Sunday, 22 July 2007

We all have two nostrils and a common fate (death)

It's been a hard week's work at the prison.Last Saturday saw another suicide. There are many people working to try and make the place more humane, but it is difficult sometimes to see how this can be achieved within the present system, with its lack of resources. If society really wants prisoners to change (a process that only they themselves can effect), banging them up for most of the day does not necessarily help the process. One prisoner told me the worst thing about prison if that you cannot show your feelings. You need to suppress them in order to survive the regime. The Listeners (prisoners trained in listening) have a role similar to that of the Samaritans on the outside and spend many hours performing a role that our friends (and, if we are lucky, family) perform on the outside. They try to transcend and help transcend the over-crowding, lack of staff, lack of privacy and loss of control over one's life.

On the outside, people are generally not very concerned about prisoners. If anything, the attitude is positively sadistic. "I'd like to take them out and shoot them" says one of my neighbours, normally a kind and compassionate man. "They have better food and stuff than pensioners" says another. Not true - in my experience anyway. Potatoes boiled to perdition,
erratic portions, pasties with no filling, gristly meat. No Jamie Oliver to campaign here aboutthe link between nutrition and behaviour! It is not luxury - not even decent.
I come home feeling I smell of the sickly disinfectant and cooped-up male and, oh, how wonderful is my little house, my cats, my cup of tea from my own pot. The garden (somewhat overgrown) looks lovely. I can go where I want when I want. For me, the worst thing about prison is that lack of control over one's life. This may be a deterrent to crime, but it is an incomplete one. Without offering options, other strategies for living, it just encourages a "them-and-us" divide between staff and prisoners, reinforcing the criminal culture. Oslo prison, which I visited recently has several staff whose sole task is to keep prisoners active doing something -
some activities probably categorised here as "luxurious". I asked the young officer (sweatshirt and jeans) about this. His reply -"What do you want them to do? Sit around and talk about their crimes and plan a few more?" The whole emphasis there is on the future from Day 1 of the sentence. What will happen when the offender is released?
This morning I heard that the Lifeboat Shop where I work at weekends has been burgled and smashed up, and my reaction was a reminder that I am not immune from the knee-jerk, angry,vindictive feelings I so condemn in others. It is a struggle (on a partly animal level) when one feels under attack. Practical compassion is something for which we strive, but it is a challenge as I sit on a comfy chair with a cup of fresh-ground coffee and plan my day, remembering we all have two nostrils and a common fate.

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