Over a door at reception to Her Majesty's Prison Pentonville there is a sign: Beware of the sliding doors. I don't know how many of its inmates are fans of Gwyneth Paltrow's 1998 film of the same name exploring the fickleness of fate but it's not a bad motto for the prison that is 'celebrating' its 175th birthday this year. Pentonville, or The Ville, has had a tough time recently with a homicide and a spate of stabbings last year and, adding to anxieties about the prison, a double escape.
Kudos to the prison authorities therefore for continuing to embrace a relationship with the inspired organistation Vocalise which I am proud to say is an endeavour founded by Gray's, my own Inn of Court. Vocalise sends mentors into partner prisons to teach inmates the skill of parliamentary style debating. The inmates debate each other and periodically host matches against visiting students (all their matches are home games, for obvious reasons!).
I answered a last minute call up to judge a debate between a team of four inmates against four students from the Cambridge Union, one of the foremost debating clubs in the country if not the world. Even with the expert tutelage of Gray's Inn Bar students I didn't much fancy the chances of the plucky inside amateurs. How wrong I was...
Criminal barristers get very used to visiting prisons but only ever to the quarters designated for legal visits. It is unsurprisingly extremely difficult to gain access to the wings of a prison unless you are on official prison business. It was therefore, despite my familiarity with prisons and cells and gaolers, still a remarkable experience to stand in The Ville's central hall with grandfather clock and big brass bell and look down the long flights of the radiating wings. The Ville is 50 years older than my own antique seeming home, it was built when Dickens was 30 years old and it is astonishing that it is still in use in the 21st century. Walking through G Wing, scene of the stabbings and location of the escape, it was possible to see inmates lying on their bunk beds in the strikingly small cells.
The venue for the debate was the library where among other tomes for loan was, improbably, 'Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies', there was also '10,000 Dreams Explained' and Victor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning' on display suggesting plenty of appetite for introspection and understanding the effects of incarceration.
The format of the debate involved a student starting with a 5 minute speech followed by an inmate opposing with two further speeches on both sides, some questions from the floor, then two concluding summary speeches of 3 minutes. Points of information were allowed if accepted and the first and last minute of each address was protected from interventions.
Not only did the inmates more than hold their own they deployed and answered points of information to powerful effect. When it was suggested that cigarettes or 'burn' were an essential release for stress and tension engendered by being locked up for the vast majority of the day one of the students responded that some other relaxant could be found prompting a quick witted inmate to enquire who would be supplying the yoga mats and Werthers Originals. The inmates explained that 'burn' was an essential currency and a student, without realising that prisoners have no access to cash, naively queried what was wrong with money. One of the inmates replied that perhaps they could be issued with Bitcoins.
In fairness to the Cambridge team, who were all new to the Vocalise programme, it was hard to imagine what they thought they were letting themselves in for. Certainly turning up to a prison trying to persuade a room full of inmates that they could and should forego their tobacco was rather like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. Nonetheless, without any hesitation my fellow judge and I were of the unanimous view that the inmates carried the day.
It was poignant that on a day where the Queen's Speech made no mention of intended and much needed prison reforms that I was seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears the good that comes from teaching those incarcerated the virtue of reasoned rhetoric over fists and flare ups. Vocalise is a good thing and expanstion of its reach and remit can't come too soon. I am strongly of the opinion that nobody should be empowered to imprison another until they have slept a night in a cell. While I, thankfully, did not have that experience it wasn't only the inmates that learnt something today.