If there is one thing that everybody thinks they know about
prisons, it is that there is a social system with sex offenders at the bottom. Child molesters are, it is said, the lowest of the low.
This stratification by crime has always made me slightly uncomfortable. I killed someone, who am I to point a finger at another? The air of self-righteousness that comes with this social structure is all a bit much, as if the fact that there are ‘worse’ crimes somehow reduces the culpability of the ‘clean’ crimes and criminals. There is also a strong thread of hypocrisy, in that sex offenders capable of great violence, or with a ready supply of drugs, are miraculously transformed into being one of the lads. Beating people up is only fun if it carries minimal risks of retaliation.
Sex offenders are usually separated from the 'normals' in Vulnerable Prisoner Units, wings which are kept firmly locked against the rest of us. Recent years, though, have seen some shifts in this pattern.
There are now prisons which are 'mixed', with sex offenders and 'normals' living side by side. As a general proposition,this seems to work reasonably well and without the apartheid you would expect.
This prison is one such place. Being all lifers, then a high level of stability and social coherence can be expected. As this place runs the Sex Offender Treatment Programme, then a high proportion of dubious cases find themselves here.
This has interesting consequences. I have bumped into acquaintances that I first met many years ago and whose offence I thought was 'normal' (as murders go). But here, with the prevailing attitude of 'live and let live', some of these old acquaintances have let bit of biography slip. One of my oldest mates turns out not to be a straightforward murderer at all; he first brutally raped his victim.
This did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but I made no other reaction and the revelation has never been referred to since. It made no difference to the way that I perceived this man.
Criminals are easy to despise, so long as we are stereotypes splashed across the pages of the tabloids. Sound-bite analysis obscures the reality. We are people, just like you. It is far easier to hate a one-dimensional media creation; it is far harder to hate a real person, someone you have known for years, who you then discover has a shady past. My mate’s revelation added to what I knew of him but it did not overshadow everything else. As someone once wrote about a notorious killer, he was also
"somebody's husband, somebody's son".