By David Breakspear

“Freire’s central notion is that ‘hope’, as an idea, ‘is rooted in [our] incompleteness’ and that what makes us human is the ‘constant search’ to become more fulfilled. This is something we pursue collaboratively, and in communion with others.” (Smyth, J., Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, 2011)

The question I ask, ‘Where do you stand?’, is in relation to our prison system. I could ask instead: “Does your perspective and belief of prison match the experience of those it holds?”

The man who once said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”, Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, also stated: “the best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison”.

In our, seemingly, constant quest for equality, some choose to purposefully ignore the plight of prisoners. Some even choose to go on the attack. The criminal justice system is the equivalent of the horror film genre in the movie world. The majority view from behind the sofa, or from behind a veil of fingers, but most view with fear. An irrational fear maybe, but to what extent?

Films of ‘rags to riches’, ‘despair into delight’, or, ‘tragedy into triumph’ are far more popular, are they not?

The system provides, the prisons facilitate and probation influence, BUT! when all is said and done, it is the individual who ultimately has  full control of their own reform (I prefer to use the term ‘reform’, ‘rehabilitation’ has come to mean everything yet nothing, and serves only to confuse. Reform does exactly what it says on the tin). The individual decides when, and in some cases, IF!

Surely prisons exist within our community, within our society and not only on the extremities, or outside of them?

The terms ‘prison’ and ‘prisoner’ have negative ideologies and connotations attached to their very mention, understandably so. However, is that so much so that we are in danger of believing prisoners can no longer contribute to their communities? Surely prisons exist within our community, within our society and not only on the extremities, or outside of them? How can equality ever be equal when so many in society turn their backs on prison, and worse, ignore what goes on behind the walls, fences and hedges that mask incredible stories of survival, life enhancing decisions, relationships repaired, faith, forgiveness, and togetherness to be proud of. Them! And, us!

I mentioned that prisons facilitate, they of course also hold the individual. That is the role of prison. Therefore, what role does the individual play within this system?

My personal experience, my perspective, and please excuse the cliché, was to view prison as an occupational hazard – who knew it would eventually provide me with nearly everything I needed?  If you continue to break it , the ‘long arm of the law’ will not be the only law involved in your life. To begin with, although in no particular order, there is the universal law of attraction to chase you down. Then, there is Newton’s third law: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Not forgetting karma. As you read on please bear in mind those laws, as well as the more coded ones: civil, common, and criminal.

Simon Shepherd, the director of the Butler Trust (set up to recognise and celebrate outstanding practice by those working with offenders, through an annual award scheme), spent 17 months travelling our prisons to ask one question: “What’s good about this prison?”. as Simon points out, “The good stuff matters, too. It matters, because the unremittingly negative narrative makes things more difficult than they are already, sapping morale and confidence of staff and their managers, making it harder to attract good people to the Service, and increasing staff sickness and attrition.”

I’ll ask the question again, “Where do you stand?”

Since the late 18th century, prisons have been used as places of punishment. One could consider this to be, in the grand scheme of things, no time at all; or it could be viewed as failing on prisoner reform for two centuries.

Why are the subjects of prison reform and the reforming of prisoners so low on societies agenda or absent from political propaganda wrapped up as manifestos? Reams of failed promises. A shotgun of slogans such as: “Don’t just hope for a better life, vote for one”, “Britain United: The Time Has Come”, “Changing Britain for good”, “Vote for change”, “For the Many, not the few”, “Forward, Together”. I view no caveats, no exceptions, no ineligible populations within our society.

Can we truly understand that which we don’t personally experience?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Elie Wiesel. Elie, a holocaust survivor, wrote ‘Night’ based on his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald: “Only those who experienced Auschwitz will know what it was. Others will never know. But could they at least understand?”

Featured image CC BY-NC 2.0 Verifex

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