Why. So. Serious?*

By Andy Mouncey, February 28, 2023

My current in-prison work with elderly and disabled men has been a bumpy ride.

Now in this line of work bumps come with the territory but, y’know, there are bumps – and there are bumps. It’s been successful on many levels with some notable personal and professional firsts – one of which was securing permission to bring a professional photographer inside https://www.andyaitchison.uk/index . 

Now obviously there are rules about photos and prison and one of those is ‘No Faces’ – so the only face captured is mine. This was the first time I’d seen my behind-bars work through someone else’s eyes and I found the images fascinating – but something felt off. 

Then the penny dropped:

I am not smiling in any shot.

Now our photographer assured me that there are shots of me in there looking radiant – just not in the Top 50 he sent me.


This is highly unusual and prompted me to have a word or six with myself.

Something that took way more thinking, sharing and writing than I’d figured.

Inevitably, this is a tale of Compound & Cumulative: Many factors combining to affect me over time in what were/are extraordinary post-pandemic circumstances in our prisons.

So while the experience is mine and is time and place-specific, there may be stuff you recognise from your world too.

Which means if my stuff can help your stuff this is indeed a worthwhile post.

Plan v Reality

Now I have a whole bundle of goodies in my personal and professional toolbox that helps me manage my mood when the universe throws me a curve and then decides to keep throwing.

Sometimes the lid still comes off despite these measures and I go into safety-salvage mode:

Lower the bar to ‘just good enough’

Avoid risk, conflict and generally withdraw

Revert to reactive-rehearsed-safe

Such was the case right at the end of this project.


Extended Solo Working In A Challenging Environment

It took 5 months from the award of funding to starting the work.

That’s 5 months of stop-start meetings, visits, phone calls, prep work as managers and staff blew hot and cold. This meant I was passed around till I found a need I could meet with a team that wanted my help and could make it happen.

I’d also lost my pre-Covid in-house advocate and fixer’: Someone who was alongside me throughout prep and delivery who had the inside knowledge to direct me and to troubleshoot with ease.

This time there was a mental and emotional toll before I even got to the start line – though the bastard was in stealth mode which meant I hadn’t noticed and no-one else close to me had either.

Intimate-Intensive Experience    

I work in a deliberately intimate way the better to establish a human-emotional connection the better to give the people I’m working with a reason to take action. 

I design my programs to be the direct opposite to a normal prison regime for the same reason. This is a challenge to enact in a stable environment – which this certainly wasn’t.

I adopt an inherently hopeful position that the person in front of me can and could move forward to do more/be better – and I was engaged to do just that in this work.

Compartmentalisation was crucial with these men because the following was also true:

They looked like my grandad – but they were inside for a reason. 

They were physically incapacitated which was hard to witness – but could do and be so much more (and many did by the program end). 

They had learned to be reticent, withdrawn – but many were also skilled manipulators.

So I was giving a lot and having to keep stuff in multiple boxes that didn’t seem to stack well together. Neither was I getting much back to reassure me that my program content was landing right – and lacking my fixer-advocate to check-challenge then and there.

Limited Feedback

Much of body language was absent and lingering afterwards to chat rarely happened.

This is unusual with my stuff.

Most men did not speak openly in a group – if any hint of conflict they’d quickly withdraw which could involve actually leaving the room.

I did handshakes, first names and eye contact religiously but all other tactile signals to go with e.g. celebrating success I considered a step too far. By program end I was getting some reciprocation but only in a few.

Many were on medication which affected their capacity to signal engagement, and many struggled with cognitive capacity – manifest in poor level of reading, writing, concentration.

This all meant that I was missing many of the normal signals of engagement and comprehension – even though the men were physically present – and what signals I had I wondered how much was a function of medication and, well…

Was the response I was getting genuine? 

How to know for sure?

Which meant that I was continually accumulating questions and by end of program had more questions about these men than I had answers.

Except I also had connections with many that felt warm and in the outside world would be called blossoming friendships.

WTF?? Ask the audience?

Extra Emotional Impact         

I was moved by the levels of physical, mental and emotional disfunction – many were frail and seemingly without hope, had limited agency and physiological function. 

And I was also acutely aware that there was a ton of other stuff I wasn’t seeing.

Given the ‘limited feedback/way more questions’ situation it was – unexpectedly - the recorded audio interviews at end of program that provided answers. The interviewees spoke - I believe - from the heart about life inside and the impact of this work. 

Capturing feedback this way was a first for me but it was clearly a right way for this group – reticent to speak openly in public – but by joining some of the dots it added to the emotional impact of the work and strengthened human connections right at the end.

The irony that this work has been funded by NHS from a post-Covid mental health pot is not lost on me. And I’m OK – really - richer for the experience, made some changes to my own stuff and will be pitching hard and smart for support to develop this work. 

‘Cos I love my work and I recognise that this is a rare privilege.

It’s also a reminder yet again of Some Fundamental Truths:

The world is messy.

People are complex.

And compartments can leak.

*Blatently borrowed from the late-great Heath Ledger’s demonic Joker in The Dark Knight.

Further Reading

Older people in prison https://www.russellwebster.com/the-needs-of-older-people-in-prison/Staffing trends prison and probation https://www.russellwebster.com/prison-and-probation-officers-leaving-in-droves/

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