It’s been an eventful weekend… Lets hope for a week of productivity. I am sure it will be. I put a tweet out on Saturday asking for ‘positive prison’ experiences from former prisoners and anybody else working in the criminal justice sector. I had great responses for people of various professions.
I wanted to blog about ‘what is good’ to see what experiences people have had and what has helped them in their own journey. I know what I found positive in prison and life after, nonetheless I am a small fish in a big ocean and what has been good for me isn’t the same for everyone so the idea of this blog is to share a collective of ‘positives’ from a range of experience.
I suppose I will start. I can identify three ‘positives’ that were essential for me to survive prison (because that is what we do) and to live a successful life post release, as a mother and active member of society. Firstly, and this for me is the most important. Family contact. Enabling, supporting and educating, where appropriate, the importance of maintaining family ties. I understand that family contact isn’t and wont be a positive for all in prison, with that being said, for the ones who do have a supportive family, the opportunities and importance of being supported to maintain contact is vital. My family were my backbone through-out my two year sentence. Now, lets talk about prison playing a terrible part in helping me maintain contact. September 2013, my daughter’s birthday month. At this point in my sentence I was working out of the prison every day and returning at night. I had taken my daughters birthday off work, to remain in the prison to be able to call her in the morning before school and as soon as she got home. I did have a mobile and I could have called her on my train journey to and from work, but I didn’t want my conversations with my daughter on that day, overheard by anyone and I knew I would be in tears for most of the day, so staying in prison was the best option for me. Now, because I was out at work every day, I missed canteen day. When I arrived back to the prison on the day of the prison issuing canteen sheets, I asked the officer on my wing to go and get me a canteen sheet and drop it back off for me in the correct box, as I was leaving for work the next morning at 6am and couldn’t do it myself. For anyone who doesn’t know, this sheet is how we put credit on our phones inside the jail. The officer brought me sheet and I filled it in requesting 15 pounds phone credit for the following week (my daughters birthday week). The way the week fell with sending in our canteen sheets to receiving what we had ordered, my phone credit should have been on my pin on my daughters birthday. The day I had chosen to stay in the prison to talk to her. Did said officer take my canteen sheet and post it, as promised? Nope. My phone credit didn’t go on. I was distraught. I went to the office to ask them to please let me use their phone or to give me some emergency credit so I could call my daughter on her birthday, did they let me? No, they said because my sheet was ‘late’ that I would have to wait until the following day for my credit to be applied. My sheet was late because there were no provisions for prisoners on outwork to be able to submit their forms on time if they had been out at work on the day the sheets were issued so we were to rely on staff to post them when we were back to the prison. So, unreliable prison staff often hinder family contact. Thanks to one officer, my daughter didn’t get to speak to her mother on her birthday.
In addition to family contact, my personal officer was a positive experience for me, through-out my sentence, as I have said in previous blogs. She did anything within her power to support my home leaves after the horrendous decision from my probation officer to change my risk assessment from medium to high, after a year in prison and ‘model prisoner’ behaviour through-out my sentence. She also made time to call me to the office or come to my cell, just to see how I was doing, asking if there was anything she could do to help me with anything. She wasn’t working on the day of my daughters birthday, I know she would have let me use the phone to call home. If she said she was going to do something, she did it, or at least got back to me with a reason as to why it couldn’t be done. She got to know me, knew my sentence plan and liaised with the ‘resettlement’ team in the prison to ensure I was able to get places on what ever offender based courses they wanted me to do (minus the whole TSP fiasco). This officer sat with me, in tears, in my darkest moments, showing empathy and thinking of ‘solutions’ or at least things to ease my troubles. She also was me in what were ‘happy’ times, when I could finally go home, go on day release and release for work. When I was sad, she acted appropriately as if she actually cared about my pain and wanted to help me. When I was granted my home leaves, she smiled and said ‘well done’ and she was pleased. Obviously pleased, because she cared about the people in her care. It showed and she has and will always have a lasting affect on my life.
