The Going Forward Project is designed to support offenders due for release. A cross-departmental team of volunteers are asked to design and deliver a series of sessions in areas such as job readiness, CV writing, interview skills and self-employment. But these are no ordinary work presentations and this wasn’t an ordinary setting.
The experience of the prison system was entirely new to me – I had a basic idea of what level of security to expect but what I didn’t anticipate was the claustrophobia. The high walls and being securely locked in one place before being allowed to move to the next was overwhelming, ironically I was constantly thinking of escape! Gradually, as is human nature, you begin to adjust and by the end of the experience the security became second nature. The next hurdle was "the lads" (which is the terminology used by the warders to humanise the inmates and focus their minds on rehabilitation) themselves – within 5 minutes they blew away all my preconceived ideas of offenders. I expected rude, illiterate, aggressive lads with a huge chip on their shoulders. What we got were polite, articulate, health-conscious, witty young men who were apprehensive but eager to learn. That said, there was one lad who told us in no uncertain and profane terms what he though of our brief and walked out almost immediately - never to return. After that, we managed to keep all the rest.
The lads were as nervous as I was and even though they were all about the gym and some were twice my size I didn’t find them intimidating, I had no qualms about working alongside them at all.
It soon became clear that we had to re-evaluate our course as it had clearly been pitched too low. You could almost feel the project team mentally re-working their sessions to suit. We had a good balance of workers in the team and we tailored the session to be engaging and informative – the lads had very visual ways of letting us know if the material was getting a bit dull. I’m not saying we had to wake them up at times, but we came close. We found that we reacted well to their requirements and most sessions turned out to be productive and engaging, and for me at times, eye-opening. The lads don’t hold back – direct isn’t the word. A bond was formed between the team and the lads and as such we were able to push them out of their comfort zones and were able to talk frankly and personally about their situation and how they would like to move forward after prison. Being able to provide the lads with skills that would help them on the ‘outside’ was incredibly rewarding. The confidence I gained from this, the thinking on my feet and perspective has been immeasurable. Honestly, after this you get the feeling you could conquer anything.
To summarize our sessions, we asked the lads to produce a mind map with everything on it that they had learned and asked them to speak about it at a small celebration event at the end of the course. Some of the initial responses were “no way man” and “as if”. It even coincided with their gym session. In the end (much to our amazement) they all turned up and 2 even spoke really positively about their experience. Knowing you have even a tiny bit of constructive influence in someone’s life is so rewarding. I am convinced that many of us could have ended up in the same situation as these lads if we hadn’t had the right opportunities. I am just thankful I had the opportunity to help in some way.
If you’re thinking of volunteering for Going Forward, I’d definitely encourage you to take part. Please contact Jayne Krol for further details