First impressions count, and yet we have a fixation on stereotyping.
Do we really give first impressions a chance? Or have we already formed our impressions based on stereotypes?
As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so articulately stated in her TED Talk recorded in July 2009 “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Stereotyping also feeds the notion of them and us. The reality of them and us appears as individuals or groups separated by differences and not connected through shared aims.
I have seen, read and heard that there is no place for a them and us mentality in our prisons.
Prison officers are not your mates nor should they be, they are no substitute father or mother. They are not there to rehabilitate you; they are not there to counsel you. They are there to lock you up and protect the public whilst providing a certain level of duty of care to those they put behind the door. One reason I see behind the ill-discipline and lack of respect which has become progressively worse in our prisons over the years is because of the blurring of the line in a prison officer-prisoner relationship.
They are prison officers with a set of keys who lock you away from your freedom, family and loved ones. What mate would do that to you? What decent parent would do that? What counsellor after a heavy session would then say, “Okay, behind your door and I’ll lock you up for the night alone with your thoughts”?
Should an officer fulfill one of the aforementioned roles it would not have been a decision made at a management meeting, although, I can envisage the conversation around an officers dinner table at home amongst family and friends, nor would it have been a decision at a policy meeting. It would have been a decision taken by the officer themselves based on their own thoughts and feelings. If you like, a decision made by the heart from the inside and not because of the uniform on the outside. I know they banned smoking in our prisons, but when I was in they allowed us to smoke. They could dismiss a prison officer for giving a prisoner a roll-up while escorting them back from a ghosted visit, or a dear John visit that suddenly ended more than just the visit. The medicinal properties of a roll-up, especially one provided at a dark moment, never to be under-estimated in life behind the grey veil of a prison wall.
Humanity, I believe they call it.
Social scientist Scott Page provides comprehensive research in his book The Difference that for providing solutions diversity outstrips ability as it enhances the level of innovation.
I believe we need them and us in our prisons. There is nothing wrong with it, in principle. To influence change on a wider scale, it is almost impossible for an individual to make their voice loud enough to influence the change needed. None more so than within our criminal justice system and the prisons that lurk within it, along with the residents of Her Majesty’s finest hotels. And in ever-increasing numbers.
What we also need, however, is a fresh perspective on the practices and strength’s of them and us and stop focusing on the differences that divide us. Individuals or groups from either of them or us side can come together for a common cause whilst also maintaining and celebrating the differences.
I would like for you to engage your imagination for a moment and think of our prison system as a collection of islands. Dotted about this archipelago will be islands where separately: society, the government, the ministry of justice, her majesty’s prisons and probation service and the such like all have their homes. Encircled by this group of islands is the one on which the prison officers and prisoners roam together. The island where the effects and affects of decisions taken on the surrounding islands become imbibed and yet where the residents’ views are regularly unwarranted and unwanted. Occasionally, after an inquiry views that are also unfounded after being whitewashed. In fact, they isolate the encircled island. They also provide a protective barrier. There are no bridges connecting the outside islands to the main one in the middle. Now and then a resident from one of the neighbouring islands will pop over out of courtesy. But the journey is by boat and they soon return home again. You may even struggle to find a bridge or any remnant of a bridge that connects any of the islands at all.
Not only does them and us in the criminal justice system come with a hierarchy that would put Mafia’s to shame, it is also as much a part of prison as are the walls, fences and the 8’ft by 13’ft concrete enclosures which they house within. The principle of the latter is to hold those that society deem as too unfit to walk their streets. The principle of them and us need hold no such negative connotations.
We can be different within a common cause. The common cause for prison officers and prisoners should be to work and live in an environment that enables prison officers to do their job and prisoners to do their bird.
As Scott Page put so eloquently “progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalizing on their individuality.”