Ryan Galpin from the PF Support Team describes his first ever visit to prison to attend a final session of Sycamore Tree.
Visiting somewhere for the first time is always a nerve-racking experience for me. The uncertainty of what to expect and inability to pre-empt what might happen heightens the apprehension.
My mind was racing, full of scenes and worst-case scenarios as I swayed along with the train. Anxieties about prison had been on my mind often since the visit was confirmed: ‘What if I’ve brought the wrong ID?’ ‘What if I accidentally bring something in?’ ‘What happens if something kicks off?’
There is a big difference between what we say and what we do. It is very easy to say that people in prison are just normal people, but now that I was confronted with the reality of prison— being inside among people convicted of crimes—all those previous words drowned under a wave of nerves.
Visiting prison would make me address my hidden biases and beliefs. I passed the towering wall topped with barbed wire and netting. ‘They are really trying to keep people in— in where I am going.’ Danger.
With ID confirmed and the locker puzzle cracked, I emptied my pockets of all possessions and headed into the unknown. I found the group of PF volunteers and we were escorted to the main chapel. The repetitive jingle of keys a reminder of the security measures required inside the walls.
Once everyone had filtered into the chapel, we introduced ourselves and were briefed on the expected schedule. The volunteer team was relaxed and appeared not to be on the same rollercoaster of emotions I was riding.
As I spoke with one of the volunteers, two men came over. I extended the conversation and introduced myself. While we chatted, I noticed more men emerging from a doorway and realised I had been talking with two residents. Nothing about their entrance or appearance had suggested they were prisoners. No cuffs, no threatening demeanour. I was greeted with a smile and a handshake full of warmth. Danger? What danger?
The men chatted together and with the volunteers and visitors. Others completed workbooks. As the session started, the men engaged as any normal group, joking with one another but also clearly invested and engaged. Drama pieces performed by the participants proved particularly poignant.
The men were then given the opportunity to make a symbolic act of restitution, to recognise and take responsibility for their actions. These moments were profound. Each man engaged in the activity individually, through different mediums including poetry, carving, and baking. Each act was weighty and significant, creating an incredible atmosphere within the group.
Seeing this remarkable outpouring of repentance coupled with hope for a better future was unforgettable.
Once the session had been brought to a close, volunteers, guests, and prisoners alike conversed over hot drinks. The scene in front of me was one of genuine fellowship as fellow humans talked forgiveness, sports, life, and everything in between.
Too soon, it was time for the men to return to their wings. Farewells were exchanged between us as genuine connections were appreciated.
As I looked out through the barred windows, the laughter from the departing prisoners flowed around the chapel. I was struck by the different worlds we were returning to. I was heading back home, to my family and my life. They were being escorted to a cell by officers, far away from loved ones.
I continued to ponder this on the train home. There seemed no difference between the men I met in prison and those sitting on the train. Yes, they had made a mistake. But did that warrant the lifetime of stigma and social exclusion experienced by everyone who leaves prison?
I had entered that chapel and, like the men in prison, I had left a changed man. No longer blinded by the social stigma of people in prison, I had seen and experienced first-hand the humanity in every single person. A humanity, I hoped, that would have the opportunity to flourish into its fullest potential.
Find out more about volunteering with PF by visiting prisonfellowship.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer