I sit in the training room, waiting to receive my necessary key talk with two trainee officers on my right, and two trainee OSG’s to my left. One of the newbie officers is almost falling asleep and the others look mildly bored. The security officer who enters is an amiable and measured man, keen on lightening the mood with some banter here and there and his relaxed attitude permeates the environment, putting us all at ease. I am glad of this due to the anxiety I have built up around having keys, still undecided about whether an ex-prisoner having keys is a wise move, especially given the importance some researchers place upon their impact on prisoners. I decided that it would make for an interesting new chapter and that my access to the prison and prisoners depended on it. A round of brief introductions leads me to explain that I am the managing director of a social enterprise working within the prison to support prisoners away from crime and into work. This news is met with a couple of sniggers and a ‘good luck with that one’ from another senior officer. When one of the trainee officers speaks of his responsibilities within his former role as a phone shop salesman, the security officer likens his role to that of a prison officer, and the transferable skills available whether counting prisoners as stock which need to be regularly counted and managed, or phones. This language bothers me, not least because it hints at the distance between my role as an ex-prisoner and facilitator of rehabilitation, and the others’ roles as custodians of prisoners. There is clearly a gulf of difference between the two. Once the key talk is finished, we are told that we can collect our keys as and when and we were good to go.
I turned up at my next visit feeling slightly unprepared and apprehensive at the thought of holding the keys to a prison and the burden of responsibility this necessary progression bore. I remembered the feelings I had about others wielding keys and how claustrophobic that had made me feel as a prisoner, how powerless I had been, reliant on another human to lock and unlock me at every single door, for 365 days a year… Now I carried the symbol of that same power, but did I want it? Would the other prisoners see me as different to them now that I had the keys to their freedom attached to my waist? After I made my way down to the industries department, I had my first appointment with a new participant. We engaged well, and as he got up to leave our meeting, I asked him whether he felt my having keys could be viewed as a negative thing as an ex-prisoner – did it make me feel more like ‘them’ and less like him, a younger, black and male prisoner? “Nah” he said, “it’s a good thing, that they trust you and give you the keys, it shows how far you’ve come and it’s good for us to see that”.
As I was leaving the prison that day, I was chatting away to a couple of the officers I knew well, and as we approached the gate, the alarms started to go off. I had forgotten to take my keys off and had breached security. My anxiety climaxed, and the guilt and pressure I had been focussing on manifested in this mistake. Prison keys 1, Marie-Claire 0.