The Cost Of Energy

I’m currently deep-dived at HMP Manchester formerly known as Strangeways  till an infamous riot and rooftop protest in 1990 forced a re-set  It’s one of 8 High Security prisons in England and as such houses men (and young adults) serving the longest sentences for the most serious of crimes.

I’ve never worked in a high security prison before – but I’ve always wanted to be where there is the greatest need …and here I am.

It is the most challenging environment I’ve ever been in – and I get to go home at night.

‘Careful what you wish for, huh?

So far it’s also demanded almost all the bandwidth I possess which is the reason why there have been a dearth of these posts recently.

My holy grail continues to be trying to find a sustainable band in which the Cost Of (My Emotional) Energy needed to deliver something good in this environment among these people is vaguely in proportion. And if it’s not, that I’m able to pay the high cost, recover the deficit quickly and get back in there.

That as you can imagine, is a work-in-progress – and I’m way better than I was.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying ‘sorry I’ve not been posting – nothing personal – just needed to free up some capacity here…’

Like most prisons Manchester is wrestling with overcrowding and under-staffing  both of which mean most men remain locked up for most of the time – and a whole bunch of ripple effects come with that reality most of which are BAD for everyone.

Like most prisons there are also good people both sides of the bars trying to do a difficult job in almost impossible circumstances in a physical environment that quite frankly you wouldn’t keep your cat in. And if we did social media would go into meltdown and there’d be rioting in the streets.

I know this ‘cos I am privileged to be working alongside some of these people.

After a courtship / pre-start due diligence that began last autumn I delivered my first program proper in Feb. This has staff and men participating together over a number of deliberately different and challenging days designed by me for their mutual development - and mine.

The goal is to have people collaborating - rather than in conflict - in support of themselves, each other and the smooth running of the prison. 

We do this by spending extended time together doing hard and fun stuff we wouldn’t normally do with people we normally wouldn’t do it with. This allows us to realise that we have more in common than we have differences – even in an environment like this in which hierarchy is almost everything – and we’re all working for the same outcomes too: To see people as human as opposed to targets to attack or objects to demonise.

So.

All fairly straightforward, then…

And because you have a bit of catching up to do I’m just going to pick and mix for you in no particular order from the last few months.

Environment Is Not Everything

You see, I thought it was – y’ know: Changing how someone thinks means we need to change how they feel and an easy way to do that is to change the physical environment.

(This is why when we go outside and climb a hill our perspective changes and we are more likely to figure a way through the thing we’re stuck on).

For years I’d been really clear that for my stuff to really work in a prison I had to be working in a part of the prison that I could mess about with so that it didn’t look or feel like a prison. And here I am with my lead link senior member of staff in a cellar masquerading as a gym under the most secure part of the prison. It’s small, dark, full of broken-down kit, blind spots and with a crater in the floor the size of…well.

‘It needs to be here, Andy.’

I just look in disbelief – while inside I’m thinking very uncharitable thoughts:

You have got to be f**kin’ kidding. And:

Did he not hear what I said about Environment Is Everything??

He isn’t and he did – so I give the only reply required:

‘OK then.’

And we had the most powerful program experience I’ve had and witnessed.

WTF??

On reflection the conclusion I come to is that it unconsciously I was focused even more on the interplay of people and content to the extent that you could probably have put us in a box and we’d have been OK. All of which drove a very large truck through what I’d considered an Unassailable Truth. Which was interesting…

More Than You Think

There’s always a physical activity thread running through my programs and on this one there’s also a personal challenge event that builds through the program days. The in-cellar version I’d come up with was 6 exercises of 6 reps needing little/no specialist kit done in rotation as continually as possible for the target time.

We start with 3mins then build to 6-12-24.

Remember these are folks who either do nothing, very little or for whom a gym workout is grunting a few weights around and doing it again when they feel like it. So 3mins continually as possible is a big and very different ask. 

