The word from inside

Eric Hana was a prison officer for five years. This is his story.

Sitting on the other side of the desk was a man in his late twenties with an all too familiar look; desperate, anxious and wanting.

He had been picked up by the police on the Friday night, been in the cells all weekend, then court on Monday morning before arriving at the prison in the late afternoon.

His body was rattling, coming down off the drugs. And he’d had none of his prescribed medicine, which included heavy-duty anti-psychotics and pain relief. He’d been homeless, and though he’d had a shower, his clothes betrayed him.

My job in the prison was to process people who come into the jail. We strip-search them, take their clothes and give them prison ones. We then tell them what they can and cannot have, risk assess them for suicide, self-harm or if they might cause harm to others. It’s an efficient system that Scottish jails repeat daily, many times a day.

This man posed a threat to no one. He was more at risk from other prisoners who in the past had bullied him for his meds. I asked him how he ended up being arrested. He began to cry and said ‘I just can’t cope outside’.

He had been on a conveyor belt since childhood; taken away from negligent parents by social workers, given to a litany of foster parents, finding drugs, drink and crime, then juvenile units, stints in psychiatric care, young offenders, and finally adult prisons.

There are many like him. Many more would attest to unstable families, physical and mental abuse leading to trauma, addictions, and poor mental health. Having a dad in jail is one of the strongest indicators that someone will end up there themselves. You hear some stories and think – what chance did they have?

When I joined the Scottish Prison Service I was told we were in the business of transforming lives, reducing recidivism and unlocking potential.

They write adverts that make you think you really can effect meaningful change – more like support workers than prison officers. The problem is the system doesn’t let that happen.

For any transformation to happen it must be person-centered and trauma-informed.

Prisons are not set-up like that, and the public would not accept the sort of changes that would require.

Prisons are good at restraining someone’s liberty for a set period of time. We value order and timeliness – from the moment they wake there is a schedule for laundry, exercise, medication and the doctor, education, appointments, requests for everything from razors to housing benefit forms, recreation and mealtimes.

There is not enough time and not enough staff to get all this done let alone nursing individuals out of destructive habits and behaviors.

A further barrier is the prisoners themselves. These are the most disruptive and non-conforming individuals in society.

Many hate official authority, or anyone telling them what to do.

As an officer trying to keep order and minimise violence, you are faced each day with manipulation, physical and verbal violence, and people who have taken dangerous and unknown substances which might induce dangerous swings to violence or self-harm.

You have to learn to get along with people who might have assaulted their partners (the most common phrase I think I ever heard was ‘it was her fault’), rapists and child abusers, thieves and murderers, drug dealers and drug takers.

Yet regardless of all of that the man in front of you is not so different. You would find yourself making a joke or commiserating with people you would run a mile from on the outside. Many prison officers have good relationships with prisoners but there is always wariness.

There has to be.

With all of that in mind, compassion can be very hard. Cynicism abounds. The odd time you can begin to think someone is making progress and hope their old demons don’t hold, but it’s rare. All of it wears away your compassion.

But what really struck me as sad was how just cynical and bitter many officers become, not just to prisoners but to each other.

As a Catholic I have to admit I often struggled with the compassion to which Jesus calls us to; reconciling it with the everyday life of a prison officer – with justice and grace crashing against one another.

The consequences of the pain these men have caused cannot be undone – most of these men had actively caused terror and physical pain to others repeatedly and deliberately.

How am I to see someone as a child of God worthy of love and forgiveness when not only is he not sorry, but he will do it again?

When thinking about that man who came into prison who said he couldn’t cope I think of the land beyond Esquiline Gate – a place that existed outside the bounds of ancient Rome. It was where the dead bodies of slaves and criminals were thrown – not fit for a proper Roman funeral, they lay decomposing for the animals.

The birds of the Esquiline never stopped circling. That is what we do to so many men and women who enter our prisons, we leave them to be picked apart by addictions and trauma far from the sight of respectable society.

Prisons have their own gravity, they carry a weight like few other places.

The ones behind the door we deliberately institutionalise to make them conform to lower the risk of violence and to promote order. For those of us with the keys, we are no less institutionalised. But this only serves the prison – it doesn’t help

prisoners when they get out. Talking to ex-offenders especially those who have been in for a long time, crossing the road can cause a panic attack. Freedom actually causes a lot of stress and anxiety. Without proper support there is only one place for these men to go to – back inside.

And the man I spoke about at the start? We processed him through, he signed what he was supposed to sign, saw the nurse and then we took him to the halls. I felt pity for him at that moment.

A few weeks later I, along with some other officers, had to take him to the hospital. His oxygen levels were dangerously low and it was felt we needed to get him checked out. He loudly protested but walked nonetheless and then when we got to the hospital told us unless he gets some meds he was going to kick up and trash the area we were in.

He didn’t get any meds that night but he didn’t trash anywhere either. All part of the show, all part of a desperate plan to get some more drugs in his system.

After that I never really saw him again, he’s been out and as far as I know has stayed out. He could also be dead, or in another jail. Just one more statistic in the Scottish Criminal Justice conveyor belt.

What changes this man? There’s not one answer or one tidy policy that can be signed off by a politician and solve it; in truth we will never live without crime or pain.

But one thing that could change is us. We need to ask ourselves is it really good enough to just throw men and women onto a heap and then get mad because they don’t stop offending?

We need to learn forgiveness and grace toward one another, especially to individuals like these. Does that negate their crime?

Of course not – but if we constantly punish and ostracise in the way we do, what is left for them?

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