Bodies wearing light grey mingle with the walls. Their movements are masculine, full of the bravado of adolescence, and yet there is a feeling completely unlike that of the school-yard too. These men have suffered for longer, perhaps.
Ostracisation predates conviction for most with convictions. Economic marginalisation, mental health problems, childhood traumas, substance abuse, homelessness[…]I grew up with petty crime and violence all around. I was quite nice, despite my naughtiness. Others were angry and uncaring. I sometimes wondered why, but arrived at the notion that they felt apart, ostracised. It really is difficult to care about others when nobody cares about you. (Unsound Robin, 2017)
We walk into the chaplaincy office, and I am comforted by the cosy, almost homely feel. A kettle stands in the corner and I am offered tea. Two female chaplains sit at computers around a large table with piles of paperwork scattered across it. We’ll call them Ronda and Claire: Catholic and Anglican, respectively. They give a friendly smile and then resume their work. I’m relieved not to be asked questions or required to engage in small talk, and it makes me consider this facet of politeness in general. Chit-chat: the gloss veneer over the top of reality which keeps things nice and neat and flowing. Politeness is not a currency particularly used in criminal circles.
Some are tough, yet that toughness often masks their inner vulnerability. The “hoodie” and the “chav” don’t make their own conditions of existence[…]“Polite society” is just a class position. It is easy to be polite, kind and engaging in a life that does you well. Politeness is a celebration of fitting in. (Unsound Robin, 2017)
But, as my thought continues, I decide that it isn’t wrong to make small talk. Sometimes it is just the gate that opens to something more meaningful. Besides, as human beings gradually cease to care about each other, manners are perhaps a saving grace… As the Chinese saying goes, ‘when the Tao is lost, remember that there is still goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness. When kindness is lost, there is justice…’ (Dunne, 2008, 151) And one writer ruefully adds that when justice is lost, there is still politeness(2); the last haven, the still serene surface of the lake giving semblance of harmony. The end of this ancient saying reads:
The truly great man dwells on what is real,
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept the one and reject the other
(Dunne, 2008, 151)
I’m a shadow, trying to absorb what is real. “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, “It’s a thing that happens to you.” (Williams, 1992, 5) I’m hoping it will ‘happen’ to me. Trouble is, I cower away from pain. And from every tale I’ve read, and every real person I’ve encountered, the message is the same: it’s painful to become real.
“It doesn’t happen all at once”, said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t always happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, who have to be carefully kept[…]but once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Williams, 1992; 5, 8)
I am passed a bright orange folder which contains an ACCT form. It stands for Assessment, Care in Custody, and Teamwork. What it really signifies is suicide prevention. If someone is known to be suicidal, an ACCT folder is ‘opened’; the banality of the term masks the implications.
“Prison benefits those who are tough and cripples the weak”, says an ex-inmate in Injustice (2017). He won respect at the beginning of his time in jail by beating up someone who crossed him. From then on, they got on fine, and he had no trouble. In fact, as he sits with his right arm stretched over the back of the sofa, tattooed, muscular, thick-necked, he smiles jovially at the camera and tells us how he had a whale of a time. He is remarkably likeable.
I study the paperwork carefully. Filling out forms: a familiar aspect of bureaucratic mundanity. I find though that generally there’s a certain satisfaction to neatly checking boxes, writing succinct answers in text boxes and scrawling a signature at the assigned position. In this particular form however, there is little to find gratifying in writing down the motives and methods of self-harming, and the developments observed in the inmate who may or may not choose to end his life.
“I’ve got a two-year sentence, but I’ve also got an extra six months for setting fire to a cell. I went through a rather bad patch. I put on an old t-shirt and set myself on fire. I can’t remember exactly why I did it. I’ve been diagnosed now with two personality disorders. I’m on antidepressants[…]” (Crewe and Bennett, 2012, 80)
Fr. sits down at his own computer and heaves a sigh.
