Day 3 of Learning Together in Prison

By the time the third session of the course arrived, I realised I had no idea what my new friends in prison did every day when we aren’t together studying. All I knew was that they have no internet access or mobile phones. I could no longer imagine what life is like without those things. How did they spend their time?

I knew that James had recently finished a degree in social science. Now I learnt that Philip belongs to several prison Bible studies and loves to read Christian books. They also both spend a lot of time cooking, both for themselves and for others in prison. I began to build a mental picture of what daily life in prison might be like for them. More social than I thought, it seemed.

Today’s lecture was about empathy and citizenship, given by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Williams talked about how in today’s world we have bought into a picture of life where ‘what’s good for me is what’s good for me’ – an individualistic view of society. But he challenged us with a question: what if we took seriously the elements of human experience where ‘what’s good for me’ is bound up with ‘what’s good for everyone else’?

Many everyday examples show us how our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of those around us. Dr Williams gave the example of traffic: it can be frustrating to wait at red lights, but imagine what the roads would be like without any traffic regulations – a giant free-for-all? Would we really get anywhere faster? It certainly wouldn’t be safer!

Dr Williams talked about how, if we want to live in a more community-shaped society, where everyone looks out for everyone else, we need to develop empathy: the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. We must use our imagination and ask, ‘What might the world look like if I stood there, in that person’s shoes?’

When we have empathy for others, we can begin to see ourselves as citizens, rather than merely as individuals. To be a citizen means to see yourself as having something to contribute to the wider community. It means to see the ways in which your actions and the actions of others are bound up together, for better or for worse.

How might all of this be relevant to prisons? It might initially seem obvious that people are in prison partly because they lack a sense of citizenship, or are not good citizens. But I felt challenged to turn the question around. If the communal vision of society is true, then the logic works both ways. How can I be a citizen alongside my fellow citizens in prison, making good choices that promote their wellbeing as well as my own? How does the way I treat people in prison affect me and my well-being?

One of the things both Philip and James are passionate about is education. They are keen to learn and grow in understanding. Why? They tell me that it gives them a greater sense of citizenship. ‘Education gives you confidence in what you’re saying’, said James. ‘It makes you feel like you have something to contribute.’

Both James and Philip wish they had been better educated when they were growing up – that they had access to, and made better use of, learning opportunities that interested and motivated them, helping them feel that they could contribute to knowledge and use it to shape the world for good. This made me wonder: if our society invested in better education for everyone, would there be fewer people in prison? Is education another example of a situation where we are all in it together, and what benefits you also benefits me?

Cover Image from this website.

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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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