During the last few months amongst other national changes, we’ve started to use words and phrases that we’ve never used before and as is so often the case, under closer examination they don’t mean a lot. I’m an introvert. I don’t ‘socially distance’, I just like time on my own. The first little Piggy went to market, the second little piggy didn’t ‘self-isolate’, he just stayed at home. I’m making up a new one for you today – ‘cell-isolating’.
For 8,000 men and women in Scotland self-isolating is a very normal, daily practice. Depending on which sources you believe, prisoners in Scotland regularly ‘cell-isolate’ for more than 14 hours each day. In a year that’s the equivalent of being on your own in a box sized room with few comforts at all, for 30 solid weeks out of 52 each year. No once a day exercise, no visits to a second home, no taking supplies to others, just you and not much of your own personal space.
Having worked for several years in prisons in England, I would say that loneliness and ‘cell-isolation’, are some of the biggest menaces that prisoners face every single day. Unlike violence or pad theft, they don’t announce their presence to staff who can get rid of them, they don’t hang around outside a cell looking like they’re going to cause trouble, they’re just there. Always ready, and slowly, insidiously they make good their intrusion.
I spoke to a whole life prisoner a few months ago about his time in prison, so far he’s spent over thirty years in prison and depending on his health, he might have another twenty years before he dies. I spoke to him at length about his life a few months ago. He always presents as cheerful around the jail, kind even and has not been in any trouble for decades, not even for bad language.
I asked him how he managed to keep so upbeat. He said ‘‘I try and enjoy every conversation, chat to everyone, stay positive’’. Then at one moment he paused and looked away to one side with a far- away look in his eyes, “but when the cell door closes”, he said…
Steve deserves to be in prison (by his own admission) and knows that the price of his terrible crimes means a life behind bars. He lives with his guilt every day and can never be sorry enough for what he did many years ago. There’s no doubt that he should never be released of course.
But for many Steve’s and Susan’s around Scotland, their crimes are smaller, arguably much less damaging, but they too are isolated, surrounded by people all the time, but lonely and fading away because of it.
For many Christians around the world at the moment, Easter has never been so strongly coloured in for them. The loneliness of the garden, the physical pain of death – no sign yet of any change, of any end in sight, of any resurrection. Ironically, we couldn’t even go and visit the garden of Gethsemane right now as we’re not allowed. The lockdown of the Cross seems very visible right now.
Three months ago, I abandoned all job security to start Inside Belief, a charity aimed at bringing hope to long sentenced, whole-life and older prisoners. People ask me all the time about why I bother, ‘they don’t deserve it’, is a common statement aimed my way.
My answer is simple. Because I believe in a God of hope and I believe that for all of us, there’s a third day and a resurrection.
National Director of Inside belief. www.insidebelief.com