Kerrie Clifford and Allysa Hornbuckle describe how letters from members of AA got prisoners at HMP The Verne through lockdown
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 oneto-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 sherriff ’ s award is now proudly displayed in the visits hall .
Kerrie Clifford is marketing and communication manager at EDP Drug & Alcohol Services ; Alyssa Hornbuckle is Humankind intern
Pictured , from left to right : Hatti Amos ( ISMS support worker ), Richard Homer ( ISMS recovery lead ), high sheriff of Dorset George Streatfeild , deputy governor Andy Tanner , Lucy Bradley ( ISMS recovery worker ).
18 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • JUNE 2021 WWW . DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS . COM