Over a quarter of the 450 patients at Rampton high-security hospital have no visitors. In July 1997 the Hospital League of Friends patient befriending scheme began, and now has 24 volunteers - all very special people, according to co-ordinator Janet Phillips.

'I musn't ever minimise what I am asking people to do,' she says. 'We are asking volunteers to come and speak to someone who probably hasn't had a conversation with anyone other than a member of the hospital staff, a solicitor or a health professional for maybe up to 30 years.'

Volunteers need to have commitment and patience, and not expect too much too soon. 'The fact that a patient wants to see them again the next month is in itself an achievement,' she says. 'They also need to have a sense of humour, to be able to laugh at themselves and at the situation.'

Rampton is the hospital centre for deaf offenders and the league has nine volunteers who are deaf, including a married couple. It also has Ruben, a Gordon setter.

His owner is a volunteer, and when she discovered that one of the patients, who has severe learning difficulties, loved dogs she had Ruben specially trained so he could accompany her on visits.

Lynne Harrold, a past chair of the Rampton league of friends, has been visiting as a befriender for more than a year.

At the beginning she was slightly apprehensive about how the first meeting would go. All she knew about her patient was his name, and even now she only knows what he has volunteered to tell her. She doesn't know why he is there and would not ask.

'I feel I am his link with the outside world,' she says. During her visits she is careful not to reveal too much about her background and there is always a member of staff 'discreetly' present.

The first time she told him she had flown on holiday, he stopped her in her tracks and asked her to describe in detail what it was like to fly. He had never been on a plane - and perhaps would never have that opportunity - and wanted to live through her experience.

Ms Harrold, who has worked with Victim Support, has found there is a fine line between offenders and victims. 'I feel that many people are in the position they are in through no fault of their own.

'If you speak to somebody who has been an offender, in a lot of ways they come across as a victim.'