With a little help from my old friends Controlling Your Pace, Managing Your Mood and Setting Your Targets – and with lashings of Positive Supportive Environment – a few short days later they put away 24mins – and we ride the ripple effects of that to the stuff they really need to work on.

Because We Are More Than We Think We Are.

Trapped By The Past

‘That one: How To Be A Good Dad.

Dave, the most senior in the room halfway through his 20-some year sentence and here in mentor role (again) to my second group of 19-21year olds, points to one of topics I’ve written on A4 and placed with 12 others on the floor for all to see.

We are at one of the crux points of the program requiring as it does those in the room to show vulnerability in front of others.

In a place where typically to do so would put a target on your back.

So men don’t – stuff gets bottled – and the raging and crying and self-vilification is done behind the locked door.

Until it’s too much for even that space.

Everything we’ve done in the preceding days has been done to earn me the right to take them here - and for them to trust me and each other enough to let them come.

We’re seated in a square and do a show of hands: Of the 15 in the room all but 2 are fathers – and that includes all the youngsters.

‘The most important thing in prison?

The past.

Thinking about it. Obsessing about it.

It’s around every corner, as real as one of the guards and the walls and fences that keep us in.

The past is really what traps a person.’

Extract from the novel ‘Quantum Radio’ by AG Riddle

And so it goes: Most talk, some just listen and everyone is pulled in as people speak from the heart about the wrench of being an absent father and the crushing sense of powerlessness against the overwhelm of the past and the loss of time. 

It’s very obvious very quickly that we could stay here with this all day and come back for more tomorrow, but we only have half an hour.

It’s some half hour though.

I can see the almost-shock on the faces of our young ones as seemingly hard men of many years inside exhibit a version of themselves they have worked very hard to hide. That shock is followed swiftly by empathy – Me Too, Dave – and then the sobering realisation that they’ve also just seen their future.

Unless they choose different…

What On Earth Is That Noise?

Three of the senior team are doing the rounds and are moved to investigate a strange loud noise coming from the cellar, sorry – gym.

Er, just us enjoying ourselves.

I’m doing slightly bemused and have to have it explained:

‘Laughter Andy, lots of people laughing together – we just don’t get to hear it here.’

Oh.


Beware: Bias

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Many parts of our justice system need wholesale reform. The challenge for people like me is how to make a meaningful contribution among the chaos and contradictions – and that’s a work in progress for most of us, I suspect.


Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. More rejections 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot HMP Stafford 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: 3 programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation 

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working in person with prison leadership groups

2022 March: NHS funding award to re-start in-prison work in NW

2022 Oct: In-prison work re-starts for older men at HMP Wymott

2023 July: Two year extension to NHS funding for expansion of in-prison work

2024 Feb: First delivery of this project HMP Manchester (site one of three)

Falling Through The Cracks

‘Sorry we had to cancel your visit last minute,’ they said. ‘We had two Deaths In Custody.’

I had heard that this is what happened and it is exactly what the name suggests – someone had died while in the custody of His Majesty’s Prison Service – and typically what this means is that a member of staff finds someone dead in their cell. 

This is not an experience I’d wish on anyone and what makes it even worse is when the death is via their own hand or god forbid - the hand of someone else.

In this case it was the former.

‘We found (name) in his cell, ‘ they told me. ‘He’d taken his own life.’

Something like a kick hit me in the guts and suddenly I wanted to sit down very badly.

‘But he was on my program…’ My mind’s eye at this point helpfully replaying a shot of (name) chuckling away as we played my silly version of indoor bowls:

‘I knew him…’ Really floundering now. 

‘He did really well - At least, I thought so at the time…’

A pause while the other shoe dropped.

‘Oh,’ they said. ‘No one told you, did they…’

No one had.

Now I’m not quite sure how one is supposed to react to news like that: Clearly my default remains human. While that leaves me open to periodic head-heart fun and games I am reassured and thankful that I can still be moved at an emotional level.

If I ever stop feeling deeply about the people and the work it will be time to get out.

Of course it’s different for others – how different it can be I was about to find out.

