Locked Up: Communicating Science in a Prison

This week I’ve ticked something off my bucket list; working at a prison. Well, to tell the truth it was never on my bucket list, but I wish it had been! “Why were you working in a prison?” I hear you cry! Part of my job in the curious crew at the science centre in Bristol is taking a huge cube around all of the different postcodes in Bristol and the Prison was part of this programme to collect questions that people in the community are curious about.

Even though I jumped at the chance to work in a prison, I was incredibly nervous before my first shift. I’ve never been to prison before, let alone an adult male prison and our briefing e-mail contained some very strict rules that we had to adhere to; no food or drink, no mobile phones and no keys featured on the list. Despite these clues, I still had no idea what to expect!

When we got there, I tried to hold my nerve while giving my ID and handing over my bag. Stepping into the airlock, the door was painfully slow but on the other side was a smiling member of staff excited to see us and ready to start the day’s sessions.

After a series of locking and unlocking various doors, we reached the room and got ready to welcome the first group of prisoners. They waltzed in, exclaimed at the cube and we were soon deep in conversation about so many ideas and thoughts that they had, and curious questions were being thrown everywhere!

The session ended too quickly, and I had a buzz from talking to such a lively group of people. One thing that I noticed with the sessions was that while I was talking to people about their ideas and what they were interested in, it didn’t matter what their crimes were; they were just people with all of the individuals that I talked to being lovely. Some were so lovely that I often wondered how they had come to be in prison. The rest of the day panned out much the same with a mix of groups who were bright and bubbly and some that were quieter and more subdued. Overall, I couldn’t wait until my next shift!

The next time I visited the prison I was treated to a tour. This really brought home to me the realities of prison life. An incredibly small cell housed 2 men and was kitted out with a bunk bed, sink and toilet with only a single curtain for privacy! The buildings were your typical prison layout you see in movies like Shawshank redemption. I also got to see where some of the prisoners worked and collaborated with companies to make all sorts of things from reed diffusers to cat litter trays! The whole thing was bizzare; a small, lost community of people that often get forgotten about by the rest of the world even though they need the most attention!

It really inspired me to work with prisoners more and luckily the science centre is setting up a permanent tie with the prison and there are plans to bring some of the education workshops to the prisoners so that they can benefit from them too.

What I was most surprised at was my ability to look past the crime and at the person, we were made aware of the types of crimes that the men had committed but this didn’t make a difference to me in the way that I talked to them. Maybe I enjoyed it so much because it was so different and because I was managing to reach out to people that I never thought I could reach out and communicate with!

I’m aware that talking to prisoners is not in everyone’s interests because it’s sometimes hard to get past the fact that these people have done something wrong. I’m aware that working in a prison full time is a world away from working there 2 days; I’ve seen the good side of the prisoners and come into contact with the chatty, friendly people. I’ve not had to encounter the other side when they are angry and upset but I can imagine it would be something I would struggle with initially. I also know that going in a women’s prison would be a whole different kettle of fish and I hope that one day I’ll get the chance to encounter this along with young offenders.

Finally, it’s important to remember these lost people and realising the potential they have to make a difference if they are given a chance, support and the tools to do so.

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