Prison portraits and what isolation can teach us about compassion
Imagine lockdown living in a really tiny room. Imagine lockdown without being allowed to leave the house at all. Imagine lockdown without your phone or the internet in fact. Imagine spending lockdown with people you haven't chosen, or trust particularly much. And now imagine lockdown lasting for five years... or more. Wowsers... sounds kinda crazy, doesn't it? And yet, that's the reality of millions of prisoners around the world. Let's just sit with that for a moment. Before jumping to the argument that they probably did something to deserve it. Let's leave that aside for one moment and just truly imagine the scenario described. I think now, much more than ever, are we all able to touch the realm of understanding what it must feel like and what it must do with a person's mind to go through those extreme forms of isolation. And we haven't even mentioned solitary confinement, arbitrariness of wardens, insufficient medical care and so much more that play into the experience of being imprisoned. So let's talk about it for a moment.
Volkert: 'When you hear you are supposed to spend 13 years behind bars, there comes a point where you wonder whether it's worth continuing to live.'
It seems difficult these days to talk to people about anything else but Covid, lockdown and how everyone is so over their own company. But besides all the obvious tragedies and the sense of crisis that we all feel, I truly believe there are some very valuable things to be learnt through this experience. If we choose not to numb our minds with an endless stream of online entertainment we might actually find that in every crisis, no matter how invisible it may seem at the time, there is also concealed a deeper good. And the beautiful flip side of this pandemic is all the compassion and love that I see. Friends helping each other, families looking out for each other, but most importantly and that's the true seed of grace in this, is that strangers are showing compassion towards each other. Making sure their neighbours are ok, volunteering to shop for elderly in the community... this is beautiful! This is how it should be. Why is it that it always takes a crisis for us to be compassionate and acknowledge that we are all one? However, I want to push and test those boundaries of compassion even further in trying this little mental exercise: How about we would also apply this level of compassion, not only to the sweet grandmother next door or the stranger writing in the same Facebook group you're in? How about we try and see that people who are in prison are people, too. People who also deserve to be seen and treated as such. We are all one, we are all connected. Am I saying that breaking the law or causing harm to others should go without any form of correction or so called punishment? Of course not. But I am just asking for a more human treatment in institutions like prisons. After all, they were once installed to help people integrate into society better when they served their sentence. It's called rehabilitation after all. For a reason. But ever so often people live with the stigma 'criminal' all their lives. After being released and even inside of the prisons. Let's not make people worse through prison, that is the most counterproductive outcome we could get. Let's remember we all make mistakes and if we all practise compassion and forgiveness a bit more, then we could all benefit from that immensely.
This week I have been thinking a lot about a project I have worked on several years ago - the 16 Bars Project. It was a portrait and interviews series I did with prisoners and ex-prisoners in Germany. I met so many people from so many different walks of life and if I have learnt one thing working on this project, it was that there is no one answer to all those big questions around the penal system and its purpose. Just as little as there is one answer to the debate about good or bad, fair or unfair and right or wrong. As complex as those matters are, as complex need to be their answers. I uploaded a video today from the series 'Voices of Life' that was a part of the 16 Bars Project and it tells Esther’s story. She is from Nigeria who was tricked into coming to Europe with the promise of a job at a very young age. When most of us go to school Esther found herself in a modern slavery set up of enforced prostitution. She managed to run away and escape the harrowing experience and fled to Germany. With her mother being very ill back home, Esther took one too many risks in desperation to pay her mother's medical bills. Was it good or right of Esther to smuggle drugs? Probably not, but I am hoping that her story might make you think, the way it made me think. Often enough our actions are shaped by our circumstances. They are not always right but the most important thing is that we learn from them. And critical thinking is also a gift or I should say a skill that those who are lucky enough to enjoy a well rounded education, have been awarded with. Let's not take anything for granted and let's be compassionate with each other.
Stay safe and much love.