I dread that notice in a prison reception. For those that work in prison you will know that notice and that realisation that someone who you may have been speaking to the day before is no longer alive. It makes me feel sick to my very core and desperate to find out if everyone is OK and what happened. On this one occasion I knew about a death prior to this awful letter. I tried to keep myself composed and together in the morning meeting, but found that I couldn’t even think about it without tears coming to my eyes. Even writing this brings it back. The meeting starts with the governor. A man who I respect immensely, talking about the life of this young guy, talking about his family and the series of events and sharing words of reassurance and support to those that were there. We decided, as a group of non-op staff to go down to the wing to talk to the men and staff. We walk in and one of the officers offers us a cuppa as we take our coats off and wait for unlock. The staff on the wing are regulars and we talk about the resident, as we all come to terms with it. And then the unlock. Some men and staff look pale, withdrawn, angry, depressed and low. One guy talks about how confused he is, others express guilt for not checking he was OK more and then there is one guy who is presenting a lot of anger. He talked loudly making his voice known, saying how he doesn’t care and the guy made his decision. Through his anger, fixed frown and aggressive hand gestures I saw someone who was struggling with it all. Events like this trigger a lot of things for people and it was clear something was going on for him. His reaction shocks people as he storms off to get some hot water. I follow him and we get talking, exploring about what his anger is all about. After ranting for a few moments his voice suddenly drops and his head falls. He says he has lost three of his friends in prison due to suicide and proceeds to talk about loss and hurt and grief and utter heartbreak. I
touch his arm reassuringly and express how sorry I am, acknowledging how difficult that must be and with that he goes to work to “keep busy miss, it is the only thing you can do”. As he walks away his chest is puffed back out and as he leaves people make the judgement that he doesn’t care and is being a bit of a jerk.
I then turn around and one of my team (resident) is walking towards me. This guy has been through his fair share of pain and was a listener when one of the residents who talked to him took his own years previously. You can see that it is tough and yet he says nothing, he doesn’t need to. As I start to cry he tells me to sort myself out and be strong. I try and keep it together but the trauma in the air is palpable. One of the governors walks onto the wing and informs me that he has just found out the guy who had passed away had a child. As we both hold back tears the reality and ripple effect on the event sinks in. It is interesting when you read about deaths in custody in the news. That immediate assumption that the prison were negligent, that no one cared and that it is just part and parcel of prison life. Deaths in custody are a measure of the success (and failure) of a prison, someone told me once. I am not sure about that. What I know is that the hurt and sadness of residents and staff is not articulated with each story and the caring aspect of the job is lost. Because we are all “fine” right? As I leave I notice that flowers have been placed outside the guys room, the men talk about collecting some money for his family and the governor says he will match any contribution, so that it comes from “us”. It was at this moment when I saw real humanity, amongst all the hurting and sadness, in some small way people connected.