My time in HM Prison Wandsworth

Hero’s Journey Workshops for violence reduction

After about a year of wanting to work with incarcerated individuals within a prison system, intense training sessions, numerous bureaucratic visits for security clearance I finally began co-leading workshops in prison in November 2014. 

My appointments prior to commencing were predominantly held on the outskirts of the actual prison units. I envisioned on the 'inside' I would find lots of prisoners walking around, playing basketball, chatting, dining together in school like cafeterias. What I found was not quite like that. Most prisoners were let out or 'unlocked' for 2 hours or so 3 times a day. That too depending on availability of staff. At Wormwood Scrubs prison where we also run workshops the guys are only unlocked for an hour a day, including their shower, gym and telephone times due to a serious staff shortage. Meals are enjoyed in their cells for the most part. 

The first thing I noticed as I stepped onto the hexagonal centre of the grand Victorian structure that each of the wings that held the inmates stem out from was the painful sound of jingling keys and slamming gates. Intensified and echoing around the massive, cold stone building. It just so happens that the sound of keys rattling to me is like nails scratching a wall for most.  

The walls are a dull shade of light blue or yellow with dull fluorescent lights that leave you with a headache. There are several studies conducted on the detrimental effects of such lights- physical as well as psychological. Not exactly conducive to the supposed purpose of these institutions which is 'rehabilitation'. 

What struck me next was the smell, a combination of rubbish and stifled, indoor air. It immediately took me back to my first New York apartment that I shared with 3 23- year old boys (it was worth it, it was temporary and I was in New York city).

Looking around I saw the 5 wings with 10ft by 6ft prisoner cells,  some of them quiet and seemingly empty whilst others with young men wearing sweat pants and a light blue T-shirt looking out with little enthusiasm. There were prisoners in clusters being moved around between the wings, accompanied by officers. Many of them had blank, expressionless faces. It was a challenge for me to avoid their gaze as I was unsure of how I was supposed to be with them. 

We had experienced extensive training sessions warning us against being conditioned by the inmates so meeting their eyes could be a start. Surely I could not just be my usual friendly self around here. 

Wandsworth happens to be the largest jail in the UK and has been described as Britain's 'worst' prison by many. Especially the celebrities who have been sent there before moving on to serve longer sentences elsewhere, such as Max Clifford, Lord Brocket and most recently Rolf Harris. The rich and famous and sex offenders are often targeted by other inmates and even staff.  It is no wonder they classify it as the worst prison. In their defence it has been deemed by the Evening Standard as being a prison with the worst treatment of prisoners. In my limited experience so far and from accounts I have hear from other inmates it may well be. When thinking about it is not dissimilar to companies I have worked for in the sense that if an employee is on the wrong side someone senior to them their life will not be easy. Human politics plays also a huge part in this situation, just as in many corporates.

Despite the negatives there is an element of humanity to be found here, between the prisoners as well as between staff and inmates. One of the older inmates who has been there for about 10 years is looked up to by all. All these years inside has not shed him of his compassion, respect for others and kindness that he shoes to us, the outsiders as well as to the other men in there. HMP  Wandsworth receives prisoners straight from court before they are actually sentenced which is known as being on 'remand'. There are many men serving short, medium and longer- term sentences too.

A and B wings are for the general population, D wing for thoses derving longer terms. There is a separate wing for the most vulnerable (VIP) such as sex offenders and another wing where they treat the men for drug problems.

Through the constant echoing sounds I quietly followed my fellow coaches up the winding stairs,  2 levels and around to the B Wing where the workshops were to be held. A large red poster displaying the title, Hero's Journey on the door. 

The room was small though with windows out of which I happened to have witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets and wondered if the men in there noticed. 

There were about 10 boys in our group in my first cohort though not all of them stayed. Our workshops are for boys 25 and under within the first 90 days of their sentences. They area shally guys who grow up very fast, sometimes are the head of their families and now their every move was dictated to them by the prison staff. Asking them to stay in a class room when they could use the 2 hours they had 'unlocked' to shower, telephone their loved ones or just walk around was not up to us.  We did end up with a solid 8 that diligently showed up each Monday morning for 3 weeks. 

At first they appeared threatening to me. Not in a physical sense but one where I might have feared their possible volatility, dishonesty or unpredictability. They were mildly sceptical about the workshops. Some of them even had guards deterring them from joining, laughing at them with comments like, ‘So, you want to be a hero do you?'. Yet perhaps it was curiosity and/or the desire to do something 'different' in an environment where nothing ever changes minute by minute, hour after hour. 

Quite surprisingly they took to the material like ducks to water. Bearing in mind the usual demands of differing learning styles by session 2 they began to open up. We had put in place standard ‘coaching’ like agreements at the start suggested by them such as maintaining confidentiality and respect that gave them permission to share their life stories with each other.  By session 3 we knew each of them more deeply, and were even able to see them through the other inmates’ perspectives (with consent and respect) through exercises that required group participation shared with consent and respect)

They are hungry for knowledge and extremely bright. Like powerful light bulbs covered by a dull sheet. 

Never have I come across a room filled with such intelligent individuals who could not co-exist with the linear constructs of our supposedly methodized society. 

Right from the start they wanted us to understand wholeheartedly that they were not criminals. To them there is a huge distinction between merely committing a crime as they had and being identified as a criminal.  

Some are university graduates on the verge of getting married to girls who are waiting for them on the outside. Others have been running successful businesses from an even younger age and fell in with the wrong circles. It is important to mention here that out of the 1600 or so inmates at the prison we have the creme de la creme of the population. They are vetted and selected by the prison Chaplain as well as others senior officials before being sent to us. Our safety being a small factor to consider as there are those in the prison who cannot be in a room with women. 

Afterwards in the safe 'freedom' of a cozy pub the 2 other coaches and I reflected on what we were like at that age. We might have had not had any concept that our actions bore consequences either. A time when absolutely anything were possible and all the usual barriers to move forward had yet to be constructed. 

Today's session was unusual. We are running violence reducing workshops and the prison has seen unprecedented violence inside the prison in the last 2 weeks. Stabbing and blood everywhere.  All I could wish for is that 'my' guys were ok and thankfully most of them are though it has been a close call. One of the boys had barely escaped an attempted fatal stabbing by blocking them with his arm. A couple of others had to move to a different wing temporarily for safety as they were 'soft' targets 

We have created a safe space for them in that little classroom. Yesterday there was an incident on E Wing that meant most the prison was on lockdown. Of course we were not informed and thankfully the officer was kind enough to bullock our guys. While in our room over those 2 hours we heard loud banging and rattling like things being hurled at metal doors. We had no idea what was happening outside but inside we carried on. In a space that saw the boys with compassionate eyes, that saw the positives in them rather than the labels that were branded upon them.  Here, we did not ask them to be somene else and did not treat them with disdain and mistrust.

  In our little room we had hope. Here the boys could allow themselves to dream about how they want their lives to be when they are released.