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A Matter of Life and Death: What now?

At Safe Ground, we believe our collective work across the social justice sector is that serious. We believe our support, care, therapeutic input, challenge, principles, ethics, relationships of trust and creative approaches to intractable problems, actually do make the difference between life and death for very many people.

We also believe that our collective work keeps alive the idea of a ‘better world’. A world in which punishment and blame are not immediate responses to mistakes or harmful actions.

Our arts-based methodology and therapeutic group work model is based on the fact that we don’t exclude anyone, and we expect conflict, disruption and disaffection in groups – because they are all part of every one of us. Repression, denial and defence against the anxieties we all experience manifest in myriad ways. We all experience rage; only very few of us act on it.

A Matter of Life and Death was the title of our annual event, held at The Roundhouse on 27th September 2018.

The purpose of the event was to engage a broad audience in a conversation around issues of punishment, prison, exclusion and harm, particularly that in which the state has responsibility.

The afternoon could not have been more poignant for Safe Ground. A month before the event, a colleague, ally and alumni member of ours was found dead in his cell. One death although tragically representative of a significant increase in deaths in prison over the last 12 months.

On the day of the event, one of our panellists, Deb Coles from  Inquest texted in the morning to ask if we’d be providing food as she would be coming straight to us from the Grenfell Inquiry. Many deaths.

As I invited colleagues to take their seats for the first panel, I got a post-it note to say Stafford Scott from The Monitoring Group would be late to take his place as he was dealing with a ‘police shooting incident’. When Stafford arrived shortly and joined the panel, he explained he had actually been with someone who had survived six bullets from a previous incident with the Metropolitan Police. The man had survived, but was currently homeless and in significant distress.

That was a matter of life, very close to death.

Part of the purpose of our day was for us to ask ourselves and each other what dies in us when we live in an environment in which we have to kill our own desires, compassion, humanity to survive? What is dead in us when we are desensitised to the homeless woman begging outside Tesco? The weeping refugee asking for help outside the tube station? The neighbour clearly struggling to cope? The people dying in prisons, their families and the communities the prison are housed?

Our event was as profoundly sad and as challenging as it was beautiful and inspiring. The poets and performers who accompanied us during the event provided the function recognised in so many cultures, of helping us cope with the grief and sorrow we were dealing with in the words.

The audience bravely participated in a range of therapeutic techniques we’ve used in our events before, sharing with each other their feelings of “shame”, “anger”, frustration and literal speechlessness. This kind of public expression of emotion is rarely encouraged and our event was all about being able to listen to each other without feeling the need to respond or rebuff. Just to hear and to feel.

Two principle issues arose from the event, in our analysis.

One: How do we work towards a society in which group dynamics can be borne, rather than denied (and therefore, in which prison, punishment and pardon would not be intrinsic to cultural norms). Essentially, this point was directly linked to the relationship between colonialism, acknowledgement of historical events and the use of prison and ‘rehabilitation’; and

Two: What do we do about the fact that there have been hundreds of recommendations made to Government over decades about how to improve the situations leading to premature, self-inflicted, violent and avoidable deaths in state institutions; however, few of these have been effectively implemented.

Over the next year, we’ll be working with these two guiding ideas and following up on our own practice and that of government, systems and structures in terms of the prevention of further decay in standards of decency.

If prison is to exist, it can only at best, perform a function of containment; not of rehabilitation nor benefit to society. That is a contradiction and perhaps part of the issue arising in the recidivism rates, lack of clear and transparent leadership throughout the system and almost complete ignorance of the criminal justice system as a manifesto matter for political parties.

Prison is not a panacea; it is an idea we have become dependent upon. Safe Ground works in prisons because there are many people for whom the kind of support, systemic intervention and personal development our work offers, is very valuable. However, we also work to challenge the system itself and to create ways of working that can make prisons obsolete. This is a long term goal and will clearly require enormous shifts in social norms and values. But, we believe that changing intractable values and attitudes is possible. Indeed, we have evidence to prove it can be done. And so we will continue to seek allies, collaborate with those further along the path than us and to engage with as many people as possible about how we make the kind of world in which we all feel accountable, loyal to and valued by each other. Join us.

Written by Charlie Weinberg

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