Helping families do time

When I tell people I’m off to prison, I normally get a confused look. In fact, I go to prison pretty regularly – usually once or twice a week – and I’ve been going for the past year and a half. But rather than serve time for some crime I’ve managed to keep secret, I go to serve tea and toast, chat to visitors and play in the ‘jungle’ (aka, the play area in the visits room).

I volunteer with NEPACS, a charity in the North East that works to build bridges between prisoners, their families, and the community. They deliver services at seven prisons and young offenders’ institutes across the North East, such as visitor centres that include tea bar and play area facilities, as well as providing support to prisoners’ and their families through small grants, short holidays and Family Support Workers.

On each shift, I might work at the front desk, the tea bar, or the play area. Tasks include signing visitors in and explaining the visiting process, providing drinks and snacks to visitors, having a chat with them and playing with some of the children that come to visit.

It can be an extremely stressful and frightening experience visiting a friend or relative in prison, with visitors frequently travelling for several hours with young children in tow. The booking procedure, identity and security checks, and First-Time-Visits rules are not the simplest, but NEPACS staff and volunteers do a fantastic job in guiding visitors through the process. Some volunteers have been at NEPACS for over 20 years, and everyone I’ve met, both locals and students, young and old has been incredibly knowledgeable and great fun to work with.

I was probably in the minority when I had ‘It has a prison’ as one of my reasons for coming to Durham. My fascination with prisons started with the television programme Prison Break and has blossomed ever since, going from work experience at the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Offender Management Service to joint-project leading the NEPACS partner project at Student Community Action (SCA), Durham University’s biggest student volunteering organisation.  I had heard that there were opportunities to volunteer at the prison, but it wasn’t until a fellow Durham student did a talk in college that I heard about NEPACS. One application, countless identity documents, two security checks and three induction session later, I started my first shift!

As fascinated as I was to actually go inside a real life prison, I purposefully went in with no preconceptions about what it might be like, what the visitors and prisoners might be like and so forth. Of course, there are people who might fit certain stereotypes, but I have been struck by the range of backgrounds and walks of life from which visitors come, and how chatty and friendly the vast majority are – especially given how terrifying and emotional visits can be.

Alongside learning the difference a warm welcome and a chat can make, I’ve learnt so much about the challenges that families on the outside face. These not only include the practical elements such as loss of income, transport costs for visits and housing issues, but also missing a loved one, having to explain to family members and children what has happened, the stress and uncertainty of not knowing how they are or even which prison they are in. It is for this reason that I am currently doing my dissertation on the experience of visiting a friend or relative in prison, focusing on the prison visit itself. I have been doing interviews with visitors and observations in the visits hall to try and analyse more closely what it is like for visitors, and to present their opinions and experiences. So far, the responses and observations have been really interesting, and I will be providing feedback to both NEPACS and the Governor of HMP Durham. Volunteering with NEPACS has not only given me access to this kind of research but has provided research ideas and questions and given me experience of the environment that I can draw on to enhance my final report. Working with prisoners’ families is also something that I plan on going into as a career, and so my experiences of working with NEPACS and SCA have been invaluable in getting me closer to this goal.

In fact, I’ve finished this blog just in time for this week’s shift in the prison play area…..

This post was written by a current third year student. 

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