Hello! I'm John

Working to prevent loneliness and isolation in our communities & prisons.

How can we reduce loneliness in Prison?

Recently I visited a local prison to tell the story of the pop group “Queen”. Around 50 men asked to join us in the visits room, and along with some prison officers we all enjoyed the music and the chat.

The story of their success revolves, in the main, around the now deceased Freddy Mercury. This man was an eccentric, but his ability to engage with an audience was tremendous, and his music is legendary. It is fair to say that the men engaged with me, because as I played the music I weaved a story about the group into the presentation. This offer is unique, because I tend to digress, and include lots of other information about myself, the life I have led, ( I am now 71 years old ) and the present situation in our country.

The entire idea is to interest the men, get them involved, and hopefully get them to join in with me. This was my second visit to this prison, and I noticed that some of the men who were at the first event, returned to this one. This fact is gratifying, because it confirms to me that they experienced something of benefit to themselves first time round.

One man approached me, and I remembered him from last time. I do not know his name, only his age, he is 77 I believe. On my first visit I noticed him sitting alone, with his head in his hands. Nobody with him, he struck a very lonely sight. When I approached him and said “hello”, he nearly jumped out of his skin. I apologised and left him alone, but after the music had finished ( we listened to Elvis that day ) he came over to where I was standing chatting with some of the other men.

He waited his turn, and when it came he shook my hand, did not let go, looked into my eyes with his own tear filled eyes. He explained “ the music of Elvis brings back so many memories for me because my wife and I , she has died whilst I have been in here,  both listened together”. We chatted about Elvis, about his ( the prisoner ) present situation, and of the future. On parting I thought that if I had helped only that one man that morning, then my time would have been well spent.

And so to this event, and as I stand greeting each man who enters the visits area, who should come in but my friend from last time, the man aged 77. There were a lot of men I remember, but this man, because of his reaction last time, stuck in my mind. As I shook his hand and welcomed him, he seemed very pleased to see me again, and again held on to my hand for some time. But this time was different, he sat down with a group of his friends, got himself a cup of tea, and joined in the conversation.

Could it be that my music and chat had helped him ? Of course I would like to think so, but how was our conversation this time ? Again he had tears in his eyes, and I am not qualified to interpret this, but he told me that the previous day he had received a letter from his daughter that had upset him, that was the reason for his tears.

Experience is telling me that these events do have a benefit. They are simple, I am not a professional performer, they are fun, many people laugh at me / with me, and they encourage laughter and conversation. I think that both of these things are often in short supply inside prison. To me, and to the audience if you talk to them after an event, the time spent taking them from their (sometimes) long time home into a world they remember from a previous life, is time well spent.

Now, I am not a professional within the prison system, and am not qualified to comment on mental conditions. But I am somebody who cares, and loneliness inside prison, as well as outside, is a serious and growing problem, especially amongst the older generation. Coupled with Dementia, this problem can only get bigger as generations live for longer, so what can society do about it ?

I have no answers, and can only “speak as I find” so to speak. But it comes down to respect. Respect for the prisoner, the staff, the friends and relatives ( especially  the children, ) and authority. Not everyone will respond to this simple way of helping some people. But for those that do engage, help is at hand.

Another way of engaging with people is via humour. Imagine if we took humour into prison, and taught it as a topic within the walls. The subject is contentious, for there are many outside the system who think that punishment is the only function of a prison. There are many who say “ lock them up and throw away the key”, especially to those who have committed a serious crime. And the idea of humour, indeed any form of pleasure, allowed to these people, is abhorrent.

But I believe that prison is also about learning and helping those inside who will one day return to society. And if we are to do this successfully then the person must be compliant and willing to engage in the help on offer. It follows therefore that music, stories and comedy all can help.

Mental health is vitally important, we should do whatever we can to help everyone who are suffering, whether they are in prison or not. One thing is for certain, people who are withdrawn in themselves, have little or no contact with others, will certainly be lonely, so perhaps overcoming loneliness in the first place is the best first step we can take.

Thank you for reading this piece, comments welcome, let’s have a debate.

John Reed
The Story Teller Fellah