We all have different stories, let’s hear them

At a time when debate has become so polarised, and some people have stopped listening to each other, there is a growing need for a range of perspectives to be heard. Suzi Dale and Rupert Cornford explore why it might pay to sit down and hear what’s being said

In the six episodes that form the new Future Prison podcast, there are frank conversations between former prisoners and senior figures at the Ministry of Justice.

On the one hand, there are people who have been in prison and experienced first-hand what’s it’s like; on the other, there are policy makers and those responsible for shaping life inside for thousands of inmates.

It’s an unusual format because it clearly doesn’t happen every day. While there are evidence-based initiatives to improve prison education or reduce reoffending, for example, it’s rare that people will sit down face to face and share their stories so intimately.

And that’s why the format is has been so compelling to work on.

The people involved are extremely candid about what prison life was like. The conversations aren’t about excusing their crimes, but they do allow the opportunity to share moments and experiences that hindered their path to a better future.

A lack of dignity during medical examinations or facing racist slurs because of the food they cooked are experiences that have stayed with them. The obvious impact of putting women in prison, when other options might be available, also delivers a powerful reminder on the impact of incarceration on families and their mental health.

These stories are just a few examples that created moments of real insight and acceptance from the leaders taking part from the Ministry of Justice. They often thanked the former prisoners for sharing their experiences because they provided a new perspective; they were obviously impacted by what they heard.

When we sat down to write Stories under the surface last year, we argued that the best interviews are the ones you have to work hard to find. They often come from people who aren’t forthcoming, but they are so valuable in the context of balanced learning and debate.

It’s often those who are less willing to be interviewed that turn out to be the most interesting. They hide behind their curtain of modesty or vulnerability and would rather carry on with life as they know it, making the best of it, without seeking publicity.

But these people make the best interviewees, because their experiences are equally, if not more important, than the latest celebrity being interviewed.

They are real people living real lives.

In the past few months, we have been living in lockdown, working from home, and watching the course of public debate become more polarised. Life has been challenging for many and understandably people’s emotions are all over the place. Some stories have been reactive, others life-affirming, and some, well, alarming.

It’s been interesting to see how people have responded to a very difficult time, and what has triggered them to share something, or rant at someone. It has been a visceral experience of highs and lows for us all.

But it has also given us time to think… about the cathartic nature of sharing our thoughts and the benefit that can occur as a result, especially when others are willing to listen and take people’s views on board.

Recently, we saw a debate between two people on a WhatsApp group, about raising money for key workers in hospitals.

One was adamant that it was the right thing to do, in the face of everything the NHS has faced, which made sense; the other was livid because the initiative didn’t take into account the community of care workers also on the front line.

It turns out that one of this person’s family members was involved with managing the social care response locally, so the reaction was entirely understandable.

Both were feeling passionate and up for standing their ground. Both had different perspectives.

They went back and forth like only the best keyboard warriors could do, arguing their case in public for quite a few hours, as we watched from the gallery of our living room. The usual tit-for-tat comments flew, until, after a while, they began to calm down.

The language softened, they started listening to each other, and then it happened…

“We’re all feeling it at the moment… I do see where you are coming from. I understand.”

Stories that make up who we are, and what we are experiencing, are worth exploring even if our perspectives are different. Once we understand why something matters to someone, it’s easier to find common ground, and have a more reasoned exchange.

We have long believed that sharing stories is a useful tool to understand the world and move forward, but giving people the space they need to share their perspective in a way that helps, rather than hinders progress, is important too.

As our experience of working on Future Prison has shown, the stories we hear and the perspectives we gain, might lead to better outcomes for all of us.

What do you think?

For more information and to listen to the Future Prison podcast, click here; and to find out more about the work of the Prison Radio Association, click here.