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The first day of work at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Durham, Connor Dean (my DukeEngage colleague) and I were taken to the top floor of the training building and given a bird’s eye view of the prison. The senior prison officer showing us the ropes, explaining the function of each building in sight, calmly summarized the entire operation: “That’s all a prison is, a community behind a wall.” The more I shadow employees and officers of the prison, the more truth I have found in his remark. For instance, structures such as the healthcare building and the chapel provide prisoners with care for their well-being and the ability to worship, respectively.


In this community, the shared agenda and interest are rehabilitation. I have spent time with the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team (DART) and the Career Centre, visited the workshops and observed during several work shifts, sat in during a video court session and an adjudication, and much more. Spending time in these different sectors has shown me that rehabilitation is not a simple task to try to achieve. Prisoners must be transferred from their wings to any of these buildings—and with over 900 prisoners who each has his own place to report, it is easy to imagine how it is no easy feat to ensure that each person is where he ought to be after each movement of the day. However, as large of an operation as this is, I have realized how it is not as though there is a way to make operations simpler without making sacrifices. Each day that I spend in a different section of the prison, I get a better sense of how that section contributes to the overall day-by-day running of HMP. Without one sector, a significant portion of prisoners would lose an important asset for their rehabilitation and wellbeing. Perhaps it was because I arrived at HMP Durham without many expectations of how a prison should be run, but I am still impressed how many resources, programs, and people are required to make the prison run successfully.


Talking to officers and other staff throughout the day about HM Prison Service and societal issues that have contributed to an increase of incarcerated people in the UK in recent decades, I have learned a textbook’s volume of content in only two weeks. Moreover, being able to talk to many of the prisoners in different sections of the prison has allowed me to learn about things from another perspective. The prisoners I have had the opportunity to have conversations with have all been respectful and friendly, and I look forward to meeting more in the upcoming days since there is never a dull conversation. I believe the most important take-away from these interactions thus far is the dissonance I have come to see between media depictions of prisons (from those who work there to those incarcerated) and what I have experienced. Although most depictions to which I have been exposed were those of American prisons, I am thankful for having been able to shadow staff at HMP Durham because of the many ways in which my time at HMP has completely redefined my perceptions of just about every aspect of the prison service.


Later on, the senior prison officer who showed Connor and me around HMP followed up his previous statement about the community of a prison with this: “Prison mirrors society; whatever problems arise outside this wall eventually finds it way in here.” As new issues such as an increase in violence and the recent rise of synthetic cannabinoid use present challenges to the country, the prison service must similarly face them as well as it can. While these issues are to an extent out of control of HM Prison Service (the issues stem from beyond the walls of the prisons), HMP Durham has made progress into addressing and mitigating some of the issues. For instance, on my second day, I sat in on a New Psychoactive Drugs meeting run by the DART team. The prisoners there were engaged in the meeting and were genuinely curious to learn more about the chemical composition of these drugs and their health effects. Even if these prisoners who chose to come to the meeting are not representative of the “average” prisoner at HMP, these prisoners often become peer mentors in the prison and offer support to others in the prison.


Unfortunately, I am unable to provide any pictures of Connor and me working at the site because mobile phones are understandably not allowed within the prison grounds.