It's nearly Christmas so I’d like to talk about something seasonal — prisoners. No, don’t go away just cos I mentioned the P word, please! I know all things prison are a turn-off for most of us, but bear with me, go on, it’s Christmas
For the past year I’ve been going into Maghaberry Prison once a week with a colleague to give classes in drama and film. Before that I would have avoided stories about prison. Who wants to know about men (it’s mostly men) who’ve committed crimes? They’re locked away behind walls precisely so we don’t have to think about them, aren’t they?
I avoided the sensationalist headlines screaming from the local Sunday papers about this unsavoury group. Thieves, thugs, drug dealers, rapists, murderers, sex offenders. Monsters.
Hardly a week goes by that we aren’t told how these monsters are being treated like kings in a luxury holiday camp environment where the lifestyle inside’s so great it’s a wonder we’re all not tunnelling to escape into the place.
Thank God we never have to meet them. These monsters.
And then I met them. And I realised why they are called monsters. Y’see, for the most part they’re just ordinary individuals like any man you’d see in the street or in the pub or sitting beside you on the settee watching TV. They’re called John and Peter and David and any other ordinary name you can think of.
Strangely enough, they have one head each. They have arms and legs. They eat and drink. They talk and don’t talk. They laugh. They get frustrated. They think. They try not to think. They get depressed. They have daughters. They read books and papers. They consider their past actions. They take responsibility. They blame others. They rant and rail. They cry. They sleep. They wake up. They get through one day at a time. They try to survive.
Of course, they must be called monsters. After all, if we were to accept that they are human beings like us, where would that leave us? How could we possibly concede that a human being is capable of the most awful behaviour? If we follow that logic, it might open up the possibility that we too might be capable of such awful behaviour. And that ‘appalling vista’ is one we just can’t allow.
Just this week a prisoner in England won the right to be called Mister. Commentators condemned this. Why should a man who’s done awful deeds be treated with this respect?
Eh, why shouldn’t he? Why would I let someone else’s “bad” behaviour dictate how I behave? That’s crazy.
If we can’t make a distinction between a person and their behaviour, then we’ll never be at peace. It’s ourselves we diminish when we villify others. It’s the dark parts of our own personalities we can’t accept when we scream hatred at others. It’s ourselves we’re punishing when we treat others with contempt.
I’m not speaking from any moral high ground here. I criticise and point score to make myself feel better. But I know it doesn’t make me feel better.
If a pregnant, unmarried couple from somewhere else turned up at your door this Christmas, what would you see? Trouble, or the greatest story ever told?