A few years ago, I went to prison.
Before you get too excited, let me clarify. In my job at the time I ran a contact centre focused on facilities management. One of our key clients was the Department of Corrections, who invited myself and a couple of my team members to come out to one of their facilities in order to see how it worked, so that we may better understand their unique challenges.
What I learnt on that day will stay with me for a lifetime.
As our guide, a highly-confident middle-aged woman, took us through security and into the chamber before the entry to the general prison population, I’m not ashamed to say I was filled with trepidation. After all, she was being strapped in with an emergency beacon whilst we were being taken through the emergency procedures, which involved colour-coded signals for everything including being taken hostage by force.
Before I knew it, we were suddenly walking in the prison grounds. There was I, in my suit and tie, trying my hardest to portray the confident executive, when all I wanted to do was run. Our first port of call was via the sex offenders wing, where the worst of the worst were kept. This was an area where most prisoners weren’t allowed, because it was common for ‘regular’ prisoners to beat the living daylights out of the sex offenders, who were seen as the lowest of the low.
Next, we were walked through an open park area, dotted with ‘rehabilitation cottages’. Prisoners with good records who were getting close to release could apply to move into these cottages, where they were afforded greater freedoms. All I saw was a bunch of well-built men working out with heavy weights to pass the time until they could get out.
Then we were taken into an actual cell block. All of the prisoners were allowed to go out into the recreation yard whilst we looked around, and one poor guy was told he couldn’t come back in because we were inspecting his cell.
That cell, and the total lack of privacy afforded that gentleman, will stay with me forever. It was an ordinary-looking room, until you noticed the heavy door and lack of sharp corners, complimented by the other 15 cells and the ever-present eyes of the guards at the guard station. And the curious eyes of the other prisoners in the cell block, who were far more interested in us than heading outside into the recreation area.
My most confronting moment was yet to come. As we were shown around the workshop facilities, where trusted inmates were permitted to work on products for major retailers, my corporate suit-and-tie look caught the eye of one particular inmate, who made fun of me – quite aggressively – to the great delight of his fellow prisoners. Prisoners who, it turned out, I and my two female colleagues had to walk through to get out. Which we did, albeit whilst being subjected to verbal abuse and, in the case of my two colleagues, some fairly graphic sexually harassment. We made it out, dignity mostlyintact, and got out of that place as fast as we could.
I learned a lot that day. I learnt that, as brave as I may seem, nothing had ever prepared me for what it was like to physically be inside a prison, even if it was just as a guest. I am not ashamed to say that I felt true fear many times that day.
I also felt true empathy. Look, I get why we incarcerate people. Some people are downright scary. However some people may have just made a mistake. I saw hardened criminals and I saw wounded souls, all being treated the same. We are each unique. We each deserve a second chance, if we’re willing to take it. And, regardless, we each deserve to live in an environment free of fear.
I don’t know what I think about our justice system anymore. What I do know is that I am eternally grateful for my freedom. And for those who come out of incarceration and make a genuine new start to their lives? Those are the people who have my utmost admiration and respect. Because it takes true courage to start over again.