Wednesday, 3 February 2016

What Could Prison Teach Me?

My Prison Time.

This is the text  from a speech I gave to some invited guests from the community whilst in custody.

"Oscar Wilde wrote that he considered the two greatest turning points in his life were when his father  sent him to Oxford and when Society sent him to prison. I never went to University but being sent to prison was indeed one of the greatest turning points in my life.

I came to prison to serve my debt to society and I thought that was it. How wrong I was! I was an arrogant, self-centred fool (for the people that know me, I say I was!!). I could do my sentence, not a problem. Or at least so I thought. What could prison teach me? 

A Lot I was to learn.

I decided, after a light bulb moment to use the time to find what I was told was the good me. Along the way I have come across all walks of life. People whom, if I am to be totally honest, would never have met otherwise. Do you know what has amazed me? That even in the terrible situation that we find ourselves in; is the inherent goodness of people. And that has taught me humility.

These good people come from both sides of the door, not just my fellow prisoners but I count that staff in this group.

Let me give you just two of many examples:

I have a condition that sometimes manifests itself with my being unable to eat. Three months ago at the end of Ramadan this prison celebrated the EID festival. Muslim prisoners attend the festival and enjoy a feast to celebrate it. There is food available for them to take away at the conclusion. I had being suffering fairly badly for a few months previously and I was touched by the concern shown to me by my fellow prisoners on the wing. On the evening after the EID festival there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find no-one there other than a small tray on the floor with some food from the feast. No note, no nothing. I still do not know who left me it, but that random act of kindness is one that I shall take with me for the rest of my life. I am sure that people have gone to heaven for less.

The second example is that a few months ago I was approached by a member of staff to assist them in revamping a program that they run here. The person came to me and said “you have the experience in this and it would be nonsensical for us not to use your experience.” That person looked at me as an individual and not a number. Small things make huge differences.

I have felt dreadful despair of the years in prison, I have been diagnosed with a condition, I lost family members but I have found hidden away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in the field is Humility. It has come to me out of myself so I know that it has come at the right time. It could not have come before or later. Had anyone have told me of it I would have rejected it.

Staff soon realised that set courses were not for me. However, change was necessary, my very existence depended upon it. So, prison gave me the opportunity and space to change myself.

When I was put into prison some people advised me to forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only be realising what I am that I have comfort of any kind. Now, I am advised by others to try, on my release, to forget that I have ever been in prison. I know that would be equally fatal. To reject my own experience is to halt my own development. The fact of my the having being in prison, I must accept and curious as it may sound to you, one of the things that shall have to teach myself is not to be ashamed of it. I must accept it as a punishment and if one is ashamed of being punished one might as well never have been punished at all.

So I went ahead and accepted my punishment, in fact in sort of a perverse way, I look forward to it. I knew I had to break myself down completely before I could rebuild. I relished the challenge. However, what I did not realise is to what depths of disparity I would reach. But, well, as the saying goes, if it doesn't hut then you aren’t doing it right!!

The next bit is what the public is never told;

The support I have received from staff and prisoners is simply outstanding. I know that there is a network around me to help if needed. I am not ashamed to tell you that I have relied upon this support more than a few times and it has been offered without question. No reasons needed, just a nod of the head and it is there.

You will often have heard the phrase “A prisoner is sent to prison as a punishment not to be punished.” It is so very vital that prison officers understand that their role is not to keep us away from society and locked up like caged animals (believe me, the 16ft fences do that perfectly well), but to rehabilitate us and make us better members of society.

Has prison rehabilitated me? Well if you had asked me that 2 years ago I would have said “no.” But now? Now, I would say “unwittingly, yes.” Am I a better member of Society? Well only Society can judge me on that. But I do believe that I am a better human being.

Where does Society come in in all this? My view is rather jaded I am afraid.

Many men, upon their release carry their prison sentence along with them into the air, hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts and at length, like poor poisoned things creed into some hole and die. It is wretched that they should have to do this and is wrong, so terribly wrong of Society that it should have forced them to do so. Society took it upon itself to inflict our punishments but it also had the supreme vice of shallowness and failed to realise what it had done. When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself, that is to say it abandons him at the very time when it’s highest duty towards him begins. It is really ashamed of its own actions and shuns those whom it has punished.

I claim on my side that if I realise what I have suffered; society should realise what it has inflicted on me and there should be no bitterness or hate on either side. The phrase “wipe the slate clean” comes from prison. When a prisoner left his cell for the last time, his name and number were wiped clean off the slate next to his door. We are supposed to go out into the world “a new man” having paid our debt to society. However, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will leave here in January as an ex-prisoner and will be labelled as such for the rest of my life. I ask you is that fair? Was I given a life sentence? Do we not forgive those who transgress?

And there is you, the invited guests from the community.

You are here, you people who are willing to look at us with no pre-conception and for that you have my thanks. Don’t get me wrong; we don't want your pity or your charity. What we want is a chance. A chance to show that whatever drove us to be here is in the past and that you look at us as people and not numbers.

The sheer fact that all of you are here shows us that you are willing to do just that. It may seem insignificant to you but as I said before, small random acts of kindness mean a tremendous amount to us.

Thank you”