Who was the member of staff who found him? I asked.

How is he? 

Is he on duty?

(I knew him so…) Can I pop and see him?

All yes so off we went – and for the second time that morning I walked straight into a brick wall I never saw coming this time along the lines of a ‘Good Riddance’ verdict from the staff member in question.

I remember half-trying to project professional detachment while inside it’s more ‘WTF?!?’

For all the associations I’d made during my time with the man in question other things were true too:

He was inside for reasons and those reasons were deeply disturbing.

I experienced snapshots and drew my own conclusions; others saw different and drew theirs – and truth I suspect, is some combination of it all.

‘Cos it’s never that simple…

This was just the latest most visceral example of what I’ve found can happen when one works alongside the prison service and is not employed by the service:

I’m seen by many as staff – and not.

I have agency – and not.

I’m one persons’ welcome asset and another persons’ pain in the ass.

This can be made even worse if one is at all halfway competent and has some skill in building and holding rapport with another human being. ‘Easy to think this one’s OK then and move onto the next thing that is screaming for your attention – ‘cos in prison something always is.

All of which means it’s easy for someone like me to fall through the cracks.

And land with a thump.

What compounded it on this occasion was that there were in fact two deaths in the space of a couple of weeks on the same unit – and the second had also been a man on my program. This time there had been no assist or foul play, but as I was already numb from the first news this second one didn’t really register until later when I was tucked up at home wrapped around a mug of tea and a loving wife while my emotions headed off for a ride on the biggest rollercoaster they could find.

Kept In The Room

My experience inside during 2022-23 had finally pushed me to be clear, proactive and involve others on the delicate subject of Safeguarding Me.

And because I know a thing many people don’t – that Performance Is Emotional – this pretty much boiled down to helping me manage my mood before I really needed (help) to manage my mood. So Andy Version 2023 set bigger boundaries and co-opted others:

  1. Assess objectively how welcome I was in a prison as well as whether there was a need I could meet – and being up-front about that.
  2. Work to a Delivery Model, a Capacity Cap and under professional supervision.
  3. Give my funders and supporters permission to poke me with a stick on the above.

And whaddaya know it’s working!

The first time I was asked ‘And how are you feeling with it all, Andy?’ in my NHS steer group meeting I was almost in shock – till I remembered that I’d asked them to ask (duh).

The second time it happened proved I hadn’t imagined it the first time and provoked all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings I don’t normally associate with project evaluation meetings.

I felt included – and for a sole practitioner who chooses to be often out on a limb that’s pretty cool, y’know?


Beware: Bias

This is not an objective piece of writing.

While I do my best to check my facts and credit sources it is, at heart, an opinion piece based on what I experience and what I believe:

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. More rejections 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot HMP Stafford 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: 3 programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation 

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working in person with prison leadership groups

2022 March: NHS funding award to re-start in-prison work in NW

2022 Oct: In-prison work re-starts for older men at HMP Wymott

2023 July: Two year extension to NHS funding for expansion of in-prison work

2024 Feb: First delivery of this project HMP Manchester (site one of three)

Conflicts of Courtship

August: Work begins in earnest to re-start my work behind bars at HMP Wymott and to assess options for a new and second start at HMP Manchester. 

This work continues.

Here’s a dip into what that has been like for me so far:

Really Nice – And Yet.

Someone waves frantically at me through the bars and keeps waving till I break off my conversation with my escorting Prison Officer and look up to recognise…L!

Who I last saw 10months ago.

Who is a volunteer trained Buddy – the indispensable layer here bw staff and men.

Who, this time last year, was quickly a vocal advocate of the why, what and how of my work.

My initial delight at seeing him is followed swiftly by a sobering ‘Oh. So you’re still here then…’

Just the latest conflicting emotions among a veritable sea of them I’ve navigated this morning: It’s great to be back - 

And yet…

I work hard at projecting the initial and hiding the sobering as he chatters away smilingly berating my absence and already ahead of me with Where You Really Need To Go Next With Your Stuff, Andy. 

