Working in a prison environment is not for everyone: certainly if the prospect of walking around with murderers and paedophiles doesn’t put you off, some of the more fragrant smells definitely will. So why bother?
For some, their natural attributes of patience and kindness motivate them to do the job; for others like myself, a prison may provide a dynamic and interesting work environment. Either way, it can mystify people how staff can work with prisoners, knowing the sometimes (though, not always!) heinous things that they have done – and it’s a fair question.
However, there is a simple joy in being able to interact with strangers, regardless of what they have done in their life, on an equal, human level. There is something even more satisfying about maintaining that non-judgemental relationship after finding out about the specifics of their criminal history, although of course this can be slightly trickier.
Life experience can determine our reactions – for some, working with a drug dealer may strike a more personal note of disdain than working with a prolific sex offender (for example, working with a drug dealer may strike a more personal note of disdain for a mother whose child died of an overdose) – but this just shows how our subjective judgements can steer us in different directions.
On the other hand, exercising professional judgement can prevent personal, emotion-based opinions from clouding our ability to carry out the job. This involves focusing on assessing prisoners instead of judging what they have done in the past by asking the questions: What risk does this person pose to themselves, their family, their victims and the public? What capacity do they have to change? What about the prisoners’ verbal and non-verbal behaviour is forming our ‘gut instinct’ reactions? And finally, how can we use this information to form an objective, fact-based opinion of this individual, determine their needs and begin to support them in their rehabilitation?
Ultimately, we have all done something illegal at some point, even if this is as simple as jay-walking. If you haven’t, I’d suggest that in this day and age you contact the Vatican about getting on the canonisation waiting list. Maybe that illegal thing(s) that you did was too minor to ever land you in jail; perhaps you were just very fortunate not to get caught or even more fortunate (read: well-connected) to avoid a custodial sentence. But just remember that sometimes, luck (and often, a stable upbringing) is all that separates you from the prison population who are stuck with that label for the rest of their lives.
Do some of them deserve it? Of course – some people are too dangerous to be out in public and some need to be monitored wherever they go once they are released. But that doesn’t mean they all should be classified under the same umbrella and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t deserve what we are all entitled to: to be judged on our individual merits, for who we are and not who we were (God forbid we were still punished for the things we got up to as teenagers!), and to be treated with basic human respect.