On 8th of August 2019, I was invited by the wonderful Butler Trust to speak at their annual summer symposium. This year's theme was that Prison Officers were hidden heroes. What follows is my speech and an audio version is available here. However, I would warn you that the quality is lousy due to my stupidity of leaving the recording device in my pocket!
Simon said that he wanted me to give a moving speech. I have Parkinson’s so one thing I can guarantee you is that this rambling of mine shall certainly be moving (just perhaps not in the way he meant!!).
I know not whether Laws be right
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
That man hath made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.
This too I know – and wise it were
If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.
Whilst Oscar Wilde was in prison he penned his now famous letter “ De Profundis”. This letter turned my life around and I put it down to being my “lightbulb moment.” I must have read it a hundred times.
He writes “The fact of my having been a prisoner , I must frankly accept, and curious as it may seem to you, one of the things I 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.” He goes onto to say“ I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison. I know that would be fatal. To reject one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life”
In 1897 after being released from Reading Gaol, Wilde wrote to the then Governor and said “Of course I side with the prisoners; I was one and I belong to their class now. I am not a scrap ashamed of having been in prison. I am horribly ashamed of the materialism that brought me there.”I could have written those words.
I spent just under 4 years in prison.
When I went to prison, I was petrified. I was a deer stuck in the headlights. I didn’t know what to expect, what to do, what to say, who to talk to and the fear of the unknown was all encompassing.
I left jail a while ago now and I spend my days going back into the very places that I tried to get out of. The irony of my working within prisons is not lost on me. But I do so with humility and with pleasure. I have an experience that none of you will ever have had and I want to help you. I want to help you help that person that was me all those years ago. You see, I get it, I get what you do, and I stand here in front of you thanking whatever supreme being that you believe in that you do it.
In the same year of 1897 Wilde wrote a letter to the Daily Chronicle and said “Wherever there is Centralisation there is stupidity. What is inhuman in modern life is officialism. Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised. It is the Prison Board, and the system that it carries out, that is the primary source of the cruelty that is exercised on a child in prison. The people who uphold the system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are humane in intention also. Responsibility is shifted on to the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule, it is right.”
Let me put that into context for you. Wilde was decrying the summary expulsion of Officer Martin from the Prison Service for giving a child a sweet biscuit. This CHILD was under the age of 14 and had just been convicted and sent to Reading Gaol.
I say, the good prison officer is the person that whilst understanding the rules; realises that as with all laws, sometimes humanity is better served by common sense prevailing.
I believe that all of you here are the Mr Martins of old.
You are all prison OFFICERS, you are not guards or warders (as the more salacious parts of the media would have you called). You are officers. You do not judge me, I have already been judged; you do not befriend me, I don’t need friends. You do set down the rules and tell me you will do your best to ensure I am safe, treated with decency and will be there for when I call for help. That help can come in a multitude of forms. Be it by helping me with my lost canteen or by helping me find myself and get on that long road to being a better person. You see you are not there to “rehabilitate” me; only I can do that. You are there to help me rehabilitate myself. Of course, you can point me in the direction but eventually you have to let me walk unaided.
You are there for me to rely on, for me to eventually start trusting the human race again. Many of us come from backgrounds where that trust is so sorely missing. That’s why we get upset with you when you forget to “do that thing for me, Miss.” It’s not that you didn’t do it, honestly, it’s not. It’s just that we put our trust in you and you let us down. And God Damn it hurts.
You are good and decent human beings first, and prison officers second.
You didn’t hear my cries of anguish at night as I lay on my bed; the tears of pain that I endured every night for 1,365 nights. You knew I was suffering. You got the doctor to come and see me after you realized that I wasn’t spending more than 10 minutes a day out of my cell. You saw that I wouldn’t go outside, and I would cling onto the walls for dear life. When I turned up at the servery and just shook my head, you nodded. You knew I wasn’t going to eat. You saw the look of despair in my eyes yet knew I was too proud to tell you of my suffering.
You saved my life. I am here because of you. I had decided the day I was going to end it all. I had had enough of this world and I was convinced that this world had had enough of me. But you called the wing office on your day off to check on me and that, that is what made all the difference. You cared and you gave a damn. I breathe because you taught me how.
Did you do this because of the uniform you wore? I say you did not. I say you did it because of the type of human being you are. The fact that you wear a uniform is not important to me, it is the person behind that uniform that is so very crucial. However, uniforms are the way you are recognised, and I hope you wear yours with pride. You will leave society a better place for being in it. I know you have left me a better person due to your professionalism and dedication to your chosen career. We need more of you in our world. Your contribution to society should never go unrecognised.
I exit prison and I leave you behind me at the gate. But I need you to know that with every sun that rises I think of you often I am grateful that you chose the profession you did. Your vocation is the most noblest of careers and whilst the public may not recognise you, those of us whose life you have impacted do. We will never forget you.
Simon asked me to title this speech “Hidden Heroes” There is nothing hidden about you. You are all my heroes and I shall continue to shout from the rooftops about you until I have no breath left in me.
So remember this the next time you put on your uniform; many of us owe our lives to you, ladies and gentlemen and I, for one, will continue to repay my debt to you until the day I die.