It is hard to imagine how working in the Swiss Alps and serving a prison sentence are comparable, but Alison Henderson believes her eight years as a DJ in the ski resort of San Moritz gave her an insight into prison life.
“It was a bit like living in an institution. My family could only get in touch through writing letters. For eight months of the year I’d be entertaining people on holiday and then I’d go back to Bolton and try to reintegrate into home life.”
She began to recognise the similarities between her experience and that of a prison inmate when years later, and by then working as a stand-up comic, she was encouraged by a relative in prison to start writing to another inmate. Within a few years she was in correspondence with 50 to 60 inmates.
As the relationships progressed, she soon took on the role of agony aunt: “Men that write to me want to pour their hearts out.”
Spoofs of classic stories
The boredom of prison life was brought home by their letters, and it was then that Henderson had the idea to use her talents as a comic and entertainer to relieve some of that mundanity. At her own expense, she devised and printed spoof versions of classic stories – Cons of the Round Table and HMP Camelot – that she sent to inmates she knew. Very quickly, Inside Time, as the stories were called, developed a cult following.
“I started writing comedy sketches and they were passed around the wing. Even prison officers were laughing at them,” says Henderson.
It was through her prison correspondence that she met the father of her four-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, the heroin addiction that was partly responsible for putting him in prison also led him in 2006 to carry out an armed robbery of a small local store. He received a seven-year sentence.
After putting so much effort into supporting those serving time, the conviction of her partner prompted Henderson to look at how she could support families in a similar position. That’s where she came up with the idea for Walk the Line, a support group for families affected by prison, that will have Bobby Cummines, chief executive of ex-offender charity Unlock, as its president.
The “tough love” approach is at the heart of Henderson’s philosophy. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to having a partner in prison, but I don’t have a criminal record so why should I be made to feel like I have done something wrong?
“You can either sit in the corner or pick yourself up. It gives the prisoner a kick up the backside if they see their partner doing something – a training course or volunteering for example. Partners have to realise that they have to make that effort on the outside and turn it into something positive.”
Henderson has also recently been collaborating with Francine Lucas, daughter of former US “drug lord” Frank Lucas, on producing educational materials for US families who have a loved one in prison. She turned to the US after being unable to secure funding in the UK. The materials aim to help children understand why their parent is away from home and to encourage inmates to participate in more meaningful activities with their families during prison visits.
“I take my daughter to see her dad regularly. She understands that her dad broke the rules but you can’t explain the reasons because she wouldn’t comprehend the concept of armed robbery,” Henderson says.
“The book, called Daddy Be Good, explains it to children cleverly. We’ve used the idea of sport and the red card in football to explain why dad won’t be around for a while.”
The “fun and educational” exercises help separated parents feel more involved in their child’s development. “The programme is trying to bring in more interaction between prisoners and families to do something together on a prison visit.”
Such an initiative could play a vital part in reducing reoffending. And the approach seems to be working for Henderson’s own partner, he’s clean of drugs and enrolled on a counselling course with a view to working with young offenders on his release.
Contact the project on 01204 799497
This article is published in the 17 July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Off the slippery slope”