Since the start of the pandemic, we have been bringing you stories about how HMPPS and partners have been adapting services to meet the needs of staff and service users. In our latest blog, we hear first hand from an individual currently serving a sentence at HMP Stocken about his experiences of the pandemic inside a prison and how staff and people in prison have been working together to support one another.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HMPPS
The InsightsOnline Team Feb 2021
When we entered lockdown none of us within the prison estate knew what to expect.
Here at HMP Stocken we were both uncertain and fearful of the future. What seemed like this rabid new disease was spreading like wildfire all around the world. The byword on everyone’s lips was the dreaded COVID, its tentacles stretching across the globe seeking its next unfortunate host. We prisoners were advised to strap in for the ride ahead. There was a sense of urgency and apprehension in the voices of management which told us that something very different was unfolding.
What we have experienced however throughout this COVID period has been a togetherness formed by the highs and lows which shaped a positive path through these difficult times.
At the beginning of lockdown, myself and several other prisoners were asked by management if we would be prepared to take on what was described as a significant role. We were to be known as ‘COVID reps’ and would be the direct line between the prisoners on our individual wings and management. Our Governor, Neil Thomas, recognised very early that lockdown would have a detrimental impact to the Stocken community, particularly its prisoners. He decided that it would be a good idea to have members of our peers whose role it would be to attend COVID meetings alongside staff and Governors as direct prisoner representatives.
Our involvement is to receive information relating to the COVID situation, including infection rates in the wider community as well as within the HMP estate. We also share ideas (some of which have been adopted) towards the implementation of the most effective prison regime possible within the limitations enforced by the need for COVID safety. Operational and logistical information regarding the continued running of the prison is freely shared with us as far as reasonably possible (with an obvious eye on the need to preserve the integrity and security of the prison) in a way that pre-COVID would not have been offered. A consequence of this is that the men who we feed information back to feel informed and valued which does wonders in terms of prisoner cooperation. We display the minutes from each meeting on wing noticeboards where the men can read the information. For those who may have problems with reading we inform them by speaking to them individually. Any subsequent suggestions or concerns received we are able to take back to meetings for consideration.
As expected, the impact on the prison community was quite severe. There were visible signs that the mental health and general wellbeing of many of the men was deteriorating as a result of extended periods locked in cells. The majority of the men found it difficult to cope as they had not had to deal with this type of incarceration before. Staff also began to feel the effects of a restricted and stressful prison regime. We reps were able to help by working alongside them in supporting the other prisoners. Many prisoners complained of feeling more isolated and cut off than usual which added to their depressed, insecure state. We found that the COVID reps system helped to alleviate some of those feelings of isolation. Being a point of contact we are able to provide access to information regarding the developing situation which is relevant to them and we are available throughout the day.
Very quickly, we as a community understood the benefits of working together. Prisoners had to learn to trust staff in ways that we may not have done before. We had to trust them to deliver what they said they would, much of which were novel provisions like purple visits and the £5 phone credit, installation of wing barbers and the treat bags provided at meal times twice weekly. Staff also had to invest in a new kind of trust in us, for example, allowing us greater access to information in much more direct ways. We were also given considerably more autonomous and inclusive roles which contributed immensely toward the efficient running of the prison regime throughout this difficult period.
This new-found trust took courage from prisoners to be able to look within to that better part of ourselves, from staff who were willing to step outside of long held entrenched practices and from Governors open to trying new ways of working with/alongside prisoners. This development of trust paid off and the men are more willing to accept any necessary ongoing restrictions placed on the prison regime.
During the hardship of COVID the Stocken prisoner community is experiencing the very real concept of enduring loss. For many, this may be the first time that they have known the feeling of loss that those affected by crime go through. In part, an expression of that experience motivated us to do our bit to support others in getting through these testing times. We felt it would be a positive idea to focus on others as opposed to our own individual need. One of the men raised money for a charity organisation through a sponsored exercise challenge. The prison also set up a sponsored walk during exercise periods called ‘walk the line’ which raised a substantial amount of money. The money raised went to a local elderly care home to allow them to purchase much needed equipment such as tablets for video contact with family and relatives in the absence of regular social visits due to the COVID climate.
On a personal level, my goal was to try and find the positives that could come out of the COVID situation. As a community we had to pull together like never before, so it seemed like a good time to examine our shared values. Had we paid enough attention to the unselfish things that really mattered just as much as the things we wanted for ourselves? Had we cared enough about others or tried to develop a more reciprocal community spirit? I spoke about this at one of our COVID meetings and asked that we look at doing something to promote this idea. Following this, one of the Governors approached me and we discussed the creation of an action group.
Between myself and residential Governor Hussey, Elle Blyth and Lindsay Beadnall of the Equalities department we set up an initial group session where both prisoners and staff were invited. The purpose of the meeting was to outline the aims and intentions of the proposed group. We discussed how it would progress and also what the group would be called. It was decided that the group would be the ‘change forum’ and would have a suitable vision statement. We held several of these exploratory meetings until the shape of the group itself eventually came together.
We decided that the group would look at the staff/prisoner relations in all departments and how we could treat each other better. As a group it was felt that if staff and prisoners had better working relationships they would serve the long term interest of the prison more effectively. This meant examining how we could understand each other better and the resolution of conflict wherever possible, without the need for complaint procedures, IEP warnings or adjudications.
The group had to be able to have difficult conversations and we agreed that we would be prepared to have them. It was not an easy process, but we made the right progress and the group now holds regular monthly meetings. I was recently voted co-chair of the group along with a member of staff. Trustee positions will shortly be appointed to a number of prisoners who will be responsible for collating and disseminating relevant information. We also intend to develop a system of mediation for the prisoners who may feel the need to complain. The idea is to allow both parties to sit down together and discuss any issues or to resolve the situation avoiding the need for formal complaints if possible.
Throughout COVID, we at HMP Stocken have been fortunate to have a forward thinking Governor and Management team who have ensured that measures were taken to give the utmost protection from the effects of COVID. We have learned as a community that it is easy to become despondent, especially as prisoners when faced with challenging situations but a positive attitude goes a long way defeating despair.
HMP Stocken, as a community, can be proud of its achievements. We have seen what can happen when we genuinely work together. We came to realise our shared aims which has given us a new vision for the future based on mutual understanding, trust and togetherness.