I awoke in my cell having had an interesting dream in which I was in a kind of social club with my guitar (the one mentioned in the last blog) playing ‘Country roads’ with lots of people singing along.
It’s one of the songs I’d sung at a prison event a couple of days before, after one of the guys said he liked American country songs and sang a couple himself. He had a really good voice and wasn’t at all shy. None of the others, though, seemed too interested in singing and were happy to sit and chat with one another and with those of us from the Irish Chaplaincy, away from their cells for a blessed couple of hours.
I should explain that the cell I was in was at a monastery where I go regularly to spend 24 hours in silence, and I was particularly curious on that occasion why the monastic tradition gives the same name to the room of the monk as that used in prisons for the place of confinement. It was an interesting link to our Traveller event at Wormwood Scrubs, so too the dream.
Our event at Scrubs was surprisingly relaxed, especially considering that it was one of the hottest days of the year, when the tiny, airless cells must be like infernos. We were in the multi-faith room, with doors wide open (exceptionally) and fans whirring, and the space was laid out café style, with tables and easy chairs. There was a lot of pleasant conversation, a little bit of singing (not too much, and that was fine). And then there was the food: a feast of bacon and cabbage and potatoes, with lots left over for the guys to take back to their mates who hadn’t been able to attend (or to eat again themselves in their cells!). And after the meal there was chocolate and other treats that Breda and Ellena had brought. Several of the prisons staff came along, for they also enjoy and value our events, and it’s probably a bit of light relief for them too from the major challenges in running a prison today. Sarah the governor was there, with several of her senior staff, plus Zahid the head of Chaplaincy and Fr. Chima the RC chaplain. They’re all good people doing a good job, and I was a little sad to read in the news the following day that Wormwood Scrubs is on a list of 16 prisons judged by the MOJ to be of ‘serious concern’ (the Irish Chaplaincy has a presence in a few of those on the list). Years of under-investment and over-crowding have taken their toll; and when availability to drugs is thrown into the mix and prisoners locked in their cells for large parts of the day then there are some very dangerous and volatile situations created.
Following the food there was a group photo outside with everybody in great spirits, and then there was time to help people with a questionnaire about our ‘Travelling Forward Resettlement Project’. I was struck that in answer to the question about previous education most of the guys ticked ‘1’ (the lowest score), whilst for the questions about interest in training and in being helped to get a post-release job most ticked ‘5’ (the highest). And the majority of the guys needed somebody to write down the answers for them.
I don’t know what these men have done to end up in prison, and I don’t need to know. I simply enjoy the time with them; to share a meal together and a bit of craic. And they’re so appreciative of these events. For Travellers (people who are used to moving around and being out of doors) being confined to a small cell for prolonged periods must be a particular hardship.
As time was called on the gathering (the two hours having flown by) there were multiple handshakes and ‘thank you’ was said repeatedly. And then it was back to the cell. In my monastic cell, from which I could hear the gentle sound of rain through the open window and look out at the woods surrounding the monastery (and from which I could leave whenever I wished), I thought of those guys.