A picture moment: Members of the Oxford University with Isis prison volunteers and staffers

A picture moment: Members of the Oxford University with Isis prison volunteers and staffers

Thursday the 25th of October 2018 saw a group of eight students from Oxford University, of whom six are members of the Linacre African Network, travel to Her Majesty’s Prison and Young Offenders Institution, Isis (Isis Prison) in the South-East of London as part of the celebration of Black History Month. The visit was at the invitation of Father Valentine Erhahon, – the Roman Catholic Chaplain of Isis Prison. He and the head of equalities of the Prison: Charlie Abbott and the prison volunteer: Robert Emejuru had organised a series of five major events for Black History Month.

After going through the series of security checks at the gate, we were treated to a  scrumptious lunch (fish and chips in true English fashion) prepared by a group of prisoners at the prison’s staff cafeteria called the Quays restaurant. 

This was followed by an introductory welcome by the managing chaplain: Mother Susie Simpson, the governing governor: Emily Thomas;  the head of reducing reoffending: Julian Denton; head of safer prisoners: Amy Dixon and many other heads of departments, officers, prisoners (who are all under 30 years), visitors and guests who had gathered together in the prison’s Multifaith room for the last event of Black History Month.

The Moderator of the day: Father Valentine gave an introductory address of why this year’s black history month was designed to celebrate the intellectual capacity of black people and not play to the usual stereotypes associated with them. He gave an account of this year’s theme of inspiring role models and spoke about all the various conversations the prisoners have had with different speakers through the month. 

Following from Father Valentine’s address, the evening event kick-off with a vibrant keynote address to a group of 96 made of prisoners,  officers, prison staff and guest by Ndjodi Ndeunyema on the topic ‘Celebrating Black Intellectuals over the Centuries’. Ndjodi drew attention to seven blacks who have contributed to the world in a variety of areas ranging from sporting excellence to the dutiful service to society. These included Malian Emperor Mansa Musa, youth activist Xolani Nkosi and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

The debate between Isis prisoners and Oxford students was on the motion ‘Does the Past Determine a Person’s Future?’. The two teams lead debaters were mixed at the final minute – four from Isis and four from Oxford each – which markedly intensified the debate. These sixteen lead debaters led their groups of forty on either side, in a Parliamentary style debate, with Emily Thomas, the Prison’s Governing Governor, serving as the Speaker of the House.

The proposition side of the House represented Oxford with Farhana Hamid Butt, Cedric Maforimbo, Boipelo Mauchaza-Tshwene and Ndjodi Ndeunyema being joined by four Isis prisoners. On the opposition benches was Temitope Ajiyele, Paul Amayo, Nelson Mhlanga and Catherine Namwezi together with four Isis prisoners.

Both teams debated valiantly and passionately; the atmosphere was electric! Despite not having met prior to the debate to strategise or familiarise with one another, both the Isis prisoners and Oxford speakers were impressively coherent and raised forceful arguments in their allotted one minute each. The points presented and expounded by backbencher members (prisoners and guest) who showed lauded depth in their submissions.

There was also a group of ‘Law Lords’, drawn from prisoners, staff and guests who also made comments to support the Isis or Oxford side. 

After the close of debate, the panel of judges declared the Isis team (the opposition) as the winners who held the motion that the past does not determine a person’s future. This was followed by the announcement that a handshake between the opposing parties was the prize. In an extraordinarily moving moment, both sides walked across the middle of the aisle to shake hands with the opposing group, in what led Governor Emily to jubilantly exclaim: “is this not wonderful?”

The debate closed with an exchange of gifts between the Oxford students and Isis Prison. On behalf of the staff and prisoners of the Prison, the Governor gifted Oxford with a beautiful Black History Month shield of Princess Sophie Charlotte, the second Black Queen of England as well as a diligently handmade wooden chess-board that was specially crafted the prisoners working in the upcycling department (the prisons workshop) under the directive of Sonia Kirkland. The governor invited the Oxford students to visit the prison again for another debate. Oxford reciprocated with a gift of a cocktail of inspirational books for Isis Prison library.

A mingling reception between the Oxford students, the prisoners, their officers and prison staff followed through the evening, with prisoners giving feedback such as: ‘this was the happiest day of my life’; ‘I did not like it, I loved it’; ‘make this happen again’ etc. Afterwards, a detailed tour around the prison’s educational and vocational skill training areas, as well as its prisons wings and cells was conducted. This tour brought the visit to a close. This was followed by a long drive back to Oxford from the Prison by our kind driver: Maamoun Alsahli. 

The Oxford delegation would like to thank Father Valentine and the Isis Prison staff for making the visit possible and for the hospitality extended. The delegation is also immensely grateful to the Isis prisoners for their welcoming spirit and engaging atmosphere. We hope to visit again and some of the students who visited Oxford have started thinking of supporting the rehabilitation of the prisoners by becoming mentors to the young men at Isis prison.

Lunch prepared by the prisoners

The handmade gift by an Isis Prisoner