I am employed in various positions, both paid and unpaid, in which I am involved in some way with the criminal justice system. One of my positions involves conducting interviews with prisoners and their families on several different projects. When I explain to others what I do, I typically get two responses – both associated with notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The first is the question ‘are you scared going into a prison?’ To which I generally answer ‘No, they are just humans after all’. And the second is almost a physical reaction people have, aghast at the idea of interacting with ‘these people’.
As a society we have constructed ourselves so neatly into categories of ‘them’ and ‘us’. I think this is an easy way of putting the issue out of our minds and remaining free from any responsibility or connection to this ‘other’ class or sub-group of individuals. However, I believe we are connected. When we look inside prisons we see mothers, fathers, sisters, aunties, brothers, cousins and children. We see the drug affected, the mentally ill, the uneducated, the poor, the angry, the disillusioned and those individuals who have lost their way and become disconnected from society and from those they love. I have considered on many occasion that it could very easily be me sitting quietly in the green overalls, staring forlornly at the walls, and wondering when it was that everything went so drastically wrong. Maybe I am just lucky.
When contemplating the offender population, the overall reaction within society seems to be that of anger and retribution. While it is important that there are appropriate punishments in place for those that commit crime, I feel an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief for those who find themselves facing imprisonment. To lock people away is to strip them of their dignity. Furthermore, show me a person who has lived alone in a prison cell for 8 years with little human contact, who feels love, connection and empathy for others – attributes that allow us to be positive and contributing members of society – and I will happily sign up for harsher prison sentences.
I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do know that treating people with compassion and empathy, rather than hatred and vengeance would be a good place to start. Instead of treating people who are in prison like animals that don’t deserve a second chance, we could ask them to tell their stories of struggle, survival, hardship and pain – to reveal their weaknesses and to own them. This is how we learn and this is how we grow as individuals and as a community. We avoid using ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric and reach out our hands to those who are often too afraid to hold out theirs.