(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
The past few weeks that I have spent working at Her Majesty’s Prison in Durham, UK have left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, I treasure the opportunity to engage with prisoners whom I have ultimately found to be fascinating, unique, and engaging people. On the other hand, I am bothered by the number of broken relationships, families, and lives that I will come into contact with.
When I arrived to the prison, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what to expect. With only my familiarity with mafia movies and prison dramas to draw upon, I half expected to see prisoners lined up in orange jumpsuits and shackled to chains, stuck inside windowless cavities of rock. We arrived to the main entrance where we were met by our host, Claire, who guided us through a series of finger printed gates, security checks, and locked doors. My ideas of a hardened max security prison were placated as we were led through the prison on something called a Prisoner’s Journey, where we would experience what each prisoner would experience on their way into the jail. At reception, we examined strip search cubbies and showers, where the prisoners would have there initial contact with prison personnel. From there, they would make there way to the induction wing, where all first time prisoners would reside for the first few months. Here, they would be provided with the social services that they require in order to make their transition to prison life as smooth as possible. Prisoners have the opportunity to speak to drug and alcohol counselors, receive medical care, and connect with socials workers regarding dependent children or pets. On our tour, I was struck by the amount of freedom the prisoners retained within their wing. Many prisoners walked around freely, made phone calls, and played pool with other prisoners. It wasn’t until we arrived to the segregation wing that I found the prison to implement any intensive measures. This wing held the prisoners who had committed offenses while in prison and/or were at risk of harming themselves or others.
Over the next few weeks, I worked alongside various prison units, learning all that I can about the criminal justice system in the UK. Some highlights of my work included hosting father/child visits for prisoners with children and participating in the vocational workshops provided to prisoners who wanted to learn trade skills while incarcerated. I was able to chat freely with the prisoners and to learn about their pasts, stories, and hopes for the future. I am grateful for the opportunity to reach so far out of my comfort zone in order to expand my views, exercise open-mindedness, and grow as a person.