I have known him for years, and never once have I seen him fazed or anxious. He has come close to death on so many occasions that he is entirely unafraid. Last night I stayed at his house. He was tired, and after inviting me to eat a mango and some salami (not together), he put his feet up on the stool in front of his tattered chair. I could see that he was trying not to pay attention to the impractical method of mango-eating I was employing but his expression betrayed amusement. After some moments of quiet, he asked me how I was. Even when weary, his eyes are piercing and intent. After I had told him my news, I asked him some questions about the prison, and he shared a story of a crime that two young men had committed: one of them was well-educated and middle class, the other was working class, and from a deprived background. The middle class one was the “naughty boy”, according to the judge, who twinkled at him and gave him a sentence of two months, exhorting him benevolently not to do it again. The working class young man got a sentence of four years. He is still in jail. It was exactly the same crime. Fr. told the story in a measured way. His passionless tone didn’t entirely conceal his feeling centre, which is discernible in the softness of his expression.
He is now sitting at his screen, murmuring details about the number of prisoners being admitted into prison this week that still need inductions, and so-and-so being discharged. He chuckles as he explains that when they are inducted, they are invited to declare a personal religion or faith. “We get a lot who want to be Jedis”, Claire interjects wryly, without looking up from her keyboard. Fr. reads a very long list to me of the different options the inmates can select, including various Christian denominations, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism… and then on the same list comes Satanism, Paganism, and other more obscure confessions. Fr. smiles at my surprise. “I don’t care what they say they are”, he says.
Right now a young inmate walks in with a hoover, and looks around cheerfully, greeting the chaplains by name. We’ll call him Jake. He has his hair tied in a ponytail high on his head, and speaks in a broad Lancashire accent. He walks with the gait of the street-wise, but he is not sheepish in his mannerisms.
“Does anyone want tea?” I shake my head automatically, but am toying with the idea of changing my mind when another guy comes in and straightaway joins his mate, like a schoolboy does when he enters late into a classroom. This one is a little more coy. He has a good-looking face and bright blue eyes. He notices me with a quick glance and then lowers his gaze. It seems his head is bowed down out of habit. Fr. tells me later that he is in for drug-dealing. We’ll call this one Darren.
“Hooray!” exclaims Fr. enthusiastically in his old-fashioned way, for an unknown reason. Jake immediately imitates him, putting on a posh and slightly effeminate voice. “You can shut up!” Fr. retorts. Jake bursts out laughing, without self-consciousness, his body language open and trusting. “Careful if he makes you tea, Emma”, Fr. adds with mock seriousness. “He’s a poisoner. He’s in for life.” Jake grins and shakes his head as he heaps two spoonfuls of sugar into the tea I’ve belatedly decided to accept, and stirs. Darren chuckles too, though with a nervous restraint. But he seems to blush at the banter; he knows it is the language of mutuality.
You have to hide your feelings from everyone. You don’t open yourself up. You don’t want someone’s pity…anything that’s a weakness, you keep that to yourself. It’s a cold place. (Crewe and Bennett, 2012, 31)
I am ready for my first tour. Ronda takes me to ‘A-wing’, which is beneath the chaplaincy office. She strides along the corridors, which are lined with cells whose doors have tiny windows and outside shutters. Some men peer out from behind the bars of these windows. Others are outside, leaning against railings in small groups, or playing table tennis. Ronda is part of the woodwork here, and everyone greets her as she walks through. She replies, using their name.
Behind your name is your identity: your past, your family, your personality. You grow into your name from an early age like a snail grows into its shell. It is part of you. Once in prison, a serial number is generously bestowed upon the inmate. You become wrongdoer number 1, wrongdoer number 2, wrongdoer number 268…
I haven’t yet done wrong enough to lose my name. I remind myself that I am one of the Worthy ones.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Solzhenitsyn, 1974, 168)
“Ronda! I need to speak to you! Last week they told me about the cell change but nothing’s happened yet…” I politely zone out and look around me. I feel strangely exhilarated. I used to secretly envy my classmates at school who were always getting into trouble. I didn’t realise until much later that the teachers had a soft spot for the naughty ones, though outwardly they were punished. These boys and girls were not perfectionists and were not seeking to impress or gain reward. They were playful and charismatic and interesting. They were often honest at heart. They didn’t care to use cunning in covering their faults.
