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My prison and volunteering journey – Volunteering at Unlock

volunteerPrison isn’t a nice place to be, let’s be honest. I was told so many times that I ‘stuck out like a sore thumb’ due to my diction and mannerisms. I just didn’t fit in, which in turn often attracted the wrong kind of attention.

So, I decided to concentrate on my studies which turned out to be a study of the British legal system. I soon earned the name ‘the barrister’ as my head was always in a legal book and I was always writing letters. This in turn led to one of the prison officers asking me if I could help one of the other guys write a letter to his solicitor. Well, one thing led to another and before long, I was teaching several guys to read and write via Toe by Toe, which is a system used in prison to assist those who have weak reading skills or dyslexic difficulties. This was my first taste of volunteering.

I earned the respect of the guys on the prison wing who’d previously been looking at me askance, as I clearly wasn’t ‘from their manor’ (‘or any other manor they were aware of …’). I later found out that my popularity had risen due to the fact that I didn’t judge or criticise anyone, I just tried to help where I could. I became a Prisoner Representative (basically a ‘mediator’ between prison management and prisoners). In some areas this went down well as I’m not known for being a ‘yes-man’. The authorities, however, were not so chuffed due to my habit of challenging the rules and regulations. With my sales skills, I sometimes had management helping the lads in way’s they’d never expected to, just because ‘I talked them into it’.

As part of my prison rehabilitation plan, it was necessary for me to do a period of charity work. The prison were able to offer several manual roles but, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m much more at home with a keyboard and a phone than a drill and a shovel. I decided therefore to start looking for opportunities to volunteer for an organisation where I could give my time and my skills but also get something in return. That’s why I chose to volunteer for Unlock. I wanted to learn all I could about what my life would be like outside, an ex-offender on licence. I knew that I had to know what the rules and regulations were going to be and I couldn’t think of a better place to learn.

Prior to joining Unlock I thought I knew a lot about prison and life for an ex-offender on licence in the community. On joining Unlock I discovered how little I actually knew and to be honest, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it all– there’s so much to learn and my mind struggled to take in the mine of information that’s on Unlock’s information hub. I’ve found the pages contained on Unlock’s information hub is akin to having a hotline to the Ministry of Justice but written in a way that ‘Joe Public’ can understand. I even find myself gravitating to Unlock’s sites in my spare time. I spend time reading sections on subjects that I’m not too clear on and I never fail to find new links that I’ve not looked at before. It’s a mine of information.

In the early days I must have driven the staff mad with my constant questions – I can remember asking the same ones over and over again but Deb, Unlock’s Advice Manager, was very patient and the information gradually sank in.

I know that my criminal record will affect almost every facet of my life once I’m released but unfortunately for those in prison, there is very little help available on the issues that ex-offenders will be faced with once they leave prison. Of the many charities that do exist to help ex-offenders on their journey to reintegration, I never realised how much Unlock challenge and petition the authorities and the commercial world, testing the boundaries in a bid to reduce the obstacles and stigma that prevents ex offenders becoming positive contributors to society once again.

The staff, management and trustees at Unlock are quite unique. Many have a criminal records themselves as do all the helpline advisors. Due to our own experiences, we are well placed to be able to relate to the problems of our callers. We have the advantage of having been through the trials and tribulations that our callers are experiencing and many of us have emerged from the criminal justice system ready to put our knowledge to work for the benefit of others.

Volunteering at Unlock has been a great experience but I don’t mind telling you that listening to people’s stories and giving them the best information and advice I can, means that at the end of the day my brain is screaming ‘no more please’. The work can be hard emotionally, especially when you answer a call to somebody in tears who believes that their world is imploding as a result of their conviction. But I’m always back at my desk ready for my next ‘shift’; I get a real buzz out of the work and I love the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve helped somebody and sometimes even put a smile on their face.

Each day I’m in the office, I take or make calls, reply to emails and conduct research. Believe me, if you put in a full day on the phone, properly listening to callers and their problems, you will be mentally exhausted by the end of it but – you’ll feel extremely satisfied with your efforts.

I believe that prison can either make you or break you – it’s a journey from the date of arrest, to court, trial and sentence but then the main journey through the system really begins. You survive prison. No two people have exactly the same experiences, everyone has their own perspective. I chose to learn as much about the system as I could and that’s why I sought out the helpline role with Unlock – to learn more about the next part of my journey.

I’ve now been at Unlock for 9 months and it has been an enlightening yet draining experience at the same time. The staff at Unlock are hard working and real committed (although they do have a jovial side).

Volunteering has given me knowledge and support in a way that I’d never previously imagined. As anybody who’s ever been in prison knows, you’re constantly watched, judged and assessed. It’s important that the authorities know how you’re likely to deal with problems and issues when you leave – will you take them in your stride or will you ‘flare up’. Whatever you do, it’s logged in your prison record. I take it all in my stride but I’ll often come into the Unlock office and ‘let off steam’. Deb always allows me to ‘vent’ my grievances when things get too much.

As a volunteer at Unlock I’ve never felt alone, left out or lost. There’s plenty of encouragement and nobody is afraid to say ‘ah, I didn’t know that’ or ‘ how do you …..’.  We are in essence, all in the same boat.

I can safely say that I’ll be volunteering for Unlock as long as I can. My friends in prison mainly talk about their aspirations or issues on release. They talk about financial matters, disclosing their convictions to an employer, what kind of jobs they’ll be able to do, probation, insurance etc,etc. Due to my work at Unlock I find myself saying to myself (subconsciously) I know the answer to that, or at least, I know where I can find out the answer – it is such an empowering feeling and long may it last.

By Rodney (name changed to protect identity)


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