My name is Ralph Lubkowski, and until my recent transfer to Governor at HMP Hewell, I was the proud Governor of HMP Stafford. The wonderful team at Insights seemed to think, I can’t imagine why, that some ramblings from me on my time at Stafford, and in particular the last few months as we dealt with COVID, would be of interest.
The helpful guidance on how to write a blog suggested I need to start with a hook. So having already failed to do that in my first paragraph, here goes…I’d like to write about the prison as a community, and how becoming a true community over the past few years enabled Stafford to deal so successfully with a pandemic.
You see up until now, there have been no positive tests for COVID at Stafford. Some of that is down to good luck, no doubt, and we have had a number of staff contract the virus, and a number who have tragically lost family members. But no people in prison have had it. When we started to see the images coming from Italy and read about how the virus targeted older people, with our population of over 40% over 50, I’ll be honest we were extremely worried. I delivered a full staff briefing I sincerely hope I never have to deliver again. People were frightened.
We acted quickly, set up our Protective Isolation Unit, shielded the most vulnerable, changed our Segregation Unit into a COVID ward, posted sanitiser and foot dips in the gate, made the best of the PPE we had, and drilled home social distancing and a restricted regime. Stafford is very old, built in 1783, but it is beautifully maintained and extremely clean, with wonderful architecture and gardens, and lots of artwork around the site. The regime is very progressive, with a lot of time out of cell, 100% employment and a huge range of enrichment activities. To go from this to 23 hour lock up and a heavily restricted and controlled regime was incredibly sad at first, and a huge shock to people in prison and their families. But our community responded magnificently.
Some of you will know about Active Citizenship, and how that has developed into a truly rehabilitative culture at Stafford. Active Citizenship encourages citizens to do good for others, and for those good deeds to be recognised and reinforced as of value to our community and those within it.
This manifested itself in the way the cleaners on our PIU and wings got to work straight away, volunteering to be part of a magnificent team of alongside staff at the front line working non-stop when we had over 50 individuals isolating at one point (if you stood still for more than a few seconds, someone would be spraying you with titanchlor and wiping you down with a blue cloth!); in our textiles workshop, which stayed open to support other prisons and the NHS, making scrubs in their breaks for a local charity who were helping local hospital staff to find PPE; in our laundry, where people in prison continued to work to do not just our own laundry but also laundry from outbreak sites without a word of complaint; in our residents' council, who carried out a collection to buy hampers for staff to say thank you; in our bistro, who made a wonderful cake for our healthcare team and have worked seven days a week since the pandemic began to make sure staff have access to decent sustenance; in our Senior Support Group, where people in prison and staff worked together to provide support and activities for our older residents, most at risk and isolated from the support structures they were used to. All over the prison staff and people in prison worked together, rolled their sleeves up and got on with doing what needed to be done.
These are just some of the examples that stand out, but what really made the difference was the sense of everybody being in it together, working to save the lives of vulnerable members of our community.
There will be countless examples similar to those I’ve shared across the estate, but I can safely say that the way in which everyone at MP Stafford responded to the unprecedented challenge was truly humbling. In a way it was incredibly sad to leave in such circumstances, but in another way it was a perfect end to a wonderful 2 and a half years as Governor of a truly exceptional prison that dealt with everything that could be thrown at it and never lost it’s spirit, compassion, humour, togetherness, and can do attitude.
A true community, tested in a way we would never have imagined, coming through that test stronger and ready to move into recovery and beyond. I will watch with pride as it carries on it’s journey, happy to have been a part of it through such extraordinary times.
Just before leaving HMP Stafford, we made this video, to give viewers a virtual tour and behind-the-scenes peak at how the prison is operating during lockdown. We hope you enjoy it.