Covid-19 put a stop to many things. But, for Julie, it marked the beginning of her journey to becoming a Sycamore Tree Tutor in her local prison.
Julie had been volunteering at her local prison since 2015. But when the pandemic struck in 2020, she was locked out and unable to continue. ‘I felt really down during Covid because I couldn’t go into prison,’ Julie remarks. Then, rather than doing nothing, Julie decided to join Prison Fellowship and become a volunteer. ‘Instead of sitting around, I thought I could get trained in other things that I could do once the pandemic was over.’
During lockdowns, Julie got trained as a letter writer for Letter Link as well as a Sycamore Tree Tutor. Little did she know that her local prison had been wanting to run Sycamore Tree for several years but had nobody available to lead the programme.
Once able, Julie, together with another new tutor, completed her Sycamore Tree training in two nearby male prisons. The other new tutor then joined Julie to help run the first Sycamore Tree course in her local prison.
Reflecting on the course, Julie is full of praise for the women who attended Sycamore Tree. ‘The women that did the course to the end were incredible,’ she beams. Stephen Hawkins, PF’s Operations Manager, also noted on one visit how brilliant the engagement and the responses were from the women
At the end of the course, one learner declared, ‘I have been on numerous courses over my 12 years in prison and this is both the most difficult and challenging but also the best course I’ve ever done.’
Having completed her Sycamore Tree Tutor training in men’s prisons, Julie commented on some of the differences she found between men and women doing Sycamore Tree: ‘It seemed like the men were a lot more still and received what was delivered in a more focussed manner. Whereas the women were a lot more vocal and raised all kinds of things as they engaged with the course.’
Another interesting observation of Julie’s is that some women on her course found it more difficult to engage with the concept of remorse. Julie notes, ‘Although they wanted to show remorse and to take responsibility for their crimes, this was complicated for them because many of the women were in prison as accomplices to someone else’s crime.’ While they had been involved in things that were obviously very wrong, for the majority of women, it felt a lot less clear cut than it did for the men.’
This links with the 2019 observation of David Lammy MP, who stated that most women in prison are ‘there because of a man.’ Given this, Julie was able to help the learners engage with the concept of remorse by looking at other offenses in their past.
And, although Julie’s team of volunteers was quite small and her first Sycamore Tree course had a modest number of learners, growth is on the horizon with other local people signed up for Sycamore Tree Group Facilitator training later this year. Julie enthuses, ‘From me feeling like, “I really need to do this and not be miserable about the fact that I can’t go into prison, ”to now having a team of people who really want to deliver Sycamore Tree to our prison is remarkable.’
Julie’s enthusiasm and can-do attitude is infectious. And her story is an incredible testimony of what can be accomplished by having a heart to serve and support people in prison.
Learn more about becoming a Prison Fellowship volunteer at prisonfellowship.org.uk/get-involved