Friday, 18 July 2014

What I learned from... Nelson Mandela

In an earlier post on this blog I mentioned the impact that Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom has had on many prisoners. A well-thumbed copy has been in every prison library I’ve used. Usually it’s to be found in the Biography and Autobiography section, but occasionally I’ve discovered it on the True Crime shelves. I’m not sure what that says about the politics of the librarians…

A book every prisoner should read
On what would have been his 96th birthday, I thought it would be worth reviewing some notes I made when I re-read Long Walk to Freedom in my first prison. The book was published in 1995, five years after he had been released after 27 years in prison and the year after he had been elected as President of South Africa. I had read it previously, but much of it was just an interesting historical memoir, without much direct relevance to my own life.

However, on re-reading the book as a prisoner, I found Mandela’s reflections on prison life – and more specifically on the psychology of incarceration – both fascinating and personally useful. One of the passages in the book struck me so forcefully that I remember copying it out in pen on a prison envelope and pinning it on the notice-board above my bunk. It was this: “There is no prospect about prison which pleases – with the possible exception of one. One has time to think.”

And that is very true. Time spent in prison is only truly wasted if one doesn’t use the opportunity to reflect on one’s own life and what may have gone wrong.

Another paragraph of Mandela’s book would strike a chord with any inmate. “Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it, so that months and years blend into each other. Anything that departs from this pattern upsets the authorities, for routine is the sign of a well-run prison.”

Looking back on my own time behind bars – a much, much shorter period than the decades Mandela spent in prison - I’m very glad that I kept a daily diary, even if many of the entries are almost identical. The most common sentence in my own daily notes is: “work as usual.” However, it is precisely because there is a danger of each day blending into all the others that it’s healthy to write every day; it’s a good form of mental discipline and enables you to keep a sense of time and proportion. Looking back through the pages now, I can precisely date each major event: transfers between prisons; meetings; adjudications; time spent down the Block; suicides on the wings. It’s all in there.

Mandela is also spot on when it comes to his advice on how to cope with the rigors of imprisonment. “To survive in prison, one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life. The same pride one takes in more consequential tasks outside prison one can find in doing small things inside prison,” he wrote. That is also incredibly useful advice for any prisoner. For me, achieving small things, such as spending 20 minutes each day helping a fellow inmate learn to read was time very well spent. I derived enormous personal satisfaction from this activity and from doing it well. It also meant that I could feel my period of incarceration wasn’t wasted.

I also felt that my work as an Insider – advising other prisoners, giving them support to fill in forms or compose applications – had a value. I think that people who have never been inside a prison would actually be quite surprised just how helpful other inmates can be and how willing many of them are to support fellow cons. If there is one place that I can safely say altruism isn’t dead, it’s in the nick.

Obviously, Mandela’s spirit was sustained by his belief in his political cause. He experienced cruelty and hard labour during the course of his sentence that would be unthinkable in a modern British prison. However, there are strands that are common to any lengthy period of imprisonment.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela provides his assessment of the actual purpose behind incarceration: “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality - all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are.”

Under Chris Grayling and his team the current climate of penology in the UK appears to have swung firmly away from any real pretence of reform and rehabilitation. Forcing prisoners back into dingy, dirty, ill-fitting prison clothing is all about humiliation and de-personalisation. Placing restrictions on personal property, removing privileges at the stroke of a pen, pressuring prisoners maintaining innocence to make false confessions. Mandela would have surely recognised the parallels with his own experience.
Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island

As he observed: “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs. The first task in accomplishing that is learning exactly what one must do to survive.” And that should be the primary objective for each inmate; how to retain one’s own essential humanity in what can be a very inhumane environment.

There is no easy answer, but Mandela assists us by formulating the question that we all must ask of ourselves: will I remain true to myself and live through imprisonment with integrity and dignity? If I am stripped – literally – of everything that once made me an individual, how can I still maintain my identity and self-worth? Some inmates do meet these challenges and they emerge stronger from the experience. Perhaps not unscarred, but with their humanity intact.

Imprisonment does change people, and not always for the better. Mandela recognised this: “Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character. Some men, under the pressure of incarceration, showed true mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than what they had appeared to be.” I also adopted this sentiment for myself and pinned it up on the notice board for all – screw and con alike – to read. It provoked many lively debates, but the universal truth of it was widely acknowledged.

Through his book, Mandela – an extraordinary man whom I never met – gave me an enormous amount of cause for reflection and self-examination. I hope that I managed, in my own way, to live up to the high standards he set for himself. I will always be very grateful for the gift he gave me through his writing. So today, on his 96th birthday, I just wanted to say: “Thank you, Madiba – for everything.”

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