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Podcast: Volunteering in Prison

A prison is a place most of us never want to visit, yet for Brian and Jess, it is a place they look forward to going. They volunteer to deliver hands-on nutrition education workshops to inmates.

Brian

My name's Brian, I live out the north of Adelaide, and prior to volunteering with the Red Cross I worked for 20-odd years with Westpac, in the last 15 or those years I was a facilitator and had a very interactive life, if you like, because I used to meet a lot of different people, work in a different locations, and then when I retired all of a sudden I had no structure in my life, very little interaction with other people because I live on my own, and so I felt as though I had a huge hole in my life.

So through a conversation with a guy in a coffee shop I decided to volunteer with the Red Cross and then I did that initially for about nine to 12 months and then the FoodREDi programme, which is run in … Prison became available, as a facilitator with that programme, so I volunteered for that. And when I first went to the prison I didn’t really know what it was going to be like but I kind of had this excitement because I was going to be getting back into the facilitation field, and a little bit of trepidation because I didn’t really know what to expect once I got there.

Jess

Hi, I’m Jess:, I live in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, I work casually in retail, that was just to support me through all my university studies where I am a qualified dietician, and with that I would love to work in the community, it’s one of the places that I get the most enjoyment out of everything, you feel more part of the person's journey and helping them with their learning, so you get to see the positive changes that I can make, and it’s very rewarding when you see them learn something new.
And with that I volunteer with the Red Cross in the FoodREDi programme, I go into the … Prison and I find that being part of this FoodREDi programme is a great experience for me in helping me gain an insight and what it would be like to work as a dietician in the community, and then also to help me when I go through my job searches to become a dietician.

Brian

Each session we do a little bit of cooking in, but the first, so each workshop is two hours long, and about the first hour to an hour and a quarter we do the theory, so the first session is around food hygiene, handling of food and that sort of stuff, the second session is around the five food groups and portion sizes, so the first day I was going, because it takes about an hour to get there, so in the car up there I was having a conversation with my leader and trying to just keep the nerves at bay because I had never even been inside a prison before, let alone having close interactions with any of the inmates there, so I had to go up there, I had to go through the process of just being identified to get in the prison, and that was an eye-opener, it took quite a while to actually get through that and to see them checking all of our material that we were taking in there as well, so you kind of realised that they were very thorough in their job.

And then when we got to the room and the guys started coming in I thought, oh, my gosh, here we go, what are these guys going to be like, how do I trust them and all that, because I didn’t know what any of them had done and I had the nerves there, but once the guys come in, I said hello to them, all of that, they were really friendly, and one of my key learnings on that day one was, you know what, these are just ordinary people who have perhaps been in the wrong place at the wrong time or hung around with the wrong sort of people and now they find themselves in prison, it was a real eye-opener for me and since then I have just built my confidence, I have learned to communicate with them and build that rapport with them and I absolutely love going there now.

Jess

So my first time going in, yeah, I probably did have a bit of nerves, didn’t quite know what to expect, but going in there I found it actually quite easy to start talking to some of the women, I think that helps, though, having a background in retail, we’re always constantly talking to different people, and also because I want to work out in the community, one of my things that I like to do is to meet new people and build relationships with them.

So overall it was pretty interesting, but I felt quite comfortable pretty quickly, and so definitely by the second session, which was the next day, I was very comfortable in the environment, and I’m at that point, it didn’t take long, but I now forget that I’m actually in a prison when I’m running the sessions, I just see the women there and us running the programme, and it’s only if a guard needs to yell something out that somebody's got mail delivered or lunches are coming or something like that that I remember that I’m in a prison, but most of the time I’m quite comfortable and forget that that’s the type of environment that I’m in.

Brian

I have had some really interesting replies. One in particular that sticks in my mind asked me what are you doing that you’re not working now, and I said, oh, I spend one day a week up at … Prison running some workshops around food and that sort of thing, and she said, oh, how depressing, and I said, no, no, it’s not really depressing because I feel as though I’m contributing, giving back to society and I feel like I’m actually adding to their journey as far as helping them to deal with being in prison but also developing some skills while they’re there and overall building on their confidence.

