Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I Can't Believe it's October

It takes a while to get over August in Edinburgh. Not because the Festivity stops – far from it. There was so much going on in September, with studios, galleries and various doors open to the public; art on the beach, in railway tunnels, towering demolitions, half-marathons, salons for literature and scran; poetry slams, book-launches, birthday celebrations. Well, that’s how my September was, which explains why October’s here and I’ve yet to ruminate over August’s Festivity.

As usual, I threw myself into Festival: everything from the International, Book, and Art Festivals, and of course, the Fringe. For the latter, I saw many shows; only a couple that were really mediocre. In my reviews, I gave an unofficial ★★★★★ to one new spoken word performer who I met for the first time, and another official ★★★★ to a piece performed by someone I’ve been lucky to work with. The star () system, however, is not the best form of assessment; in fact, it is flawed in many ways.

This year, I saw two pieces of extremely moving theatre, so different they don’t compare and yet, they tackled a similar subject: prison. The first was a straight forward recitation of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The actor, in his introduction, was genuinely appreciative of his small audience and, after explaining the background of the work, recited the poem from memory over an eerie and atmospheric musical backdrop.

His performance (which might have been a slog without the music) was perfectly timed, and emotionally charged. He had a clear view on the injustice of the death penalty, the horrors of prison life, and the disgrace of incarcerating people who are punished in a way that reflects more on the attitudes of society than the crime that has been committed. Although part of the Free Fringe, there was a ‘bucket-collection’ for Amnesty International. I gave generously. If I’d reviewed the show, I would have given a generous ★★★★★ But the star-system – as I say – is flawed.

Another show that was entirely deserving of ★★★★★ – though a totally different piece – was not received with equal merit or enthusiasm. Shame on those reviewers who didn’t ‘get’ it. Key Change was devised by OpenClasp working directly with women prisoners. The resulting play was then re-developed and toured on the women’s behalf by professional actors. In this way, it was not only an accurate representation of “life inside” but also, a moving depiction of the stories behind what had led these people through the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

More important, it has been presented in male prisons to men who may have been part of the other side of these women’s stories. For these men, it was an eye-opener to their own behaviour. It was evident that incarcerating (especially) women who had fallen into difficult situations made their life considerably worse, not least because they were ostracised from their families. As the Guardian review pointed out, those on the ‘outside’ are equally punished: ‘they serve their sentence alongside these women; you just can't see the bars.’

Here are some shocking facts from the programme notes:

The UK has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe. Over 50% of women in prison report having suffered domestic abuse; 1 in 3 has suffered sexual abuse, and nearly 40% of women leave prison homeless. Key Change builds on highlighting the women as survivors rather than victims.

This play, although packed with humour and drama, should leave the audience feeling angry about a system that further damages people through punishment rather than – as ought to happen – providing opportunity to challenge and change behaviour. There is an argument that prison focuses helping inmates to re-settle into mainstream society. But, if a prisoner’s experience is of an unsettled life, “re-settling” is a misnomer. The experience of incarceration is deeply traumatising. Prison takes in people who in some way are sick, then sends them out sicker.

My own research into this is for a novel I’ve been writing for some years and is, therefore, slightly out of date. But I unearthed some alarming facts that seem to have changed little. First, is the extent to which mental health problems are prevalent among those in custody, as well as other difficulties such as inadequate health-care, which is strongly focused on medication (let’s not even discuss methadone prescription) and many who are on the autistic spectrum, whether diagnosed or not.

Furthermore, the very act of taking away someone’s liberty subverts Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ which poorly-contrived psychological ‘offender management programmes’ may attempt to address.

But imagine the efficacy of a group-work session on, for example, anger-management for inmates who then have to take their newly-honed skills of cognitive reasoning back to the prison wing. There, the tension and adrenalin is hiked so high, the ‘fight or flight’ response is a no-brainer in both senses. There is nowhere to fly. Unless, of course, one partakes of the readily-available illegal substances: hardly the route to Self-Actualisation.

There are many strange anomalies. For some, whose lives ‘outside’ are so fragmented, the ordered life within the prison estate – structure, regular meals, some exercise, and authoritarian rule – is a boost to their state of health. Young prisoners, in particular, are sent out ‘fitter’ in some ways, but not in a way that equips them for the chaotic life-style to which they return. The authoritarian hierarchies on which they now rely leave them vulnerable, since they know they are at the bottom of society’s pile. As they come to ‘identify’ (psychologically) with their crime and accept this as a raison d’être, the tendency for recidivism is elevated.