It’s never ever been about him.

We’re still chatting when out of the gloom comes a shuffling figure I also recognise…M!

Who did very well on my last program, then was moved to another part of the prison and whom I last saw on a flying visit around Easter-time. 

I was shocked at how older and frailer he looked just 3 short months after the end of the program. This time there’s no shock: He just looks old and frail. 

His face still lights up though and we reminisce with me trying very hard not to say anything too glib amidst the good-natured joshing. It’s really nice to see him – 

And yet.

Mirror Mirror

We all judge, right?

Sometimes we’re very aware of it – other times not so much.

Those are the times when the verdict is offered up as emotion: It-she-he just doesn’t feel right…

Except when you’re trying to figure out exactly why it just don’t feel right you kinda need something more concrete than a feeling.

My revised pre-program start due diligence now includes an assessment of Want as well as Need – because I’m heartily sick of being pissed about and/or being seen as the Prison Governor’s new latest favourite.

And there’s only one of me, and the new(er) me is even more protective of his finite levels of mental and emotional energy.

So.

Can I meet the need and am I really wanted? 

How to quantify the warmth of the welcome?

A few sessions on the couch with my unconscious mind produced a set of criteria on which is based my ‘Pushing Water Uphill / Being Run Around The Block’ feeling.

Now I’ve had hard criteria for assessing need and quantifying a problem for bloomin’ ages but this is the first time I’ve had the same level of objectivity for the degree of warmth of welcome projected by the people I’m there to support.

It’s bloomin’ revelationary.

And do you know? Some people really don’t like it.

Which is also revelationary ‘cos if you flip that list around all I’ve actually done is told you how to get the best out of me: 

Do these things on my list consistently over time – hell, just do the top 3 = I feel welcome = you get the best from me consistently easier, faster which means I have more energy to burn in service of you and your problem.

Everybody wins!

It’s been an exercise in positioning this bit so that less people run screaming from what they think I’m saying about them (sigh).

And remember that we’re all judging more often than not.

Gimme Gimme

It’s also possible to walk into a group of new folks, say a few choice opening lines and the only thing they want to know is when can you start – oh, and don’t worry about the operational fun and games ‘cos we’ll take care of all those Andy…

So when can you start?

That’s a bloomin’ delight, that is.

Going Under

Manchester feels big – which makes no sense as it now houses around half the numbers it did in 1990 when the largest riot in our prison history meant much of Strangeways’ had to be rebuilt to become HMP Manchester in 1994.

Maybe it’s the weight of that history pressing in then.

It feels big ‘cos it’s also high – and is unique in that the site is split by a road and linked by a bridge – and there seems to be endless security gates that are (obviously) slow to pass through even if you have the key, (I don’t) and slow your transit times down so that it feels like it takes an age to get anywhere…

Which makes it feel big.

It manages to do that while being crammed into a city centre location which means it’s another series of big imposing buildings among a cityscape of big, imposing buildings.

Which makes it feel er, big?

I’m here for two days deep immersion which means I get to experience as much of the people and the place in that time as they are willing and able to show me.

So I can start to assess Need & Want.

Paper Pains

The rule is that you don’t bring paper in.

The reason for the rule is that it’s possible to soak paper in liquid psychoactive substances which are in demand inside and this is a creative way to bring them in (and be paid for your trouble).

This is less of a problem for staff because their paperwork can stay at work, but moreso for visitors – especially for visitors who still use a paper diary and who carry an A4 hard-copy presentation around with them so their audience doesn’t glaze over at the prospect of yet more Powerpoint slides (yawn).

Like me.

Now I know this so I’ve told my host what I’m bringing and why and my host has told Security who have informed the Gate who have a copy of – guess what – the paperwork that authorises me to bring in er, paper.

The contents of my bag still raise eyebrows and early protests among the search team until the paperwork is produced to tell all concerned that I can bring in…

You know.

