“Your situation leaves me no option but to sentence you to life imprisonment…” They were the last words that I heard before being taken down to the cells to await transport to prison. What I did not hear was the Judge go on to explain what he meant by that, and today, some 26 years later, I am pleased that I do not know what he said.
For me this really was the best thing that could have happened at that time. I was in such a mess physically, emotionally and spiritually. Imprisonment was not a punishment even though it took me away from my employment, my training and my friends. It took me out of my comfort zone even though life had become uncomfortable for me, and more so for the victims of my offending, but it gave me so much more.
The images I have used at the start of this piece are dark, and I chose them on purpose. This is, after all, what many think that prison is like. I can empathise a bit, after all, it is what I thought that I would be going to. But the reality is so much different from that; and I am aware that this is not the case for all my friends and former peers in prison.
I was sentenced to life imprisonment, but what His Honour Judge Sheerin did not know at that time was that he was giving me a life worth living. He was giving me time and space to find the ‘real me’, and not the ‘new me’ as Her Majesty’s Prison’s Offending Behaviour Programmes like to call it. Prison was not a re-invention of the old Mark Humphries, it was an uncovering of the person that had been in hiding since early childhood.
I do not blame my parents, my up-bringing or my ‘learning history’ for my actions even though they all played a part. I was the person that put a rolled up, lighted newspaper through the letterbox of an unknown (to me) person. I was the person that set fire to numerous other properties in the area, and I was the person that caused mayhem, panic and confusion for many – including the emergency services. And I am sure that when I handed myself into custody at Parkside Police Station in Cambridge there was more than one sigh of relief.
Our ‘learning history’ is not solely based on our education. It is the way that we live, move and have our being in society; in the community that we were raised in. Prior to prison I did not realise how much of an impact this had on my life; and it has on all our lives. ‘Learning history’ is the term used to describe the relationship that we, as individuals have with each aspect of our life. It lists our parents, and what our home-life was like. It discusses our extended family; Did we have contact with them? What were their influences on us? Who did we associate with? What were our friends like? It does list our education, and how well (or not) we coped with, and got on at school.
Looking at myself from this perspective was new. I thought of myself as an island in a mass of other islands. I was small and insignificant as a person, and what I did (criminal or not) did not matter. The spotlight of offending behaviour work in custody changed that. Not only did it show me as Mark Humphries the individual, it showed me as part of something much bigger; and it went on to say that my ripple of behaviour (good or bad) has an effect around those that I am connected with, and those that are connected with my connects and so on.
Self-realisation and self-reflection caused me to change who I was and the way that I saw myself. I was part of a community (a collection of people with a common unity); I had a worth and a valuable input into those around me. In prison this became deeper when I started to write.
Writing started off being cathartic; and I would use it as a person therapy. It is where I learned poetry and other forms of this life-giving craft. When I then found that I could write openly about me, and my experiences I found that healing was taking place. Then I found that I had a voice in getting my work published.
That changed the way that I saw myself. I was no longer a prisoner that could write; I was a writer in prison. This is important because it showed me in the ‘real me’ light that I needed to see myself. I was able to share and then my words were having positive effects on the community.
I then started to study, firstly a course with the Writers Bureau, and now, English Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. Who knew that I enjoyed studying? My educational record would not have shown this. Who would have thought that I would go on to teach Creative Writing? Not me. I have writing a course that introduces prisoners to this craft, and that is available via the in-cell learning channel Way2Learn.
I hope you can now appreciate why I say that getting a life sentence was the greatest day of my life. This isn’t going to be the same for everyone, and there will be those that enter the custodial system with no desire to change. I have met them, and have met those that come out of prison and still offend. I guess that is always going to be, but it doesn’t have to be THE way things are.
I hope that my blog has given you some food for thought. Prison is a negative place, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.