For those whose lives were more stable before things fell apart, there are different but equally difficult problems to overcome when trying to re-integrate into mainstream society. The world is different. ‘White-collar criminals,’ or offenders who come from higher social economic backgrounds, can find themselves estranged from their former communities, friends or families. They may find re-employment hard or impossible and, as a result, may lose their homes (if not re-possessed already) since benefits (eventually) cover no more than the interest payments on a mortgage.

In his novel, A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby voices this paradox through one of the four characters in the book who are each driven to suicidal ideation. The character Martin, a minor celebrity who was sent to prison having ‘fallen from grace,’ points out that…

Criminals serve their time, but with all due respect to my friends on B Wing… I would never serve my time…You see, the other inmates would eventually return to their lives of thieving and drugs-dealing and possibly plumbing or roofing or whatever the hell the it was they did before their careers were interrupted: prison would prove to be no impediment, either socially or professionally.

Like all characters in a novel he is flawed – and I’m not going to condone his (fictitious) offence – but his point is interesting. Once a person has endured incarceration, he or she will have been damaged, not helped, by the criminal justice system that sees separation from a world which has eluded their cognitive reasoning as a fit punishment for their crime. While for some, their life as they knew it is ruined; for others, their position as perceived ‘low-life’ is cemented, yet all people are damaged by prison.

Bring back the Death Penalty

This is not something I thought I would say on this blog. I say it, of course, ironically. Recently I read a thread on Facebook discussing an article about a man who was involved in a protest that was intended to highlight the poor conditions in prison. It happened that the protester was a prisoner. So the comments were focussed strongly on his crime, rather than his protest. The person who posted the link pointed out that this man was acting, in a way, magnanimously.

By protesting on behalf of his fellow-prisoners, he jeopardised his chances of parole. ‘But,’ said the comments, ‘he was a murderer: he should rot in jail’ – or something on those lines. Hanging the man was not absent from the reactions. Reading the press articles on his crime, it was clear that there was a complex story behind what led to the man’s target offence. Again, I will not condone what he did, but I am extremely wary of what, and how, the newspapers reported it.

I will elaborate upon my views on The Media another time; for now, to return to my point. If prison psychology was or is doing its job, it would find many more causal links than newspapers are even vaguely capable of discussing or exploring. My research into this for my novel has given me far too much grist for this mill; suffice it to say, the prison service, the Government, and – the bigger evil by far – the media, have a lot to answer for. If only the questions were asked. What is prison for?

Prison is about revenge. It’s as simple as that.

Richard Holloway, in Between the Monster and the Saint, rightly points out ‘There will always be people who have turned so utterly against their own kind that they must be permanently separated from their fellows.’ However, the justice systems in both the US and the UK are so far from exploring the (certainly, complex) idea of restorative justice, with their ‘promiscuous use of prison as punishment,’ and ‘increasingly automatic use of imprisonment,’ as Holloway puts it.

This punishment is all about causing pain, not in the “eye for an eye” sense, but through social exclusion, alienation and demonization.

Dostoevsky says. ‘You can judge a society based on how it treats its prisoners.’ The idea that people “pay their debt” for the crime committed is a lie since neither victim nor offender are able to reach a point of restoration or self-actualisation. The debt is not paid – ever. Hornby’s character, Martin, puts it like this: ‘Prison was humiliating terrifying, mind-numbing, savagely destructive of the soul in a way the expression ‘soul-destroying’ can no longer convey.’ Is this really fiction? I doubt it.

The story of Oscar Wilde certainly is not fiction, nor is the basis of his Ballad of Reading Gaol – a man who, when Wilde was is prison, was hanged because he 'had killed the one he loved.’ Wilde’s description of the atmosphere in the gaol that day is similar to what I have heard described about a modern prison when news of an inmate completing suicide percolates through the community. Not only anger and despair at a loss of life, but in acknowledgement of the real truth. Prison fails us all.

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

(The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

I will end with something Stephen Fry (whose film portrayal of Oscar Wilde cannot, surely, move us to question Justice) said about this great man.

He was a giant brought down, and it was monstrous, really, how he was treated. When he came out of prison he was a wreck, a ruin, and he said, at the very moment in this Christian society, especially when you should be embraced when you have completed your sentence: that, in Britain, is actually when your sentence begins.

So, giving Stephen Fry the last word, here is a clip of his entertaining, informative and sometimes amusing show, on a subject that left the panellists struggling to find anything funny to say.


Quite Interesting? Or disgraceful.


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