The following four accounts were originally separate blog posts, recording my experiences of a series of visits to a maximum security prison. Their purpose is to show how my perspective was transformed through real-life encounters with people I do not normally meet.  

Day 1: Deconstructing ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

“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?

Day 2: Recognising the Humanity in Everyone

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.

Photo credit: this website.

Day 3: What’s Good for the Community

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.

Day 4: Understanding Life 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 fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.