First They Came …
‘first they came for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . .’ Martin Neimoller
I was asked at a family barbecue why I pushed so hard and worked o hard, for the men and women who find themselves involved with the criminal justice system in England. My answer was simply that the they, could quite easily have been me.
I was introduced to the quote above by a friend, Mr Koukidis, who currently works at a prison in SE London. My friend is a conscientious committed counselling psychologist. He introduced the quote a number of years ago. ‘They came…’ was a poignant reference to the work we were engaged with as counsellors at this London Prison. The men we supported with members from the mental health team could, should/could not be forgotten.
There were moments in my life where had things continued; joining a gang, engaging in destroying public property, fighting other boys on the estate, I could have found myself involved with the criminal justice system and possibly have spent time in prison. I spent 10 years living on a well known housing estate in North London and wrote about aspects of it in my MSc research paper called ‘A Son’s Journey’.
‘The block of flats I lived in consisted of a series of box-like structures in close proximity to one another. This layout created a feeling of overcrowding and compartmentalisation and it was these features that I found repeated in the prison, that are meticulously divided into cells, landings, communal areas, canteens, house blocks and corridors.
The lack of open space and privacy felt all too familiar. My block was an open tiered construct. It had covered corridors that one had to travel along to reach the domestic spaces in the building. ‘On the ground floor of the building, there were shops and businesses which created an insular feeling – there was little need to travel off the estate as your immediate needs could be met in this ‘city’ within the city of London. In this regard, the estate also resembled prison, in that it felt like a separate entity, held apart from the rest of society. ‘
A Son’s Journey May 2012
An Almost Experience
In some way my working experience of prison, working with service users, probation, police and the criminal justice system offers a chance for me to balance the disparity I find myself involved with. I recognise that I am an outsider but with a quasi-experience of being an insider.
One of the reasons that the quote by Neimoller has continued to live and breathe in me, could be acknowledging the truth of the quote. ‘And then.. they came for me.’ The quote references the indifference or the apathy of the person who has written. There is almost the suggestion that there would be no-one left to stand up for them.
In training to become a counsellor/psychotherapist I had not thought that I would ever begin to work with a group of people that were so low on society’s pecking order as those who had been sentenced to serve time or serve several terms in prison. Working in prison was the furthest thing from my mind when I began training as a counsellor in 2006.
Plight of the young
Between 2009-2010 my counselling experience was going well at a Drs Surgery in South East London where I had held a placement for just over a year. I had thoughts of opening a private practice and working with the general public with one particular area of specialty: Young People from backgrounds similar to mine. Inner City, low socio-economic incomes, poor educational attainment. The idea was to complete the MSc course and then gain a few years experience working in the field and then begin a small private counselling practice for myself.
A list of other placements were made available to students at Greenwich University in the Spring term of 2010. I noticed a prison placement. Initially my thoughts were that I would not make a good prison counsellor (self-doubt), or that I wouldn’t get many clients that would want to work with me, and I wasn’t going to apply (denial). I discussed my prejudices and fears with my wife. The effect of which increased my curiosity about engaging with a forensic population. Making the application was straightforward then came a few months of waiting. I sent a follow up email to the lead counsellor of the prison, Anne Willoughby, who enquired about the initial email.
An invitation followed and I met with Anne Willoughby and 4 other interested volunteers in July 2010. After the initial meeting an opportunity was granted to walk the prison grounds. The size, scale, height of the perimeter wall, and security measures of the prison did little to lower my excitement and fear of walking into the complex. We were shown to various house blocks, the education department, the hub at health care, workshops and the counselling office HQ.
My initial assumptions of seeing a Hannibal Lector character, chains slinking along the ground in a menacing way did not happen. The group of 4 would be volunteers were introduced to a regular working prison with prisoners moving within it as regularly as people traverse through life whilst in the community. I witnessed nothing strange and little alarmed me.
I had walked into and out of a prison and had actually ‘liked’ the experience. It wasn’t as bad or as frightening as I had imagined. It was in fact much like the housing estate that I had grown up on. A similar modular, organised block form building that reordered space. I understood the function and physical presence of the prison. For me this recognition was my in.
I came away from the experience wanting to give time to the people who were imprisoned there. I also wanted to acknowledge a gnawing suspicion that my imagined incarceration could only be released once I had served my time, completed good pieces of work with the men there and learned some valuable life lessons. I believe one of the most important lessons was about freedom. If a person is unable to perceive that they are free. Also that they are equipped with the tools to make a positive impact in their life and the life of others. Being released to the community could be an uncomfortable challenge that a person can feel ill equipped to manage. It is possible they might return to prison a number of times until…
The main learning I took from the 1st prison encounter was, men who ‘came away’ were not too dissimilar to people I had supported in the community. The main difference was the setting. If I could get past the idea of working in a prison and what that may mean then I could literally work anywhere. I started working at this London prison in October 2010. It took roughly 4 weeks before I could walk in through the front gate of the prison and not have my heart beat double time.
I managed to develop a number of self-checks to ease myself into another way of being whilst in the prison. My 1st mental trick I adopted, was to imagine myself entering a compression chamber and on leaving the prison entering a decompression chamber. Both stages allowed me the chance to get ready for the environment I was moving into. The idea enabled me to contextualise myself to the new spaces I was about to come into contact with. Like a deep sea diver I was able to situate myself both in and out of the prison.
The deep sea diver idea was also like having a suit of armour to manage the pressures, pushes and pulls of prison life. Mentally removing the suit on leaving I found that I was no longer carrying stuff I had no right to carry beyond the prison gate: stories I had encountered, past histories of discomfort and pain, uncertainty about the future, disillusionment about being away.
I learned that each space within the prison had it’s own vibe. Each house block, education department, workshop, gym facility, training room and areas within health care held it’s own unique energy and texture. The energy of each facility of the prison then had an effect on all that came to use these different spaces. For example when in the education department I found myself to be quiet and tentative in excusing a service user from a lesson.
In workshop I found myself to be assertive and loud when asking a service user to access a therapeutic encounter. The aim was to engage the person I was to work with in a way that showed that the service had not forgotten them. It was like the counselling service helped people to recognise that they were not ‘disappeared’ or ‘forgotten’ as perhaps they might have fears that their family, friends and society as a whole had.
‘First they came …’ Reminds me of the interconnectedness of humanity and that if we are to make successful cohesive advancements in our respective communities for the betterment of all, then all should be remembered and involved in reconstruction even those who have the ‘ignored song’.