Some of them are super confident and they want to share and that sort of stuff, so we’ve actually had one guy who has, he’s done a lot of research into how our body deals with sugar, so part of the programme is reading food labels and then talking about the amount of sugar that we find in particularly soft drinks where sugar is added and that sort of stuff, and so he had done some research into that, and on one of our sessions, because we knew he had done so much research we asked him if he would like to facilitate that part of the session, and he really felt it was an honour to do that, and you could kind of see him almost growing in stature as he delivered the session and shared his knowledge, and from the other guys' perspective they were actually quite impressed and they were, I think, a little bit more in tune with what he was telling them because it was one of them sharing his knowledge with them.

So, yeah, other guys will just sit there and not say a lot but then when you'd start talking about something in particular they will share their experiences. So we’ve recently had a guy with a Kurdish background and another one with an aboriginal background in the same session, and initially both of them were quite quiet but then when we started talking about the five food groups they would talk about how their culture was a little bit different and start sharing their experiences, so from our perspective it was really good because we were getting a broader perspective on what five food groups would look like not just from an Australian perspective but from different cultures as well.

Some of them will stir each other, you can see that there’s some perhaps maybe are a little bit higher up in their hierarchy, if you like, and then others, there’s some really close friendships there that will always sit next to one another in the workshops, they will always be in the same group when we’re cooking and that sort of stuff, so they have this bond between them, and then there are others who are just very confident and are prepared to kind of stand out on their own and just get on with the whole group.

Jess

We were given the topic of Ready to Save, so we were talking about budget and how shopping lists can be really helpful to help you with saving money, and she was saying how she’s the shopper and her partner cooks all the food, and we were talking to her about has she ever cooked before or would she cook a meal, and she was always, like, no, I just shop and whatever, I shop, that’s what he gets, and he makes me something out of it, and so through talking to her and getting to know her over the weeks and from doing the cooking parts she started to learn new recipes.

Our recipes are quite simple and healthy and they’re quick and easy to do, and she found that she was really enjoying that, so we were having a chat and just said, oh, maybe one time you might be able to, you do the cooking one time and maybe send him out for the shop or surprise him one time that you’ve done the shop and that you’ve used one of our recipes, because we do give them a copy of all the recipes after each session, and, yeah, she was quite willing and happy to try and start doing that.

So a lot of people, especially friends and family, are very fascinated by my work of going into the prison and running the programme. Common questions I get are, are you scared, or what’s the setup like, and I just let them know yes, we’re in a room but we do have officers nearby, they do give you duress alarms so it’s quite a safe environment, and one part that they always find is fascinating is when I tell them that I forget that I’m in a prison when I’m running the session, I mean, that’s something that people sometimes can’t quite get their head around that, feeling quite comfortable, but I think it’s part of you not, unless you’ve gone into that environment you’re not sure how it could eventually feel like that, because from when I first went in not knowing what to expect to now, so I guess that most people when they ask me that question are in the same boat as I was before I walked in, and not everybody gets the opportunity to go into a prison and do work.

I also get asked quite commonly by people if I know what the women are in for, and I always let them know that I don’t, it’s not something that I ask or would ever ask them. The women when they come, like, openly tell me what they’re possibly in for or how long they’re in for, however, I don’t need to know their information as it’s not relevant to running the programme and the outcomes of the programme that we would like to achieve.

And in saying that, with my training with the Red Cross, when I first became a volunteer is being able to just put your Red Cross hat on, as such, and just see them for women and they have a need for learning this information and learning how to cook and everything, that they have a need for it and they’re just women who openly want to learn, as well, and no matter what they have done, it’s not relevant to running the programme with them.

And I find having that relationship and having that, I don’t know what the word is, like this idea or conception in your head, conception or something, going in is really good because that helps you go in and achieve the goals that you want to achieve and get the best outcome that you can with the programme.

Brian

I just had this mental image of prisoners always being like a rough and ready sort of environment and that sort of stuff; when I got there I just found that they are everyday people, and every time I go there I’m reminded of that because of the interaction, the fact that they come up to us, there’s not a session that goes by where someone doesn’t come up to us and say Brian, we really appreciate the fact that you give up your time to come and work with us.

And, you know, that just, I often think, wow, that’s so much better than the pay I used to get when I was working because somebody actually appreciates what you’re doing. You know, they’re in a tough environment, even though our prisons are so much better than a lot of those you'll see overseas, they’re still in a tough environment and yet they come to us and say thank you for giving up your time. It just makes you feel so good.

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