Day 2 of Learning Together in prison

Perceptions are so powerful – they can change the world’, says Philip (not his real name). Our perceptions of other people affect how we treat them, which in turn affect how they treat us.

My second day on the Learning Together course was different to the first. If I think about it, it’s because my perceptions had already changed. I knew what the building felt like, and the process of getting through security. But most of all I was going to see friends now.

I recognised James and Philip as soon as I walked into the room. They came up to me and we shook hands. It was good to see them again. After some brief chatting and a coffee, we sat down to listen to Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology.

Professor Liebling’s talk was about recognition. To be recognised, she said – to be truly known by others – is a fundamental human need, like food. People in prison have this need too, just like everyone else.

Our perceptions of others affect how they perceive themselves. If we don’t recognise people’s humanity, they can sense it. The sociologist Christian Smith argues that ‘people sense phenomenologically their own personal dignity’, i.e. they subconsciously perceive their value in the eyes of those around them.[1] He compares human beings to seeds, growing throughout our lives. But for humans, our surroundings affect what kind of ‘plant’ we grow into. If our environment is full of mistrust and suspicion, we will grow and develop in accordance with that. If we (and those in prison) spend time in surroundings where we are not treated with dignity, we are more likely either to become violent or simply fail to survive. But if we are given opportunities to establish trust, there is a chance that we will grow into trustworthy individuals.

But unfortunately, in today’s environment we are in danger of acting out of fear rather than trust. Many political decisions are motivated by fear. Professor Liebling described how we are living in a society that prioritises security over all other concerns. ‘The very term ‘security’ has a power of its own: it is the last word and cannot be questioned.’[2]. Politicians who promise to increase security will win many votes. And yet the policies of those who espouse security may backfire on them, having the opposite of their intended effect. If we distance ourselves from those who are different to us, acting out of fear and suspicion, we risk pushing them towards radicalisation, argued Professor Liebling. ‘Fear, anxiety and exclusion’, she said, ‘make violence more likely, and sap the energy needed for positive change’.[3]

We need to recognise the humanity in everyone, through our political decisions and even our prison policies. This means treating people with the dignity they deserve, and even taking the risk of trusting them, including in moments of apparent ‘failure’. What I am learning from this course is that we need to see people in prison as the same as ourselves, rather than as fundamentally different. I think everyone would benefit from this. If fear and suspicion continue to drive our approach to security and criminal justice, could we be only harming ourselves? How do we ensure our society is built instead on trust, dignity, and second chances?


[1] Christian Smith, What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 445.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alison Liebling, ‘The Dalai Lama, Prisons, and Prisons Research: A Call for Trust, a “Proper Sense of Fear”, Dialogue, Curiosity and Love’, Prison Service Journal; Rugby, no. 225 (May 2016): 59.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology student at Cambridge University, he also contributes to a more academic blog at Many Horizons.

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