ohn her first visit to HMP Belmarsh, Rona McCandlish got lost. The prison sits in a large secluded 1990s estate in Thamesmead, south-east London. It was November 2018 and McCandlish was about to be interviewed for a volunteer position with the charity. Pact, who advises and supports detainees and their families.
“I had to run half a mile at the end to get to the jail,” says McCandlish, who is 63 and lives in nearby Lewisham. She got so lost that she arrived unusually late. “It helped me understand how alienating and confusing visiting a prison for the first time can be.”
At the time, McCandlish was feeling exhausted. She had worked as a midwife before becoming a midwifery teacher, a government midwifery advisor, then a consultant in the NHS maternity wards. “I was working 80 hours a week,” she says, “flying all over the country, staying in different places”. She needed to do something more community driven, at a slower pace. “I was always entering and leaving communities. Now I feel like a part of myself. Volunteering is more than what you do for others. It also does a lot for you.
Despite being late, McCandlish got the job. She volunteers at the Belmarsh Reception Center, welcoming friends and family who are there to see inmates and supporting them through the confusing and sometimes obscure regulations that govern prison visits. Visitors are prohibited from wearing ripped clothes, low-cut tops, short dresses, or even watches. New visitors who do not know the rules risk being fired.
“People feel humiliated when they don’t have the right clothes,” McCandlish says. She and other volunteers have created Boutique Belmarsh: a rail of plain, neutral clothing that they lend to any visitor who breaks the dress code. McCandlish brings all the clothes home to wash between visits.
But McCandlish does more than just facilitate tours. “Rona is an extraordinary woman,” says her manager, Monique Joseph de Pact. “She goes the extra mile to know each family member by name, creating a safe haven when they visit. What makes Rona really special is her ability to speak with people of different backgrounds, religions and ages. “
McCandlish says, “It’s about listening to them, whether they’re hurt, angry or desperate. They’ll say things like, “Why didn’t I stop him from doing this?” He was a good boy and I knew he was going off the rails ”.
A young woman recently visited with her little baby. Her partner had just been sentenced to seven years in prison. “She was really desperate,” said McCandlish. “She didn’t expect her partner to be locked up for that long and have to bring the baby to daddy in jail.”
However, all is not gloomy at the reception center. “It can be a happy place sometimes,” she says. “People don’t expect everything to be fine when they come here, but after their visit they feel relieved. They are happy to see that the person they are visiting is doing well, and they know they did the right thing by coming. During the pandemic, visits were interrupted and only resumed in May of this year. “It was touching,” she says. “Watching visitors come for the first time in 18 months.”
All these years of seeing the dehumanizing effects of prison up close make McCandlish wonder why we spend so much money locking people up, often on non-violent crimes. “I feel pretty hopeless sometimes,” she said. “You have to focus on doing more than just building cages. It is a great waste of resources to lock people up and not provide meaningful education, rehabilitation, support or therapy. “
McCandlish wants to bring a sense of humanity to an otherwise dull and cold place. Outside the visitor center, for example, hangs a withered and wilted plant that has seen better days. For her treat, McCandlish asks for a new one to replace it, and a few low-maintenance houseplants to sprinkle inside. Community garden center on Nunhead Gardener provides McCandlish with a selection of plants and flowers, including a “snake plant” sansevieria, with its long erect leaves and shiny zamioculca.
“The new factory is huge and amazing,” McCandlish says of the suspended factory. “I’m a little worried he’ll fall, because he’s so massive.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
It might seem like a small change, but the plants represent McCandlish’s approach to volunteering: finding ways to shine and give a personal touch to an otherwise impersonal institution. “I want to make the center a nice place to come to,” she says. “It’s not a difficult place. The bottom line is that people who visit feel hope and connection. There were a few murmurs about who would water the plants, but McCandlish, still the volunteer, took full responsibility, “Plants are good for us. They improve our lives.
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