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Pity the prisoners who remain locked up In lockdown we've learned that restricting people's freedoms leaves them unmoored from life

Will we stop ignoring what happens behind prison walls? Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Will we stop ignoring what happens behind prison walls? Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

June 26, 2020   5 mins

One of the unexpected benefits of lockdown has been the insight it offered many into what it is like to be in jail. I’ve taught in prisons for three decades, so I know that being obliged to stay in one’s home is not the same as being locked in a cell. But I’ve noticed that during lockdown, many of my friends started talking about duration and damage in a penal context. If lockdown, they say, has done them harm, how much worse it must be for those serving sentences in jails. I wonder if, as this ordeal ends, we might carry with us a lesson: incarceration damages and cripples — and is frankly pointless.

When lockdown began, I was running a weekly drama class in HMP Maghaberry, a Category A, high security prison south-west of Belfast. In a room with a set of narrow glass slits — referred to sometimes as ‘Judas windows’ — through which officers sitting outside would supervise, we read and ‘performed’ a vast array of plays, from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers and Jane Thornton’s Shakers (yes, the play about cocktail waitresses). In the background was the noise of the hundreds of starlings that make HMP Maghaberry their home. At the end of every session, I took home the stories and scripts the men had written, returning them at the start of the following week’s session, marked and subbed.

One man, I shall call him Adam, gave me a story every week. His great passions were Camus (no surprise there: in my experience almost all prisoners love Albert because of his subject, which is personal responsibility) and Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is best known for his mid-career metaphysical stories about circular closed worlds, but Adam venerated those early and late Borges tales shorn of political content and psychology. He was Irish Republican, militant and Left-wing, but this was the kind of fiction he wanted to write.

When the course started, the amount of time devoted to prose was small: we focused on performing plays. But come January, as Covid-19 loomed into view, we began to spend more time on prose. This made sense: if I had to stop going in, there would be no more performances, and the men would have to make do for themselves. They wanted to bank as much input from me as they could get.

Halfway through March, Adam handed me four stories — perhaps 10,000 words of material in all. He’d always been a prolific writer, but even so — four was a lot. I promised him I would mark them up and return them to him the next Friday. But there was no next Friday, because over the following days lockdown put an end to the class.

But what should I do with his stories? I spoke to my employer. We agreed I must read them, sub them, mark them and return them.

And so, it came to pass, that a fortnight into self-isolation as per the Government’s instructions, I set about the task. I opened the buff Northern Ireland Prison Service folder the stories were in, pulled out the first and began to read.

Prisoners, Adam began, typically don’t pay much attention to what day of the week it is and they certainly don’t pay any attention to the date. Instead, they live in an untethered present tense, the text continued; they are in prison, in time, yes, floating along, but exactly where they are they don’t bother themselves with, particularly. Well, what’s the point? It’s only going to draw attention to the immense distance between where they are and freedom (in prison even a day can seem immense).

But there is one date all prisoners can always, immediately, call to mind. Without it they can’t sustain the hope that keeps them buoyant — that date, of course, is when they will be released. Most know what day of the week the date falls on. Some even know the hour they will leave (for the hour of exit varies — sometimes they’re out at 8am; sometimes it’s 3am.) Yes, the day it all ends: this is concrete and recondite.

As fiction so often does, Adam’s opening paragraph arrived just when it was needed. Everything I had been used to — travelling to the prison to work, travelling to Trinity College to teach, staying in Dublin and seeing my friends — had finished abruptly. In their place had begun a curtailed eighteenth century sort of life during which I gardened, walked, worked from home and once a week went to the local supermarket in Enniskillen. I was lucky to be able to do all these things — many couldn’t, in lockdown — but when I looked down the track, I didn’t like what I could see: the contraction of the publishing industry and the possible end of university teaching as we know it. Every page in my diary, which stretched to the end of the year, was now blank.

Adam’s paragraph arrived just as I was wondering how long lockdown (with all its attendant anxieties) was going to last. A few weeks? Three months? Six months? A year? Forever? I hadn’t thought about it consciously before but now I realised this imprecision was finagling and discombobulating and psychically destabilising. I should have known from my 30 years teaching in jails that when your freedoms are limited you must know when, no matter how far off, the key will turn. To be deprived of that sends the mind wild, as mine, I now saw, had been running.

And then — for this is how the mind works, how it helps us if we can only listen — into my mind came a memory, unbidden, of the room where I had taught those drama classes. Years ago, I sat at a computer with a man who’d been ‘imprisoned for public protection’. IPP sentences were scrapped in 2012, but they dictated that a prisoner would be jailed for no definite period of time. We were discussing Tim Lott’s The Scent of Dried Roses (a devastating account of the author’s near suicide and his mother’s suicide) and from that magnificent, melancholy text the IPP prisoner segued, inevitably I suppose, to his own infernal situation of absolute untetheredness. He found it intolerable, he said, but having lived with it for a number of years, he had learnt one thing that helped.

He had come to accept he had no power, he said, certainly not vis-à-vis the criminal justice system. He had no power over the regime either. His day was preordained — unlock, ablutions, education, lunch, and so on and so on forth, all at set, unvarying times; his day was all marked out. His autonomy was shot. But, he concluded, there was no point fighting or grumbling or complaining. It was what it was. He was this untethered thing — the analogy he used was a feather — and he blew here, and he blew there, and he lighted where he lighted; his task, as one thing after the next happened to him, was just to be.

This memory of someone else’s epiphany meant a great deal to me. I have derived enormous advantages from the way society has organised itself over the past 40 years. I have been able to go where I want, do what I want, consume what I want. And then, it went — not all of it but most of it and what replaced it was a kind of ersatz incarceration, incarceration-lite if you prefer. My life in lockdown was a hell of a lot better than being in prison; but I have a better sense now of what IPP prisoners experienced than I did when I taught them. So there is another unexpected outcome of lockdown: it has the capacity to radically alter what you previously thought you understood.

Having remembered my conversation with that IPP prisoner, I went back to Adam’s story. I read it through. It was a good tale in the Kipling style, though being written by an Irish prisoner it didn’t have any of Kipling’s unattractive opinions. I marked the text and wrote my report. I felt lighter than when I started.

We have had weeks and weeks of sunshine and clear blue skies in Ireland and everything is thriving in my garden. The grass is a hallucinatory green, and all my fruit trees are in blossom. Their blossom, to quote Dennis Potter, is the blossomiest blossom I have ever seen. As I sit here, looking out, I think about Adam (who has no lush grasses or apple trees in blossom to gaze at). He will have his stories and my comments at some point. Perhaps they’ve already arrived and he’s in the education room, leafing through the pages, hearing the starlings twittering outside, indifferent, like the rest of nature, to our current plight. Perhaps he’s even thinking about Camus, who knew all about indifference and its bracing, searing, honesty.

Carlo Gébler is an Irish writer and television director. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin, and in various prisons in the Belfast area.

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Julia H
Julia H
4 years ago

I imagine that time also stops for the families of murder victims and that they spend their own lifetime of incarceration in a world of grief and horror that they did nothing to bring on themselves and from which there is no release date to look forward to as a comfort. I’ll save my pity for them.

4 years ago

I appreciate the article. I would like to know what your opinion is on the alternative is for prisoners who have done harm.

Ms Campbell
Ms Campbell
4 years ago

Excellent & illuminating article. Thank you for writing this.