How to change the conversation
At a recent book event I did, I mentioned that when I worked in prison, I thought of success as ‘helping one person a year to change their life’.
To me, working in a failing system, where every attempt at rehabilitation seemed thwarted by lack of resources, facilities and political will, I had resigned myself to the fact that with all the best intentions, I would not be delivering the majority of men back to their communities in a better position than when they came inside.
I set my expectations low, knowing that if I was at least achieving something, however small, I could keep working. But as bang-up got longer and resources diminished even further, I found myself unable to continue and left.
The book I wrote about my time inside, Criminal - How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All, was my attempt to continue to help, to forward the cause of prison reform, to positively impact the lives of the men I met behind the walls.
At the event, a question came up about what would success look like to me now? How would I measure the success of Criminal? It has never been about book sales. Those are great, because it means the message is getting out there. But the purpose of Criminal has always been the message. The message that we all need to care about what goes on in our prisons and we all need to challenge the narrative that prisons should be solely about punishment, the tougher the better.
I described my ideal scenario - a world where every politician read the book and acted accordingly, basing their policy on data and evidence and humanity and compassion, rather than vote-winning soundbites and aggressive rhetoric. I want everyone who has read the book to have conversations about the state of our prisons, about the impact their failure has on all our lives. I talked about the importance of listening to different opinions and ideas and sharing those without judgement. I thought about the importance of having adult conversations, in the real world, that would eventually lead to change.
It was Nina Champion, of the Criminal Justice Alliance, who suggested the idea of ‘purposeful conversations’ as an appropriate description of what I was trying to verbalise.
Purposeful conversations, at their core, are not about talking at each other, talking to rehearse or plan for the known, or talking to answer the kinds of questions that have right answers. Their talk has a purpose—and that purpose is to tackle the unknown—to strategize, to innovate, to problem-solve, to construct understanding.
We can all have these conversations, ‘out in the wild’. At the hairdressers, the laundrette, the allotment or at social events. We can raise the issues I discuss in Criminal with colleagues, neighbours and family. Just as we have learned that we all have a part to play in challenging racism, sexism and homophobia, we can discuss the horrendous effects of a ‘tough on crime’ prison policy and start to open up dialogue.
Another attendee told me -
‘I didn’t feel like I knew enough to talk about prisons in the past. I knew they were bad, but I didn’t really understand what was going on. And I didn’t understand how all the social issues I care about are going on inside, too. Your book allowed me to feel like I had enough knowledge to have real conversations about the issue’.
It’s not a quick fix, but these kinds of conversations can change the shape of the narrative we often hear about crime and punishment.
‘Purposeful talk honours the time participants need to deepen and evolve understanding. Participants recognize that the process of constructing doesn’t necessarily happen in simple, quick conversations. They’re willing to dwell in shades of grey as they wrestle with varied perspectives, contemplate possibilities, and gather new thinking. They recognize that compelling ideas may linger and evolve over time, and are willing to cycle back to rethink and revise or expand previous understandings.’
Recently, I was in a taxi on the way to record a radio broadcast with the BBC. The taxi driver asked why I was going to the BBC and we talked the whole way about prisons, if they work, what his Muslim community did for the homeless people of Manchester and how we all have a duty to our communities. He said he knew a few people who had been inside (something I’m hearing from so many people I talk to at the moment), and none of them came out any better than when they’d gone in.
It was a conversation and a connection he probably didn’t expect to have that day. And every time I prepare myself to explain what the book is about, I get ready to hear people express views completely opposed to mine. However, what I’m actually finding, whether it’s from typically right-wing media, people who think our prisons don’t impact them, or people with lived experience, is that people are kind, compassionate and want to learn more.
They also want to know how they can do more.
And going out, with the intention of having purposeful conversations about the criminal state of our prisons, is something we all can do.