HELPING ON THE INSIDE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE ON THE OUTSIDE
A Dorset charity is struggling to get noticed because, in the words of its Vice Chair, “it’s not pink and fluffy”. Friends of Guys Marsh, (FOGM), is appealing for volunteers to help support prisoners at HMP Guys Marsh, near Shaftesbury, to improve their chances of going straight on the outside.
FOGM works closely with the category C training prison, regarded as one of best in the south west for rehabilitating prisoners and reducing reoffending. The charity was started in 2004, brainchild of Roberta (Bobbie) Primrose from Marnhull, now in her 80’s, who has just stepped down from an active role.
Vice Chair Steve Penson explains: “These men are inside for a good reason – we never deny that. But for many, a prison sentence really starts when they get out. Ex-offenders often have nowhere to go when they’ve done their time. They leave hopeless and homeless, returning to the cycle that sees them end up in prison again. That’s no good for them, our community or the taxpayer.”
The average annual cost per prisoner is £32,215 and the re-offending rate is shockingly expensive – an estimated £9-£13 billion each year.
FOGM supports prisoners who actively seek to change their lives, working with those who say : “I’ve made a massive mistake with my life. I want to change and make a difference when I get out of prison.”
Ex-offender Sobanan, who spent 18 months in Guys Marsh, recalls: “FOGM helped me see that I mattered as a prisoner; that people existed who wanted to give back to those who wouldn’t be able to do anything for them. They contributed compassion and a positive environment in a harsh place.”
FOGM support the prison with many initiatives. During the height of the pandemic, prisoners wanted to make scrubs but there was only one old sewing machine between 400 men. After an appeal via FOGM’s network, 25 sewing machines were donated. PPE was supplied to NHS Trusts and a contract was awarded from Yeovil hospital. “The men felt they were helping their families on the outside,” says Steve Penson. The prison has now set up a textile workshop so prisoners can be tutored in a new life skill.
The prison has an aptly called Jail House Café, where prisoners gain catering qualifications. Woodworking skills are taught and picnic tables and bird boxes are sold at local country shows with profits going to support FOGM’s work.
Lockdown has literally meant just that for Guys Mash inmates – sometimes 23 hours in a cell. To alleviate boredom and connect with home, FOGM funded exotic backdrops for fun selfies. These were made into postcards home – much nicer for children to see their dads in a beach scene rather than against a prison wall.
At time of writing, prison visits are still on pandemic hold. Family support is the crux of rehabilitation. FOGM have funded a play-worker who looks after children when families can visit. Books written by children with parents in prison have been bought so visiting children understand they’re not alone in having a dad in prison.
FOGM treasurer Ann Davis-Penson “If we can keep the family nucleus together, there’s a strong possibility that a man won’t reoffend.”
And when the prisoners leave? Ann Davis-Penson explains: “Prisoners can leave in the very clothes they came in wearing. Standing on Gillingham station in a pair of pyjamas and your belongings in a bin bag doesn’t inspire a new start, so we fund clothing. Trousers and shoes that fit go a long way in giving back some dignity. We also provide a leaver’s bag with a month’s supply of toiletries.”
Tracy Harrison, prison Head of Reducing Reoffending & Drug Strategy, believes FOGM really makes a difference: “FOGM is dedicated to providing support through the gate, encouraging men to reduce reoffending by offering employment and resettlement support. They’ve helped to reduce stress and boredom during the pandemic restrictions through in-cell activities such as juggling and providing Dragon’s Den style business packs to motivate men to consider their future.”
For some, future on the outside is rosier thanks to FOGM. Success stories include an ex-offender who now works for Channel 4 after learning film-making whilst inside. A 15-year timer is now a yoga instructor and one has been approached by the Ministry of Justice to advise on prison rehabilitation.
You can join FOGM with an annual donation of £10 or by volunteering. Steve Penson: “Small things really make a difference. Even if you can only spare a few hours to make tea for prison visitors, we’d love to hear from you. FOGMvicechair@outlook.com
By: Tracie Beardsley