Day 1 of Learning Together in Prison
“There’s a stigma against people like us,” said James (not his real name). “People assume we’re horrible, rude and unfriendly. But they don’t come inside to see what we’re really like. We’re just the same as everyone else. We may have done something bad once, but we’re just normal people. We have feelings like everyone else.”
Entering a maximum security prison takes a long time. You can’t bring anything with you – no bag, keys, phone, or wallet. It all stays at reception. Then you pass through security screenings, doors and chambers; one door closes but the next doesn’t open for 30 seconds; you put your fingerprint on a scanner to open the barriers – and so on.
This term I will go to prison once a week. I’m taking a course titled The Good Life and the Good Society, run by the University, attended by people in prison and people at University alike. Within the classroom we are treated as equals without distinction. We listen to lectures, read articles, participate in discussions, and write an essay.
When I first met James, I expected him to be sullen, moody, and hard to have a conversation with. I don’t know why. James surprised me by taking the initiative.
‘How was your experience of coming into the prison?’, he asked. ‘It took a long time’, I told him. ‘And what are you studying at Cambridge?’ Then he informed me that he had himself recently earned a degree, which took him six years to complete.
I couldn’t help wondering what he was in prison for. But it would be weird to start a conversation with anyone by asking them the worst thing they’d ever done. I started to realise that I had a two-dimensional view of people in prison, as if they were purely selfish, without conscience or regard for others. But where did this opinion come from and why did I have it? Did I assume that everyone outside prison was purely selfless and law-abiding? Did I unconsciously imagine those in prison as different to me in some fundamental way? And did this unconscious prejudice show itself in the way I spoke and acted?
One of the goals of the course is to help us understand one another better, breaking down stereotypes. Those in prison have preconceptions of what Cambridge students are like, and Cambridge students likewise have assumptions about those in prison. But when you get to know each other, you also learn about yourself – how your prejudices shape the way you view people. And your prejudices shape your view of how ‘the good society’ ought to function, which affects the policies you vote for.
Let me tell you about the two people I have got to know best so far. James has a daughter who studies at University. Philip (also not his real name) has a wife and a daughter with whom he feels close, and who visit him regularly.
James is a devout Muslim and Philip is a devout Christian. I have learned that Sunday’s chapel and Friday’s prayer room in the prison are both full. Philip has always been a Christian, but he tells me he took his faith more seriously ‘since I’ve been in here’. James – a white, British man – converted to Islam several years before entering prison.
I liked James & Philip immediately. They were friendly and easy to talk to. We laughed and joked together, before turning to serious ethical questions where we shared our honest views and insights. Philip said he couldn’t abide hypocrisy & double standards, and sometimes felt that these were applied to him because of his position, as a prisoner.
Philip & James are keenly aware of how they are perceived by ‘people outside’. They bear that consciousness around with them like heavy chains, knowing what it will mean if/when they are released.
Philip & James feel that much of society doesn’t believe they can change. They feel that they are given little opportunity to gain trust. But if we trust people with nothing, we can never find out if they are trustworthy. To trust involves taking risks sometimes. Are we willing to take those risks for the sake of finding trustworthy people?
I have been challenged to think about my attitude towards those in prison. Are they simply an inconvenience to be kept out of the way? But if we treat them this way, we dehumanise them and embitter them against us, making them less likely to truly change. On the other hand, if we risk trusting them, we are acknowledging their humanity and giving them a chance to grow. Isn’t that what all of us truly want? Are we really so different?