A different kind of learning environment – jail for life and hospice caring – unlikely but inspiring bedfellows
The second stop on my intensive learning journey was the 2011 British American Conference in London designed to help leaders from different fields expand their notion of what leadership means by working well beyond their field and through the lens of contrasting British and America approaches... This was certainly outside my field
My encounter this year with the work of life prisoners volunteering to work as cares in the prison hospice has its roots in a conference with the same project back in 2007. Then I spent most of a day in Durham jail –which is actually a remand centre. What this seemed to mean then –and may mean still... is no education provision or indeed much beyond a basic lock up “service”. The average length of stay was a staggering 5 years and the vast majority of the population was under 22. And a grotesquely high proportion of these vulnerable young men die within 48 hours of release, exposing themselves to the alcohol or drug regimes they used before entry... The only two relatively less bleak spots we encountered all day were a Buddhist who taught the prisoners how to meditate and a co-mentoring scheme through which trusted and established prisoners could volunteer to look out for and after new ones! I’m sorry to say that I started the day with a naive belief in our country’s ability to serve its prison population effectively and confidence in its superiority over the US system which in many states means prisoners are detained for life, meaning life, on a 3 strikes and you are out basis. I ended it much less sure about both propositions.
A quiet heavily built American accompanied on our visits, asked very few questions but joined me in wanting to find out about co-mentoring. It turned out to be Burl Caine, warden of Angola Jail, the Louisiana State Penitentiary where the average sentence is more than 90 years. He was our keynote speaker for a spell binding late afternoon session in beautiful Durham Castle and held a bunch of 200 opinionated British and American leaders from range of fields spellbound, struggling at times to follow his accent and reeling as we tried to process the mix of by turns, shocking, inspiring and opinion catapulting characteristics of Angola’s approach to correction, imprisonment, education and redemption. Some of you will have seen TV programmes about Angola and I can’t do the story justice here but you can look it up on the web. Try starting here http://solitarywatch.com/2011/07/28/gods-own-warden-inside-angola-prison/www with some more information and detailed touches - like the ironic “mugs that read “Angola, a gated community”, on sale in the prison shop! Or with the official web site at http://doc.la.gov/LSP/
The key elements of Burl’s story were these.
When he arrived almost his first act was to administer the death sentence. The prison was unsafe and had a terrible reputation for violence. Appalled to find that dead prisoners were simply buried in sacks in unmarked graves he set about gradually building the skills and wherewithal in prison to enable dignity, employing carpenters, stonemasons and a host of other skilled people to teach trusted prisoners to serve each other well in this way – who in turn taught fellow prisoners. Faced with 22,000 men with a violent track record and without hope of reprieve, he then set about building hope, spirituality redemption and learning – as well as correction - into the very fabric of the jail. Profoundly Baptist in his approach to prison governorship in a way that would be impossible here, he gradually introduced schools and seminaries that enabled any man who wants to learn , and whose behaviour earns him the privilege of learning, to attend an appropriate seminary located and staffed from within the jail.
Sadly that evening I received a phone call to say my mother was dying so left post haste and in the ensuring mayhem lost sight of the possibility of digesting or following up this extraordinary set of insights. Until, that is, November 6th this year when, at the same conference, older, greyer and possibly wiser I had the opportunity to watch a most extraordinary film about the hospice in Angola jail and to talk to one of the prisoners serving in the hospice on the phone –even though it was 5.30 am in Missouri at the time!
The neatly, ambiguous “Serving Life” story follows a small team of Lifers as they volunteer and train to act as carers for hospice patients and to fulfil the jail’s commitment that no man should die alone. The film never flinches from their crimes – or those of the dying prisoners. It doesn’t flinch either from the harsh sentences which deeply shocked even the chief constable in our midst who knew a bit about justice US style. But it does reveal subtly and slowly that these prisoners learn to care for their fellows non judgementally and with patience, grace and tenderness, with fear that they may not succeed and little opportunity for explicit recognition when they do – save the privilege of serving another man in the same way. I have spent a good deal of time in hospitals and homes with sick relatives and rarely witnessed a fraction of this focus, selflessness and care. One of the prisoners who made this journey, a young man whose prison name is Boston, rose early to answer some of the many questions raised by this extraordinary film. We saw very little footage without the patients so had no clue about how the team relate to each other –or whether the prison gives them the chance to do so. Boston told us that they never ever talk about the people they care for in front of them –but do have a little time to meet to agree “ a game plan”. Sometimes - when things are very tough (eg one patients was dying of a brain tumour which, possibly along with his original personality, led to some very strange behaviours), the supervisor shoos the carers out to “let off steam”. The last question was “ Boston, you talk a lot about love on the film. How do you define it?” The answer? “ I guess it means giving all you have to give with no thought of anything in return”.
I feel I have learned so much – I am moved again as I write and find it hard to write – because so much remains unprocessed. The questions tumble through my mind and conversations with the people I meet. Some are those that Burl poses persistently about the inhumanity of life sentences that mean life - for men who so clearly have grasped the enormity of their crimes and developed such a range of skills... Someone who runs such a successful jail on such an enormous scale cannot be easily dismissed; a formidable thorn in many local, redneck sides. Some centre of the failures in education and social systems that leave men capable of degrees and serving as carers and priests without any qualifications on leaving school ( Boston now has two degrees). Some focus of whether we have been too easily sidetracked form working with our own Learning and Skills sector and trying hard to unearth and perhaps enable research in the field of offender learning. Some are slightly startled reflections on the role of absolute parameters in creating effective learning environments.
I hope I’ve convinced you to watch this unpromising sounding film; I think it will be in release next year – I think this was a preview thanks to having the Director and an Angola prison warder in our midst. If my ramblings spark questions for you I’d like to know and widen the pool of reflection....
PS - curiously, Angola prison featured in the first of Stephen Fry's 'road trip' series about America which is currently repeating on BBC. This link should take you to in in iPlayer