I am a prison reformer and currently work in a “challenging” prison, with the central aim of promoting a rehabilitative culture. My work in prison currently involves working with prisoners and staff, to drive prison reform from the ground up. For me, prisoners and staff hold the answer to how prisons can change to promote sustainable and meaningful solutions to the failing system that exists currently.
I feel the need to write something in response to the recent media coverage on prisons and prison reform. I feel the need to challenge some of the assumptions that are reinforced day after day, without any consideration on how they impact of those that work and reside in prison. There are many ways prison has been represented in the media over the last month. Prisons are seen on the one hand as an unsafe and volatile environment, and on the other hand, as places where prisoners are living in a “holiday camp”, in “cushy” conditions. There is also an assumption that rehabilitation is “easy” and “soft”.
My first point I wish to raise is around rehabilitation; rehabilitation is not easy or soft. Discussing the shame individuals feel about their darkest moments and the complex issues that contribute to the harm each prisoner has caused to the victim is not easy. In our day to day lives we never consider rehabilitation to be easy; whether an individual is learning to walk following an injury; whether an individual is suffering mentally and seeks professional support to address the problems that they experience. Rehabilitation is hard, personal, tough and challenging. It is about re-considering the essence of an individual. It is about taking responsibility and feeling exposed and uncomfortable, so new learning can take hold. Rehabilitation in the context of prison enables prisoners to consider how they will not end up back in prison. It is necessary and important, for us as a society, for victims and for prisoners.
My second point refers to the assumption that treating prisoners badly makes them “think twice” about their lives. I do not believe this is the case. The prison environment impacts on those living in prison, those working in prison and those visiting prison. It encourages anxiety, stress and helplessness, creating a fearful environment. A prisoner showed me the newspaper this week and discussed with me how it does not represent those in prison. It represents a small minority of people who are responding to the toxic environment that exists behind the prison wall. Prisoners share with me difficult experiences they have lived through whilst in prison; discovering a friend dead in their cell and being cut down by officers, witnessing violence and suffering, listening to men crying at night as they go to sleep. There are men in prison who provide support for these individuals. This week I talked to a listener who sits for many hours providing emotional support to prisoners struggling in our prisons. I also talk with prisoners who are volunteers in prison, spending hundreds of hours giving something back because they genuinely care. In addition to this, prisoners share their lives with me; how they suffered abuse and trauma at the hands of people who are meant to love and care for them, how they were passed around foster homes, how they struggled at school and found it hard to make friends. My point is that yes prisoners have carried out some terrible behaviours but that said, prisoners are people. They are people who have a lot to offer when given an opportunity and the right environment. These talents need to be nurtured and invested in, through a rehabilitative culture, so that prisoners can contribute to society once they are released.
I have spent the past three years researching the successful aspects of the Norwegian prison system. A system that boasts low re-conviction rates, humane conditions and a tolerant society. My prison reform work is looking at how we can learn from this approach because it reduces future victims and makes society safer. Irrespective of how “soft” rehabilitation looks, if it avoids one less death, then it is valuable. You would think that such an approach is easy to achieve but like rehabilitation, it is a phenomenal challenge that takes time and hope. It requires brave governors, support and credit to our dedicated prison staff and an appetite for change. It also requires genuine investment in people, where we seek to understand rather than exclude. I feel the news this week only showed one aspect of prison but the impact of such coverage had an impact; it disheartened staff who have already been let down, it hurt those in prison who work hard and are largely ignored and it created fear for those families whose loved ones are in prison. Some would say we need to discuss reform and create a strategy for change. I disagree. We know what helps, every prisoner and member of staff I speak to knows what to do. Those that live and work on the wings can summarise the key issues with ease because they are living it every day. I call for immediate action, support and help. We need to do reform, not just talk about it. We need to act.