MA Criminology student Sally Browne gave her take on the annual student debate at HMP Grendon.
HMP Grendon is the only prison in Europe that functions as a fully therapeutic community. Our very own Emeritus Professor, David Wilson, was once governor at Grendon and continues to maintain close links with the establishment. Given such a relationship, Birmingham City University holds an annual debate between students and residents. This is the trip I attended on 10 March 2020.
All students travelled to HMP Grendon, Buckinghamshire in the morning and arrived around 10am. We were all searched upon entry and moved from the entrance to conference hall in small manageable groups. The exterior boasted multiple security walls, all extremely high and finished off with barbed wire, exactly what you would expect of a Category B prison. This juxtaposed the friendly and relaxed attitude of staff, who wished to make us as comfortable as possible.
Moving from security gate to security gate, the environment became less intimidating, there were gardens, outdoor seating and inviting landscapes. The conference centre was similar to a community hall, with a small platform for speakers and row upon row of seats for residents and students. We were offered tea, coffee and a biscuit whilst we waited for the residents to arrive.
Now, I am sure you noticed how the incarcerated men are referred to as ‘residents’ rather than ‘inmates’ or ‘prisoners’. This is mainly due to a desire to humanise every man in the therapeutic prison.
The wait for the residents was a nervous one, as I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, when they arrived, they were all extremely enthusiastic to speak to us. After picking up their teas, coffees or waters they all sat down to have a chat with us. All of those I had interacted with were a pleasure to talk to, all approachable and even a good laugh. We spoke about where our university was, what we study and the upcoming debate. My apprehension of sharing a room with ‘dangerous criminals’ was completely quelled, and I felt at ease.
Before long we were informed that the debate will begin. It started with introductions, the debating topic and opening speeches. ‘In order to move forward, we must forget our past’ was the topic; students arguing for and residents arguing against. Having studied with one of our student speakers, I was sure that we had a strong case and an excellent advocate for our argument. Nevertheless, I was dumbfounded by how much preparation the residents had done, their speeches were just exemplarily. The media often paint the incarcerated as uneducated, unmotivated and, frankly, lazy criminals. This was not the first time my naivety and ignorance were challenged during the course of the visit.
The debate went to and fro, with some critical defences from both sides. This was then opened up to the audience, for them to make comments in support or to dispute any points made. Afterwards, we were given a break for lunch, which was provided and served by residents. During this time, we were able to mingle with one another. Michael was extremely friendly and had a very funny and easy-going personality. We spoke about general life at university, our future careers and what we thought about Grendon before the conversation transcended onto offending.
I was shocked when Michael and his friend, Peter, told me that they were convicted of murder and are serving life sentences with a minimum of 20 and 15 years respectively. My previous preconceptions of murderers were obliterated; I instinctively thought of unremorseful, violent and nasty individuals who lack social skills, decent conversation or positive personality traits. Michael and Peter were none of those things when interacting with me. I really enjoyed their company and admired their honesty. They explained the mistakes they’d made, the remorse they felt, the changes they want to make and what they have planned in their future, all in tone of complete sincerity with no self-pity.
Grendon instils and develops such skills in an effort to rehabilitate, using methods such as art, drama and group therapy. Now, this isn’t an easy task for the residents. They must delve into the deepest and most painful memories of their past, their offence and the impacts of their crimes in order to understand their emotions and patterns of toxic behaviour. The therapy is heavy going, especially drama therapy.
Using Peter as an example, he would have to place himself in the shoes of his victim’s family when they were informed of his loss and act it out. He would play the father or mother, opening the door to find officers there and act out the reaction they would have felt having heard of their son or daughter’s death. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain, guilt and distress that would raise for Peter, however this is victim centred and done with the aim of showing the impact of such actions in order for individuals to consider such factors when making both small and serious decisions.
Likewise, group therapy can be painful when hearing of the offences committed by others. Michael and Peter both said they find group therapy a difficult feat. They are surrounded by people who have committed murder, child abuse, substance abuse and rape, all of which invoke a different emotional response.
The intensive and painful nature of therapy at HMP Grendon is forewarned to all applicants, as all residents must apply and wait to be accepted to Grendon. It is a choice made on a desire to change, heal and stop reoffending upon release. The media may have us believe that places like Grendon are a soft option for criminals, however as I have seen and described, it is far from the truth.
Michael told me he had quite a number of years left to serve, thus I asked whether he would want to stay at Grendon throughout that time. To my surprise, he said no. This isn’t because it is ‘harder than they thought’, it is because prolonged exposure to such intense therapy can overwhelm residents, or as Michael worded it ‘it would scramble your nut doing it that long’. Michael has experienced Grendon and assured me he will carry this with him for the rest of his sentence and life. Upon his release, he wants to settle down, obtain a 9-5 job and start a family.
While this is ideal, he also doesn’t want to forget his past, he wishes to connect with his victim’s family and undertake restorative justice (through the correct channels). He explains that we will not be doing so during this sentence, as it is essential for him that they know it is genuine remorse rather than to achieve early release. Michael, and Peter alike, are ready to take ownership for their crimes.
The idea of ownership of our past and moving forward was a theme continually made throughout the debate. The students argued for a different interpretation of ‘forget’, one of acceptance and therefore moving on. They explained that ‘forgetting’ is a conceptual notion and can also mean to bear our mistakes and move on. The resident team were critical of this argument and argued that we are a product of our past, must acknowledge our past to move forward and be mindful of it as we move on with our lives and argued that this is the basis for the therapy and treatment they receive at Grendon.
During the final arguments and speeches of the debate that followed, inmates expressed their pasts and how they will move forward with it to curb reoffending in their future. When the votes were counted, it was the residents who won the debate and for that I would like to congratulate them. Our students did a brilliant job, we learned a lot from this experience and heard some incredible stories, and that for that, we were all winners.
The most challenging part of the day was leaving. The idea that I can’t check on their progress, their state of mind and I may never find out whether Peter and Michael’s aims for change are fulfilled. Many of us now feel a vested interest in seeing these men succeed.
This experience was truly enriching, challenged my prejudice, and hopefully brought some light to the lives of those currently incarcerated at Grendon. The victims and their ordeal should never be forgotten or diminished. However, through this experience, I have found that acknowledging victims’ experiences and believing that people who offend are still human do not have to be mutually exclusive. People can be bad; people can do bad things, but we can all change and ploughing money into this principle can, and does, reduce the number of future victims, for example HMP Grendon’s reoffending rates are 20% compared with the 50% in conventional prison settings (McClatchey, 2011). This improves the lives of offenders, the public, and victim fears of someone else enduring their pain.
I’d like to thank all the staff at HMP Grendon for the incredible work they do and for allowing us access to the facility. I’d like to also thank BCU and HMP Grendon for continuing to work together and present the annual debate. To the residents, thank you for your openness and engagement in the debate and interactions with us students. Additionally, thank you to the Criminology Department at BCU, especially Ben Colliver, Dan Rusu, Craig Kelly and Sophie Gregory for their supervision and professionalism throughout the day. It would not have been possible without you all, and I, as many others, will remember this experience for a long time to come.
*To protect the rights, privacy and recovery of those involved, I have changed the names of residents and have removed identifiable details.