Life behind bars: look beyond

I visited once a prison. I keep it in my collection of stories as a reminder of cognitive biases when I prepare projects. And how easy it is to fall into the traps of conventions and assumptions.


It was in a former soviet country. It’s a travel in time. Once the gate closes behind you, the air, the walls, the smell, people looks all say “welcome to urss”. Not a very welcome “welcome” though.

It was a planned trip. The administration knew we are coming. White table cloths on meeting tables betrayed it. You cannot come in an unannounced visit to a prison, unless gifted with invisibility skills. What I could not have planned were my feelings and sensations. It does not help being a lawyer trained in human rights in this case.

After a dull meeting with silent and very tense staff, a guided tour was offered by the administration. After the first wall, the family reunion hall opened its door in front of us. A hall with seven doors: a kitchen, five  bedrooms with king size beds, and a bathroom. It’s the dream land for any inmates. For good behavior they get up to five days of family time per year with one of their loved ones. In the kitchen we found a beautiful, big eyed young women. She was cooking a meal for her husband who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I saw sadness and commitment and no trace of resentment in her eyes. Will she be coming every year for the next 18 years to cook meals for her husband? They retrieved to “their” room. Tears filled my eyes.IMG_0778

After the security zone, en-laced in barbed wire, where a cat seemed chez-soi, we were taken into the heart of the prison. The prison has three blocks. The first one we were taken to was presented as exemplary: clean and all beds were made. It was remarkable as it was a large room, 70 by 100 feet, beds one by one, with tiny passages between the endless rows. I asked whether it looks so orderly because they knew that we were coming. No, assured me the head of prison, it’s a norm now,  after quite „a lot of invested effort and time into discipline”, whatever that means. It was the mine workers block, who get paid for their work and also get their term cut: a day for three days worked in a nearby mine. The room was filled with testosterone. Me and my other female colleague were safe, behind our colleagues from headquarters and their wide shoulders. In parallel, what I found striking was how relaxed were inmates compared to prison staff. After all,  they got it right, it was not them who were inspected!

What followed were a cascade of feelings. An overwhelming feeling of saturation, when I entered the canteen, the feeling of gratitude for my health, when I stepped on the white floor of the medical care unit, the feeling of dignity when the head of administration persuaded us against visiting the remote inmates block, the feeling of bounder-less creativity when I entered the church the walls in which were being painted by an inmate, the feeling of family connection when I looked in the eyes of a 70 old inmate who stabbed his wife, the feeling of enough when have seen two women surrounded by packages of food to fit into a wagon waiting for clearance to enter the prison and feed their dear ones, the awareness of the gift of freedom on the tiny, dark corridors of the solitary confinement ….

We were then taken to a workshop where some inmate were filling their days with wood crafts. Good behavior was a ticket to the wood workshop. I noticed the sharp objects they were using and asked whether there are any incidents/accidents involved. No, assured me again the head of prison. I’ve seen sad portraits, icons and toys cut into wood. I asked an old inmate what is he crafting. “A toy for my daughter” he said. It was a beautiful wooden horse. He was dreaming of freedom…

In this country now the head of prisons is a women. I would like to believe that she sees and feels beyond a wooden horse. And that so do we, those who craft interventions to help.

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