I remember Jamaica Inn, the chilling Daphne du Maurier novel. In the story, there are bad men. Really bad men. Their lives consist of thieving and murdering. They are the villains, but we are interested in them, even drawn to them in some way. We care for them as messed-up people with stories to tell. They feel anguish acutely on account of the deeds to which they are fatally bound. They are able to cry tears amidst shards of broken glass, drinking and wailing and being somewhat human, feeling the darkness which they are trapped inside. We live with them in the tale, and so we cannot hate them as much as we think we should. But the darkest dark, the distilled and most pure evil, is so sinister and deceitful and hidden that we never suspect it. The man that parades as a wise friend, the girl’s benefactor, is the snake curling itself slowly and patiently around her neck.
Cunning is found everywhere. It is small and base in the petty thief, or in the child, but it is cold and cruel in the powerful. And the most powerful in this world are normally free to roam where they choose.
The first time I visited a prison, I left with one main impression which imprinted itself, like branded wax on the before-empty parchment of my perception: I’m no better than them, yet they’re in here and I’m not. No one sees my own darkness. Most don’t know it’s there. I may not have bashed in someone’s car, but I have bashed in someone’s heart, and which is worse? Outside prison, you lock your shame away. The law determines whether you should have guilt, not your responsibility to the other. That doesn’t exist.
The post-1980s era has seen the ‘death of the social’ and the fracture of relations of mutual reciprocity that have always existed in one way or another across our diverse anthropological histories. These important social goods have now been replaced by what is quite possibly the most complete and pervasive form of atomised competitive individualism yet seen in British culture. (Hall, Winslow and Ancrum, 2008, 6-7)
I feel alive now; there is something real here. Yes, these men may be pretenders: they may pretend to be the most confident, or powerful; they may pretend that they have the most respect outside; they may pretend that they don’t care that they’re in prison; they may pretend that they have no emotions; they may pretend all the same things we pretend outside. But there’s one thing they don’t pretend: that they’re exemplary human beings.
Ronda is an average height, with a deep voice and large brown eyes, which look unapologetically into my own as she speaks. She walks purposefully but without any sense of haste, and prisoners seem to be at their ease with her, though noticeably respectful. She chats to me easily as we walk down another set of metal steps, explaining how the prison is moving away from an emphasis on punishment, and now focussing more on rehabilitation. “We’re pushing for it. We’ll see.” She explains that they need real work. Meaningful work. The prisoners get paid eighty pence for every work session. This goes towards luxuries like jelly babies. Or drugs.
We go further down and through a double set of doors. A slim young officer with an easygoing demeanour meets us. Just beyond him, a group of inmates stand together conspiratorially and observe us with interest. I am careful not to look in their direction again as we talk with the officer.
This is where solitary confinement used to be. Anyone who was particularly violent and incontrollable would be put in the cell with two doors guarding it, no window, and a very low ceiling. As I stand in the prescribed cell, I imagine it would be suitable for torture victims in Guantanamo Bay. Above the cell there is a small viewing hatch used by officers who would crawl up to the roof with a ladder and look down into the dark concrete cage. Further along I am shown where dirty protests(3) had happened.
Places have atmospheres. Perhaps they have memories, somehow, of what has been. Down here, in the kingdom of punishment and pain, I feel the barrenness. The men in the corridor watch me gleefully as I am guided around these cold damp cells, as if by a curate of a museum. I feel apologetic as I nod and peer and survey: a clipboard wouldn’t have been out of place. Real men suffered here. And in a block of cells not far from that underground passage, real men were hung by their throats. And it wasn’t so long ago.
Take messed up people and help them. Straight away HELP the people. People. Need. help. Find out what has happened in their lives to make them do that. (Unsound Robin, 2018 (4))
We go back to the office, and Fr. suggests that he, Jake, Darren and I go upstairs to a small meeting room, and have a chat, in order for me to learn something about their experience here. They are eager to share details, and like energetic puppies trip over their words as they answer the questions that Fr. asks them.
The prison cell is made for one. “But how many are you in the cell?”
“Two”, they both say, nodding their heads. “We get locked up twenty-two or twenty-three hours a day sometimes… I’m telling you, just being outside and feeling the rain on my face…it’s the best feeling…” They describe being strip-searched as they first come into jail, and they talk a lot about drugs.
