Written by Alex Baldock, counsellor at HMP X.
What is so rewarding about working in a prison?
The short answer is the idea of helping people. But this can be ascribed to any other environment. Helping people in prison perhaps feeds into a basic childhood idea of cops and robbers, of good and bad. That being in prison is a thing, perhaps the one thing to be feared and to be avoided because of its negative connotations. So being in a prison can feel as though it is helping those who need help to right their wrongs.
This can unfortunately, be regarded as oh-so-worthy and patronising. “I’m here to help you because I’m not in prison and you are, therefore you need my help”. There is a selfish element to helping people in any context, doing the good deed, from which we can give ourselves a literal or metaphorical pat on the back.
But, as much as both of those reasons might wander around our thoughts, they perhaps don’t form the structure of why we work here and what we get from it.
That, for me, comes from recognising human beings who have their own challenges, trying to make sense of them in a challenging environment which often doesn’t offer the opportunity to talk and be heard; which doesn’t always provide space for what prisoners describe as a normal conversation, which can seem to give little in the way of encouragement or opportunity to change or grow. There is a tense mix of machismo and vulnerability in prison and not just from those who reside here, and navigating it is a daily exercise in personal security, physical and emotional.
So, the reward comes from helping, yes but also the feeling, the hope, that for one hour, in the eye of a storm, that person has the chance to just be themselves.