Sunday, 25 October 2020

An Unchained Melody


                                                                                       A podcast of this blog can be found here



It’s been a while since I have written anything. Partly because my mind moves slightly faster than the moving of my hands these days. 


Some of you may be aware that I spend my days working in the nation’s prisons. I try to help my fellow prisoners feel slightly more safe when they enter our country’s jails. I believe that the first few weeks, if not months, of residency in a prison are when those who are remanded or sentenced to custody are at their most vulnerable. I know I was when I entered jail all those years ago. 


Since my release, I have worked with both the private and public sector in devising programs to help residents adjust to a new way of living. I train current residents in how to help a new arrival settle into prison life by using their own experiences. I mean who better to help a new prisoner than an existing prisoner? I am so very lucky to be able to do this and nothing brings a greater smile to my face when I meet the new peer mentors on their first day of work. 


Those of us who have criminal records must go through vigorous vetting procedures, annually, to ensure that we meet the expectations of the prison service in order that we can “draw” keys. Now these keys are not handed out lightly and we can never have cell keys. They are used in order that we can go about our work without having to have a member of staff detailed to us. As I said there are rigorous checks done before we are allowed to have them and we must undergo key training  and security vetting in every prison we work in. 


Now with that being said; I wanted to share with you, something that hit me in the middle of the solar plexus and unsettled me slightly.


Let me give you some background.


Recently, I had the pleasure of helping devise a new early days in custody process in a local remand prison. This was an interesting and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, quite emotional experience for me. What made this prison different from all the others that I have worked in over the past 5 years is that I was a resident in this one many years ago. 


The work for this prison has taken a long time as the  current pandemic had made it difficult to get the entire program installed. Without the help and “buy in” from the management, staff and the residents, it just would not have been possible. 


The day of the launch, I went to meet with the peer mentors (called Insiders) to ensure that they were ready for “lift-off.” They were unhappy and were arguing amongst themselves. So, I sat and I listened to their grievances, their woes and their worries. To be honest with you, there was nothing earth shatteringly bad; they just need to vent their frustrations as I sat there and sighed. It was then that I admonished myself. I had forgotten that what we, who enjoy our freedom, deem to be a minor inconvenience is a major problem for those who we incarcerate. There was shouting and naughty words and at one point I thought we would have to call the whole thing off. However, I continued to sit there for another hour. At which point I said to them “Look, arguing is good. It shows you care. It shows you have passion. Keep going, I have all day, if that what’s you need.” There were heated discussions between 3 of them against 1 other. They rallied against this one person until I stepped in and said that perhaps they should think of other things that were upsetting this man (such as a rather large sentence that had been handed down to him the week before). Then they clicked and got it. Their frustration was hiding their nervousness. Before we all knew it, they were up and shaking hands. And this, this brought me happiness. I was able to just sit and listen to their issues without judgement, without them fearing reprisal and let them know that I understood. I am and always will be an ex-prisoner and they knew that I could relate to what was going through their minds.


The prison really did pull out all the stops for a launch of their new wing and process. A ribbon was even produced for me to cut. How wonderful! But… I made the decision that it wasn’t for me to cut, it was for one of the Insiders to take the glory. After all, it is they who make any of my projects work. The scissors (suitably blunt!)  were then passed to this young man who has been in and out of prison for most of his life. He looked at me as if I was mad ! I told him, “it’s your program, your job and therefore your right to do this.” Off he went, in the eyesight of the entire prison management and opened the newly refurbished wing. They applauded and my goodness did he smile!! 


What no one else saw was the tear in his eye as he looked at me. He thanked me and told that the day was the best he had had in a long time. I can’t repeat, for obvious reasons, his precise words but they were along the lines of “Can you bleeping believe it, a bunch of bleeps just bleeping applauded me?!!!”  I replied ‘Why thank me? This is your gig, I am purely your voice.“ Upon reflection I think that was rather ungracious of me as he wanted to thank me for giving him an opportunity. I will apologise to him when I next see him. But I left the prison that day knowing that if I did nothing else that week, I had brought a smile to some people’s faces and that made me content.


It wasn’t until a day or so later, whilst sitting wondering why I felt strange that it hit me. I had been working in a jail that once held me captive. I held open a gate for one of the governors and then locked it behind him. There it was! In my hands were the keys to the jail that once held me. 


I tend to brush off what I do and tend to say to people that drawing keys doesn’t really bother me that much. I joke about it and tell people that I expect Darth Vadar to pop out at any minute shouting “welcome to the dark side.” However, I guess that it does affect me. But not in the way you think.


If you will allow me a little indulgence here; IT FILLS ME WITH PRIDE!


I am an ex-prisoner who was held in a number of the country’s jails throughout his sentence and here I am with a key chain, an ID that says I am part of the prison team. The management and staff in all the prisons in which I work, welcome me. They know my past but never use it against me; rather they understand the benefit of it. 


We all use these lovely words these days; resettlement, rehabilitation, reform etc. and I rally against them; but you know what? If I am not an example of the system working I don’t know what is! 


Of course, it’s just my opinion I could be wrong!


PS Not only was it a prison that I used to be in, it was the same wing (I swore then that it needed changing and now it has!).