Prison is a fate reserved for others. "Wrongdoers" are deposited somewhere, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the issues afflicting those communities from which they are drawn in disproportionate numbers. Being more likely than the general population to have grown up in care, poverty, with mental health problems, learning disabilities, and to have had a family member convicted of a criminal offence, a person's imprisonment marks his final passage from social exclusion to social death. Prisoners are denied the right to vote: their opinions about their systematic humiliation in overcrowded and violent institutions count for nothing. Sentences get longer, time spent outside of their cells shorter. Prison suicides are now at their highest rate in over 30 years - one suicide every three days.
Over the last two years, I have been involved with Vocalise, a prison education program administered by Gray's Inn that trains student barristers, like myself, to go into prisons and teach British parliamentary debating to prisoners across Greater London. The project culminates in a final debate, adjudicated by QCs and senior lawyers, between a group of prisoners in each prison and élite debaters from the Oxford and Cambridge Union. The prisoners are, more often than not, victorious and humble their seasoned opponents.
My experiences with incarcerated people have completely altered my understanding of human potential and hopefulness. Behind bars, I witnessed the most fascinating and exuberant debates: about space travel and Brexit, about smoking in prisons and the right to euthanasia, about the best theme park in the world and the rise of populism in Europe. I remember vividly one debater. His name was Rufus. He is the most talented public speaker I have ever met - his way of debating was lyrical, bold and spontaneous. One of the judges was dumbfounded enough to ask him, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Prisoners can only confound expectations. We live in a society that renders prisoners into superfluous beings, outside the pale of human empathy - they are either subjects for sensationalist tabloid headlines and television or they are objects to be managed and controlled. As a Co-Director of Vocalise, I am now responsible for training a new batch of student barristers to teach in prisoners. The questions I get asked by recruits corroborate the social stigma of imprisonment: "Are we safe?" "What do we do if we are in danger?" "Do we know their crimes?"
I remember when we were wondering about our own safety when three volunteers and I first went into prison. In the end, the classroom we taught in could have been any class of learners in London - diverse in age and ethnicity, many enthusiastic and curious, some despondent and quiet. There was nothing to doubt their humanity, except for their condition as individuals that were locked up. That three-fifths of prisoners leave prison without any educational or training outcome, with a high likelihood to reoffend, thus must be recognized as a consequence of prison regimes and the prejudices that underpin them. In some instances, prisoners are spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells and face a punitive daily regime under the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme.
In broad strokes, education in prisons is determined by two views. On one hand, there are prison education departments and those that make it their business to know prisoners by name, to get inspirational posters and mantras to decorate classrooms, scout out for innovative programs and guest speakers and debate with security officials to get a prisoner out of his cell to sit an exam. They recognize the prisoner in his actuality and potential.
On the other hand, there is an outer-world of target-driven educational models and practices that determine a prisoner's education on his prospect of release, on funding arrangements and quotas, on the security regime, on demonstrable proof that a program will minimize reoffending or increase employability. These targets and models change yearly when there is a need for 'prison reform'. But such determinations are consistently estranged from any concept that considers education, pre-eminently concerned with fulfilling potential and development, as a fundamental a priori concern for prisoners and their human dignity.
Through Vocalise, I know that the gap between society and the convicted can be bridged. As a profession, the bar represents the most privileged section of society: approximately 70% of the bar is privately educated and around 80% attended Oxbridge. In contrast, 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. Every year, Vocalise trains up to 70 volunteers from the bar to go into prisons and teach debating. My hope is that they go on to help change perceptions where they need to be changed most - outside the prison walls.
Prisoners' names have been changed.
Vocalise was founded in 2010 by Alex Just and Florence Iveson, as a pro-bono initiative supported by Gray's Inn. Its aim is to harness the enthusiasm of current law students to bring the benefits of debating and debate training to prison inmates. It is the first initiative of its kind in the UK and in 2012 we won the Attorney General's Award for Best Student Pro-bono Initiative. Today Vocalise recruits an average of 65 mentors per year and has since expanded to include H.M.Ps Isis, Send and Feltham.