A captive audience
Classics offers more interesting speaking opportunities than you might imagine. In addition to the talks at school, colleges, breakfast clubs, museums and the like, I occasionally get a more surprising gig. Some recent favourites have been pre-performance talks at the Coliseum (engaging the audience with the myth of, say, Semele, before they see what Handel did with it) and a guest appearance at the wonderful “Treasury Women’s Group” (though that was more in the guise of female academic than strictly classicist).
But most memorable of all have been the couple of occasions I have gone to lecture to the in-mates at a high-security prison. It’s an extraordinarily electric kind of teaching.
Partly because it’s one of the few (relatively) free opportunities that they have for face to face interchange with the outside world, they give it far more attention than your average audience -- half of whom are worrying if they’ll make the bus/have time to get to the supermarket/meet their girlfriend when you’ve finished speaking. No chance of that for these guys.
A captive audience, as colleagues couldn’t resist – a bit predictably – joking.
On one of these occasions I talked to them about Roman gladiators and the blood and guts of the Roman arena. It wasn’t long before some bright spark observed that the horrors I was describing would have been their own fate, as convicted criminals, had they lived in the ancient world. True. But what really surprised them was the fact that the Romans did not, by and large, use detention as a punishment. Roman prisons were for holding people before trial or before execution. In fact, much the same was true in Europe until the eighteenth century, when punishment-by-detention became the norm.
I resisted the temptation to say to them what I really thought – that in two thousand years time our contemporary obsession with incarceration will seem as weird to future historians as the gladiatorial games now seem to us. Sure, they will observe, some criminals presented a real danger to the rest of the population. But what on earth drove a sophisticated society to bang up even those who presented no physical danger at all, in an over-crowded community of other criminals – out of which some 75% emerged (surprise, surprise) to commit another crime within two years? How could they not have seen that it was a mechanism for the repetition (not prevention) of crime, and an extremely costly one at that? It takes considerably more than the average annual wage to keep a prisoner inside for a year.
This isn’t primarily the fault of those who work in prisons. The people I have met staffing education departments are doing a heroic job in trying to give some of their charges a leg up, and out of crime. But they are terribly under-resourced, and the frequent moving of prisoners from one gaol to another makes any continuity of instruction really hard. In general, the prison service seems to be doing its best, as you sense if you look at the literature they issue for prisoners and others – even if the rhetoric occasionally misfires. (I thought that the phrase, “in-cell television is being gradually introduced as an earnable privilege, but it may not be available in your prison” sounded uncomfortably like one of those airline notices, “we apologise if your first choice of meal is not available . . . “.)
Things will only change, when the public and the tabloid press have been convinced that incarceration is not the answer. And that will take a Home Secretary with more muscle and vision than any we have had for decades.