Normality, Power & Trust: Reflections from a Facilitator

On the PRisoN Learning Together module, facilitators support students in their learning by working with groups of four to encourage discussion and support understanding of the key concepts being discussed. They help students to navigate their critical discussion and ensure that all in the group have the opportunity to have their opinions heard. This blog comes from a facilitator who volunteered to support learning on this module and includes reflections following the first and second taught learning sessions:

There’s a certain kind of studied normality; a conscious normality I felt upon entering the classroom – being aware of acting the way I would with any other individuals who aren’t in a high security prison. And it almost feels false, because you’re internally thinking “This is so freaking insane and cool that I’m here!”, but at the same time your rational mind is going “Everyone in this room is just a person. Perhaps some of them made different decisions to each other, but still all just people.” And as a facilitator there’s an element of feeling the need to set a certain tone as well. I’m the ‘professional’ one. I’m supposed to ‘have it together’ and ‘set an example’. To tell the truth I was ashamed that I actively had to push out the curiosity about offences, because it is almost the elephant in the room. The imprisonment offence is both central to the situation we’re in and at the same time irrelevant, and actually the offence the men are there for may be the so-called ‘worst’ thing these individuals have ever done, and quite frankly I would hate someone to know the worst thing I’ve ever done, or even to wonder what it might be. The curiosity needs to stop.

It’s while all this is going on in my head that I came to the realisation that actually the whole situation is normal. The environment in the classroom is so normal. I could have been teaching at my workplace, except the students were generally rather larger and certainly rather older than mine. It’s the bringing together of the inane and extraordinary that creates such a strain on the emotions and mind. A kind of cognitive dissonance between what you know and feel, and what you see.

One pleasant surprise of the first day was the attitude of the ‘Leeds-based’ students towards the ‘prison-based’ students. I was impressed by their professionalism, maturity and sensitivity. The whole thing so quickly became a normal classroom and levelled, which was really great to see. But I think the biggest surprise was how many of the prisoner students had already studied at degree level. I thought there would be one or two, but actually I think 4 or 5 explicitly mentioned degree or foundation study already completed. It was interesting to hear from one prison-based student that his chance of doing further study was limited by the fact he had done previous university-level study at another prison rather than there. I found this odd, and disappointing. For those who hadn’t studied at this level before, the support there is needed to emphasise the value of personal experience, and provide practical support for the technical academic side of things.

In the second taught session, a student said “Prisoners are like mushrooms; you keep them in the dark, and feed them shit.” As he self-reportedly works in the kitchens, one might be concerned with one aspect of this statement..! but of course the point made was a serious one. Information is power, and in prison this can be exercised coercively and prisoners held to ransom. It’s easy to forget in an age when on the outside our 4G all-singing-all-dancing devices appear to be permanent limb extensions, that inside the prison walls your only permitted link to information is mediated by officers and ‘the system’. Whether that be through your visiting rights or other communication being withheld, simply not telling you what’s going on, or perhaps your phone credit not being topped up quickly, the power of information lies beyond prisoners’ reach. “Impotent” was a word used today to describe the feeling when something happens to your family on the outside; you don’t have power to enact change, and even further, you don’t even control when or how you get the information.

We learnt in the session, through the lecturer’s own research, that this information withholding comes in all sorts of situations. You might find yourself woken up in the early morning to be suddenly taken somewhere you had no idea you’d be going. When you’re an ‘escape risk’, nobody’s going to tell you a week in advance that you’re about to be taken on the outside. And I get that; it makes sense. But it is just another way in which your life becomes unpredictable and controlled when inside. And it reminds me of the young people I work with. I work in an alternative provision, a centre where young people with social, emotional and behavioural challenges are educated away from mainstream school. In this environment, an unexpected visitor can throw the group off for an entire day. I think this occurs more with our young people than in a mainstream environment, perhaps because there is so much uncertainly and lack of control or stability in their lives already. Something fairly minor in these circumstances can be hugely significant as part of an accumulation of turbulent and insecure life events. And prisoners certainly experience turbulent and insecure life events, along with a lack of control and agency.

The significance of the ‘small things’ was also brought up in the second session when one of my group characterised trust as “doing what you say you’ll do”, before explaining that in prison “small things really mean something”. You are forced to trust the officers because you can’t do anything for yourself, and so officers following through on the tiny things that people take for granted that they can just do on the outside, is of great significance.

Now I’m not for a second suggesting that prisoners should be equated with children. But I think some people would say that. Perhaps not in so many words, but if childhood is about socialisation and developing ‘acceptable’ codes of conduct, then those who have been deemed as socialisation ‘failures’ require re-education. They need to ‘go back to school’. And that is pretty much what’s happening. The kind of power relationship that exists between prisoner and officer, is like that of teacher and student. And this can be highlighted in some of the smallest ways.

Today, the casual use of “Miss” as a way of addressing the lecturer, who was leading the session, rang like a gong through my head. I’ve heard it before in prisons, too – even directed at me – and it makes me feel weird every single time. It is a one-word reminder of the power dynamics. “Sir”. “Miss”. These aren’t even titles my students call me or my staff. Why? For the specific reason that it’s a hierarchical power symbol. Today the lecturer talked of “relational power” and “coercive power”, and how the former is always more effective (or effective full stop?), and in my work, I realistically have only the relational option. Yes there are sanctions, but we don’t have a lock for the door, and if our young people don’t want to come to the centre, or don’t want to stay, then we can’t and don’t make them. In prison, it’s easy to think that the lock on the door does mean that coercive power can be effective.

Relational power requires ‘intelligent trust’; trust which is aware of the circumstances and takes calculated risks. And as was highlighted in the second session, trust and respect are closely linked. Very few people will continue to show respect when they are repeatedly disrespected in return. I believe all professionals working in jobs where they have the right to exercise power over another (whether that be in school, in prison, or even in management), need to remember this. And in the case of prisoners, where lack of respect for the prison system has the potential to stunt rehabilitation and desire to reintegrate into society, it is for the good of all that prisoners are shown the respect due any other human, and we all start to think about how we can trust.

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