On Friday 10th May the interns and I had the opportunity to visit HMP Wandsworth for the day. On the way there, we talked about how none of us had ever been to a prison or knew anyone who had served a sentence and approached the day with some degree of trepidation.
We were all taken by how much Wandsworth was really like the Victorians prisons of old depicted in popular culture and our childhood imaginations, complete with Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon setup, jangling chains and an overpowering smell of dampness.
Our base for the day was the chaplaincy office – a small, cosy haven in an otherwise wholly grim environment. There we were looked after by a truly inspiring team including a Catholic deacon, Anglican priest, a young imam and a comedy duo of Quakers.
Over tea they told us about the inmates in their care, explaining that the vast majority were working class, suffered from mental illness, passed their childhoods in and out of foster care or in the service of gangs, with histories of physical and sexual abuse. Whilst some had been charged with violent offenses, many more had not.
They worked hard to instil a degree of hope and self-worth in those they engaged with but admitted that this was a nigh impossible task – both in the face of their conditions and, realistically, their future out of prison, and in light of their personal, often tragic, histories.
It became clear to us that the current prison system is under crisis and if nothing changes, then we can expect prisons to nosedive rapidly and irreversibly. We only spent one day there but the overriding impression we left with of the chaplains was one of immensely good intentions, but immensely jaded persons under breaking point.
The horrors of the situation were crystallised when, as we left, one inmate called out to us emphatically: “This is not a museum.” One could only think, no but such institutions ought to be condemned to one.
We are very grateful to Reverend Deacon Robert Wellbelove and his colleagues for organising our visit and for giving up their time to host us. It was truly a fascinating and enlightening experience, and we were all inspired and moved by their dedication to their vocation. We committed to keeping them in our prayers and for acting as witnesses to the harsh realities they face – often invisibly.