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"Nominate an Inmate Prison Event Raises 35,300 for SOS Africa Children" by Matt Crowcombe

24 Nov 2015

“Giving to charity by putting money in a box is one thing, experiencing life without luxury, albeit only for 24 hours, may have a greater impact by focusing people’s thoughts on those less fortunate than themselves.” Amy Gough

Nominate An Inmate Fundraising Event at Shepton Mallet Prison

It developed from a natural curiosity of the unknown and a community’s passion for its local history and evolved into an event which would capture the imaginations of philanthropists from far and wide. “Nominate an Inmate” was an ambitious and original idea developed by the SOS Africa team during our regular brainstorming sessions; we are constantly on the look-out for fresh and exciting fundraising initiatives to attract new supporters. The charity also believes in rewarding fundraisers with unique and unforgettable experiences; this particular event would allow participants to experience prison life, without actually committing a crime (according to the law at least).

“Nominate an Inmate” Fundraising Event at Shepton Mallet Prison Nominate an Inmate fundraising event at Shepton Mallet Prison

We were hesitant at first, not only because of the logistics involved in organising such an event, but also because Shepton Mallet Prison means a great deal to the local community and we did not want to tarnish its memory. However, once the prison’s new owners City & Country approved the event, word spread fast and we were inundated with phone calls from volunteers, fundraisers and local media; thanks to the incredible support of local volunteers, businesses and former prison staff, the seemingly impossible became achievable.

One of the greatest challenges we faced was to recreate an authentic prison experience; we did not want to simply lock our inmates in their cells for 24 hours. City & Country kindly granted us access to many of the prison’s facilities and we wanted to incorporate as many of these into the event schedule as possible. We knew that the overall impact of the experience would heavily depend on the dedication and humour of the lead prison officers and Reflex First Aid’s Richard Long, Maurice O’Connell, Tanya Fontaine, Kim Williams and their fellow officers did not disappoint. With the guidance of former officers Laura and Graham Miller they were able to successfully re-enact what life would have been like in B Wing at HMP Shepton Mallet, giving our inmates an experience they will surely never forget!

Events - Prison 6.JPG Events - Prison 7.JPG

Among the events many memorable moments, I know that the people of Shepton Mallet will never forget the surreal image of our groups of inmates being lead down the high street in irons, and dressed in their orange boiler suits, to the (often uneven) beat of the drum. From the crowds of spectators we heard many a statement of “I thought the prison closed two years ago!” And as the prison’s last inmates approached its vast gates, it was clear that their once confident steps became increasingly hesitant as they waved farewell to their loved ones. I can still visualise the nervous expressions on their faces; as many have said before, it is impossible to walk through those vast gates without considering the possibility of immediate departure.

Events - Prison 8.jpg Events - Prison 9.JPG

To our now rehabilitated inmates, we salute you for embracing all of the planned activities, however pointless (to quote Office O’connell), with such enthusiasm. The image of grown men and women, politicians, businessmen and head teachers among them, involved in such heated debate over the sorting of puzzle pieces will live long in the memory… As will the image of these same individuals dancing in unison to MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” in the prison’s infamous courtyard. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the video evidence recently uploaded to the SOS Africa Facebook page. A special thank you to SOS Africa’s Claudia Titley and Amy Gough for organising these unique and memorable activities!

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A further surreal moment had to be the evening’s entertainment on the second weekend. After a well-received meal courtesy of Danela’s Bakery and YeoValley, the inmates chose The Shawshank Redemption as their entertainment; a shrewd choice as this would lengthen the duration of their stay in the warm confines of the prison chapel. Though many of us had seen the film before, during this particular viewing, its many powerful messages were received with increased clarity as we were now able to relate to some of the circumstances facing the movies main characters.

Events - Prison 93.jpg

My own personal highlight had to be to the early morning wake-up call; few noises are as intrusive as that of an African Vuvuzela horn at such a delicate hour, after a very cold night sleep in an unforgiving prison cell. Thank goodness for Sarah and her team from www.eat-and-do.com who raised their spirits with some early morning exercise routines. The inmates’ prison experience was concluded by a fascinating tour of the prison, led by former officers Graham and Laura; the inmates were quieter than they had been all weekend as they absorbed the prison’s rich history.

The Nominate an Inmate Event Prison Officers

Even though a month has now passed since our final group completed their 24 hour challenge, both officers and inmates frequently reflect on the surreal experience, as if to check that it really happened. I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing some of their quotes below:

“Wow. What an amazing weekend! It was an absolutely extraordinary experience... And had serious effects, both in terms of thinking about the charity's work in Africa and in terms of the experience of prison. Tremendous.” Inmate David Warburton MP

“I am so proud to have been a part of this and the amount of money raised is unbelievable! Thank you to all who made this happen!” Inmate Zoe Rutter

“It was an amazing experience was so proud being part of it with my fellow inmates. Such a great feeling seeing how much money has been raised for the children. I'll miss the code knocking in the cell walls!” Inmate Leanne Stout

“This weekend was insane and incredible at the same time. I feel honoured to have had that experience. Thank you SOS Africa for all your hard work and putting on an event that none of us will ever forget.” Inmate Emma Day

“Fantastic experience, fantastic officers, fantastic inmates, fantastic charity, G2 fantastic, definitely the best team!!! Thank u so much everyone for a fantastic 24 hrs!” Inmate Leanne Russell

And now for the most important part of the whole process! Although many of us gained a great deal from the experience, we were all unified by one common objective to raise funds to further the education of underprivileged children in South Africa. Now that all of the funds raised have been counted, I am delighted to say that we have raised an incredible £35,300 for the SOS Africa Children, far beyond our wildest expectations. Furthermore, event sponsorship from local business The Regency Chess Company has enabled us to guarantee that 100% of the funds raised will be invested in our education programmes in South Africa. Thanks to the commitment and generosity of all involved, it is our pleasure to be able to introduce some of the first beneficiaries of all of your hard work. Meet Dovenicia, Gideon, Marlene, Quinroy, Ryno and Sipho…

The SOS Africa Children starting school in January 2016

Because of what you have all achieved, these wonderful children and many more can now dream of a bright a future!

We would also like to congratulate Inmate Naomi Philp, the worthy winner of our competition to win two flight tickets to South Africa to meet the SOS Africa children. Among the 35 inspirational individuals who raised over £350 at the event, Noami’s name was drawn at random and she will now be able to report back to you first-hand on the difference your efforts have made during her visit in 2016.

Introducing our inmates and their officers...

Events - Prison Group 1.jpg Events - Prison Group 1.jpg

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A great big thank you to everyone involved in this memorable event which will surely live long in the memory of both officers and inmates alike!

Let the brainstorming for next year's fundraising event commence…

By "Governor" Crowcombe (Director, SOS Africa)

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