Laura Elson, Volunteering Development Worker, Prisoners & Ex-Offenders, at VAL, writes about Volunteer Centre HMP Leeds and her role.
A prison sentence has a devastating effect on a person's life, family and future. The Prisoners and Ex Offenders project shows that volunteering can help people improve their mental health.
Volunteer Centre HMP Leeds
In July 2013 Voluntary Action Leeds embarked on a new and exciting project, to set up the world’s first Volunteer Centre in a prison, based at HMP Leeds.
At Volunteer Centre Leeds, run by VAL, we offer a service to anyone who would like to access volunteering in Leeds. Our staff and volunteer advisors found over the years that many people with convictions face barriers to volunteering, and lack the confidence to tackle these barriers and to approach organisations. Many organisations would like to work with people with convictions, and help them rehabilitate and change their lives but they also lack the confidence and experience to do so.
Up and running
By August the Volunteer Centre was up and running, with four prisoners volunteering to run the service inside the prison, offering training and advice for other prisoners near release who were interested in volunteering. The project grew to meet demands from potential volunteers with minor offences who had never been to prison, volunteers from across West Yorkshire and prisoners from other prisons being released in the local area.
We also support organisations who take on prisoners on Release on Temporary License to volunteer full time outside the prison as part of preparing to leave prison. Experience of the criminal justice system has a huge impact on mental health, and many prisoners have mental health problems prior to their offence, which are worsened by the experience of being in custody. 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders and many people attempt suicide or self harm. Prisoners and ex-offenders are a hugely diverse group of people, and after coping with the prison environment many people trying to forge a new life are impacted upon by serious misrepresentation in the media and discrimination.
How volunteering can help
Volunteering is proven to be a hugely powerful mechanism for improving wellbeing and confidence, and already many of the 40 plus people we have helped are reporting that they feel happier, more confident and more connected to their communities because of their experiences as a volunteer. Two have moved into employment, and nearly half have been supported to volunteer in their choice of our 70+ volunteering opportunities.
Leeds Volunteer Managers Network
Part of my role involves chairing a sub group of the Leeds Volunteer Managers Network that brings together and supports volunteer managers with different levels of experience in this field to help each other and share good practice. It’s a real privilege to see the huge response we’ve had from so many truly fantastic organisations in Leeds such as St George’s Crypt, DISC, RSPCA Leeds & Wakefield Branch, Shelter and St Giles Trust to name a few – pledging to get involved in this project and to learn from each other.
We are currently applying for funding to continue this project past the end of the pilot phase in March so that we can continue helping people to access volunteering in larger numbers and in more innovative ways.