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April 30, 2007

Writer-in-residence Emily Kingham is made to endure Diversity Training - and realises that it is middle-class intellectuals who are discriminated against in prisons

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham shares her experiences of Diversity Training.

I was in a Diversity Training workshop last week - two and a half hours of government-funded time during which 12 teachers and one officer were told the meaning of the words "stereotype", "prejudice" and "discrimination". I pointed out that "discrimination" also means "discernment", but this went unheeded. Another participant pointed out that tolerance was needed when dealing with "differences". This was frowned upon by our instructor, the Head of Diversity, who said "tolerance" was not something the Prison Service recommended when dealing with the issue of "diversity".

Why not, I asked. Surely, tolerance is the cornerstone of any civilisation. Apparently not. The government has done away with tolerance. Now, they have decided, we have to "learn" about different cultures, not merely tolerate them. One of the more feisty teachers got out her trusty OED and read out the definition of the word "tolerance". I only have the concise version to hand but one of the definitions is:

allowing of differences in religious opinion without discrimination.
While the poor old Head of Diversity was tying herself up in verbal knots I looked around the room.

I was struck by the fact that most of the people in that room were obese women. One of these women was complaining about the fact that she was often discriminated against on account of her size. Another joined in the lament. This may sound irrelevant (a word, by the way, the Head of Diversity could not spell) but I have developed a theory about stress on the back of my observation.

Over the past 18 months there have been several sackings, or "disappearances" from the Education Department. Two Heads of Education and an "Independent Living" teacher were escorted from the establishment with no warning and no explanation. All three were slim, quiet men. This has led me to believe that only the fat survive. The surviving men, by the way, are on the plump side, and, significantly, they are verbose.

Prison, as I have said many times before, is a high-stress environment, and anxiety levels run high. If over-eating is your way of dealing with anxiety then you will not be prone to the strategies that, in this context, are fatal to your performance. The men who were "disappeared" allowed their anxiety to eat away at them. The result was they became withdrawn, and visibly alienated. Women (and men) who are large are used to being insecure in a society that places so much emphasis on appearances. They have developed a strategy which means we have to take notice of them, and they have to take up space: their weight. They are able, not only to soak up the pressure, but to talk about it as well. Perhaps this last point is the most telling.

Talking is the best way to alleviate anxiety, and my God, can these women, and a few of the men, talk. It's how they have learnt to survive. It's how they make their presence felt - not through attractiveness, intelligence or other indicators of quality - but sheer force of personality and physical weight. I like these women, I have to say. They are comfortable, reassuring and soft of heart. They are also intelligent and I think they look great, even if they don't. So I am not being prejudiced, I promise.

Back to the Head of Diversity. She is an extremely likeable woman which is just as well because her job makes a nonsense of the mix of peoples, languages and cultures that makes our country so vibrant and that puts it on the cutting edge. We're no stick in the muds, us Britishers. We're constantly growing. She is a lively, friendly black woman, and her friendliness is very welcome in an establishment where Heads of Department are remote and down at mouth. But her intransigence in "delivering" Diversity risks causing a backlash. It is not enough to say that the bureaucrats who tell us how to behave have lost their sense of humour - they have also forgotten who we are. We are a people who like to laugh at ourselves. We do not take ourselves entirely seriously.

I had to pass the latest issue of the prison magazine through the Head of Diversity who censored the following jokes:

How do you kill an entire circus?
Go for the juggler.

Who was the first person to sail single-handed around the world?
Captain Hook.

Did you hear about the dyslexic alcoholic?
He swallowed his own Vimto.

The excision of the last two I can sympathise with. Dyslexia is a major issue in prisons, so we have to be sensitive. The Captain Hook reference, I suppose, is making light of disabilities, but I think she over-reacted. The first joke, however, offends no one. On reflection - and I have puzzled over this one - I think the word "jugular" conjured up images of suicide attempts in her mind, hence the joke's deemed unsuitability. It might offend the suicidal.

Prisoners are notorious for their gallows humour - laughter is the last line of defence in an environment where the odds are stacked against you. I think, in a way, they have been denied their voice. Some would argue they don't deserve to have one. (I think the governors of my prison would be amongst them.) This brings me to my own experience of prejudice. Religion, obesity and gender were raised at our workshop, but not class or education.

Prisons are staffed, so the current wisdom goes, by men and women who are too "thick" (their word, not mine) to enter the police force. Prisoners (who on the whole are extremely intelligent) say so, but so do officers. On the whole, I must admit, they do not come across as particularly enlightened, educated or intellectually curious. They are very set in their ways, parochial, and can be narrow-minded. They enjoy the structure of military-style discipline, of not thinking for themselves. This is not to say that there are not some officers who are dynamic, sensitive and thoughtful. But they are definitely in the minority, and quite often are made to feel so.

Furthermore, the civilian staff who are employed in prisons vary wildly in the quality of the service they offer. The psychology department, for instance, is staffed exclusively by trainees. The Head of Psychology is interested only in delivering courses that fall safely within a certain remit: Enhanced Thinking Skills being one of them. It is not challenging stuff. The prisoners are well aware that they are dealing with people out of their depth. They go through the motions of attending these courses, and saying the right things, in order to fulfil the conditions of their sentences.

I suppose the poor quality of staff is caused by the lack of government funding. Poor pay will attract poor candidates. Prisoners are not vote-winners for any government so money will not be directed at them. I do feel that my standards of professionalism - good grammar, inventive use of language, articulacy, satirical humour (well dodgy, that one) are deeply threatening to the prison regime. I feel I am being discriminated against on the basis that I am articulate, perceptive and relatively well-educated (I've got a degree). The Head of Learning and Skills, who is my "line manager", (hateful jargon) is poorly educated. Her spelling is appalling; her mindset is provincial. She is concerned with meeting targets and covering her back. This would not be a problem if she merely tolerated the fact that I am different. But no matter how powerful she is within the prison system - she is Governor Number Three, she resents me. She sees me as "posh", she worries that I am more intelligent than her. This must be making her feel insecure. I cannot blame her for resenting my indifference to bureaucratic niceties. When I attend meetings, I do not employ the jargon. But what did she expect from a writer-in-residence? Perhaps, in this prison, there is no room for someone who "thinks out of the box" - my God, this language is contagious.

When the Head of Diversity asked us to give personal examples of stereotype and prejudice, I held my tongue. It would not be politic to challenge a representative of the prison system. But as a middle-class intellectual (this is what I am in their eyes), I am subject to discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. I can't help feeling I'd be treated with more respect if I wore a veil. At least then they could "tick a box".

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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We have been rendered supine by the guiltmongers. But this institutional hypersensitivity does in practice slow down or even reverse the acceptance of minorities in our society.

By the way, maybe the Captain Hook joke was cancelled for fear of upsetting the followers of Abu Hamster.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 1, 2007 09:30 AM
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