I’d never given serious thought about what it would be like to be locked up behind bars 24/7.
When I was growing up, I heard the stories about ‘Feltham’ being like a holiday camp. To be honest, I thought there was some truth in it. I saw young men I had grown up with, one after the other enter ‘Feltham’ and keep going back. There was no deterrent, which made me think it must be better than life on the outside!
It wasn’t until I started working at ARE that I got a sound understanding of how the criminal justice system works and could truly appreciate the issues and difficulties prisoners face. Not only was it an eye opener for me to talk to the men experiencing the British criminal justice system and to the prison staff but, just as important, I was working with role models who had been through it and had a positive outlook.
But the young men describing Feltham as a ‘holiday camp’ played over and over in my mind and hearing that many had the luxuries of televisions and computer consoles at their disposal. One of our R2S role models assured me that being in any type of prison was no stroll in the park. I asked him if that was the case why so many reoffended. Surely if the experience is that bad they would stay away.
His description of what the prisoners see as a ‘brotherhood’ put things into perspective for me.
Imagine being on the outside, free from the restraints of an oppressive 24 hour ‘bang up’ regime, but having no one or nothing.
Imagine being on the outside, free from the restraints of an oppressive 24 hour ‘bang up’ regime, but having no-one or nothing. No family because your dad left when you were young and your mum worked around the clock to bring in the little money that she could. So you only had your friends from the ‘endz’. Not real friends because they showed you how to ‘shot’ to make ends meet, steal and lie to those around you.
Then you end up behind bars and meet like-minded people. People who have been through what you have. People who understand where you are coming from and so you form that ‘brotherhood’. Then the visits from your loved ones become less frequent. As the inmates from HMP Wayland in Norfolk explain: “it’s just too far to travel from London” and the expenses you incur from one visit makes it “impossible to have regular visits”. So you get lonely and lean on your fellow inmates for support.
Added to this, you have prison staff without a clue about what it means to be a young black man; isolated and alone in Norfolk never having experienced life outside their ‘all white’ Norfolk village. So again you look to your brothers inside for that united front.
Years down the line and you are due for release but that all becomes daunting as you have become ‘institutionalised’; used to being in this environment. Comfortable.
The prisoners at HMP Wayland and Thameside shared their fears of being released. Not being able to provide for their family, being broke, dealing with a hostile environment, mental strength, getting a job, friends. The list goes on!
All these fears are playing on their mind upon release and then they face the harsh realities when they get out. It can be overwhelming and hard to get through, especially if your ideas of a ‘man’ means being able to provide for your family but you are repeatedly turned down by employers.
So you turn back to what you know best and make some money which leads to you ending up back behind bars!
This is not always the only reason that these young men reoffend, but it is also going back to your comfort zone – having a roof over your head, the safety of the four walls, others who you can relate to, no one to answer to. Unlike the harsh realities of the outside world, prison can seem like a safety net.
So my opinions have changed. Prison isn’t a holiday camp. Anyone who describes it as this has some harsh realities to face up to in the outside world they think that prison is a better place to be. If a young person feels freer in prison than in the outside world we have to realise that society has to address some serious problems and that rehabilitation needs to provide the safety net that these young people need.