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Volunteering for RECOOP

When I saw a request in my local parish magazine for volunteers to work with older offenders, I almost turned the page without a second thought.  But a list suggesting possible interests volunteers might bring with them caught my eye.  Poetry was among them.  It took me three weeks of reflection, questioning and consideration before I contacted the Project Manager.  I had an interview and requested a tour of the prison to see how I felt in this environment.  The Project Manager took time to show me round and answer my questions, introducing me to a few members of the prison staff.  As we walked, she was approached by a couple of the prisoners with queries about this and that.  Her response was friendly but professional and this was to become for me, as a volunteer, a model of how I would learn to conduct myself within the prison.
Although I’d already worked as a writer in a therapeutic context where boundaries are paramount, I had never worked within the strict, routine life of a prison.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  How would I greet the men?  How would they view me, the outsider?  In preparation, I read as much as I could on prison life both for offenders and staff.  I would be working in an open prison, but many of those taking the opportunities offered by the centre for older offenders would have spent much of their lives in closed prisons - this was their background.
It was suggested that I come in for the first few weeks to spend time with the men, getting to know them, before embarking on a writing group.  I have enjoyed the full and close support of the Project Manager.  Prison awareness training has been part of this support and has been invaluable.  There is a freedom in working within the rules.
The centre for older offenders lies at the heart of the prison.  Its atmosphere is light, bright and warm, providing a much-needed creative and therapeutic space.  Prisons are places often hidden from public view.  There are voices within their walls that are not heard.  In the same way that a diagnosis does not define the woman with arthritis or the man with cancer, the crime does not define the human person the prisoner is.  As a volunteer, the best I can hope and work for, is a meeting of mutual respect and care for each other’s uniqueness and human worth.  I wondered if I could do this work without any previous experience of working in prison.  But, as I am discovering, the life skills we gather along our way are every bit as useful as qualifications. 
Among those whose work inspires me is a poet who spent four years working in San Quentin prison in California.  It is not, she says, about changing people. 
‘I was – or I hope I was – a person sharing with other people.  To intend to change someone requires an assumption that you know more than he does.  I knew more about poetry than most of my students, and they knew more about living with regret.  We all knew something about keeping one’s spirit alive in the midst of darkness.  We each had strengths and weaknesses, we each had done good things and bad things.  We were human beings, and for a few hours each week, we were human beings together.’  Judith Tannenbaum
Volunteering, in my few months’ of experience so far, has been challenging, stimulating, very funny at times, a work of collaboration with colleagues and offenders.  But, fundamentally, it is about being ‘human beings together’.

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Monday, March 18th 2019
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