This all worked fine on Day 1 and I’d assumed the information would/had been carried through to Day 2.

Er, no.

So there I was stuck – until someone came to un-stick me and create paperwork to authorise me to…

You know.

It’s clear very quickly that the only people I’ll be meeting are staff.

At least one reason for that is that the prison is still operating a program of partial lockdown. This means that for significant periods of the week significant numbers of men are (still) confined to cell – and the reason for that is that this prison, like many others, is short of staff so can't run a full timetable of activities.

(See previous posts for why this is so).

I’ve decided to let my unconscious mind take it all in while I concentrate on rehearsing my intro of me, nailing my basic courtesies and remembering my key questions chosen to make it all more them and less about me.

I feel like a toddler at the end of first day at nursery school having experienced input-input-input on multiple sensory levels – just without the glass of warm milk and a lie down with a nice blanket at the end.

You know?


Full Disclosure

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:


Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. More rejections 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot HMP Stafford 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: 3 programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation 

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working in person with prison leadership groups

2022 March: NHS funding award to re-start in-prison work in NW

2022 Oct: In-prison work re-starts for older men at HMP Wymott supported by NHS

2023 July: NHS funding extended by 2 years to expand my of in-prison work

Two Years Good

It’s nice to be wanted.

It’s really nice to be wanted in a line of work where rejection can rule.

It’s especially nice to be wanted when it’s backed by funding ‘cos that means you can stop fighting to stay alive for a while and focus on what you get out of bed for in the first place.

So it was indeed especially nice when NHS Health & Justice NW confirmed last week that there was enough in my work from last year with older men in prison https://bigandscaryrunning.com/%EF%BF%BCputting-the-band-back-together/  to merit a contract extension and expansion of the work for another two years.

Another milestone and yes, a glass of something special might just have been cracked in the Mouncey household when that news broke. 

While I’ve not exactly been down on the proverbial beach since the end of the first block of this work back in Feb, the re-start could be creaky in places. Much of the smoothness that is evident in a confident delivery comes from familiarity of patterns and trends that only comes from spending time with the people at the chalkface: There is a rhythm to the work and a rationale with what to rail against and what to roll with - especially so when working in an environment such as this. So I’m eager to get back on the bike and wiser with it – I hope.

Arguably the biggest lesson from the first round was how I look after me: Proactive and reactive professional self-care https://bigandscaryrunning.com/why-so-serious/

So I’ve made some changes.

Next in line is only working where I’m welcome and wanted because it’s no longer enough for there to be a need I can help with.

So I’ve come up with ways to test the level of welcome pre-start and given myself permission to walk if I find more mouth than trousers - AND got my funder to be OK with that. Oh the pre-start work is going to be so much fun from now on!

As to the rest of this world? Some things are different and some things remain:

More People Inside

We’re sending more people to prison earlier and for longer, we’re projected to keep doing so but are starting to hit ‘full’ now https://www.russellwebster.com/the-scale-of-the-prison-capacity-crisis/

More People Re-Offend

Nearly everyone currently inside will be released and more than half will be back inside in a year – a figure that has remained unchanged for decades (Prison Reform Trust).

Lockdown Lingers On

More than half of all people in prison are (still) in their cell for 22hrs a day – and that figure rises to ¾ at weekends (Prison Reform Trust The Bromley Briefings Jan 2023) https://www.russellwebster.com/chief-inspector-of-prisons-criticises/

Retain & Recruit

An exodus of experienced staff has meant a crash-recruitment drive: The current mix is still way down and way younger (and more female) than it has ever been – and there’s real rumblings https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/68-too-late

More People Struggle

Nearly ¾ of people in prison report mental health problems, half of those entering prison are estimated to have a neurodivergent condition, drugs are a feature in over half of all prison sentences and the fastest growing part of the prison population is men over 60 (Prison Reform Trust).

Short Term Thinking

We’re on our 11th Secretary of State for Justice since 2010 and our 13th Minister Of State.