“Mamba’s the thing now. Spice.”
“It is lethal”, interjects Fr. “Worse than heroin. It is made out of basically anything that can be got hold of; any combination of toxic chemicals. It will send a guy mad very quickly, head lolling all over the place like he’s possessed.”
“It changes you,” says Jake fervently. “The guys who do it – they get mashed. They lose it completely.”
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
(Plath, 1989, 192-193)
I find out that there are many ingenious ways the men find of smuggling drugs into prison. A classic is that someone acting as a mule for a drug lord will swallow tiny balloons(5)non filled with say heroin or cocaine, commit a small crime in order to be arrested, carry the drugs internally into prison, excrete them, and finally sell them. If the balloons burst whilst inside him, he can die. The mule is normally an impoverished person who wants the pay-off badly enough to take the risk. Practical ingenuity is remarkable in the prison world. They say necessity is the mother of invention. It seems that craving is the mother of inspiration.
“What are you being punished for?” I asked in a whisper.
“They found a mother-of-pearl button in my pocket.”
“Well … ?” “Well, don’t you know? If you have a mother-of-pearl button, you can rub it against a bit of string,
and produce a spark and light a cigarette end, or relight the fire, if it has gone out.” (Noica, 1994, 57)
We get on to talking about the prisoners in E-wing. These are the extra vulnerable ones: it is not safe for them to live in the same quarters as the rest. Sex offenders and child molesters would be housed here, because they are hated by other prisoners.
“If you’re a nonce(6), then you’re not going to last five minutes. No one likes that kind of person[…] You’ve got the thieves, and you’ve got drug takers and drug dealers and all that lot. Then you’ve got people who murder people just for the sake of it. There’s people in here what I would class as bad people. I’m a criminal, but I don’t see myself as a bad person.” (Crewe and Bennett, 2012, 31)
Perhaps some murderers also don’t see themselves as ‘bad people’. For instance, is there not perhaps a stage in every political leader’s life where he has to choose to become a murderer? But it is called ‘Foreign Policy’. If you kill one person, you will go to prison. If you kill hundreds of people, you may well get a promotion. But you are not spilling blood yourself of course. It all happens somewhere far away; out of sight.
Fr. Looks at me and makes a typically enigmatic expression. “You do find that there are some pretty evil, sick crimes though. Sex with animals for instance… Also, this man I know of in D-wing… He eats pigeons. He waits for them to come nearby and then he grabs them through the bars and rips them to shreds with his teeth. He would eat you or me if he had the chance.” The lads chuckle appreciatively.
Jake has a daughter. He became a father at sixteen. Darren is also a father of two. He shows me some photographs of his boys, and tries to appear nonchalant but cannot conceal his pride as I tell him how lovely the photos are. And I mean it when I say it, too. I like seeing Darren in his own clothes, feeding one of his sons on his lap. I guess the little boys have no idea why their daddy has been away for so long. They are too young to understand.
Darren’s eyes crease with affection. “They’re two and four now. I miss them to be honest.”
Sitting here with two inmates and speaking like friends, it is now that the crossover between worlds happens. Easily, unceremoniously, simply. I look into their eyes and they become familiar. At what point does a stranger become an ally? A fellow human voyager? I think it is when eyes meet and instead of immediately and deliberately escaping again, a mutual acknowledgement is made. I say “you” with my eyes and you do the same. And, having become real to one another, an invisible bond is formed, however slight.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
(Eliot, 1978, 84)
When you really look into someone’s eyes, they often look away, embarrassed, or else feel invaded, perturbed. Sometimes though, they look back with a reciprocating gaze, perhaps surprised at this strange and intimate attention. Our hearts are bound securely inside our bodies, our minds are shielded and concealed inside our skulls, and our private members are saved from exposure by cotton and denim, but our eyes are forever vulnerable. They are the chink in the armour; the gap between bars. With the eyes an honest exchange happens: we can see if we choose, but then we will have to be seen. And if we want to truly see, then we’ll have to truly reveal. Light comes in and out from the eyes. But it is safer and easier to lower them or dart them about, like those of a fox: ever wary, ever suspicious, ever strained.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
(Eliot, 1978, 84)
At lunchtime, Fr. and I go down to the walk-through canteen to linger accessibly in the standing area as men queue to receive their food. Inmates are hired to help serve the meals and one of them is holding a piece of paper and conscientiously checking it as each man passes through to make sure they are taking the type of sandwich they ordered. Fr. tells me that most inmates do take their responsibilities seriously. They respond to being trusted.
