I’ve put off writing about my time in prison. It felt too raw, too emotional, too close. But since COVID, my colleagues and I haven’t been allowed back and I miss it.

I stuck out like a sore thumb in the men’s high-security prison. While the walkie-talkie that hung around my waist with the panic button was designed to keep me safe – all I could think was – it totally destroyed my outfit!

There to teach philosophy, I quickly learned how radically different my world is from theirs.

Let’s just say using Marie Kondo to explain the spaciousness of the mind, fell flat. No one knew who the hell I was talking about.

After a long explanation, one guy with a twinkle in his eye looked at me and said, “Don’t you worry miss, we’ll come to your place and clear everything out!”

Then there was that time I tried to break the ice by asking who saw the blood moon last night. Duh! Most cells do not have windows.

Prior to going ‘inside’ I was instructed not to wear perfume, tell anyone my surname (they’ll find you!), or wear colours affiliated with gangs.

Really!

I swear I could have walked in there with a mongrel mob sign hung around my neck and no one would have believed it.

Everything about me reeks of Pakeha privilege, including my pretentious shoes!

Initially, I wondered if I should tone it down a bit (perhaps it would help me build a better connection), but then I thought ‘Oh sod it, this is who I am, I’m not going in as a fake’.

Ultimately this was probably a wise decision as these men can tell a fake a mile away. “Hey, miss”, they’d say to me “You look like that politician Paula Bennett; I like your style miss…”

So, I’ve been pondering what I learned in prison because I’m sure I learned more than I imparted. I thought I’d share my musings with you.

My 10 prison lessons:

1.       Prisoners are easily distracted, but given the opportunity to contribute, most will.

Boredom is a killer in prison and boredom is constant.

Prisoners will sign up for anything, not because they want to participate, but to avoid boredom.

Getting people excited about Socrates, Plato or the Bhagavad Gita is hard at the best of times.

So, if you’re going to discuss philosophy in prison, you better make things real darn interesting.

You’ll know you’re getting through when people start making sense of philosophy by sharing their own personal stories. 

2.       Peer pressure is rife.

Young Māori men with full facial tattoos enjoyed intimidating me by charging at the fence as I walked past.

As soon as they got the reaction they wanted, they’d all laugh, and back off.

I’d give them a look that said ‘Okay, okay, you got me again’ while trying to look all nonchalant, but inside I was terrified.

All I could think was those beautiful young men and all that wasted potential.

Hell, that’s sad.

3.       There but for the grace of God go I.

Now, I’m no angel. Most people wouldn’t believe the things I’ve done in my misguided youth.

Naivety might well have been my middle name.

Looking back, I hung around with some extremely shady characters and unwittingly got involved in stuff that would make my mum’s hair curl (yes, me!).

I might not have known I was involved in any criminal activity until after the event, but, I doubt my defense of “I had no idea that’s what they were doing officer” would have gone down that well.

Incidentally, I am a descendant of a ‘real’ convict. My great, great, great grandfather was deported to Tasmania for armed robbery. While in prison he stole the keys and led a breakout.

Apparently, as the story goes, he was doing rather well, until he discovered he’d stolen all but the last door key and was caught.

I like to think I might have inherited his ingenuity, not his IQ.

4.       Prison to me, is like a Tui commercial. Yeah, right!

Do we really think that further punishing the already thoroughly punished, will work?! What good does it do?

Who does it really help?

It might make you (as a law-abiding citizen) feel safer, but it’s an illusion.

Most people will leave prison feeling even more excluded from society, and without the skills (nor the desire) to ever become a functional part of it.

I’d go so far as to say, that once a person has spent time in prison, upon their release we are considerably less safe.

5.       We should be locking up and throwing away the key on things like – social injustice, inequality, poverty, family violence, child abuse, acculturalisation – NOT PEOPLE.

All I saw in prison were people who had been systematically beaten down, dispossessed, marginalised, and forgotten.

Their stories were nothing short of horrific.

I remember one toothless, middle-aged pakeha man, when asked to contribute to a group discussion, turning to me, looking me in the eye, and saying, ‘I’m sorry miss, I just can’t go there.’

My. Heart. Broke.

6.       You can find ‘God’ in prison.

And a lot of good that’ll do you!

There were those who assured me they were now completely changed men, certain they wouldn’t go back once released.

They honestly believed that they’d manage their old stressors differently; they wouldn’t revert to old behaviours.

I wasn’t sold.

While my heart wished them every success (I truly wanted to believe them), the cynic in me knows that given the same circumstances, people usually revert to old behaviours.

And who could blame them? Not me!

7.       Working in prison isn’t much different from working in the corporate world.

Sure, people’s circumstances and backgrounds may be wildly different, but given the opportunity, most people will let go of their bluff and bravado and allow themselves to be vulnerable and real.

And despite our differences, we’re all desperate for answers on how to do this thing called ‘life’.

8.       The danger of using ‘I am’ statements with addiction.

Prisoners are quick to label themselves.

They tell you their name, followed by “and I’m an addict/junkie/ alcoholic”.

 ‘I am’ statements keep you stuck.

The stories we repeatedly tell ourselves, eventually become irrefutable and undeniable.

“No” I wanted to cry, “you’re not these things, and it’s normal to self-medicate to manage pain!”

But of course, I didn’t. It wasn’t the place, nor the time.

I just listened.

Addiction is a very human response to trauma. And substances, work really well in the short term, while in the long term create more pain and suffering.

It’s a vicious circle.

And I tell you what, if I had a dollar for every person I’ve worked with who is a highly successful functioning addict, I’d be one rich woman.

You can’t put addiction in a nice tidy box and associate it with ‘those people’, because it’s rife across every level of society.

When are we going to stop treating addiction as a personal failure and see it for what it is, a normal (although unhealthy) response to life when life sucks!

And some lives suck more than others…

9.       We all experience the same challenges when trying to manage our minds.

“I tried to meditate miss, but I can’t stop my mind! Can you help me?”

Whether it’s the boardroom or the ‘bored room’ we all struggle with busy minds.

You can’t stop your mind from thinking, but you can develop a healthier relationship with it.

Unfortunately, most people give up too early.

10.   Working with prisoners might just be the most rewarding experience of my career.

I usually work with leaders, so going into a high-security men’s prison as a volunteer was challenging (understatement).

I felt (and I’m sure looked) like a fish out of water.

But the experience shook me up, it woke me up, and it humbled me.

Every time I left after a day in prison, I felt elated.

I hope I made a difference, but who knows?

What I do know is, it made a difference to me, and I am eternally grateful.