A Volunteer’s Experience of Prison Visits
New Bridge volunteers are encouraged to visit the people we befriend as well as keeping regular contact writing letters. After about six months of writing, once we have established a good connection with the person we befriend, it’s time to think about visiting.
My first visit happened as lockdown was beginning to lift. Simon* and I had been writing regularly throughout the COVID epidemic and after a bit of “visits are on, visits are off” due to outbreaks of the virus we eventually had a visit booked.
When the day finally arrived, I’m not sure who was more nervous, Simon or me. For many people in prison having a visit, especially from someone they have only had correspondence with, can be daunting. At this time the risk of Covid was still very present so lateral flow testing, screens, masks and lots of hand sanitising added to the strangeness.
Thankfully the visit went well, once seated we were able to take our masks off as a screen protected us. Simon was looking very smart - I quickly discovered that he’d splashed out on a new outfit for the occasion.
After the visit I had a bit of a headache. This was probably caused by my heightened anxiety, doing something for the first time that was outside my experience and to be honest my comfort zone. I must admit I found the whole thing unsettling. Thankfully it wasn’t long before the screens went and wearing a mask was no longer expected which made the visits much easier.
I soon got used to visiting and although they are nothing like any other social interaction that I’d experienced, I became comfortable and enjoyed meeting in person.
Conversation, so far, has come easily. People in prison appreciate someone taking an interest in them. Chatting about day-to-day life, encouraged by a few open-ended questions along with a genuine interest mean the time flies by. On one occasion Simon and I played cards, not all prisons would allow this. If you’re wondering, we played cheat!
Simon has been moved to a different prison and travelling is now much more of an issue, to compensate we have phone calls as well as the letters and so regular contact is maintained.
Not all befriending relationships work out. On another occasion I visited Brian* in an open prison, the visit seemed to go well, but I didn’t hear from him again. I pondered on the reasons and of course will never really know why he didn’t write again. I was left with a loose end. I’d continued to write for several months to no avail. When I look back, I realised that Brian had stopped writing a good couple of months before the visit. Perhaps it was the new open prison routine and not meeting me that ended this relationship!
I’ve now visited four prisons to meet with three different people. Each follow a similar routine of security checks to confirm the visitor’s identity and pat down body searches to ensure nothing is taken into the prison. Some prisons have sniffer dogs as well. Only a small amount of money for refreshments can be taken into the visiting hall - personal belongings are stowed away in a locker in the visitor reception area.
Before getting to the visitor’s hall there are a series of locked doors to go through, security cameras follow every move which keep everyone safe. On one occasion, I was asked very nicely, to take my hands out of my pockets, it had been picked up by one of the cameras and I guess threatened security. One prison had a different way to check in each time I visited. It’s hard to make firm guidelines for visiting although one thing they all have in common seems to be a lot of rushing to wait!
All prison visitor halls offer refreshments. This for Simon is a highlight, in his new prison he is only eating “sealed meals” as he’s concerned about the regular food being contaminated. So, a big focus of our meeting was getting him burgers and chips, followed by chocolate bars and canned drinks. Not everywhere will offer hot food and not every person wants more than a cup of tea. I always eat before a visit, either before I leave home or a picnic lunch on the way.
On one occasion I’d arranged a first visit to Chris*. We’d been writing to each other for a good six months but the day before the meeting I received a message from him cancelling the visit. I think some people find meeting in person just too daunting. I left it for a while before I made a further suggestion to visit – confirming that it was his choice - I’m still waiting to hear. Letters with Chris seem positive so perhaps one day he will feel ready for us to meet.
The prison experience will vary for each person. Some keep busy with courses, jobs, and numerous other routine activities - others are isolated and lonely. Some have visits from friends or family members; for others the New Bridge visit is the only time they get to meet someone from outside the prison system. Others find it too unsettling to meet their befriender at all.
I hope my role as a New Bridge volunteer will continue for the foreseeable future, it is one I find immensely interesting and rewarding. Meeting people with such different life experiences has broadened my mind, helped to expose my prejudices, and taught me about prison life, all experiences for which I’m very grateful.
*names have been changed