Volunteer is highly commended for prison work

Volunteers Week 3-9 June

In nearly 17 years of volunteering, Caroline has written more than 3,000 letters to people who have reached out for help from prison. This month her dedication and service is to be recognised in Oxfordshire’s Volunteer Celebration Awards where she will be highly commended for long service.

As a mentor with The Prison Phoenix Trust, Caroline offers the hand of friendship to people in prison at the lowest time in their lives, helping them see that another way is possible, that there is hope of living a life away from crime.

She is one of 31 volunteers, including 15 mentors, at the charity, which helps people in prison use meditation and yoga to aid rehabilitation and to reintegrate into society when they are released. The volunteers’ contributions are essential to the small organisation, which has just 6 paid staff, most working part-time.

The role of the volunteer mentors is to respond to letters from prisoners who write seeking help to practise meditation or yoga in their prison cells. The mentors draw on their own experience and training from The Prison Phoenix Trust to offer support and encouragement.

Caroline says: “When a letter comes in, I look upon each one as individual and special. There’s a way of reading between the lines to understand what’s going on for the person.

“It’s important I’m not an official in their life, like a prison or probation officer. My approach is just to be a person writing to another person. I’m happy to offer a listening ear. I’m not critical or condemning – I’m here to listen and support.”

Sometimes all that is needed is one letter; sometimes the exchange of letters may continue for 10 years or more.

She says: “Most of the prisoners I write to are men and at first they might think yoga and meditation aren’t very macho, but then they try it, and they are surprised how challenging and hard it is – and how beneficial to them.”

Lisa, who corresponded with Caroline some years ago, while serving a prison sentence for drug-related offences, says the support was a vital part of her rehabilitation.

“Getting the CDs and books from The PPT, which I still have today, was really, really important to me,” says Lisa. “I had the space in my life to be able to yoga and meditation on my own in my own cell. It got me back in touch with myself.”

Another former prisoner Paul recalls: “The letter from The PPT opened a door for me to express my inner fears and feelings. I cried in my writings. It brought me out and gave me an inner strength.”

Many prisoners have histories of childhood deprivation and trauma, and the mentor’s role is sensitive.

Caroline, who has children and grandchildren of her own, says: “It can be very challenging when someone writes about the difficulties they’ve faced in life; the stories from their childhood or family situations that are tough. Prison life can also be very hard to cope with. One of the things I often need to do is help someone with the feelings of anxiety or anger that create real problems for them.

“The letters I get are very thought provoking. I read very carefully, trying to help the person sort out what their problems and values are.”

She draws on her own lifelong experience of meditation, which she discovered through Christian contemplative groups. Having studied History of Art and worked in art publishing, Caroline is now an artist who exhibits in Oxford and elsewhere.

Prison Phoenix Trust Director Selina Sasse says: “Caroline is a wonderful member of our team of dedicated volunteers. Every week, she brings wisdom and compassion to people who want help to change, and in doing so she helps to make our community safer.”

Caroline says “I would recommend volunteering 100 per cent. There’s enormous support for the role I have. It’s challenging as well as rewarding. But as a volunteer you’re completely included in the running of the charity. There’s a wonderful atmosphere. You feel really appreciated and that you’re contributing.”