Volunteering in prison ”really opened my eyes”

Volunteering in prison ”really opened my eyes”

Invisible Walls, our flagship prisons family services project at HMP Winchester, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Caroline Miles has volunteered since its early days – she explains what drew her to this work and what she has learned from it.

My job is in finance, but I’ve always had a passion for what makes people tick. So I took evening classes in psychology and sociology, then sat a degree in Applied Social Sciences at Southampton. Through the university, I applied for a month-long internship with Invisible Walls. It really opened my eyes and led me to focus my studies on criminal justice and penology. With help from Spurgeons and HMP Winchester, I interviewed prisoners’ families and wrote my dissertation on their experiences of visiting a loved one in prison.

Caroline Miles, Volunteer for Invisible Walls

I discovered how much these families and children have to deal with, both practically and emotionally – not just the separation from a loved one, but also the social stigma which is huge. Who wants to admit to having a relative in prison? Because of losing one income, the family might also face financial hardship or have debt, be threatened with eviction and more. It’s all very destabilising for the children.

Ten years ago, prisoners’ families got very little support to help them find their way through their changed circumstances. Thankfully, things are improving, not least through the influence of Invisible Walls.

Prisoner’s families are all ages, from all walks of life, ordinary people like you and me. It can take huge courage for them to visit a prison – they may be very anxious, they fear being judged, they don’t know what to expect. My role as a volunteer is to welcome them with a reassuring smile, make them a cup of tea and answer their questions. Many of them say how much that simple hospitality means to them.

I love the Family Days the best. We get the visits hall ready with toys, crafts and games and the dads are waiting expectantly… then the doors burst open and a flood of children pour across the floor, squealing with excitement, and into the outstretched arms of their dads! Over the next few hours the dads and children do activities together – perhaps paint a picture or play badminton at one end of the hall. I remember watching one big burly dad (facepaint on, dressed as a princess) racing up and down the hall with his little girl, both of them hooting with laughter – it was hilarious!

Moments like that help you to see the men in another light – they’re not just criminals, they are dads. It’s key to them going straight that they learn to see themselves in another light too, and Family Days really help with that. You get a glimpse of the change happening in the minutes between the children leaving the hall and the men going back to their cells.

They are subdued and reflective – you can tell what an impact it’s had, being able to experience being a dad again. And evidence shows that when family ties are supported during imprisonment, reoffending is less likely to happen. So perhaps this taster of ‘normal’ family life, being able to hug your child and play games with them, is a real incentive to try and turn over a new leaf – the carrot that may in the end prove stronger than the stick.

Above all, Family Days are vitally important for the children. Unlike on a standard prison visit, father and child can play, cuddle, laugh – all those normal things that tell a child, far more than just words, that their dad still loves them.

About Spurgeons Prison-based Family Support Services:

Spurgeons delivers family support services in 12 prisons across England. These services provide family support services for prisoners and their families and friends who visit them, with a particular focus on children and strengthening family relationships. We appreciate how important prison visits are for everyone involved. Our aim is to make them less daunting so that the time spent together helps families to re-connect in a positive way. We are always here to offer practical and emotional support.

To learn more about our work in prisons, click here.