Stella Kemp is Irish Link Co-ordinator for the Prison Phoenix Trust and Port Laoise Prison teacher.
Stella describes in her own words what it is like to teach in a maximum security prison.
Seeking the Best in a Maximum Security Prison
My yoga teacher brought me to the prison in 2000. She was asked to teach some of the inmates in 1998. One of the most notorious paramilitary operators of the troubles, ‘The Border Fox’ was to become her student at that time.
The thick grey stone walls seemed to cast their shadow inside—it felt so cold when we went in, and to this day the tenperature is always remarkably cooler inside. That first day, I don’t remember the atmosphere as tense; my teacher was undaunted, so I just followed her example.
At the present time there are five manned gates that are unlocked and locked to get me into the staff room, a palm print activated door which also needs a pin number, a turn-stile and a search area with airport style security. After the search all teachers collect a chunky key which gets us through the last gate into the education department, and then we need to be escorted back across the yard, through another six gates, up to the landings where we teach. So movement around the prison is time consuming!
At the moment, I teach twelve hours a week in the prison. Port Laoise has eight different sections of political prisoners, and they aren’t allowed to mix with each other, so classes can be very small.
Whatever education is offered to one group has to be offered to all of the other groups. The political prisoners are all well educated, reliable family men. They don’t see themselves as criminals. In class they are excellent students who concentrate well – it’s a pleasure to teach them.
There are also the guests (you could say) who are lifers and generally the organised crime lads. They are on one landing and I am the only teacher from the education department that goes to this landing. The inmate I teach here is very polite. I always look for the best in my students, and don’t think about what they may have done. When I look for the best, it brings out the best in them.
Initially the men come to yoga because they want to improve their health and fitness. Recently one of the men who is due to be released said to me, “Yoga can keep you fit—we don’t need to go to the gym”. So I give them routines that work on strength and fitness.
‘Ordinary Decent Criminals’
In one of the oldest buildings, the ODC (ordinary decent criminals) are housed. Their accomodation is the most cramped and archaic – slopping out is still in operation here (i.e. the toilet is a bucket which is emptied periodically). Sometimes their psychiatrist has recommended yoga as a way to help them get off drugs, sometimes they know they need to help themselves, and the word is getting out yoga helps you manage. On their wing, drugs are a real problem, although the political prisoners are drug-free. These prisoners are escorted over to the Education Block for their always give them at least ten minutes of relaxation. For some of them, they have never lain down and focussed on softening their muscles. Then we do some meditation. They are always blown away and say how fantastic they feel.
I sit in meditation each morning – it’s essential. I need to be well and cheerful when I go in, and this really keeps me balanced and relaxed. On the whole, prison officers are good people who do their best to be helpful. Sometimes you need to be able to negotiate and use a bit of charm to get what you need to make a class happen. And I get on well with the people in the education department – I give them a lunchtime class, so they appreciate the value of yoga. And sometimes we just go out to lunch and enjoy each other’s company. We need that as teachers in prison, to offload what happened in class or on the landing, the interactions with the officers and inmates alike need to be mulled over together, so we can cope. I wouldn’t be without my colleagues at work. A lot of what happens is not for outside ears.
Sometimes when I go in the whole place feels electric. Something will be going on, usually someone in education will fill me in, and then we don’t talk about it, and I just get on with teaching.
At the moment there is a protest in the prison, so sometimes I go in to teach, but the class can’t happen. There is an uncomfortable amount of sitting around. Tomorrow they have told me I’m going to teach in the Segregation Unit –almost no one from education has even been there, and I don’t even know where it is. They are all meant to be in solitary confinement over there… I guess they might be quite happy to do some yoga. I’m definitely the person for this job. I’ll be cheerful and relaxed when I go in, and breathe into my heart and think positive thoughts to each person I’ll meet. I’m sure it will be fine.
The best moments are when a student will roll over and sit up after relaxation and say, “That was incredible!” There is one student that comes in and every time he tells me how much yoga is helping him and how good it is for him. I can listen to that every day. Although in the end I have to tell him to hush, so we can have the class!
The Prison Phoenix Trust
The Prison Phoenix Trust is a registered UK charity. It encourages prisoners in the development of their spiritual welfare, through the practices of meditation and yoga, working with silence and the breath.
They offer personal support to prisoners around the UK and the Republic of Ireland through teaching, workshops, correspondence, books and newsletters – and to prison staff too. They work with people of any faith, or of none, and honour all religions. To find out more visit their website at www.theppt.org.uk
The PPT and the3rdi.co.uk
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