Samaritans Supporting Prisons

Paul Johnson - Reigate

At Network Rail we are fortunate to have five paid volunteer leave days per year, so I have used mine to help the Samaritans. As a Samaritan Listening Volunteer, I have used several days to take-up weekly day time shifts – allowing me to experience some different types of call from those I usually get on my evening, night time and weekend shifts.

I have also booked some half-days to experience two of the many other types of Samaritans work that I can’t normally do. I think this will be a good challenge for me whilst helping others in need. 

Samaritans help train prisoners to be Listeners for their fellow inmates and we also offer support to prison visitors. I’ve been told these are very much ‘marmite’ activities…but I wanted to experience each of them and find out whether I wanted to continue with either of them on a regular basis.

At High Down prison in Surrey they work closely with the Samaritans and their trained Listeners. Prisoners are at a higher risk of suicide; due to a high proportion of prisoners experiencing mental health issues, health issues and substance addiction. Being away from their friends and families and struggling to adapt to the constraints of prison life all take their toll.

The prison Listeners provide confidential face-to-face support to those who request it – it can be incredibly helpful to inmates and in some cases life-saving. 

I’ve never been to a prison before and to be honest I was a little anxious but also very keen to experience something new. The immediate impressions were how I couldn’t go anywhere unaccompanied, every door was locked and needed opening and locking twice before moving on. I also noticed the noise, everything was so loud, and everyone seemed to be shouting.

I sat-in on a Samaritans training course for the Listeners. The 4thmodule of their training focuses on the signs to look for in fellow prisoners that might suggest they have suicidal thoughts or plans. I took part in role-plays including one where I played a prisoner being supported by two Listeners. I was really impressed with the prisoners’ ability to listen, not give advice and show empathy… which is very hard to do in a false situation with lots of your peers looking on – I know from my training earlier this year.

It was fascinating to meet the prisoners and understand their motivation for being a Listener I’ve never met anyone who has been in prison before `. They told me about their experiences of prison life and the suicide attempts that had taken place and they hadn’t spotted the warning signs.

I also spent a couple of hours in the Visitors Centre – where people register for a visit and wait for their turn to be called. I found this a little intimidating because here we had to approach the visitors ‘cold’ and try and strike up a conversation. I was lucky because each person I talked with opened-up. Some told me about how they were coping with their partner/relative being in prison, and others how they thought their partner/relative was coping being in prison.

Some of the visitors have incredibly difficult lives which they shared with me – often they are wives/partners with children coming to visit their partner. I thought I had a wide perspective of life and society but once I became a Samaritan I’ve realised just how wrong I was. I started to appreciate not just the impact of someone being in prison, but also the knock-on effect this has on partners, children, family and friends. However, I left the visitors centre with a feeling that I had helped a few of the visitors in a small way – just by listening.

So, what did I make of my visit to High Down prison yesterday? I’m not sure, it was sensory overload…and I think I’m still processing it. It such a fascinating environment and you meet such a diversity of people…but what I do know is that I’m keen to do more with prisons…it’s definitely my type of marmite. I just need to work out what I can practically commit to, given my other life commitments. As with many others involved in a worthwhile charity like the Samaritans – the challenge is that there is so much that you want to do but can’t do it all…especially with a full-time job and children.

Paul Johnson, Samaritans Listening Volunteer.