Day 4 of Learning Together in prison

Today, after arriving and spending the first hour getting through security, I met someone new: a fascinating person I will call Andrew. Andrew is a Catholic Christian, who spent a couple of years training as a Jesuit Priest a long time ago, before moving on to something else. Andrew’s training meant that he was well-versed in his Plato and Aristotle. I enjoyed chatting with him about the two pre-readings for today’s session – a section from Augustine’s City of God, and this article from the Daily Mail, which paints a picture of prison life as cushy and comfortable, where those in prison happily order treats for themselves paid for by taxpayers’ money.

Andrew’s reaction to the reading (the Daily Mail article, not Augustine’s book) was that it was ‘total baloney’. Not that the plain facts were wrong, but that they were interpreted in a way that didn’t reflect the reality of life in prison. It is true, in a bare factual way, that those in prison can buy things from a restricted list of Amazon products. But the article didn’t mention how little money people in prison are able to earn or have sent into them by family or friends, or the many other privileges that people in prison have to do without. In other words, in Andrew’s opinion, the article picked out one small bit of information and blew it up dramatically, ignoring all the other issues at play.

As we reflected on the impact of the article, we observed that most people assume that what they read in newspapers is true, except when they read a story about something about which they have personal experience. When you get personal experience of a situation, even if the facts you knew beforehand don’t change, you understand them quite differently because you see the wider context. You know the people as real, complex, three-dimensional individuals, worthy of respect and dignity. The problem with the Daily Mail article was that it didn’t help you think of people in prison as ‘real people’ – it made no attempt to see things from the perspectives of people who live and work in prison. It was designed to provoke outrage and disgust – the opposite of empathy and understanding.

Later, I talked with Philip about the same newspaper story. He said that those kinds of articles only ever give a tiny bit of the full picture. ‘Nobody talks about the number of suicides or the amount of self-harming that goes on in prisons’, he pointed out. One of Philip’s roles in prison is to be a ‘Listener’, which means that, with support from the Samaritans, he offers active listening to anyone who needs it. This work gives Philip first-hand experience of how many people in prison suffer from depression and thoughts of suicide. On reflection, this shouldn’t have been surprising to me. I had never really thought about what I might think or  feel, if I found myself in prison for an extended period of time. No internet access, no freedom, and extremely limited access to friends and family – not to mention the long-term future stigma of having served a prison sentence.

The Daily Mail article intends to give a certain impression of people in prison. I was glad I had the opportunity to compare that impression with my own (albeit brief) first-hand experience, getting to know some of the people and the place for myself. The difference was striking, to say the least. But many who read that Daily Mail article won’t have the opportunity to compare the picture it paints with the reality. Their understanding of prison life might be formed primarily by that article – and many others like it.


Cover image from this page.

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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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