It’s stating the obvious to point out there are a lot of locked doors in prison, and that therefore keys are a big deal. Members of staff wear a belt on which hangs a radio, with their keys attached to a long chain. Each room and corridor is locked by at least one door and often a heavy, barred gate as well. There is no freedom of movement around the prison whatsoever.
For the moment I am a keyless visitor. Each time I go to the prison I am put through various identity checks in the lobby and given a pass, before finally being allowed into the glass airlock that leads into the prison proper. Without keys, in order to get to where I am going on that visit a member of staff is obliged to meet me at this point. From there we pass through a locked door into the first prison yard.
As a visitor I’m a happy anomaly, but it seems to me that in the wider prison population the possession of keys or the lack of them is a potent symbol. There cannot be a clearer line between those that are free, and those without freedom.
In previous posts I’ve talked about how during classes the thought of crimes the men may have committed is all but banished from my mind, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the suggestion that this is naivety on my part. I know sometimes I’m a bit too inclined to look for the good in people and situations. I suppose at some point I’ve come to the conclusion that life is just too short and simply too glorious to waste time on pessimism. Surviving my daughter’s death has stripped life to the most important elements.
It’s definitely changed how I feel about relationships. I was shocked at how overnight I became intolerant of artifice, and of people who spend too much energy on the trivial. I’m sure that makes me worse company – certainly my address book has become much thinner over the past ten years, but I’m happy with that. The people there now really count.
I’ve deviated, but I wanted to make the point that I’m certain I would not be volunteering in a prison at the moment if Juliette were still alive, because I think I was one of the people whose company I now avoid. If choosing to spend time with prisoners, to try and light a creative fuse with men so many in society and possibly even their own circle have given up on makes me naive, then I suppose I am. But we’re all the same flesh, blood and spirit. I can’t listen to a prisoner’s story, told with all the width and breadth of human love and suffering, and think of him only in terms of the crime he may have committed. It’s just not possible.
The prison environment doesn’t let you forget completely however. At the end of a class a few weeks ago I was chatting to an inmate called Yan that I blogged about here He looks like a tough man, but he writes a lot of poetry which he sends to his Mum and his girlfriend. I’ve forgotten the context of our conversation but he was telling me a story in which he took the small dog of a former girlfriend for a walk on a busy seafront. He was on his own, and when the dog ran off he had to call it back. Unfortunately for him and his tough guy image, the dog was called ‘Fifibelle.’
We were both laughing at his anecdote when an officer unlocked the classroom door. Yan immediately had to stand with the other men to have a metal detector run all over him before afternoon lock up. As I’ve mentioned before, this procedure is to ensure no metal objects are removed from the education block which could be turned into weapons. Right there in that moment was the divide between prisoner and free person. It’s stupid to say, but I found myself wanting to look away in embarrassment for him, and the others with whom I’d spent the previous two and a half hours chatting as ‘equals.’
I wasn’t able to get to the prison for a couple of weeks after this and was looking forward to seeing Yan (as well as the other men) but when I arrived, Michael told me that Yan had been ‘shipped out.’ ‘Shipped out’ is prison speak for being moved to another jail. The prisoner isn’t given much notice of this happening and often aren’t able to say goodbye to other inmates and staff. It seems a bit unfair from my outsider’s perspective, but I’m sure there are good operational reasons for moves happening in this way. I was genuinely sorry not to have been able to say goodbye and wish him luck, and that I would probably never see him again.
‘Be friendly, but not their friend,’ I was told by a wise lady who has worked for many years in the prison system. I’m sure it’s good advice, but the Pollyanna in me or perhaps simple inexperience makes it difficult always to keep this line clear. Besides as I keep saying, only by treating them as I would anyone outside can I engage fully in the creative stuff we do.
This all came up when I was at the prison last week. Michael had received a letter – the first he’d been sent by a prisoner – and it was from Yan. He told Michael how grateful he was to have met him, and how much he’d got from his classes. Michael, he said, had given him back his self-belief after his failure in education before. Yan went on to say that he hoped perhaps when he was released they might meet up, because he had no intention of coming back to prison.
Standing in the classroom with about ten minutes to go before mass move (when all prisoners are en-route to classes or work) I burst into tears. The thing is, no prisoner has to be grateful, and no teacher has to be affected emotionally by someone they’ve taught. A few simple words in a letter shone a light on the vastness of the human spirit.
Michael had to wipe his eyes too, but we pulled ourselves together – laughing at how pathetic we were, and we shuffled bits of poetry I’d brought in for the class. The sad thing – although I think I understand the reasons – is that Michael can’t reply to the letter. He sent a verbal message via another prisoner to say thank you to Yan, and to wish him luck. That has to be enough. Be friendly, but not their friend. When you have the privilege of keys, true friendship is dangerous.
The men arrived and we sat down to get on with our class. Michael started by ‘complaining’ loudly about some pencils he’d brought in that had gone missing the previous day. ‘Do you know, lads?’ he said, ‘I think there may be a thief amongst us…’ The men love him because this teasing is a form of respect, and he makes them laugh. Because of this, they want to do well in his lessons.
We were looking at poetry again, and I was a bit nervous because the last time I’d tried it their response was lukewarm. Previously I’d brought in poems that I love by Rudyard Kipling, Maya Angelou, Siegfried Sassoon and John Hegley, among others. This time I found poems written by prisoners from the UK and the USA. It was a forehead-slapping moment to see how they picked up the poems and read them, choosing their favourites and why – debating whether a poem was poem if it didn’t rhyme, etc. They could relate to the emotions expressed and when I gave them a sheet of poem prompts, most of them couldn’t wait to get started with their own words.
So, we had poems of regret at the heartache caused to a mother, poems of quiet determination to stay on the right side of the law after leaving prison, a funny poem, yet which was threaded with pathos at the writer’s wry admission that his whole life had been a lie, and a couple of beautiful, heart-shaking love poems.
One of the love poems was written by Sam, about his girlfriend, who had recently died in a car crash. It spoke of how when he came to die, he would look for her in heaven. If it happened that she was not there, he would go to hell just to be with her again. He gave me a copy which I would love to reproduce here, but I know I can’t.
After mass move I stayed for a chat with Michael and we talked about how the class had gone. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘from the way they look, if I met any of these guys for the first time on the outside I’d be nervous.’ It’s true that some of them do, unsurprisingly, look like they’re off the photo wall in Crimewatch. But you hear their stories, feel their emotions, and they’re just people; albeit flawed people, but who amongst us is not?