Yesterday we experienced a turning point at the prison. I say experienced because all those apart of it felt it and it was energising and heart-warming.
The event was simple. We got all our mentors, reps and growth team members in a room and appreciated them. With a busy schedule at the moment me and the Dep decided to run the session over lunch and unlock the mentors. This meant our first principle of growth was achieved, with a little extra bit of freedom for the guys. This event focused on three other principles of growth: meaningful relationships, meaningful work and creating a positive climate. We decked the room out with fairy lights and LED candles and made it feel comfy and homely.
A handful of staff from the prison collectively joined us and 40 people arrived at our growth hut at 12:30 on Thursday, not really knowing what to expect.
The event started with our lovely Dep-he talked about doing things differently, thanking those that help the other residents at the prison and celebrating the shared vision of making the prison a better, safer place.
He then handed it over to me and Nicky (the resident supervisor of the Growth Project). Our plan was focused and straightforward. We have prepared individual thank you notes for everyone in the room with a note of thanks and the reasons why we appreciate them. Between us we knew everyone in the room and made it as personalised as possible.
Nicky started and his presence and confidence brought with it humour and subsequently, real laughter. Each person came up and received their hand written note, a festive card and a leaf pin-ordaining them all as agents of growth. We then had a bit of food together and captured the event with a photo. We told every resident and staff member there how important they are and that they are loved.
The bit that surprised me was the reaction to this. Some men looked awkward, stating that they are not used to praise. Others looked chuffed and proceeded in thanking me and Nicky, as a way of grappling with the positive feeling they were experiencing. The staff left the event and returned to it throughout the day, saying how lovely it was. They needed it too I think as much as the men.
I reflect upon why it was so positive- we hit a recipe which brought motivation, hope and we moved forward by an inch as a result of the event. It didn’t cost a lot, we used what we had and we tried to be thoughtful and creative with what we had. I think there is something about stopping in the moment, amidst the hecticness and heartache of prison, to spend a moment in the present. I think there is also something about telling our residents that without their positive contributions, prison would be a more painful place- they have a role to play and we value and see that. But ultimately and more than anything else, I believe demonstrating an unconditional positive regard for people who have not maybe felt accepted or of worth, is the most powerful thing we can do.
These events don’t just impact on those in that room-as they return to the houseblocks with their cards and pins people ask curiously what went on. One guy came and spoke to me the following morning and said; “I want to be part of all this. The people involved are happy…what is it all about?”. People move to the things that bring life and prison needs to be a place for living. When they become our neighbours they will have a stake in our wider community because they would have tasted that experience and want more of it. We all want to belong and experiencing belonging in unusual places can spark new identities and imaginations. We are changing our prison identity and this will only change the identity of those within.