August 10, 2020

Buddies, The Front Line Workers Behind Bars

Liz Ropschitz
Health and Well Being Manager

The nation has been in lockdown and we hear of the excellent work happening in our communities, the shout-outs to all the heroes, who in their ways, both great and small, have come up trumps to help neighbours, friends and families in need; all those making PPE and volunteering their help during this time of crisis and of course the emergency services and NHS, all of whom we want to save and show our support for.

What you don’t hear though is that in prisons -  for example at HMP Dartmoor - some prisoners too are shining out as heroes and pulling together to make prison a caring community, working alongside wing officers, health and social care staff and on the front line supporting shielded prisoners, those at risk of death should they catch Covid-19.

These unsung heroes are called ‘Buddies’.

Pre-COVID 19 the role of the Buddy was very well established throughout the prison, with over 50 prisoners receiving daily buddy support through local authority assessment and care planning.

Recoop first started training Buddies in 2009, expanding the training as need was identified. Buddies continue to be trained by RECOOP to National Care Certificate Standards to support fellow prisoners with the day-to-day challenges they face within an often difficult environment.  The training now extends through to palliative care and end-of-life care as dying in prison became a reality for more individuals.

On the outbreak of the pandemic, Buddies too have stepped up to the plate (albeit a blue plastic one) and have worked tirelessly, 7 days a week, supporting the most vulnerable prisoners.

With extra training, delivered by Prison Care UK NHS staff, in the correct health and safety use of PPE when working with shielded individuals, they have become closer working team members with health care and wing officers. This partnership has really come into its own with staff and prisoners working side by side and all parties expressing appreciation of the other.

The prison custodial manager wrote: “I consider the Buddies to be vital to the work we do.  I simply cannot begin to imagine how we would cope without them. This is true even more so during the difficult times we currently face.

The Buddies team works alongside the staff on the establishments 'shielding' unit for our most vulnerable men.The way in which they have all risen to the challenge is remarkable; they care for others from the moment they are unlocked in the morning until the time they return to their cells for the night.They show patience, compassion and selflessness when looking after those in their care. It is a credit to the training they receive that they are equipped to carry out this challenging work to such a consistently high standard.”

The prison’s head healthcare agreed by saying, “The role of the Buddy is crucial, not only for practical support, but for social interaction, health and well-being. The Buddies have real insight into the care needs of their clients from a holistic sense and understand the impact extended time in the cell would have on their well-being. Collaborative working with key stakeholders has supported the success of the shielding unit.”

I know that I for one have thought of HMP Dartmoor Buddies along with prison officers and prison healthcare staff when clapping on a Thursday night for all essential and front line workers.

But we are not out of the woods yet... There are new difficulties and problems ahead.

Whilst the strict lockdown measures have been successful in controlling the virus in this high risk home to many vulnerable people, Recoop is concerned that being locked up in lock down has hit hard. Particularly hard hit are those many prisoners who already suffer from poorer mental and physical health. We have yet to see how the long periods of solitary confinement has contributed to a further deterioration in their health. As movements are severely restricted and visits, workshops and education still on hold, the longer term consequences are yet to be realised.

We do know that there will be demand for additional support and hope that similar formalised peer-led support models are introduced in far more prisons. What better way to empower individuals to learn new skills, find their inner compassion and give something back to aid those in need, in prisons.

Liz Ropschitz has been working for Recoop since 2008. Over the last 7 years she has been working with Devon County Council and HMPPS to develop and deliver the Buddy Support Worker Training Programme and is overall manager of this service in the Devon prison cluster. More recently she has been working nationally with prisons to adopt recognised social care peer support good practice initiatives. Liz was awarded an MBE in 2015 for Services to older prisoners in Devon.

Since 2010 RECOOP @RECOOP_UK has been delivering services in prisons to support the care, preparatory resettlement and rehabilitation of older prisoners who are over 50 years old and is one of the very few organisations working specifically with this group. With a national remit, Recoop works to empower people to take control of their lives, to optimise their physical and mental health, to remain free of re-offending and to make an active and positive contribution to their communities.

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