Posted 1 year ago by John

“Chit-chat, a bit of banter – that’s mostly what you get in prison. Deep conversations rarely happen, either because people are afraid to share what they really feel or because they don’t know how to.”
I’ve been working in HMP Dumfries for the past six years, facilitating a mixture of creative writing, creative reading, COPI (Community of Philosophical Inquiry) and currently, Open Book sessions. I’ve worked with both long- and short-term prisoners – men of all ages and with diverse backgrounds and levels of education. Conversation – from the sublime to the ridiculous – has helped us relax and engage with unfamiliar ideas and ways of thinking. 
“Conversation is important regardless of the seriousness. Someone can hold a really daft conversation, talk about totally banal and boring things, but in fact it’s important to the person speaking; it’s meaningful to them. In a way, one man’s drivel is another man’s gold. Seemingly meaningless conversations can help with loneliness and fear – at least you’re sharing your experience.”
It’s the quality of conversation that matters. That doesn’t mean how much factual knowledge or philosophical insight a person might bring; what matters is how much a person is able to allow and challenge – in equal measure – the views of others; and how prepared they are to listen as much as, if not more than they speak. That’s been as true for me as for the prisoners. 
“It’s difficult in here because often a conversation has a hidden agenda. When you first come in, people fish for information about you; they’re not interested in who you really are, and you have to be canny about what you share. Other times, people talk to you about football, but in fact they want to talk about their kids or the missus. Their body language tells you that they actually want to talk about something other than what they’re saying. You can tell. You can read it easily, after you’ve been here a while.”
Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had, have been with prisoners; not because they’ve shared some great philosophical or poetic truth with me (although sometimes they have), but because what they’ve said has made me pause for thought and question my own beliefs and stories. Conversation in HMP Dumfries has shoogled me free of my middle-class, academic thinking, and invited me to see the world from a hundred different perspectives, not just once, but week after week after week. It’s led me to cross out a lot of my own conclusions about human nature and replace them with question marks.
“Being in here you sometimes have to switch off because the conversation is mind-numbingly boring and repetitive – God, it’s so repetitive! – and you do get people who just want to talk for the sake of talking, who often don’t know how to take a turn listening. But you learn a lot of patience. You have to.”
We’ve talked a lot. Over 50% of any teaching time is taken up with talking. It feels important for so many reasons, not least because conversation is a way of connecting and of normalising a situation. But it’s also about getting the measure of each another: Who are we? What are we looking for in this experience? And, above all else, can we be honest with one another in a way that leads to mutual trust and respect?  
“Conversation inside can be really restrictive because there are people here with mental health issues and literacy problems, which obviously affects how they communicate. You have to seek out specific people for specific conversations. You do that on the outside too, of course, but it’s heightened in here because the pool of people is smaller. There’s a tendency for prisoners to be thought of as stupid, as though we leave our IQ at the gate on the first day of incarceration. But that’s not true, of course.”
Co-written by Em Strang & prisoners at HMP Dumfries
Em Strang was a recipient of a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award in 2013. Her first collection, Bird Woman, won the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award in 2017.

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