Woman to woman: a sharing experience

Helen, an experienced New Bridge volunteer, gave us her reflections on befriending a woman in prison, to mark International Women's Day.

"I’ve been befriending prisoners with New Bridge for approaching 15 years, writing letters to & visiting five prisoners who had committed serious crimes.  Since their release I have been befriending another man and, for the first time, a woman, Maryam [not her real name] who are both lifers. I’ve met them both and have known them for several years.

Maryam responded to a New Bridge ad in the prisoner newspaper Inside Time offering befriending support to prisoners. Via her probation officer her details, including her crime were sent to New Bridge.  Knowing that it’s suggested writing to two prisoners can be better than one I selected her from a list of people wanting the support of New Bridge.

Off went my welcoming letter. What happened next was so different from my previous experiences. It was not a slow build up of chat about prison conditions, family, food and football which I usually enjoy. From Maryam a letter came with an outpouring of details her life. More followed with descriptions often graphic of disadvantage, loss, abuse, violence and the misfortune of rigid expectations of the life a woman should lead. She fully acknowledged guilt for her crime. Her testament was consistent and believable. I valued the support of members of my New Bridge volunteer group while these letters came. Over time the content of our exchanges developed in a more positive direction.

The befriending relationship with this active intelligent woman now involves letters, emails, phone calls and visits all within the scope of New Bridge’s tight security guidelines. During this I have learnt so much of the stresses on a woman in prison. How can one be a good Mum to several children after years apart with a long sentence ahead? It’s a constant sorrow. Maryam talks of the joys of visits and phone calls but also of terrible regret and guilt about not being with her family as they grow and develop. Other outside traumas have been shared. I listen to the anguish she has, hearing of family conflict which she can’t help resolve. Not surprisingly Mental Health issues are part of the mix which need to be understood especially when attempted suicide was in her history. Maryam has times of very understandable depression. Being locked up with other women is known to be a highly charged emotional experience and instances of bullying have been mentioned. Sensibly Maryam has learnt to avoid conflict if she can and keeps herself to herself as much as is feasible. 

How are things now?  Maryam will say she is now a different woman. She has benefitted from therapy in prison. She looks to her future in spite of her long sentence. She understands how her life experiences conveyed her as a victim to being a prisoner. In her letters, emails and phone calls she talks about how her case might be reviewed and the contact she has made with organisations which could support her doing this. For some time, she has had a vision of life as an independent woman, unrestrained by societal pressures which have led to her misfortune. She is confident about a future standing on her own feet.

What has my befriender experience been? It has been a privilege to know Maryam and share with her the horrible realities of life for some women and especially women in prison. We acknowledge together that they are not just imagined.  Since she was sentenced spotlights have been on extreme difficulties experienced by too many women because they are women, because they have experienced violence, because they have been born into a disadvantaged social group. I think Maryam is a real-life example of such a person. Despite this she has shown such gratefulness, such concern and enormous courage. Remarkably she is wanting to extend her horizons and explore aspects of life outside prison which I love offering her. She has said too she was so grateful to have someone from New Bridge she can share things with, which she cannot tell others such as family, prison staff and fellow prisoners. It’s been a remarkable enlightening  experience knowing someone who in her dark place can see something of a positive future. I just hope we can journey on together with New Bridge until she can achieve her goals."

If Helen has inspired you to think about volunteering with us, you can find out more here: https://www.newbridgefoundation.org.uk/volunteer-for-us

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