Every time there’s a change it’s time, energy and money spent on courtship/induction-new agenda and then off we go again – times 24. 

And to cap it all in prison kitchens even chips are feeling the heat https://insidetime.org/youve-had-your-chips/

Behold my office, dear reader:

What to roll with?

What to rail against?

What should be the rhythm of the work?

All will become apparent, I suspect.


Beware: I Have Bias

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. More rejections 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot HMP Stafford 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: 3 programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation 

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working in person with prison leadership groups

2022 March: NHS funding award to re-start in-prison work in NW

2022 Oct: In-prison work re-starts for older men at HMP Wymott

2023 July: Two year extension to NHS funding for expansion of in-prison work

Back Of The Bus

My return to mountain biking has brought me pleasure and copious servings of humble pie.

This is a good thing – right? – ‘cos one should never get too big for one’s boots, and while the (small) rational coachy bit of me understands this the emotional animal bit still finds it hard to digest: When you’ve been used to playing ding dong at the sharp end it’s a bit of a shock to find yourself scrabbling at the back while self-respect plays a game of frantic catch-up.

Giving It My All used to equate to being up at the sharp end if not the entire field then at least my age group – which will happen when I do eventually return to running. Right?

And while I was jumping back into this biking thing after a quarter of a century away I had at least expected some level of respectability to come from the results.

Hello, real world.

Some serious reframing was clearly in order if I was going to experience even a hint of joy and progress in a project that I was putting 7-10 hours a week voluntary effort in to.

If my first race back had me lowering the bar and widening the goals (see previous blog Two Wheels Good) the second one had me reaching for the matches to burn the f**kin’ things down and elevate my Scottish effort right up the rankings on my ‘Sh** I’m Really Proud Of’ List.

This time we were in an old quarry in Lancashire on a tight rock-strewn course that packed an awful lot of what we’ll call Stimuli into a small space (Course Preview - Crank It Cycling Lee Quarry 2023

Once again Sons Of Mouncey had acquitted themselves well in the earlier races: Joe had coped with a thrown chain right at the start that had the entire field ride away from him to re-mount and haul a few back strays on his way to a lonely finish. Elder brother Tom had chatted his way through the easier stuff early on keeping his powder dry to focus on his favourite gnarly downhill sections and take the big technical drop off with style on every lap.

And then Dad.

It was Scotland all over again and then some:

Once again I’m the only one in the field riding an old-style – make that a 30year old – bike: Upright geometry and small frame, triple chainring and small wheels. Everyone else – and I do mean everyone – is on modern longer framesets with big wheels and single chainring. 

Without going all bike geek on you let’s just say that over the years bike manufacturers have got way better at making machines that are fit for purpose using technology undreamed of a few short decades ago. This means that all things being equal you go faster for the same effort on a modern machine – period – and that difference gets bigger as the terrain gets rougher. I’d begun to appreciate that after Scotland and then somewhat indignantly asking Coach the ‘But I’m in shape - Can I Really Be This Sh** On A Bike?’ question.

Er, yes – but it’s more about the bike these days than you might think, old man.

Anyway, at this point in the experiment I’m still resolutely doing Luddite and clinging to the ‘I’ll beat you on my bone-shaker anyway and prove I’m twice the man you are’ mindset. Once again reality (and physics) was having no truck with that as the entire field rode away from me with uncaring ease from the start, and I had to fight like a bast**d to salvage a sliver of pride that came with catching the rider in front.

Once again I was lapped multiple times.

Once again I was shaken, stirred and slow over the rough stuff.

And this time for good measure I was very publicly dumped off the bike and onto my face every time I attempted the big technical drop off that eldest son had taken with style not once but three times.

Oh yeah, and my saddle came loose and locked itself into a grossly uncomfortable/unhelpful position early on which make my feeble attempts at fluid athletic motion even more pathetic, and a final lap puncture had me finishing not just out of sight but also out of mind.

