Why I go into prison

Ximena Escobar de Nogales

Lisbon dreams bring joy to the prisoner and the volunteer

With hindsight, I’d say it was a mid-life crisis. For months I had been carrying myself to work in an automated routine. I felt just like the coat I brought to the office every day — hung on its hook, devoid of life, simply present. I had lost all interest in the job and in my career. I knew I needed to leave in order to inhale life back into me. And so I quit my job at an investment fund and walked away from a six-digit salary and luxurious offices in the old town of Geneva. A few months later, and after many security checks, I was volunteering as an English teacher at a high-security male prison. The contrast could not have been greater. It is now almost a year that I started there. I have recovered my energy, I feel awake, engaged and grateful. While I am also back working part-time, my volunteer activity has become the main source of my inspiration.

It came to me almost in the form of a dream during those days of detachment at work; I would run a writing club in prison. Never mind that I had no credentials for this. I had no connections to prisons either. I had never even visited one. In addition, the official language in Geneva is French and, while I speak the language, I did not see myself writing in French let alone facilitating a writing course in French. I decided that the second-best to my ‘writing club behind bars’ project would be to teach English in a prison. I wrote to several prisons offering my services. The tradition of volunteering is less rooted here than it is in the UK. They wrote back saying there was no vacancy for a volunteer. Vacancy? I offered to work for free. After much frustration going back and forth, I eventually learnt of an organization that ran volunteer courses in jails, and they accepted me.

Why give your time to criminals when there are many volunteer opportunities to help society’s victims? I have been asked, and I have often questioned myself. Perhaps it was cheer curiosity, a perverse search for otherness. It is a space that ‘good’ citizens rarely enter, probably the least scrutinised of our institutions. I wanted to challenge my prejudices, test the limits of my tolerance. I have had many enrichening encounters and insightful conversations in prison. I know my students have committed crimes, not one of them has claimed to be innocent. I also know they are more than their worst acts. We are not defined by our best achievements nor by our greatest moral failures. I still don’t have my writing club but it may come about one day.

Every Wednesday I bike to the prison located close to the French border. I enter the imposing grey four-story building behind barbed wire and patiently begin my entrance procedure. Accompanied by a prison guard, we cross fourteen doors to reach the prison classroom. I see eight students every week, individually. The room, like the entire prison, is modern, ventilated, well-equipped, sparsely furnished. It has two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a guarded, small exercise patio where, from 10:30 to 11:30, men are outdoors for exactly one hour a day. From October to May, the sun does not enter the patio. I wonder if this is an intentional penalty imposed by the award-winning prison architects.

French language classes are taught twice a week in a state-financed program, with paid teachers, not volunteers. English is not part of the official program. I assume this is because English is not an official Swiss language. The majority of prisoners in Switzerland are foreigners, most are sent back to their home countries when released. Many foreign convicts are banned from the Swiss territory for at least five years after release. All this makes English popular, inmates are more likely to use English rather than French as a foreign language once they return home.

On the first day of classes, while waiting for a student, I looked out the window that overlooks the patio. A guard entered the classroom and interrupted my reverie.

“Don’t ever forget you are in prison” he said. “You are never as vulnerable as when you feel safe.”

The first time I saw AD, he told me he would relocate to Portugal when released. He wanted to work in the tourism sector in Lisbon. We had fun writing his CV as a tourist guide in Lisbon: I seek an opportunity in the tourism sector where I can make use of my language skills and my salesman experience.

Today, I brought AD an article from the New York Times, 36 hours in Lisbon. Inmates don’t have access to the Internet. The three pages of the text are stapled, paper clips are forbidden. I have yet to understand why staples are OK while paper clips are not. A number of prison rules escape my understanding. The text in the NY Times article is not easy, we advance slowly through it.

Forget Lisbon as the budget capital of Europe. Yes, the seafood is still (relatively) cheap, as is the wine. The old canary-yellow trams still rattle along steep hills, and you’ll never pay more than a euro and small change for a pastéis de nata, the classic Portuguese pastry.

As he reads the article out loud, I feel every reference to his home town transports him to Lisbon. His eyes shine, a smile appears on his face and lingers. He savours the words and they sound beautiful in his native tongue pastéis de nata, sardinhas, petiscos, Belém, Praça do Comércio.

Our class ends. As AD stands to leave, he says: ‘I am not in jail when I am with you’.

I am done teaching for today. I am outside the prison, ready to enjoy the freedom of the wind biking home through parks and along the lake. I am smiling, energized and grateful.

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