December 9th and I have 24 hours over three days with 10 men at HMP Wymott as follows:
Day 1: 10 hours
Day 2: 8 hours
Day 3: 6 hours
One day out of a lifetime.
One day to shine a light.
I’d pushed the prison to make this happen before Xmas. It was more rushed than they wanted but we had the essentials covered and I figured I’d sold my strategy:
Let’s do it once so we can figure out how we’re going to do it. Then we can do it.
And all this in a world that is traditionally conservative with a small ‘c’ and about as risk adverse as you can get.
Clearly I’m getting quite good at this convincing lark…
In my defense I’d tried very hard to keep it simple:
‘How long?’ they’d asked.
‘Two and a half days’ I replied.
Thank god for the advocacy of Craig from HMP Stafford.
And to be perfectly honest I was heartily sick of waiting.
Just for good measure I’d added a Health Warning:
I’m Here To Shake The Tree – So Don’t Complain When You Get Hit By Falling Fruit
Despite all that I was certain of three things:
Not everyone believed me.
Not everyone was ready.
We were going to need some hard hats.
8.07am Day 1 and eight men have arrived – realization kicking in that yes, the idiot in the orange shirt wasn’t kidding and he is here and we really are going to start at 8am.
Without any breakfast.
8.10 and we’re out on the yard and I get word that the other two have arrived.
Sorry – we said 8am. Please say that I hope they will re-apply for next time…
And then we were 8.
Breakfast on Day 3 and they’re all tucking into a slice of melon.
All of them.
Catering and I had hatched a cunning plan: We’d deliberately fed them the normal prison bland stodge on the first day heavy in processed carbs, refined sugars and somewhat lacking in flavor. (G had complained of feeling sick in the afternoon and I bet he wasn’t the only one).
Day 2 and we changed the menu to more choices consistent with good health and energy and more bottles of water than I suspect they’d ever seen. I gave them their own personal water bottle and we sat back to watch the reactions.
Smiles broke out.
And on the final day they’re tucking into frickin’ melon??
Day 1 and I’m shocked at how many struggle to straighten their legs. Then I remember:
‘What do you do for most of a normal day?’ I’d asked.
‘Sit on our arses’ came the reply.
So bent knees are normal and OK – until you’re out with me on the exercise yard.
One quick A-B-C anatomy class later and I figure we need yet another competition to add to all the other competitions I’m throwing at them.
So on Day 2 we have ‘Last Man Standing’ – which after a false first start is amended to Last Man (Free)Standing to cut out the sneaky leaning against the wall. Very simple: Stay standing through everything we do – stationary cycling and rowing excepted – and a strict time limit on any Number 2 toilet moments.
The first one to drop comes at 70 minutes – which is bloody amazing actually – with the winner holding our for 4 hours and earning the chocolate cake prize. Much fun was had by me casting temptation in their path in the form of comfy chairs and blissful being seated sound effects. You had to be there…
We had some – they made ‘em – and we wrote ‘em up in big shiny writing.
Then on the morning of Day 2 I hear this among the group chat:
‘J’s sold his bottle’.
The water bottle that I gave him for this program. Well, we have Rules about property…
I gather them to me:
‘Gentlemen: You have 30 seconds to select two people to represent the group to talk to me and Mike and help us resolve and issue that has just happened.’
Representatives chosen, issue shared, outcome and process agreed.
J storms out.
J stays – and everyone is reminded of the following:
When you set rules some people will test that you’re serious – and keep testing. That’s normal: Your job is to pass those tests.
There were lots of ‘wow’ but here’s one that I really did not expect.
Day 1 and 2 and I notice that people were having a sneaky vape here and there.
On a drug rehab unit?
So I do the innocent curiosity bit and ask…and get an answer along the lines of ‘it’s another one of those low level running battle things…’
Heading for teatime on Day 2 and we’ve just spent two hours sweating all over the gym.
The lads gather me in telling me they have an announcement to make:
‘We’re going to stop vaping. We know it’s sabotaging everything else we’re doing – ‘ (my eyes widen at the mention of the Support v Sabotage session I’d closed with yesterday) – ‘and we’re sorry and we’ve all agreed to stop.’
I look sideways at Mike and he looks at me. We’ve just been having a conversation on this very subject – and I suspect we both share the same unspoken thought:
The final half day is a gym-based triathlon challenge that they all complete – peer support from a shared challenging experience is truly a wonderful thing - followed by a celebratory meal, awards including funky T-shirts for all, verbal testimonies and personal commitments going forward.
My closing statement had been inspired by a conversation with Clinks CEO Anne Fox a few weeks earlier www.clinks.org.uk with my brain very helpfully presenting me with the final wording at 3am that morning:
‘I have no idea what it feels like to be where you are and I hope to god I never do.
I hope that these 24 hours we have shared together have shown you that even in the dark places we have choices and options.
Choose to be a light in the darkness, gentlemen – for yourself and others: And always wear your T shirt.’