Melanie shares her reflections after attending a 'social' day at HMP Grendon with a group of New Bridge volunteers.
I was really pleased to have one of the places offered to New Bridge for the “Social” as one of my befriendees has put in an application for a transfer there. I told him I would give him some feedback from all that I saw.
The day began with a firm but friendly prison officer telling the forty-or-so members of the public congregating in the portacabin visitor centre: “Absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, to go in with you.” She directed a smartly dressed man with a notebook and pen towards a locker – we will come back to this gentleman at the end of the blog. ID and car keys were stowed away after checking us against a list.
We were herded through a gated air-lock and across into A-wing, where we were checked off against another list – this time my New Bridge alias, which I luckily spotted before giving my real name. Of course, even though I don’t have a correspondent at Grendon yet, the day may come.
The programme started with a welcome and an introduction by a couple of prisoners. This Social is an event which they put on every 6 months as part of their community therapy to give them practice at interacting socially with “outside” people. It is also an opportunity to explain to the visiting public that it can take from 18 months to 2 years to get a place at Grendon from when a prisoner first puts in an application. They went on to describe how living at Grendon under an ethos built on the four pillars of Tolerance, Democracy, Community and Reality (the last being the ability to face their fears and to understand themselves) gives them the safe space to work on their rehabilitation. Working in small groups of eight, they learn about trust and to forge friendships; creating strong almost family-like bonds. They let down their barriers and to drop the “front”, which is not possible in other prisons or you show your vulnerability. However, if a man behaves badly, this is also dealt with by the group and in extremis can lead to a prisoner being removed from Grendon at the behest of the group!
In a brave demonstration of what Grendon means to them, two prisoners described their Grendon journey. Therapy – either psycho-drama or art therapy, or even one-to-one EMDR, had allowed them to understand themselves better and how or why they had fallen into wrongful patterns of behaviour. Whilst not excusing their crimes, this was an essential step in becoming rehabilitated and eventually on release becoming a contributor to society rather than a repeat offender. I say brave because it takes courage to stand in front of so many total strangers and bare your soul by describing how you are learning to deal with traumatic events from the past which might trigger behavioural difficulties. One habitual self-harmer described how the therapy and supportive friendships had restored his self-worth to the extent that he no longer felt the need to cut himself. I was not the only one with a tear running down my cheek at this point.
The Therapy Manager gave a short talk on some of the basic aims of the therapy “trust: give it, and get it back”, and explained that these prisoners “have victims, but many are also victims”.
We were treated to lunch which we enjoyed whilst chatting to different prisoners, and then we watched four volunteers demonstrating an Art Therapy session. Each had prepared an artwork which they described and explained to the others. They then responded to searching questions or discussed aspects about their work which they may not have consciously included. The Art Therapist explained to us how the different sides of the brain work: the left deals with logic, the right deals with feelings and creativity. From the right side, sometimes surprising or illuminating images emerge within the art. Whilst men may not immediately be able to talk about what that image means as it can be too traumatic, the artwork remains and can be returned to at a later date. This therapy encourages a culture of enquiry within the community.
Q&A wrapped up this session, which was followed by further general milling around chatting with lots of different people. It was with a degree of sadness that having learned a lot about some of the prisoners’ journeys we had to say goodbye, knowing that we would never hear about their final outcome. But what I do feel instinctively is that their outcome is more likely to be a positive “lived happily ever after” having had the Grendon experience than if they had not. I came away with a sense of despair that Grendon stands alone in the prison estate in providing serious therapy and rehabilitation of prisoners rather than simply “warehousing” men.
The smart gentleman at the beginning of this article was from the Dutch Embassy. He told me he has been visiting a prisoner here for the last 8 years. There is a team of 18 employees from the Dutch Embassy who visit Dutch prisoners across Britain. I suggested that this is a very good service and one which I do not believe is replicated by British Embassies overseas. He tells me the Dutch are the only country that are so supportive of their nationals in prison. These Dutch imprisoned away from Holland pose a problem because most of them do not speak Dutch, so when released from jail and deported to Holland, they cannot deal with the bureaucracy which is all communicated in Dutch!
If Melanie has inspired you to consider volunteering with New Bridge then you can find out more here: https://www.newbridgefoundation.org.uk/volunteer-for-us