Finally from me, before I move on to other peoples experiences that they have kindly shared with me. The gym and access to physical activity. This was a massive part of my prison sentence. I achieved my level 1 and 2 certificate in Exercise and Physical activity in prison and worked as a gym orderly during my time inside. I ran on that treadmill like I had never ran before (nor since!). For many months I went to the gym every day, sometimes for hours and hours. The gym orderlies were an amazing bunch of strong women. Every day pushing for a better performance than the day before, targeting and tracking improvement, teaching and supporting new woman to the gym and equipment. It was for all of us, more than exercise, it was building up a strong mentality. In the evenings we had the music loud, set distances to run or weights to lift and such traumatic histories to block out while we were doing it. For our time in the gym, it was a time that ‘we’ were our only focus. ‘WE’ as in all of us, is was a community. We helped and supported each other in every aspect of our fitness. In that gym, in those months, we built warriors. I have memories from that gym, with those woman, that will last me a life time. I’ll share one, when I first started on a level 1 gym course, I was new to it, over weight, unfit and smoking heavily! One day the level one tutor was off work so our session was cancelled, that meant I had to join some already amazingly fit women who were training to be personal trainers and group fitness facilitators, on their spinning session. I had never sat on a spinning bike before and I gave up after less than ten minutes. It was hard, but me having to walk out made me determined to learn how to do it. I had an amazing woman on my wing, who was also a gym orderly and training to be a personal trainer. She taught me to spin, every night for two weeks. It was gruelling, painful and I bloody hated her at times. I vividly remember a lesson, we were in the studio just the two of us, we had a song called Titanium by David Guetta blasting, we did the whole spin routine, singing at the top of our voices “Shot me down, but I get up. I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away fire away. Ricochet, you take your aim, Fire away fire away, You shoot me down but I wont fall, I am titanium”. We sang it with conviction, we felt it. We built bulletproof women. Access to frequent gym sessions and physical activity were, for many women, life changing and life saving.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact me with their ‘positive prison’ experiences. This is the feedback I had.
Former Prison Officer – “One of the reasons why I left was because I kept being told I was a ‘care bear’. That is actually what I joined for. I wanted to help change a persons life. Six months ago, I was walking in town and a former prisoner came up to me and gave me a hug and said the service would be a better place with more officers like me’. That was my positive experience, at least the people I was trying to help appreciated me as a person, more so that my former colleagues”.
Current teacher in a prison – Feedback from a prisoner “While on the wing, (prisoner) stopped me to tell me that he is really enjoying business studies and that the teacher was always listening to him and when he got stuck, the teacher takes time to help. (Prisoner) is now interested in his options for future classes”.
Mark – Former Prisoner “A gentleman called Alex was someone I felt understood me more than most. I remember getting upset because I was close to release because I was scared of the challenges ahead and he listened and showed me empathy which I really appreciated. I was lucky enough to see him outside a year or so later and I was able to thank him again for helping me”.
Chris – Former Prisoner – “I was in the association room playing pool with another chap when suddenly a fist came from nowhere to the side of my head, knocking me to the floor. I was then jumped on by my attacker and he repeatedly punched me in the face. My pool opponent hit the alarm and got officers to the scene quickly. My attack wasn’t positive but the concern shown by other inmates and officers was. For the next few days I had a constant stem of visitors to my cell door checking I was ok and whether I needed anything. It shows how a real sense of community exists within a prison”.
Sammy – Substance Misuse worker in a Cat B prison – “Giving somebody the empowerment to remain in recovery is the biggest reward. Relapses don’t define a person, it is their commitment to remain in recovery despite setbacks. Within the prison community, staff are so overworked or limited that they don’t get the chance to have a chat and built up the rapport with somebody – in my role I get to do just this, just a ten minute conversation with someone can brighten their day”.
Ben – Former Prisoner “My positive experience comes from being a gym orderly and being able to access the gyms washing machine. It may sound small but with the laundry only done once a week and not to any standard, this helped preserve my self esteem and dignity”.
Gareth – Former Prisoner “There was one guy who facilitated my group at Grendon. Lets call him Dave. It was the first time in that jail that I had told people the story of me being a child. I had done this with psychologists for years who, more often that not, responded with little more that a nod or mumble. When I told the group, Dave burst into tears. At the time I was angry and could not understand or accept that he felt sorry for me. But it was the first time in a long time, that someone showed me a genuine response to what I had experienced. I can’t tell you how powerful that was”.
James – PEI at a YOI “ Sonny was physically gifted, intelligent, loved his rugby and had great potential. However, he also had the biggest self destruction button I had ever seen and loved a fight. In some ways there was an instant connection as he reminded me of myself at his age. We set up a Rugby academy and made him captain and then found ways to keep him engaged. Along this, we also had to find ways to stop him in particular from self destructing, for example when he would kick off id ask everyone to leave and just start talking about Rugby. I can remember times where I was just chatting to myself while he paced the room huffing and puffing for nearly an hour, until he finally engaged in conversation. Then we would walk back to his cell with no further problems and because there was no violence, he remained on the programme. Over time, the incidents stopped, his behaviour got better all round the establishment. He was granted ROTL, played rugby at a local club to help with his fitness and performance and joined Cardiff Rugby Academy upon his release. He picked up an injury, which then led to some bad choices and he got breached. I remember the call like it was yesterday. He called me to say he had let me down. I was gutted for him but the fact that he called me and that way made me realise the positive impact we have on the lives on young people in custody”.
From professionals to former prisoners, the running theme here is human interaction and empathy. The ‘keep on’ attitudes from prison staff are heart warming to hear of. I hope these brief stories on positive experiences have offered some hope, shown some commitment and inspire others to use human interaction as a vital tool for success.