I judged a writing competition last week. It was for prisoners. I agreed to do it some time ago, full of enthusiasm and bold intent. When it came to it, I met the pile of papers with sighs and harrumphing about ‘other things to do’. What a fool.
Organised by the Prison Reform Trust, the competition invited those inside to write on the topic of A Good Officer, wherever that took them. There was a general entry section and one for under-21s. I was knocked over by it all. The majority of entries talked about what made a good prison officer, either from personal experience, or by watching how they treated others. There was a brilliant, clear-sighted piece that looked at the impact of privatisation on staff and inmates. I joined Erwin James, editor of Inside Time and general wise man on penal affairs, as a judge. The overall winner is a remarkable bit of writing. I can’t reveal the name yet, but it is an urgent Catherine wheel of writing, sparking and fizzing and taking you inside, in to the smells and the fears. Hot dog, that is some writing! We will print it in The Big Issue in the coming weeks.
One thing that struck me was a thread pulling all the entries together – empathy. All, in some way, touched on how important it was for guards to find a way to make a human connection to the men and women inside, to understand and to allow growth and change. Many thanked guards who were like this.
If you think this is hand-wringing, liberal nonsense, here’s a cold hard reason for encouraging such behaviour from guards. It’s good value. It slashes the chances of reoffending. That is going to help all of society.
Again, you might say, well if they’re inside they’ve done something wrong and they are there for punishment.
That is an overly simplistic generalisation.