I am currently a serving prison officer at HMYOI Aylesbury, an establishment housing approximately 220 18-21 year old males. I was lucky enough to experience a placement with Belong visiting other prisons and seeing the good work they do. As an Unlocked Graduate we share similar values about rehabilitation and criminal justice, so naturally I was excited about shadowing some service managers in other prisons. As the nerves set in, I found myself asking – how would other prisons compare to Aylesbury?
My first visit was to HMP Wormwood Scrubs – I was taken aback by how big it is! I looked at the roll board in the gate and they currently held 1100 prisoners. They had more prisoners on one wing than we have in the whole establishment at Aylesbury. Whilst in Scrubs I had the pleasure of shadowing Lila, the service manager at Scrubs. Lila is dedicated to the cause and has an amazing rapport with the prisoners she interacts with. It was clear how much respect she had walking around Scrubs, not only with the prisoners but also the staff (arguably the harder side to sway!) showing how vital her role is there. As HMP Wormwood Scrubs has such a large population, they have a lot of incidents to tackle – Lila deals with violence and helps to settle disputes and mediate between prisoners and staff. So clearly her days are jampacked! Lila took me out to the wings and showed me how she tries to find out more about the incidents that have occurred aiding her to find solutions to challenging issues. Lila’s approach is refreshing and It’s clear to see the reputation she has. When talking to one prisoner who had conflict on his wing he said - “I really feel like you’re making a difference and you listen”. Does it get much better than that?
I also got to visit HMP/YOI Feltham – a complete contrast to HMP Scrubs! I met with Debi, the service manager there, who took the time to explain to me more about Belong’s history and core values; we also spoke about PLAN A the rehabilitative programme including mentoring, psychotherapy and restorative justice, which Belong run at Feltham. Debi showed true passion and enthusiasm when she spoke about Belong; she lights up everyone around her and manages to pass on the rehabilitative bug. Debi had a one to one with a new participant which I was excited to experience, we went onto the wings which were the polar opposite of any prison I’ve been into before. Feltham feels more like a school! Debi has an open chatty approach in her one to one’s and manages to get a lot out of the prisoner by asking probing questions and making them think. I could tell that the participants really respected Debi and valued the time she spent with them. Not only is Debi well respected by the prisoners, but she is also held in high regard by her colleagues and the managerial team at Feltham. Debi sits in on the monthly reducing re-offending meeting which I was asked to attend; it struck me how much Feltham care and are impassioned about rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. I was inspired by their approach and it was also clear how integral Belong are to the rehabilitative environment that Feltham aspire to deliver.
The final – and most daunting – part of my placement was going back to my home establishment of HMYOI Aylesbury. Hannah is the Development Manager at Belong and has a lot of previous experience in prisons and running workshops. Hannah runs workshops exploring themes related to the Black Lives Matter movement, race and identity, helping to motivate and inspire people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in prison. I was excited about the prospect of giving back to Aylesbury and working with the young men in my care; I know how much opportunities like these are valued by the prisoners and have been few and far between especially during COVID. As it got closer to going into Aylesbury and running these workshops my nerves started to kick in – I felt the responsibility was completely on me to make sure the workshops went well, and my prisoners were well behaved (even though I knew it wasn’t)! However, I think Hannah can settle anyone’s nerves, she is so engaging and open that I couldn’t help but feel in safe hands. We also had the privilege of a spoken word artist and ex-prisoner Jason coming to the workshops. Jason gave first-hand experience by way of beautiful poems and being vulnerable to the prisoners we were trying to reach. It wouldn’t exactly be fair to say these workshops went off without a hitch – having to diffuse tension between a couple of the participants whilst being observed by a Governor and Custodial Manager wasn’t our finest moment! But, hey... that’s prison! However, the young men seemed to get a lot out of these sessions, realising how important an open and safe space to talk about current issues is necessary to let off some steam and listen to each other.
I couldn’t really have asked for a better two weeks. Belong welcomed me with open arms and I was thoroughly impressed by how brilliant and individual each one of their team are. Showing that we can all come from different backgrounds and have a different approach; but, what’s really important is that we care and have a joint vision and passion for rehabilitation. These values help Belong make a difference on the frontline every day and I was privileged to be a part of their team – even for a short while.