Three stories

Today an interviewee told me three stories about different times he had briefly been outside prison, during a sentence that had lasted well over twenty years. Each of these was a little hiatus in his sentence, and he had clearly spent a considerable time reflecting on each one. He described them all as significant moments in how he had come to understand his life and his sentence; so here I just reproduce the stories, and what he said they meant.

In the first story, he was still a Category A prisoner. He was taken for a medical appointment at a local hospital. He remembers being told very brusquely and very early in the morning that he had to be ready to leave in five minutes. He was strip-searched and then put in a special cat-A van. On arrival at the hospital he remembers being escorted by half a dozen prison officers in uniform. Dressed in an outfit that clearly marked him out as a prisoner, double-cuffed to a prison officer on both sides, he remembers being “marched” (his word) through the hospital corridors. On arrival, it was early in the morning and he remembers seeing only staff; after the appointment, the hospital was busy, and he remembers feeling as if he had a huge flashing light above his head: members of the public in the waiting area looked up as he passed through, distracted from thumbing their phone screens, they were suddenly transfixed by the sight of this shackled being in their midst, being hurried along by his minders. He felt incredibly prominent, and ashamed; and as they walked towards the van, he remembers a woman they passed saying to one of the officers, ‘God bless you for what you do.’ When he returned to the prison, he remembers feeling low for days. He had never really imagined that he would be released or that he deserved to be; and this experience intensified the fear of being shunned and singled out and stigmatised if he ever was. He remembers wondering whether he really wanted to make progress through the system, when it came to his forthcoming cat-A board.

Not very long after this, he had to return to the same hospital for a second appointment. But at the board, he had been taken ‘off the book’ – in other words, after many years as a Category A prisoner, he had been downgraded to B-cat, and was by now awaiting transfer to a medium-security prison. He remembers that this time, wing officers came to him and asked him, in a relaxed way, to go and put a jumper on. He said he didn’t feel rushed, and he wasn’t strip-searched. He was still cuffed, but only to one officer and with fewer escorts overall. He remembers travelling with them in a taxi, him dressed in ordinary clothes and them in uniform. He moved around the hospital without feeling that people were looking at him, though it was again busy. He said: “in prison it’s drummed into you again and again that you’re always being watched like a hawk”; but on this second visit he came back to the prison thrilling at the sight of livestock in fields on the journey home, and thrilling too that not everyone at the hospital had recognised him as a marked man.

He remembers this as a key moment during his sentence. Though he had already noticed some differences in his daily life since being recategorised – less regular cell searches, strip-searches, and so on – it was comparing the two hospital visits that he said really shifted his perspective. He realised how many of his perceptions – about himself, about his life, about how far he was from the real world, from normality, from the life that he hoped for – had all been shaped by his surroundings. In short, it suddenly dawned on him how institutionalised he had been. If the hospital could feel completely different on two visits because his escort arrangements had changed, then perhaps more in his self-understanding might also shift as his surroundings did. Perhaps there was more hope for the future, waiting for him somewhere else. He remembers feeling different about the impending move to another prison, and says he resolved to take this insight with him when he went there.

The third story he told was about being out on a work placement. By now, he was in an open prison, where I have been working lately and where I met him. He was sent, with other prisoners, on a supervised work party. They were helping to clear scrub and do gardening work on premises belonging to a community group nearby. On the way back to the prison in the afternoon, the minibus made a quick stop for a toilet break. He remembers walking back to the minibus through the car park of the shopping area where they had stopped. He was hyper-aware of the number of people all around, marvelling at their numbers and their busyness. Thinking about his hospital visits, he worried again about being prominent, about having that same warning lamp in the air above him. But he realised that though he was dressed in prison-issue clothing, all this meant was that he was wearing work trousers, a sweater and a hi-vis jacket. He realised that for everyone around him, he was just a face in the crowd: not immediately visible as a prisoner; not labelled ‘murderer’; not different; not judged.

He said that this realisation was followed, on the drive back, by a wave of emotion which he found it very hard to connect with or make sense of. This troubled him, and he continued to think about it for some days after he got back to the prison. What was this feeling and what did it mean?

I asked him the same question. He referred back to his descriptions, earlier in the interview, of his time in therapy, while still in the high-security prison. One of the hardest things he had had to do, he said, was come to terms with the idea that he was the person who committed the offences he had been convicted of. Instead of dissociating, and retreating into fantasies and victimhood (as he said he had done before) he had had to find ways of saying that he was responsible for having taken life. With this went a deep and alienating fear of himself: if it had happened, then it could happen again. And along with that, he said, had gone an understanding of himself as always potentially ‘dangerous’. He said he did not object to this idea; it was fair enough for others to think of him that way, he said, and he understood why ‘the system’ thought that way. But… “you also have to find ways of moving on”, he said; to recognise yourself as a changed person; an individual who can make decisions and choices different from those you made before. The idea that you were ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’ meant a permanent awareness of possibly being judged, being ‘tarred with the same brush’ (his words again, but a phrase that has come up again and again in interviews).

In therapy, he said, this internalisation of ‘dangerousness’ led to a great deal of introspection: thinking and rethinking in obsessive detail the minutiae of everyday interactions. Every emotion and reaction was held up and reflected upon. What he had experienced in the car park was no different: he was not surprised by the strength of the reaction, since it was one of the first times he had been in a public place without handcuffs on for more than half a lifetime. But still: what did the reaction mean? Why was he so moved by the feeling of anonymity? Would unpacking this experience reveal it to be a problem? Should he worry about it, or disclose it?

Eventually, he said he had discussed it with a member of staff in the prison. He had had to ask several times and then to put in an application to have this conversation with the person he wanted to see. Officers on his unit thought he was worrying over nothing, but he had insisted, saying that he had learned this lesson in therapy: when things are troubling you, you talk about them. The officers did not understand: all they knew was the place they worked, he said, and they had no idea of the journey he had been on over two decades and more.

When he sat down for the conversation he wanted, he explained what had happened. What was this feeling he had struggled to connect with or understand?

Maybe, she said, it was happiness. Or relief. Maybe those weren’t something to worry about.

He remembers realising that she was right. He compared this realisation to the one he had had after the second hospital visit. In constantly obsessing over his every thought and every reaction, he had once again been shaped by his environment, and institutionalised. He had grown accustomed to making a problem out of himself. Everything had to be unpacked and examined, everything had to be assessed. It had not occurred to him that happiness, or relief, might not be problems: they might just be happiness, or relief. He described this as another moment of hope; and in general, his descriptions of life in the open prison have been unusually reflective (and unusually positive) compared to many of his peers.

I wondered if the experience in the car park might have signalled something to him: a glimpse of a life beyond punishment, of a time when he no longer has to constantly practice self-vigilance. Of course, he knows that his life licence means that he will always have to make those disclosures and have those conversations sometimes, with some people. But he said this third out-of-prison experience had disclosed that in some moments, he would be invisible and unremarkable. He said that on subsequent day releases, he has savoured these moments: he could use them to begin to experience what he said he had wanted to be for a very long time: normal.

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