Revelations at HMP Durham

To be quite frank, when I first learned that my UK placement was to be at HMP Durham— the local medium-security prison— I was a bit disconcerted. Though I had been secretly hoping for the “prison placement” ever since I learned about it (after all, it’s uncommon and inherently enlightening), I began to grow anxious about its daily realities.

I recognize my privilege; before beginning my placement in the UK, most of the exposure I had ever had to crime and criminals was through media and academia. This is not the case for many Americans.

I’ve caught glimpses of the daunting and often windowless jails and prisons whilst around town, but never, until now, was the prison, the physical embodiment of the criminal justice system, something I had to give extensive thought to.

With each successive day I spend shadowing at the prison, my long-held but ill-informed opinions about crime and criminals are challenged. The way I thought about these issues used to lack nuance, but thankfully that is now changing. Once you’ve actually met the people that society has taught you to negatively stigmatize, learned their names, had conversations, and shared opinions, these once-vague figments become actual people. If they’ve ever felt dehumanized by their classification as a prisoner, hopefully conversations with strangers who aren’t either guards, staff, or other prisoners can help shed that. I can’t speak with certainty on behalf with prisoners, but I know that I have most definitely been humanized by getting to know them and by realizing there’s more to them than what I’ve been trained to think.

Criminals aren’t bad people; they’ve just done bad things. This echoes the sentiments of many a prison staff members we’ve met. Without adopting this perspective first, they feel as though it becomes very difficult to carry out their daily duties; I’d say the same holds true for visitors as well. At the beginning of our second week at HMP Durham, a staff member said something to me to the effect of “prisoners’ punishment is being in prison. I don’t need to add on to that by disrespecting them.”

I’m extremely grateful to have received my placement at HMP Durham— I’ve gained insights that I never imagined would be accessible to me. I’ve learned about how the criminal justice system across the pond, up close and personally. Now, if I could only complement this with a similar experience back home, in the States…

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