Kerrie Clifford and Allysa Hornbuckle describe how letters from members of AA got prisoners at HMP The Verne through lockdown.
‘I don’t get any visits. I haven’t got anyone but the letters feel like a visit from a friend.’
Never was the power of the pen more in evidence than during lockdown, when members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) wrote letters of encouragement and inspiration to prisoners at a Dorset prison, HMP The Verne. These letters kept inmates focused on their recovery in such a special way that the initiative received the high sheriff of Dorset’s award.
The award is given to members of the community who make a difference to other people’s lives without the expectation of anything in return, so who better to receive it than the selfless men and women of AA and the staff at HMP The Verne? They facilitated the programme and made it their business to ensure the letters continued to be delivered during lockdown.
The reality of lockdown meant that men in custody often stayed locked away for longer than usual and many of their support systems like focused group work and one-to-one counselling were unable to operate. However, a glimmer of hope lay in the link that prisoners already had with members of AA via the letter-writing scheme. If staff could ensure that these letters continued to be written and delivered, then clients who were trying to remain focused on sobriety had a ray of hope.
‘When we got shut down ages ago for COVID-19, all the support networks I had significantly decreased as there were no visits, phone time was really limited, and the amount of people you could socialise with went from 600 to 20 people,’ said one inmate. Such a drastic change was likely to cause significant challenges but with a little imagination and drawing on the support of EDP Drug & Alcohol Service’s integrated substance misuse team (ISMS) who work on the wings of the Verne, the men in custody were thrown a lifeline. As one inmate said, the letters ‘provided me with a support bubble despite my normal support being gone’.
AA members had developed a weekly letter-writing rota, and as the letters continued to flow more and more prisoners began to ask if they could receive one. ‘The letters kept me motivated and on track as I didn’t feel like I was in it on my own when I read them,’ said one, while another talked about how they had helped him ‘keep focused on what I’m doing now, and also prepared me for release as they reinforce the importance of an alcohol-free life’.
Lockdown highlighted what was really important in life for a lot of people, and at HMP The Verne men learned about the simple need for friendship, a sense of belonging, and a network of people to help stay true to the path they’d chosen. Staff noticed the differences with the inmates and witnessed how the letters kept the men focused on their recovery and ‘created the idea of “I’m not in this on my own.”’
‘From the limited face-to-face contact and receiving their written correspondence, it’s evident that the clients who do receive the letters look forward to them enormously as they’ve acted as a constant reminder of what they’re doing now and what they’ve achieved,’ said EDP Drug & Alcohol Service’s ISMS support worker Hatti Amos. ‘I think without the letters some of the clients would have increasingly felt the impact of their circumstances. However, the letters have highlighted that even through adversity, they have that inner strength to effectively maintain their recovery journey and take the positives, regardless of how small, from any situation.’
Words of encouragement, empathy and wisdom have provided these men the strength to stay focused. The high sheriff of Dorset heard about the letters and wanted to thank and reward the people of AA, as well as the substance misuse team and staff at HMP The Verne. Now, with the lockdown restrictions easing, the AA programme will slowly resume in face-to-face form, with real contact between the men in custody and the people in AA who support them. It’s safe to say that the men are truly excited to have the meetings start again, while the high sheriff’s award is now proudly displayed in the visits hall.