It all started at my first job - I was 22 at the time. I was working with a woman in her 50's who abruptly said that she wouldn't be at work on Monday. Then her photo appeared in the Evening Standard; she was on trial at the Old Bailey for defrauding a previous employer of a large amount of money and was eventually sentenced to 5 years. I, and others at work really liked her, she was very efficient, a pleasure to work with and had been very kind to me. Several of us thought there was more to it than the newspapers reported. So two of us at work decided to write to her in prison and visited her. We kept in contact throughout her sentence and I eventually met up with her after she came out of prison. She told me she was moving away to make a new start and a few years later she died of cancer.
At that time I was helping some groups of people with disabilities. I began to feel I wanted to help other people who were in prison who had not had the opportunities I had had in life, but there were no prisons near where I lived. Then Belmarsh, a maximum security prison, was built in 1991. A year after it was built someone came to talk to a group at my church about Prison Fellowship which is an ecumenical Christian organisation and I decided to join. I have been going into Belmarsh, now for over 20 years. I visit regularly on a Thursday morning. It is an early start - I have to get up at 5.30 a.m. as I need to be at the gates by 7.15 a.m. and work there until around 12.00 noon. I am there to help on courses such as Alpha run by the Chaplaincy team as well as spending time talking to offenders and listening to their concerns.
Offender meets victim
Prison Fellowship (PF) also runs a course called Sycamore Tree (ST) which is a victim awareness and restorative justice course intended to help the offender to understand the harm his actions have caused and make amends. I have helped on this course in Holloway, Pentonville and a young offenders prison for five years now.
It is a six-week course and taught in prisons in groups of up to 20 learners by PF Volunteers. Prisoners on the programme explore the effects of crime on victims, offenders and the community and discuss what it means to take responsibility for their personal actions. For offenders the most powerful element of the programme takes place when a victim of crime comes to talk about how a crime has impacted on their lives.
The victim gets a voice
One victim spoke about a gunman coming to his door one evening. He opened the door on a chain and the gunman pushed his weapon through the gap to point at his head. The victim shouted out for help and managed to push the door shut and the gunman ran away but was later arrested. The victim wanted a restorative justice meeting with his offender, and after nearly three years they met by agreement in prison. The victim was the first person the offender had seen since going to prison! The victim told the offender of the emotional effects the attack had had on him and his wife. He and his wife have also suffered two burglaries and his wife was now afraid to stay in the house alone. The offender told the victim that if the victim had not shouted out for help he would have shot him. He had gone to the wrong address to take revenge on another person and had realised his mistake when he heard the man's voice. At the end of the meeting the victim made the decision to forgive the offender.
Many offenders have been victims themselves of offences and abuse during their lives and their ability to forgive and overcome their negative emotions is also discussed on this course. A quote that is used on the course is "Harbouring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die".
Completion of workbooks for this course by the offender results in an educational qualification from Open College Network. One offender recently said that this was the first qualification he had ever received and he was in his 20's. When they come out of prison, many offenders want to help young people not to offend and go (under supervision) and speak to children in schools about crime.
Has philosophy helped with the work in prisons?
Well, I often mention the phrase we are given "What would a wise man do now?" when talking to offenders. I have found the course on Love (Part 3) very reaffirming and it is true that giving time to others is uplifting. I have also tried to listen far more carefully to the offenders' stories and concerns since doing the course. Also, we are asked on the course "to look at others freshly as if for the first time". Although I meet some prisoners for the first time their stories may well have appeared in the newspapers before I meet them. This is particularly the case when many are on remand at Belmarsh so I endeavour to be even more open-minded and always non-judgemental when meeting those behind bars.
I have continued to do this for many years now because of the enjoyment I get from building a relationship with people whom I would not otherwise meet and hopefully providing support to them during a difficult phase in their lives. My basic philosophy in life is that all people are valuable and despite what might have happened to them in the past, change and growth is always possible.
Go to SycamoreTree for more information about this programme.