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I’m fulfilling something that has been on my wish list for over 20 years… meeting Terry Waite.
Many years ago, as a young Mum, I was eager to find something more substantive to read than Fireman Sam. I borrowed ‘Taken on Trust’ from the library and was riveted by his harrowing story of being a hostage.
Reading about Terry Waite re-ignited my preference for non-fiction and an individual’s personal journey. What stood out to me was his resilience and courage but so did his humanity and his deep faith.
I’m not familiar with the layout of Westminster Abbey and certainly not The Cloisters. Many people who enter are tourists fascinated by the scale of this architecture which commemorates the births, deaths and marriages associated with it. But not me, not on this occasion.
Walking towards my destination, I am suddenly aware that Terry Waite has been a part of my own journey. I say that because the inhumanity that he endured for 5 years mainly in solitary confinement had a lasting impact on me and still today raises many questions, such as:
Why do we put the vulnerable in isolation in our prison system?
Why do we as a society accept it as an inevitability for some?
I’m clutching my copy of his new book ‘Solitude’ where he explores various accounts by those he has met on his travels of being solitary.
Just checked my watch, I’m early, I’m usually early.
Peeking through The Cloisters, there is an immaculate quadrangle where the grass is surprisingly green and a small water feature bubbles away and a fresh breeze bringing a well needed respite to the heat and humidity of London.
Even the event organiser’s choice of location spoke to me of hours and hours of quiet contemplation.
Taking our seats, we were reminded that this was the route historically used by monks from their dormitory to the refectory and this site has always been “a place of power” and a “place of faith”. It’s humbling.
“I witnessed those killed before my very eyes”
“When law and order break down, all hell breaks loose”
These were some of the first words Terry Waite said as he stood to address the audience. He was dressed in a simple pale blue shirt, black trousers, cream linen jacket and a blood red tie. At 6’7” Mr Waite’s command presence was even more imposing than the ancient wooden doors framed by the solid stonework behind him.
Taken on Trust
“If someone turns to the Church for help regardless of whether the Church can help them, the Church should help them”.
He was deeply sincere.
He went on to explain his experience immediately before and at the point of being taken hostage in Beirut, January 1987.
He came face to face with hostage takers and knew he was facing the possibility himself of either being killed or captured. Trust between himself and the captors broke down. Being alone, not knowing and the uncertainty brought feelings of anger towards himself and anger towards the captors for breaking their word, having promised safe conduct.
He recounts his own experience of torture, mock execution and hours of interrogation whilst being shackled by his hands and feet to a wall.
With no companionship and extreme isolation, he found a deeper form of solitude and counselled himself to do two things:
“Live each day at a time, as it comes. Live for now”
“Try and take it as an opportunity to take an interior journey, get to know yourself better”
Endeavouring to find inner harmony he began to write in his head.
“Pools of solitude and places of solitude help you to get to know yourself better and in so doing you are able to have a deeper understanding of others”.
Without a hint of arrogance and self-effacing I found Terry Waite’s words to be profoundly challenging. What he said and the way he said it drew a sharp contrast to a society which is generally irreligious, insular, and impatient.
He concluded his talk with the following, poignant words:
“The power of compassion is greater than the power of evil in this world”
Terry Waite then took a few questions, including one from me, where I asked for his views on solitary confinement in prisons in England and Wales. With an authoritative voice and immediacy, his answer to me was beyond dispute:
“It is cruel and must be stopped immediately”
In a personal conversation afterwards, Terry Waite was kind enough to sign my copy of ‘Solitude’, a gift to me from SPCK.
Think carefully – why would people who have been released from prison want to be integrated back into a society that thinks it’s okay for them to be locked up for 23 hours a day, with little nutritious food, lack of education, virtually no purposeful activity, squalid living conditions, unsafe, rife with drugs and violence, where staff struggle to maintain order, where corruption, suicides, self-harm and unrest are all increasing, where budgets are cut and staff numbers reduced.
Surely it’s time we asked why?
I think it’s because prison reform should not be just a political issue.
Regardless of who the Secretary of State for Justice is, or who the Prisons Minister is, or what political party they are from, prison reform should not be contingent on who is at No 10, it should be happening anyway.
It has become a humanitarian issue.
I want to get things done.
I’ve had some prison Governors and Officers talk to me about prisoners and – honestly – I cannot even repeat the words that came out of their mouths.
And yet I’ve had other prison Governors and Officers confide in me about the growing concerns they have for people in prison.
On Friday 28 April, I learned that I was named a nominee of The Contrarian Prize 2017. It’s a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. I didn’t apply for this or seek the nomination, it found me. And I’m deeply grateful for it.
My fellow nominees are a formidable bunch and we’re all Contrarians in our own way. In my case, I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. Doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.
I’d like to use this nomination to propel and advance the issues I’ve been talking about. If it means we can see change and real prison reform by people seeing it more as a humanitarian issue then it has been worth it.
Contrarian Prize 2017 shortlist announced here
The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.
Now in its fifth year, it aims to shine a light on those who have made a meaningful contribution to the public debate through the ideas that they have introduced or the stand they have taken.
Ali Miraj (@AliMirajUK) is the founder of the Contrarian Prize.