It means a lot to them.
We had heard before this man came that he was an absolute animal, that in the course of his stay at another prison he got so angry one day that he ripped the sink off his wall, and pounded a hole through a concrete wall into the next cell. So they rolled him up and brought him to our prison. I went up to his cell, I opened the first door, walked in, stuck my hand through the bars, and said “I just wanted to introduce myself to you.” He came over and took my hand, and I just held his hand for a while and we talked. He told me later that it was the first time in five years that anyone had touched him except for putting on restraints, handcuffs, belly chains, black box, or leg chains. The first time in five years! (Powley (Fr.), 2017)
Fr. motions towards the men in the queue. “Do you notice that the majority of guys in here have broad shoulders and very narrow hips? It is because they have more testosterone than average. There is a hormone imbalance.” After being given this strange information, I spend some time liberally surveying the body shapes of the men standing in the lunch queue.
The buzz in the air is hunger, the promise of food. It is not an unhappy buzz. Lunch is an eagerly anticipated event. Darren said earlier that at first, he hated the slushy chips and the chicken. “They only give you left legs apparently. All the right legs of chickens go to supermarkets. But after a while, you’re happy to eat anything.” I wasn’t sure whether the left-right chicken leg distribution was a joke or not. Fr. said the chickens slide along the conveyor belt and the chickens are slashed in half and one half goes one way, and the other half goes another. It is not so hard to believe that all the left sides get carted off to prison, yet at the same time there is an absurdity about it.
As these strong men stand awaiting their turn, I imagine hearing the suspenseful soundtrack that you hear on prison documentaries; my ears strain for the dramatic big-brother-esque voice-over that tells the thank-God-I’m-not-in-prison viewer about the nutters who are ready to knife anyone who crosses them, and the heroic hard-man officers.
Of course, the officers may well be heroic, and some of the inmates may well want to knife those who cross them. In criminal communities, it is mainly sticks and stones, it’s true. But without the dramatic music that signifies the particular species of predator being viewed on screen, the real-life scene in front of me is very mundane.
Both extremes of human nature – its capacity for good and evil – are present in prison in perhaps their starkest form. All variations on human behaviour – from compassion and wisdom to abuse and life-threatening violence – are observable, or implicit, in the daily round of events […] Prisons are raw, and sometimes desperate, special places. They can also precipitate remarkable honesty. (Liebling, 1999, 152)
After lunch, I go with Claire to the hospital near the prison, where two prisoners are currently being treated. She is wearing a black cassock over her clothing, and would look highly conservative if it weren’t for her sleek white hair and colourful makeup. She moans in a humorous way about how both her own husband and Fr. tease her endlessly. Her dry and quirky manner has me giggling all the way there. I also learn that she has so much work to do at the prison that she doesn’t even have time to get her hair cut, and her uncut hair is now quite a grave situation. Seeing her move effortlessly from funny remarks to discussion about matters of life and death is impressive. She doesn’t do it insensitively.
She is not someone who feels the need to make a show of how serious and caring she is, the reason being probably that she actually does care. Later she and Fr. tell me how they need humour to make it through. “We see so much suffering. We’d break if we didn’t find things to laugh about.”
As we round the corner into the first unit we are visiting, Claire tells me about all the homeless people that get so frozen in winter that they deliberately get caught committing minor thefts in supermarkets, in order to get a bed in prison. I can see how, physically-speaking, prisoners are perhaps better off than the homeless. They receive one hot meal a day. They have a bed, a shelter, and development programmes they can go on (if they have pleaded ‘guilty’ (7)). They can engage in some manual work during the day, and they are not dependent on the generosity of shoppers and pedestrians: it is mandatory that they are fed. But the psychological oppression of being controlled, of being locked up like an animal in a cage – is altogether a different struggle to face. If it was me, in the summer I would choose the street; in the winter, there would be no contest. I remember giving some food to a starving woman on the streets of Paris once, who ate it desperately, crumbs going all over her. She had only an oversized coat to cover her starved body, and in the freezing cold her legs jutted out, raw-boned and bare. Well-fed, preoccupied people whisked past her without a thought. I wondered then judgmentally just how deep inside them their conscience was buried. Normally though, I don’t have the time to care either.
