Love on the inside - Thoughts from Erlestoke
On July the 15th, 2013, I visited HMP Erlestoke. Working in partnership with Grange Park Opera and Pimlico Opera. I was bringing A Human Love Story to the prisoners and wardens there. While visiting Erlestoke I wanted to try and understand how prisoners experienced love in the prison environment and how these experiences of love shaped their lives.
Thank you to Kevin who escorted me through my stay, and Andy for his hospitality. Lastly, thanks to Darren, Charlie, Brian, Paul, Garry, Steve, Matthew and A. Your bravery and openness in talking about your love stories was inspiring.
Someone asked me to write down my experiences in the days following my visit and here are those thoughts as they came to me in no particular order.
"From the outset it became apparent that prison is an environment created to negate loving interaction. It is a processing environment seeking to control and dominate. These prisoners love stories expressed an alienation and separation from nearly all aspects of humanity that provide people with love; understanding, comfort, companionship, community, a smile, an open door! In the main they experienced a daily routine designed to stunt the soul and to alienate them from human interaction on any valuable emotional level. Their love stories are characterised by isolated instances of affection and sporadic moments of connection. Rarely do they feel part of a community and engaged in a shared humanity. Even more rarely do they feel as though they have any worth as individuals. As a result they keep their personal barriers up in order not to be hurt or taken advantage of.
During their time inside occasions where they experience human intimacy, emotional connection, and appreciation, are treasured and held on to. These moments remain with them, they can raise a smile, they are recalled with fondness, they are cherished as moments when they felt a sense of worth about themselves and their existence. In short, connecting with these prisoners on a human level is nothing less than transformative in its ability to endow the prisoner with a sense of worth and a sense of self.
During my visit I was informed that many prisoners come from social environments that are fractured in terms of support and loving kindness. Rather than healing and transforming prisoners social experiences prison compounds them. On leaving the prison I asked these men to write their names down on my pad, so I could remember them when I visited next. Without exception they all wrote down their names as numbers. The endgame of separation. The antithesis of love." M.N Hopwood. July 2013
Postscript: Since my leaving Erlestoke I have sought to arrange a re-visit but have had no response at all from any member of staff. I want to return not just because of a desire to continue the work we started but also because I wanted to see the men I met and continue that conversation. I feel as though through not seeing them I have let them down somehow; started something I could not see through. I will continue to contact the prison and seek to set up a re-visit. Wish me luck.