Text: Rob Hastie
We arrived at HMP Rochester in fog so thick we couldn’t even make out the twenty-foot-high walls that stood in front of us. Inside, surprisingly, we found the atmosphere much brighter than out. The Oasis Drug Rehabilitation wing of HMP Rochester (built in 1809) occupies the entirety of the medical block’s first floor and is in extremely good condition having only been established in May of last year. The relative warmth did not stop at the décor. It is run by a dedicated and welcoming staff who, slightly to our surprise and without exception, threw themselves into the warm-up games and mostly stayed throughout the session, demonstrating a care for and rapport with the prisoners (young men between 18 and 21 years of age) far beyond any I have seen before.
Lunch was followed by a tour of the facility. Residence in the wing is voluntary, and consequently attracts determined young men. The program lasts six months and the facility is completely self-enclosed, to maintain a strictly drugs-free environment. Since it was opened, results have been promising, though there have of course been individual disappointments. Again, the staff proved themselves to be in possession of a deep personal commitment to the care and rehabilitation of the residents, not to mention a healthy sense of humour.
The session commenced with the usual warm-ups and progressed quickly to more demanding stuff as the eagerness of the group became apparent. A hearty rendition of ‘Chastity Belt’ went down well, as did a particularly boisterous round of the Shakespeare Insult Kit. While the actors’ remained relatively mild in our modern ripostes to the increasingly inventive insults drawn from the Shakespeare list by the residents, the staff gave as good as they got, and the boys rose to it with relish.
What struck us repeatedly throughout the afternoon was not only the commitment of the staff I’ve mentioned above, but more importantly the support the boys gave each other. If one of them had difficulties in pronouncing a word or Shakespearean name, a subtle whisper from his neighbour would put him right; and if one or two got carried away chatting through someone else’s moment in the middle, the majority would hush them, to ensure everyone had their turn.
The afternoon culminated in a truly touching collection of Witslings. Although we were privileged to be invited into their cells to help them write their few lines of iambic, some of the best were produced without assistance, most notably those of Michael and Avis: Two pieces of heart-felt verse I will not easily forget.