How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold? (Solzhenitsyn, 1972, 19)
Claire tells me that the man we are about to see is a seasoned manipulator. “A lot of them are charming. They’ll try anything.” We walk to the bed in the corner at the far end of the unit, which is hidden from sight by green hospital curtains. She pulls one across its railing and we go inside the tent-like compartment. The inmate is lying fast asleep, curled up like a baby, and a long chain fastens him to the bedstead. Two officers sit by him. One is doing a sudoku, and the other is perusing a newspaper. They look up and smile in a relaxed way. I receive a nod, and once again have a feeling of satisfaction, almost smugness, in being free and guiltless. It isn’t necessary for anyone to chain me to a bed. I am instantly trusted. I am incapable of doing harm. If only in these moments I could find instant antidotes for such thoughts.
Claire wakes the man up, who takes a few moments to surface and then groggily mumbles some responses to her, and acknowledges me. He has pale, harrowed skin, a squarish head, and jet-black hair. He seems taken aback by the visit, but glad of the attention. I don’t know what chemicals are in his system but it seems he is struggling to take in his surroundings, and is still producing only half-intelligible sounds as we leave five minutes later, and visit the other ward, where a similar episode occurs.
[…]People, don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
are we too blind to see,
do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way
Well the world turns
and a hungry little boy with a runny nose
plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto
And his hunger burns
so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal
and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto
Then one night in desperation
a young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car,
tries to run, but he don’t get far
And his mama cries
As a crowd gathers ‘round an angry young man
face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto
(Davis, 2010, 128)
Claire sighs as she walks with me back to the prison. She feels the responsibility of her job keenly. “You’ve just got to love haven’t you. You can’t judge them. Doesn’t matter what they’ve done, you just have to love them.” This remark is followed by another joke about something entirely banal. I like Claire’s unpredictable verbal rhythm.
On the way back to the office we pass an inmate who gives Claire a big smile and looks bashful as she compliments him on his haircut. He speaks shyly and blushes at being given this affectionate attention. As we walk away, Claire mutters to me that “he’s on the ACCTs list.” I start in shock. It just goes to show, I think to myself… I know from experience that depression is not worn always on the outside. In fact, it is often hiding behind eager smiles. It’s strange that, despite knowing this, I don’t often consider the possibility that the cheery face I see might also be concealing a heavy sorrow, in that arid place of pain that does not dare to trust.
I sigh in relief as I sit back down in the office, and realise how draining I found it to walk through the hospital. Seeing sick and immobile people lying in their beds, pale-faced and sad, with such little life in them, is very different from seeing the young and physically fit men in the prison, who are making jokes to pass the time. Claire agrees with me. “Visiting the hospital at Christmas is like visiting a morgue sometimes; whereas at the prison the inmates manage to get into the festive mood, and you can feel it. It’s almost like a little village! ” A village maybe, but a village of lonely, disparate souls.
The fear of being alone thrusts us into independence, for fear creates what it fears[…]All men, even in their most tumultuous conflicts, their loneliest periods of despondency, and their most meaningless diversions, reveal therein, to those who have eyes to see, how much they long for real fellowship. (Tournier, 1962; 58, 61)
The stench of hospital cleanliness is arguably worse than the smell of cheap food in the prison (I can’t speak for the smell inside the cells as I don’t have the chance to sample any). I see the mechanics of care, as a priced commodity, that has to be dished out sparingly and contractually. But the staff are overworked and stressed, and have their own burdens to carry. We are all broken shadows tending to other broken shadows. Who is there alive who doesn’t need help?
