Discussing consent in the prison environment

Discussing consent in the prison environment

“What people have done; they’ve done. I can’t change that at all, but if I can change their mindset on consent, then that is rehabilitation.”

Last International Women’s Day, Unlocked participant Georgia was asked to present her perspective on gender equality across staff in the prison environment to her senior leadership, discussing her experience of being a young woman working in a male-dominated environment.

Afterwards, Georgia was asked to talk to the young offenders in her prison about the importance of consent. As a result, she launched consent workshops across HMP Pentonville in partnership with the charity “Time for Change”.

We talked with Georgia about her experience running three consent workshops for different groups of young offenders across the wings in her prison.

How did you structure the workshops?

We started off quite broad, we talked about how women often feel unsafe walking at night and the boys were even shocked by that. We then went into the expectations that men have of women, and what expectations they think that women have of men.

I then asked what they think consent means and most of them knew it was to do with giving or receiving permission for something to happen and someone saying yes. But when we went into specific scenarios there was a lot of disagreement about what was or was not consent.

What really opened up the discussion was when they started to talk among themselves. One of the boys, in the second group, said something that was really interesting.

To make it clearer to the other boys, he said: “You know, if you buy a Rolex, and you wear it, you’re not asking to be mugged. You want the complete opposite. You want to keep it. Just because it’s flashy, a normal person would walk past it, and say ‘that’s a nice Rolex!’ But a thief would walk past it and say, ‘that’s a nice Rolex, I want to have it.”

I think that kind of comparison was really mature and uniquely insightful to the others, it really opened the boy’s eyes to the conversation surrounding whether women were “asking for it” by wearing flashy clothes. I used that comparison in all the discussions after that.

We also talked about their own experiences, where they felt that they hadn’t given consent. It was an incredibly open and honest discussion and was really reassuring to know that we had created such a safe space that people felt comfortable talking openly about these topics.

To finish off, we took it back to the initial examples where we spoke about consent in a variety of scenarios. After all the discussions, I wanted to see if the boys’ opinions had changed, and almost all of them end up agreeing on the parameters of consent after. This was interesting because, at the start, they definitely didn’t. It felt really revolutionary that they’d all changed their minds by the end.

What future do you see for consent workshops like this in prisons?

I would love to make sure all young offenders have the chance to learn about consent. Too often people assume this knowledge but if you never spoke about consent or if you culturally or religiously come from a background where it’s really inappropriate to talk about that kind of thing. There can be a real gap in access to this information.

It’s so important to discuss it openly with women involved as well to get other perspectives and with men to see their experiences. I actually can’t express enough how important I felt it was. Afterwards, I felt relieved that I’d been part of changing the mindsets of young men.

I don’t want these discussions to be reliant on me and the representative we have running ‘Time for Change’ in my prison because it should still happen whether we are running it or not. It should happen in every prison.

How did your role as a prison officer help facilitate this discussion?

Being a prison officer kind of allows you to develop soft skills, like a different way of approaching topics that might seem taboo to normal people on the outside. But to prison officers on the inside, we regularly discuss abnormal or stigmatised things.

It makes sense in my head that a prison officer who works with prisoners every day, who knows these people and knows the environment very well, would lead in discussing this very important topic.

However, long term I think personally it’s probably better to do it with people you don’t necessarily work with or know because it’s quite a sensitive topic, firstly, and secondly, because I think it can get quite personal.