Life Behind Bars: UoN student volunteers help prisoners find new lives

When student volunteers enter the prisons, they are offered a glimpse into the reality of life behind bars. They are given no information about the inmates they will be helping, and are armed only with knowledge of the Prisoner’s Rehabilitation Act.

“Every few paces there’d be another door they’d have to unlock for us to go through. It was a weird feeling. It was so huge, and we were walking inside. The thought of being there for a really long time is horrible”, says Alexandra Donaldson, a student volunteer.

Each door is locked several times behind them, and while the students make their way through the prison they are exposed to the complex makeup of the prison population: “There were people who should have been in a psychiatric ward, but that hadn’t quite met the criteria and ended up in prison”, says student volunteer Freya Claydon. “There was one guy who would throw his faeces at people and he just shouldn’t have been there, but he hadn’t quite ticked all the boxes”.

The students are all part of the project Bars In Their Eyes, which is run by UoN’s Pro-Bono society. Not all volunteers study law, but before entering the prison they are all briefed on the laws governing prisoner rehabilitation.

“A lot of them just went too far one day and struck out, and just have to live with those consequences”.

The inmates who greet the students are there voluntarily, and often are close to their release date. The students are told not to ask about inmates’ convictions, but it can be tempting: “It’s a good thing that you don’t know, but you are curious. When you’re speaking to someone who says they’ve been in there for 10-15 years, you desperately want to find out why!” says Alexandra.

But some inmates have opened up to the students. Alexandra adds: “One guy told me he was in for knife crime. He said to one of the other volunteers: ‘I wanted to be a chef, but they won’t let me in the kitchen now!’”

When the students arrive, they give a presentation to the prisoners about their rights and what they are obliged to disclose about their criminal convictions. They explain the Prisoner’s Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and what that would mean for future job applications after their release.

“Some of them didn’t know that they didn’t have to disclose their convictions – they thought it’d be on their CVs for life, which is not the case,” Freya Claydon explains. “For a lot of them, the scheme gives them more hope”.

“We could walk around and talk to them in their cells. You’d have to remind yourself that you’re in the rapist ward”.

Alexandra confirms that the prisoners seemed to find it beneficial: “It did seem to help in terms of writing a CV. We gave them a template for it, and a guide of how to write it. I think they’ll be more confident”.

Gary Higgins, a former prisoner who served eight years under an Indeterminate Prison  Sentence (IPP), tells IMPACT of his struggles in finding employment after prison. “You’re given no information whatsoever. You are kept very much in the dark and you’re not prepared enough”.

Alexandra says that despite the fact they are serving time in prison, “They can actually help society. They’re intelligent and creative. There definitely needs to be some sort of system where when they come out people help them to get jobs, so they’re not wasted”.

Freya adds that there is a significant degree of confusion within the prison system, but that channelling resources to support services is difficult: “Whatever you do is going to demand a lot of state resources, and there aren’t that many volunteer groups that provide such services. And with the cuts at the moment, I don’t see the state or society being willing to cough up and say ‘let’s make it easy for murders or people who have been in prison for 15 years’”.

“When you were talking to them you wouldn’t realise they’d done terrible things”.

The students only spend a few hours with the prisoners, but in that time they say that their impression of convicts changed dramatically: “It’s completely changed my perspective,” says Samantha, “Now I know they’re normal people and have families. People make mistakes.

“It’s so easy to go in and just define a prisoner by the fact they’re a bad citizen, and put them in a different category to yourself. But then you have a normal conversation with them and realise they’re just people”.

Freya recalls one of the more memorable encounters with an inmate: “One guy said to me, ‘you can’t tell the governors, but I make cake in my kettle!’

“When you think of prison, you think it’s all like Breaking Bad with people making meth, but there he is making cakes!”

“They’re normal people and have families. People make mistakes”.

Another student volunteer, Afzaal Abibi says that they developed a good relationship with most of the inmates over the course of the session: “One of the guys we presented to, he came in to the room and he had this big presence and he shook our hands, he ended up being such a sweetheart. There was a butterfly fluttering around the room and he said ‘oh the butterfly doesn’t want to be in here’ and he got it out of the window”.

Alexandra says that it was easy to forget where the presentation was taking place: “When you were talking to them you wouldn’t realise they’d done terrible things”.

Not all groups that run prison trips allow students to actively engage with inmates. “Some trips can be slightly on the verge of being zoo-like,” Freya recalls. “With Bars in Their Eyes I didn’t realise we’d get so much free reign. We could walk around and talk to them in their cells. You’d have to remind yourself that you’re in the rapist ward”.

“‘You can’t tell the governors, but I make cake in my kettle!’”.

Freya in particular found that her perception of Law as a subject was altered after seeing the direct implications of its practice. “It does have a particularly striking effect as our career ultimately decides whether people go to these places… when you’re stuck in Hallward at 3am you forget the personal effect that your subject has on people”.

Although not all students who volunteer with the scheme will go into the legal profession, each have provided a vital service to the inmates and tell us that they have learnt a lot from their experience.

“At the end of the day you can’t tell prisoners apart from people on the street”, Freya says. “For a lot of them, they just went too far one day and struck out, and just have to live with those consequences”.

Emily Tripp

Additional reporting: Will Hazell, Emily Shackleton and Charlotte McIntyre

Image credit: Kate Ter Haar via Flickr

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