The third of three stints at HMP Wymott Theraputic Community delivering my 24 hour-2.5 day program.
Once again there has been a rush for places I'm told, but this time prison reality had hit hard the week before I'm due to start and we’re all still riding the waves.
There was a heavy influx of spice* into the prison – a number of men on the TC were caught in possession and the result is that everyone has been on lockdown/basic regime.
(*Spice is a addictive man-made psychoactive substance that is many times more potent than the plant-based equivalent marijuana. Effects are intense hallucinations, extreme anxiety, agitation and violence with severe organ damage and even death as a consequence. It's low cost, low bulk and increasingly easy to get hold of – part of the reason why it’s appealing to people in prison).
Now you may think that men on a drug rehabilitation unit are (a) pretty secure from such an influx and (b) pretty immune from the temptation to use. Well, as I'm learning – it ain't that simple… because (a) there are ways of getting stuff in (b) relapse is a normal part of rehabilitation. (‘Just Say No’ as a solution is actually a naïve myth trumpeted by the misinformed and self-righteous: Successful rehabilitation from drug dependency is rarely if ever a matter of free will alone).
The result for me is that those on the list to take part who were caught in possession have been removed – and this includes those graduates from my previous ‘24s who were due to help me this time.
So I'm down on my expected numbers.
It also means that the Number 1 topic of conversation I'm greeted with from both staff and men is the fun and games last week – and the men who are with me and were not involved are seriously pissed that they have paid a price for the action of others. While this is not unusual in a prison it does mean that the pre-start buzz of the last program is conspicuous by its absence. My graduate mentors are experiencing a combination of frustration-resignation, disappointment in their peers and embarrassment on my behalf.
There's not much I can say so I keep my mouth shut and just listen.
The Stories Start
The defining difference this time for me was the number of men who spoke starkly and movingly about their personal situation both to me and the group. I have made it a rule never to ask, but if it comes out I will listen. Now this did not happen on the first two programs but this time it happened in spades. Part of the reason was that I changed some of the content which took us in a different direction, and part of it was well, clearly the right time and place for some of the men to do so.
I heard some stuff, for damn sure.
‘But how on earth do you process that? asked Mrs Mouncey later when I recounted one of the horrific ‘didn't really have a chance from childhood/attempts to take own life tales.
Short answer is that I don't think I do – or can (yet?).
This stuff is so far removed from my experience that although I can understand the words used in the telling, I can't bridge emotionally across to it.
I have no concept or frame of reference – so I can't make it mean anything to me therefore I don't (can't?) internalize it.
As a self-care strategy it seems to be effective even though I'm not running it consciously.
And clearly it's working as what I'm hearing is not keeping me up at night.
At least that's what I think is happening…
‘But what do you do? asks Charlotte.
The only thing I can: Full Body Compassionate Listening.
The Bollocks Of Veganism
Now I'm well aware that a recent court case judgment has put ‘ethical veganism in the ‘philosophical belief bracket – whatever that means.
What veganism means in prison is somewhat different – and the penny dropped for me on this while observing two of my lads playing the ‘But I'm a vegan! card over 2.5 revealing days.
Now I have no idea if my model is The Truth but it's based on what I saw and heard and I put it to you that it's at least plausible:
Veganism in prison is just an attention-seeking strategy and an attempt to exercise personal choice in an environment in which choice is typically absent.
There – I've said it.
If you play the vegan card the prison will cater for you.
You are listened to.
You get special options.
You get a box of vegan food every week that's YOURS TO KEEP.
And the contents of that box are more attractive and flavorsome that much of the normal menu.
(What's also normal is that you will have your own food stash back in your cell – or room as it's called on the TC – except the contents of that stash probably wouldn't get past the Vegan Police).
So veganism on the inside is bollocks.
But would I play that card?
Damn f**kin right I would!
In A Nutshell
Way back in December when I started I set my PE Lead (PEL) and Number One Advocate some homework:
Translate some of my stuff into the language and concepts of prison life and the rehabilitation process.
PEL duly reported in and said he'd actually cracked this by the second course but in all the excitement had parked it till now.
So we tested it on the lads after breakfast on the final day.
Now I had no idea what was coming but we had a healthy dollop of trust between us by now and I was clearly getting into giddy mode at the prospect of actually completing this third and final program.
PEL produced a large scroll of rolled paper that he un-rolled to reveal a large hand-drawn colored representation of…
What followed was an utterly fascinating insight into how different people make the same stuff work for different reasons. I'm not going to recount it here – but we will be developing it for future workshops. The clincher came right at the end and PEL became visibly moved.
What follows are not PELs exact words but my paraphrase as close as possible to what I recall and not the real names:
'It's easy to label and quite often those labels are based on ignorance. We've all spent time together and really got to know each other. It's been challenging – some of you have struggled – but we've all got there and we're all better for it.
At the start it was easy for me to see you as your labels – he points to each of the lads in turn:
Black and white – two dimensional – just a number in a box.
Here's what I see now – a pause, a breath and he points to each in turn again:
He goes round each one pointing, looking them in the eye and saying their name.
You could hear a pin drop.
I have a lump in my throat and I suspect I'm not the only one.
A slow count to five in my head and then:
‘F**kin hell… follow that! I know - let's go do a triathlon!