Prison democracy | Femi Oyeniran | TEDxHousesofParliament

Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Denise RQ A toilet. A radio. And perhaps, a television. A window. A ceiling. A door… but with no handle. This is the home of my students. I’d signed up to become a teacher at a Young Offender’s Institute,
Cookham Wood. I was to start a film club,
with another filmmaker, Tim Cronin. On my first day,
I was a little bit nervous, until someone shouted,
“Oy, Moony! Is that you, yeah?” See, Moony is the name of the character
I played in the film “Kidulthood.” It ranks alongside “Sponge”
as the silliest character name ever. “Moony! Is that you? What? Man, heard yous lot
were doing a little film club thing. What, why can’t man come?
What do yous lot do, like? Watch films?” I explained to him that our aim
was to teach the young men every aspect of film making
from concept stage to post-production. Tim and I had limited resources: a basic camera, an iMac with editing software
that had never been updated – Guess why? Because it had never
been connected to the Internet! – (Laughter) We started off by teaching the young men
improvisation and stop-start animation. We later progressed to making videos that were used internally
for training and induction purposes. One of my favorite pieces of work
we did was a video that we made that incorporated African gospel songs. I’m not going to break into any,
but I loved this video because, you know, I found out that the boys knew exactly
the same songs that I knew, or some of them knew exactly
the same songs I knew, because we grew up in church
singing these songs, not with them, but, you know. But anyway; that was my favorite piece of work we did. I was really touched when one
of the young men came up to me and said, “Oy, oy, Moony! You know what, yeah? You taught man how to turn one room
into 1,000 places still.” I was touched by this. However, Tim and I really wanted
to get across to the young men that film-making
was to be for an audience. You create films with an audience in mind, and prisons being
the restrictive places that they are, it was very difficult to get opportunities
to showcase our work. So you can imagine how excited we were when we were commissioned
by the Prisoners’ Education Trust to create a video for their website, but not just any video; a video about the prison youth council. “What’s the youth council?”
I hear you scream. (Laughter) The youth council is everything
to the young men. It’s their very own democratic system, and through the council,
they’ve achieved so much. In my first few weeks in the prison, I noticed that all the young men
that were youth council reps wore t-shirts with “Youth Council Rep”
written large across them, and walked around the prison proudly. And they had every reason to be proud,
because in most cases, they had been chosen
through an election-based system. Before the youth council, the two strongest guys in the prison
could sit on the phone for 30 minutes each and not let anyone else use the phone. At the youth council, the young men
were able to table a system where each person could use the phone
for 10 minutes before being blocked out for another half an hour. What’s more, some
of the young men grew frustrated with the worksheet-based approach
taken to education in prison. They suggested the introduction
of level three courses, A-levels, Duke of Edinburgh. I was really excited
about the youth council because I didn’t know
such a system existed. !Woah, woah! Femi, Femi, Femi!
Wait, wait, wait! How are we going to make a film
about the youth council but in just one room?” “I thought we taught you how to turn
one room into 1,000 places!” It was clearly going to be tough. We’d never created anything
that was shown outside the prison before. We had no budget, access to only one room, and after much negotiation,
a stairwell, a stairwell. We were aware that the video
was going to act as an advert to other prison managers about the potential
of this fledgling democratic system. So it had to be at least decent. (Laughter) We got creative. The young men wrote scripts,
one of them wrote poetry, and they recruited me
to do the voice-over for the video. I’d like to show you a short clip
which highlights the difficulties that we encountered
working in this restricted environment, and how we managed to overcome them. (Video starts) I became involved in the youth council because I thought it was an opportunity
to improve my prison experience. The youth council inspired me to seek higher level courses
which weren’t available before. Education allows me to improve
my teamwork on communication. It inspires me to take a new road
and gives me self-belief. Education allows me
to be expressive and find my talent. By realizing a talent, new opportunities are open to me
that I didn’t know about before. The prison management heard my voice, and now, I’m taking level three courses. The prison has now
introduced other courses such as distance learning courses,
A-levels, and Duke of Edinburgh. This shows how, as a forum, the youth council has improved
the life at Cookham. Using the opportunities at Cookham Wood
has allowed me to find my voice. (Music) Involve. Inspire. Improve. (Video ends) (Applause) Femi Oyeniran:
The youth council is an example of people participating in democracy
in an unlikely place. Through the youth council, the young people in the prison
are engaging in democracy in a more meaningful way
than they probably would if they were on the outside. The youth council
also gave them an opportunity to engage with those in authority. What’s more, through managed
and clear communication, they are able to chip away at the mistrust
that exists between them and prison staff. The young people loved and cared
about the youth council so much because it’s had a direct effect
on their community. Through the youth council,
they were able to have a voice, secure change
for their current living conditions, and secure their future prospects. Young people in the 18-25 category
are disengaged, and there’s a lot of publicity about this. I believe that young people
do care about political issues, but they don’t care about politics. In addition to this, I believe that a lot more needs to be done
in schools and colleges to teach young people
how they can participate within the political system as it is. Also, I think young people’s disengagement
must be re-framed as disapproval
of the present political landscape. Political parties
must step up to the plate and tackle the challenge
of engaging with young people on issues that they care about, as opposed to trying
to dictate the agenda. Back to my young people at Cookham. Through participation
in the youth council, they are learning,
they are learning to have a voice, they are learning about
the tangible effect of democracy; and what’s more,
they are learning to be citizens. Hopefully, this sense of citizenship
will lead them to desist from crime, and resettle within their communities. I’d like to finish with a video which features a poem
written by one of the young men, about the importance
of education in prison, because through the practical
education of the youth council, the young men are learning more about democracy on the inside
than they would on the outside in schools and colleges, which is a shame. Here’s the video, thank you
for having me, by the way. (Applause) (Music) (Video starts) Get education in prison – it might feel long,
but it ain’t a mission. Can’t tell you what to do,
it’s your decision. When you get out,
you’ll be in a greater position. Education is the key,
it opens doors for you and for me. It also makes you feel free. Don’t be stupid, everyone can succeed. Be a smart boy or girl,
make a good choice, make your education and voice make noise. Ask to do any course;
your voice will be heard, of course. Being in prison
is like going back to school. Live smart and not as a fool. Your voice is always heard,
just be polite with your words. Staff is here to help you,
they even look after your health. Make your voice and actions speak volumes.

Maurice Vega

5 Responses

  1. कदाचित कारावास में सूक्ष्म स्तर पर गणतंत्र का प्रयोग ही उसे सफल बना रहा है ।
    Possibly the small scale of use in prisons is making it a success there.

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