Human beings have an instinctive suspicion of the outsider, of those who are not like us, of those outside our tribe. We are particularly suspicious of those who commit crimes. Putting them in prison help us to feel safe. It can also distance us and them from the humanity we all share.
Alastair Campbell, best known as Tony Blair’s former director of communications, tells of a recent visit he made to Pentonville Prison, where he discussed the effects of lockdown:
“For the prisoners, lockdown meant literally that, at least 23 hours in their cells. At one point, a third of the officers were off sick, two died from Covid early on, a chaplain died too, and on one day, the entire prison had just 39 officers on duty to cover the 35 landings across seven wings.
“So here is the faith restoring bit. A man in for murder told me that when 7pm on Thursdays came around, he and other prisoners lined up inside their cells to join in the national clapping. ‘We were clapping for the staff who came in,’ he said.
‘Covid was terrifying at first. When visits and activities were stopped, and we noticed there were none of the people from outside bodies coming in, it was obvious how serious it was. We honestly thought there would be loads of deaths. We knew the screws were still coming in, risked getting it, taking it back to their families, and I think we saw them in a different light because of that.’
“An increase in restrictions usually leads to an increase in trouble. This time, the opposite seems to have happened. Assaults down. Self-harming down. Prisoner-to-prisoner co-operation and prisoner-to-officer co-operation up. In ‘normal’ times around 30 of the 1,100 prisoners get ‘nicked’ for some kind of misconduct each day. It fell to two or three at the height of the crisis.” (New European Feb 17-23, 2022)
Isn’t it wonderful how a crisis can help us to discover our common humanity.