The boys are infectiously cheerful now, and I can’t keep from smiling. They are making tea again. Meanwhile, Fr. is telling a story with a deadly straight face about an inmate who couldn’t write, and asked Fr. to be his scribe as he dictated a love letter to his beloved. Obediently obliging, Fr. wrote out the heartfelt sentiments very carefully, and was privately impressed by the earnestness with which the man was speaking. It was much to his surprise, then, when the man requested that the letter be copied out six times, so it could be duly sent to six different women. I laugh in disbelief and Fr., chuckling himself, goes on to relate another quite similar and equally amusing story.
Darren and Jake are now chatting quietly, both seated with their elbows leaning on their laps. Jake is saying he will be out in a week, and doesn’t know the way to the train station from the prison. Darren tries his best to draw a map with his hands, and describes the route as best he can.
It seems fitting that as the day comes to a close, the scene in front of me shows a man helping his unsure friend know which road to take. As Fr. is still speaking, I hear Darren start humming very quietly to himself, and can just make out the first two lines of ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis . I look over at him, and catching his eye, I sing the next line in his key: “I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now.” Both men react as if I had just offered them a free holiday. Jake springs up and clicks his wrist excitedly, and Darren shakes his head, a huge smile on his face. It feels like the ultimate bonding moment, though it is so extraordinary simple. Another crossing of worlds. I get up to leave and shake the guys’ hands as warmly as I can. “I hope you find the way to the train station Jake.” He laughs as I close the door behind me.
I hand over my visitor’s badge, and walk back into the shadowlands. Citizens walk at high speed, dodging each other on the narrow pavement, frowns etched on their faces, preoccupation oppressing their minds. Some carry a few bulging shopping bags, others carry handbags and I hear the click-clack of heeled boots. Most people are clutching their mobile phones in one hand like mothers holding on to their children, and some are busy pressing keys feverishly as they walk. With no company to engage with while walking, most individuals allow themselves to look either exhausted, stressed, or miserable.
I don’t have a prosecutor, but I look down and find that my hands and feet are shackled. And looking around me I can see chains everywhere. The streets are screeching with the sound of them. I see numbers written on hands, too: signifying brand and price. I learn the Art of Conversation on buses and at street corners: one person says ‘me’, and then in response the other also says ‘me’. Both ‘me’s are gratified. But neither ‘you’s are heard.
Looking for the last time at the high foreboding red-bricked walls, I wonder how much longer I will care about those living behind it. I sink into the low car seat, dig out an apple that I hadn’t eaten at lunch, and check my phone for messages. Fr. starts the engine and we roll quietly out of the car park. I am suddenly struck by the simple choice to turn left or right or go straight ahead; at the choice to go back home or to roam the world; at the choice I have at every moment of how to spend the next. As we halt at the traffic lights, I decide to turn towards Fr., and smile. He searches my face for a split second and then smiles back. “I’m tired, Emma.” He says. “Ten years doing this job…there’s only so much suffering you can witness…”
The lights go green.
Yes, I think, and the world is tired. It is weighed down by so much suffering, and so much darkness. It wants to rest. But while there is light in a person’s eyes, let them not sleep. Not yet. Not until their light is spent on choices made for the good. Quiet choices. Humble choices. Let them learn from the meekness of a daffodil that heralds the beginning of Spring, or from the tender song of a blackbird perching on a barren wintry branch. Or from the loyal dog who sits patiently by the homeless man’s side. None of these talk, but all of them speak. And they speak freedom.
And quietly, oh so quietly.
1 The chaplain, who shall remain nameless.
2 Popoveniuc, 2011, 55
3 ‘A dirty protest is where a prisoner has chosen to defecate or urinate in a cell without using the facilities provided. Blood or other body fluids may also be present. In the majority of cases the walls, floor or ceiling are affected.’ (Defined by Rento-kil Specialist Hygiene UK)
4 Taken directly from an untranscribed talk given at Bath Spa University on 08/02/2018 by Unsound Robin, who put on a screening of his film Injustice (2017)
5 Condoms or the fingers of latex gloves are commonly used.
6 Slang term for a sex offender
7 There is pressure on convicts to plead ‘guilty’ because those who do often make it out of prison quicker and also have access to relevant self-development programmes whilst in prison, whereas the ‘non-guilty’ pleaders are ironically penalised, in effect, for not ‘owning up’, even if they are in fact innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.
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