‘She knows all the families by name’ – the professor who gave up her job to volunteer at Belmarsh prison

Lifestyle

On her first visit to HMP Belmarsh, Rona McCandlish got lost. The prison is in a sprawling, out-of-the-way 1990s estate in Thamesmead, south-east London. It was November 2018 and McCandlish was on her way to interview for a volunteer position with the charity Pact, which gives advice and support to prisoners and their families.

“I had to sprint half a mile in the end to get to the prison,” says McCandlish, who is 63 and lives in nearby Lewisham. She had got so lost, she showed up uncharacteristically late. “It helped me understand how alienating and confusing visiting a prison for the first time can be.”

At the time, McCandlish was feeling burned out. She’d worked as a midwife before becoming a professor of midwifery, a midwifery adviser to the government, then a consultant in NHS maternity services. “I was working 80 hours a week,” she says, “flying all over the country, staying in different places.” She needed to do something more community-focused, at a slower pace. “I was always dipping in and out of communities. Now I feel part of my own. Volunteering is much more than what you do for other people. It also does so much for you.”

Despite her tardiness, McCandlish got the position. She volunteers at Belmarsh’s visitor centre, welcoming friends and family who are there to see inmates, and supporting them through the confusing and sometimes arcane regulations that govern prison visits. Visitors are forbidden from wearing ripped clothes, low-cut tops, short dresses, even watches. First-time visitors who aren’t aware of the rules risk being sent away.

“People feel humiliated when they don’t have the right clothes,” says McCandlish. She and fellow volunteers have created Boutique Belmarsh: a rail of neutral, plain garments they lend to any visitor who falls foul of the dress regulations. McCandlish takes all the clothes home to launder between visits.

But McCandlish does much more than just facilitate visits. “Rona is an amazing woman,” says her manager, Pact’s Monique Joseph. “She makes an extra effort to know each family member by name, creating a haven when they’re visiting. What makes Rona truly special is her ability to speak with people from many different backgrounds, faiths and ages.”

McCandlish says: “It’s about listening to them, whether they’re hurt or angry or feeling hopeless. They’ll say things like, ‘Why didn’t I stop him from doing it? He was a good lad and I knew he was going off the rails’.”

A young woman recently visited with her small baby. Her partner had just been given a seven-year sentence. “She was really in a lot of despair,” McCandlish says. “She never expected her partner to be put away for so long, and to have to bring the baby to see dad in prison.”

It’s not all doom and gloom at the visitor centre, though. “It can be a joyful place at times,” she says. “People don’t expect it to be OK when they come here, yet after they visit, they feel relieved. They’re happy to see that the person they’re visiting is OK, and they know they’ve done the right thing by coming.” During the pandemic, visits were paused and resumed only in May this year. “That was emotional,” she says. “Watching visitors come for the first time in 18 months.”

All these years witnessing the dehumanising effects of prison up close makes McCandlish question why we spend so much money locking people away, often for non-violent crimes. “I feel quite desperate sometimes,” she says. “There needs to be a focus on doing more than just building cages. It’s a great waste of resources to lock people up and not offer meaningful education, rehabilitation, support or therapy.”

McCandlish wants to bring a sense of humanity to an otherwise drab and cold place. Outside the visitor centre, for example, hangs a tatty, withered plant that has seen better days. For her treat, McCandlish requests a fresh one to replace it, and some low-maintenance houseplants to dot around inside. Community garden centre the Nunhead Gardener provides McCandlish with a selection of plants and flowers, including a sansevieria “snake plant”, with its long, upright leaves, and the glossy zamioculca.

“The new plant is huge and amazing,” says McCandlish of the hanging plant. “I’m slightly worried it will fall down, because it’s so massive.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

It may seem like a small change, but the plants represent McCandlish’s approach to volunteering: finding ways to bring the light in and give a personal touch to an otherwise impersonal institution. “I want to make the centre a lovely place to come to,” she says. “Not a hard place. The main thing is for the people visiting to feel hope and connection.” There was some muttering about who would water the plants, but McCandlish, ever the volunteer, has taken full responsibility: “Plants are good for us. They make our lives better.”