By Reena Jaisiah, contributor and Arshia Riaz, BBC
What is it really like inside a UK prison? Well this Birmingham woman spent a day inside Winson Green –to try and find out what life was like for offenders!
Reena behind bars (taken by Naveen Kataria)
On Tuesday 2 June 2009, 29-year-old Reena Jaisiah decided to take part in a ten week course run by Birmingham based organisation Prison Link. The idea of the scheme is to give people an insight into the workings of prison life and to give them a real taster of what it feels like to be behind bars.
Here is Reena's story:
By day I work as a teacher and shop owner and I am also the co-founder of a theatre company called Caste Away Arts. The company's ethos is to uncover taboo issues that society often brushes under the carpet.
Reena at her workplace (taken by Naveen Kataria)
I love investigating issues and bringing them to life through theatre. One of my passions was to find out what it would be like to work inside prison and what it would be like to work with young offenders. So when I heard about this opportunity I jumped at the chance.
The day I got sent down
It was a scorching hot summer's day and before entering the prison I would have assumed that it would be cooler once I was inside. But I was wrong - it wasn't. How silly was I to expect a privilege like air conditioning in a prison.
I was searched, but not as rigorously as I expected; it was very swift and there was a huge queue of people going in. It was a busy place and I remember hearing the clanging of gates and bars. It seemed to be one thud after the other as people were coming in and out by the tens and twenties. It was quite exciting in a bizarre kind of way until the main gate shut hard behind me. I was inside and this is where the real journey started.
Winson Green Prison
As I was escorted to the cell block through an outdoor yard, I caught sight of a gloomy gothic building with hundreds of rows of tiny translucent murky glass columns in the wall. They were densely packed, almost like stain glass windows but without fancy colours and just the stains of thick dirt. Those tiny oblong rows were not there for decoration but were in fact, windows to the cells. This was daunting and a shiver went through my spine.
I finally reached the cell block and was allowed to see a single cell which wasn’t so bad. It was roughly the same size as the box room I had as a young girl. There was a small TV (no LCD screens or anything above 15 inch) with a single size bed. With a bit of personal touch it could be reasonable. Then I went into a communal cell. This was completely a different story.
There was barely any space for just me, let alone another person. There was a toilet in the corner of the room with no seclusion. The smell was revolting. I wanted to scream ‘get me out of here' but thankfully this prison visit was not permanent and was part of the course.
The day I met a murderer
(I have protected the identity of the ex-offender by giving him an alias name)
The Prison Link course outline stated that there would be a session with an ex-offender- little did I know I would be in the same room as a convicted murderer.
When David walked in I saw a very ordinary looking man. I just thought he was a latecomer onto the course, no different to you and me, but as his story unfolded I was compelled. He revealed he was a convicted murderer.
He didn't look like a murderer but then what was a murderer supposed to look like? David’s story was chilling. He was responsible for a few murders involving brutal stabbings and he had been in and out of prison in the UK and Jamaica. As he talked openly, my anxieties eased, I was wrapped in the pain of his broken child hood, a life of deprivation of love and seeking desperate salvation in the hands of criminal gangs. The picture in my head was beginning to colour and broaden.
He spoke out of his hatred of prison and how he and five prisoners were packed into one room with no sanitation. But why did he keep re-offending? David was brought up in a culture of gangs where violence and crime were a way of survival and was considered normal, that’s all he knew. But his hurt drove him to kill. He told me:
"I am to blame but circumstances lead me to this."
The compassion that I felt for David was not condoning his murders, but I saw a deeply damaged and hurt man. David managed to save himself by using his talent to play music. He then found his music and ability to engage with young people helped him to reform. This was an amazing story. David explained he had a deep regret of his past and I could see that he was a really good example of somebody that managed to change.
Reena with youngsters (taken by Naveen Kataria)
Back to the real world
I live in a neighbourhood that I would describe as a 'ghetto'. I have been brought up in a working-class family and I am no stranger to those grey areas in life called reality. Though on a social scale my life has progressed dramatically but I will never forget my struggle. I could have easily been caught up in crime myself. I chose freedom and education and I suppose this is why I have earned the respect from the local youth. In my life I have managed to build a positive rapport with the local youth . Some of these youngsters have been caught up in crime or have offended.
When I take on a teacher role I feel I am well equipped to tap into the youngster's thoughts so they are able to open up to me .
Boys and young men often come to talk to me for advice on education and yes or course girls! Believe me, boys have a tough time too. I must say some of these young people have offended and resorted to crime but underneath I see pain, struggle and a lack of encouragement which is why I question how can some of these very nice people end up in prison?
What have I learnt from the experience?
I have walked away with lots of insight into how the prison service operates. I feel that being inside prison means that you have to sacrifice your liberty. Imagine waking up one day incarcerated, told when to eat, told what to do and having to go to the toilet in public.For many prisoners this is what life is like. They do not have a choice.
I feel that working in prison would be really interesting and this experience has left me wanting to find out more. However, to be inside and locked up is not a pleasant experience and all of the ex-offenders I spoke to re-inforced that.
My experience with Prison Link has cemented the grounds for me and inspired me to train in this field. I am hoping to one day work with young offenders. I feel that no one is born to kill, no one is infallible and offenders are human.
Overall the course ran every Tuesday night for 10 weeks and comprised of 10 sessions with guest speakers. I loved it because it was interactive, poignant and I met a whole host of different people. This has been one of the most prosperous opportunities in my life and I would definately recommend it.
Prison Link- organisation based in Aston
Prison Link is a project that serves under a parent charitable organization called United Evangelical Project based right in the heart of the community in Aston Birmingham.
Prison Link identified a huge gap in criminal justice services for ethnic minorities. It offers to assess offenders' needs after their sentences and provides a mentoring service. Prison Link has a dedicated team of volunteers that help provide services in mentoring, finding accommodation for ex-offenders and also guiding them in finding a job after prison.
For more information on the prison training course starting on the 1 September 2009 contact Ricky Dehaney on 0121 5511207.
For more info you can visit the following website:
last updated: 23/07/2009 at 14:33