Allow your mind to visualise prison, if you can – even if for only the briefest of moments – as a chess board. You have two opposing sides, made up of many: labels? titles? names and so on, or even pieces? Within one arena, all going in different directions. Some more restricted than others, confined to move in small spaces only. Some can make giant strides forwards, as well as backwards. Some pieces are removed early. It’s inevitable in this game. However, you can still win, especially if you know and understand the rules of the game, just show a little patience and adaptability, with, of course, a little cunning, as the game progresses. Like the game of chess itself, reading about it or watching it, is no where near the same as playing it.
First thing first though (well it wouldn’t be last). Like I said, you have to learn. In a way it’s similar to driving a car. Even once you have that licence, for most, during those first initial days, you need your full focus, no distractions. Both hands, at ten to 2, on the steering wheel. Window’s closed. No talking (if passengers). No radio. Then in no time, there you are, one hand on the steering wheel, an arm hanging out the open window, music blaring and chatting to passengers like you’ve been driving for years.
Staying with the driving analogy. Before you get your full driving licence and are considered competent enough to drive unaided, you have to learn. If not? The chances are, you will crash, and many times, although one of those times could have led to death, even the first one. Some people just jump in and try and learn. The vast minority may succeed, with the rest failing. I crashed a few times doing it this way.
When I first entered the system, the term induction, or even listener, didn’t exist in prison. I did learn to call every staff member sir, how to make my bed and bed pack, how to fold my clothes and polish my boots. I even learnt to sew, and survive. I also learnt, that, doing it the hard way doesn’t help either. Great skills and experience, considering how the rest of my life turned out. Was I equipped after that, to survive anywhere else? Who knows? But here I am.
My biggest crash was January 2009. Who knows what the outcome would’ve been, had my neighbour, a fellow listener, not got on his bell the night of my crash? Concerned, due to my change in behaviour that day. Life can’t get much worse, for some, once you find yourself in prison. It can, however, also be a perfect opportunity for change.
Two areas in prison, which compliment each other, and, are for me, the two most important. One is education, and not just academic education. There is so much that can be achieved by providing different forms of education, not just for learning but also in expressing and dealing with feelings. I’ve seen some fantastic work being done around that area. My friend Brenda and Unchained Poetry, where the spoken word is used, or HMP Lincoln, where they use acting and drama, plus plenty others doing different, new things. Fresh approaches like HMP Parc. If nothing changes, then nothing changes and it remains the same. The second area, and for me, the most important aspect of prison, is induction. Induction, has to be considered as a process to teach the individual, not only what is expected of them, but also the opportunities that are available to them. It should not be an event to welcome the individual to the wing and wish them luck. The process should first concentrate on the individuals mental health and well being, in a proper first night centre, run more by healthcare with the support of the prison, rather than the opposite.
I have been in a position, where, over the past four decades, I have been in and out of prison on numerous occasions, around the country, in each of those four decades. Facts not ego. Longest ever sentence? 54 months. Shortest? 4 months, when I was 15 (minus a few days here and there for non-payment). I have seen many changes, some good, some not so good. I’ve seen staff come and go, again, the good and not so good. I’ve seen prisoners come and go. Again, some good, some not so good. I have seen prisoners die and prisoners saved. I have some incredible memories, that will stay with me forever, and some I wish I could forget. But I am who I am today because of prison, not despite prison. And I bloody love what I’m doing, where I am, and most importantly, who I am.
We have to show people the way, not expect them to know it and to stop showing people what is and start to show them what can be!