Thursday, March 8, 2012

Security v Opportunity

Talking to a fellow lifer, I was astonished by his perception of his forthcoming release. He wasn't particularly interested. Prison supplied him with a guaranteed roof and food whereas in the cold world of the outside community nothing was guaranteed.
True. There are limits as to how far it is possible to fall in prison. Even in the cages, even in the deepest strongbox, a mattress and food is available. And whilst I understood this man’s worries I was disturbed by his failure to fully appreciate the situation and the comparison.
What he was overlooking was that while prison always provided the basics, a safety net of sorts, by definition prison also limits how far you can improve your life. Prison exchanges the uncertainty of economic life for certainty, but that certainty is that you will be forever condemned to living a life of struggle and near poverty. In return for the guaranteed bed and board, you are also guaranteed to be denied any opportunity to advance in life.

This is, for me at least, an appalling trade-off. And this man's views were not necessarily reflective of the reality. On release he will be in a probation hostel and able to access a full range of state support. And whilst living on state benefits isn't going to be a rollercoaster of delights, it is better than a prison existence.
For whilst outside it is possible to fall into the gutter, there are also an infinite number of possibilities to improve life; none of which exist in prison.
None of us knows what our future life holds but there is one truth that must always be remembered. That prison may offer more certainty than the community, but part of that certainty is lifelong deprivation. And in the community, it is possible to rise so much higher.
I suppose the view of this depends on mindset. If a lifer believes that he is able and willing to explore and exploit the opportunities available in the community then leaving the constraining certainty of prison will be a relief. If, though, you believe that the only way is down on release, then the uncomfortable certainties of imprisonment must look more attractive.
Outside, we can fall further but also rise so much higher - it is laden with potential for Good or Bad. The essence of imprisonment, in contrast, is a profound stagnation.
God save us all from forgetting that.


  1. obviously true about prison, but maybe not so true when it comes to life outside (unless about 18, with it all to play for).

    Out here, folks are limited by circumstance less obvious than presence of locks and barred gates.

    To the extent that it’s an attitude of mind only ---then do stay positive. Positive is good.

  2. Some people strive for improvement, some for the comfort and safety of the routines they know. I think you (Ben) have always railed against the idea of institutionalisation because you have never felt it, but that is because you fall firmly into the former camp. Some people don't and the person you are describing is one such.

    That's where rehabilitation is so difficult, because one size doesn't fit all. Any working rehabilitative system has to be able to boost the confidence and encourage the growth of those who need such support whilst giving people such as yourself the freedom to reach your full potential. It's a toughie and I don't envy those tasked with doing it.

  3. Maybe if you'd like to grow a vegetable garden when you get out, then that's an opportunity that opens up.

    The problem is just as you say, it's a matter of exploiting opportunity. Opportunity being other people - it's not like new continents full of lush natural resources to exploit are opening up. The only thing left to exploit are other people.

    Just don't buy so much into the whole 'anyone can make it if you just believe in yourself' thing the system likes to put around. It's like a casino - not everyone can win/make it in a casino. It takes alot of losers to make one winner. This society likes to dangle winning like a carrot, but neglects to state this fact.

  4. "A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships." - Helen Keller