Today the Growth Project reflected on some of the most powerful events that have taken place at Guys Marsh over the past 2 years and concluded that the loss exhibition remains one of the most significant experiences at the prison during this time of reform. After the head of department at Weston College experienced sudden loss in his family, his team around him wanted to do something meaningful. It started small. With men and staff invited to submit a 6 word story, artwork or a short story about loss. These were collected and judged by the wonderful Peter Stanford and a lady who works in the prison, and a presentation of the work was displayed in the prison library.
By the time of the exhibition there were over a hundred submissions, all prepared delicately and respectfully by members of education.
On the day I remember walking into the packed chapel, not knowing what to expect. The energy was different from the start, with more chatter than usual and a feeling that I can only describe as anticipation. One moment stood out for me during this emotive event; an incredibly personal speech by Dan Skelton (Head of Education) about loss. But it was not just about loss, it was about the importance of coupling pain with opportunity. It was about re-connection and emotion and ultimately about love.
As I felt the emotion fill the room, the silent respect as we all listened attentively was palpable. The beautifully raw and honest account created an atmosphere which was consumed by a shared feeling of sadness and loss on one hand, and the activation of growth, insight and learning on the other. The moment when the speech ceased, we were no longer a group of “prisoners” and staff but a collective group of people, who were connected by experience. As tears ran down my face, the humanity and vulnerability of us as a group, was powerful.
The exhibition added to this atmosphere with pensive faces, comforting smiles and the occasional embrace. As a group of individuals we grew as a whole that day- reminiscing and sharing painful stories and reflecting on the words and images that were submitted to the exhibition. I learnt that day that it is not only the virtues of hope and passion which shift prison climates but the need to share, understand and accept those difficult emotions that hurt, and draw strength in each other to reveal new opportunities.
I also learnt that education in prison needs to be more than enforcing education on people to tick boxes. Engaging people, stimulating their minds, breaking down preconceived barriers that residents may have, seeing them as individuals and understanding and embracing their differences are all fundamental. I am struck by the Education department at Guys Marsh; struck by their ability to responsively embrace different cultures, backgrounds and learning styles and make education meaningful, real and positive for those that enter. The staff strive for more every month, they are brave, possess real courage and embrace learning together as a team. Their passion and attitude towards education is designed into the fabric of their everyday practice. I genuinely love them and their love for the residents. This is what we need, this contributes to growth.