Fortunately by the time the finish line arrived I’d worked out my self-indulgent pissed-offness, chalked it all up as ‘Taking Time Out On Two Wheels To Grow As A Person’ and was just looking forwards to a nice cup of tea.

And resolved to doing more training – and buying a new bike.

Sick. Gone. Moved. Dead

It’s taken me and age and then some to get back into the prison.

What’s that line again?

‘You think it’s hard to break out of prison? You want to try breaking in…’

And that’s after being vetted, cleared by security and having worked there often enough that at least some folks recognise the orange shirt if not the cherubic features and chirpy greeting that goes with it.

I could write a book (and probably will).

Finally last month I manage it – heading onto the unit housing the older men where I spent much of the autumn and first half of winter. I’d had no news which could mean nothing and something, but as I’d left in place people and process I was w

ell, optimistic that at least Something would have stuck. Because it doesn’t matter how many folks rave about it at the time or what measurable improvements are witnessed the acid test on any intervention is always beyond the finish line: When teacher exits the class – what does the class do then?

What indeed – I was about to find out.

On the walk in I did my first fishing with my escorting staff member which had me arriving with more questions than answers – and I got the headlines soon enough in big-bold. Of the 5 key people I’d had in place to continue the work beyond me the fates of 4 were stark:

Dead: That one I couldn’t square ‘cos the man in question and the one that I recall who did extraordinary well on the program had no sign to me of death looming. How and why did he die? Did he deserve it? He was in here for a reason – so how did I feel about that?

Awfully bloody conflicted, is what…

Of the activities still happening? ‘Well, some of the men are still walking the laps Andy, and we do now have an exercise bike too…’

Right. 

‘Christ – is that it? Was I that f**kin’ shit?’

Somewhat in a daze I continued to dig and did the rounds doing the meet-greet thing with everyone and ramping it up for those I recognised from my program. Faces lit up for me on recognition which I did my best to reciprocate but it wasn’t what I was feeling. Almost without exception everyone I’d worked with looked WORSE: Older, smaller, frailer and when they talked they did so with resignation and seemingly without hope.

The staff – bless’ em – even manged to get me across to another part of the prison where one of the strongest advocates of the program was now placed. The contrast to the man I remember could not have been starker and I felt awful that I could not say-do more in the two rushed minutes I had with him in the doorway to his cell on a busy noisy wing.

And I get to walk away in the end…

So.

Important to re-make the human contact but the stuff that came with it? Not so uplifting. 

A visceral reminder of what I knew already but had not witnessed to this extent: 

Without monumental personal effort and extraordinary people consistently visible on the frontline prison life will always slide back to the line of least resistance and a low bar – and that slide is particularly fast and steep for older men who are quick to age, slow to heal and find it hard to breathe and difficult to move.

What I really that f**kin’ shit? 

Considered more dispassionately over the next few days and in discussion with others who know this work a more considered answer is ‘Not really.’ 

Though of course it depends on what we’re measuring – and using as comparison.

I now know what’s possible.

So do they.

And I now really appreciate how much the odds are stacked against them in this environment.

Just gotta change the odds next time then…


Further Reading


Context

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know about me:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Timeline RFYL CIC

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work

2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Older Men

Two Wheels Good

‘Well, this is a first.’

Here I am on the start line of the final race of the day at Round 1 of the Scottish mountain bike cross country champs series https://www.sxc.org.uk  and all I can see in front of me are row upon row of riders.

Because I’m sat right at the back of the grid.

It’s been my first ‘gridding’ experience and it sure wasn’t like this when I last raced a mtb in anger – oh, about 25 years ago. This final race – mine – is made up of 5 categories: 

Elite Men & Women (insanely fast) 

Sport Men (stupidly fast) 

Junior Men & Women (see previous/could do with a square meal or six) 

Veteran Men (old guys the decade below me who are still frisky) 

…and Grand Vet Men (yep – you guessed it).

Riders are called in seeded order to the start area where they are arranged in rows of 3 from the start line backwards. The order is based on previous race results – where they exist – or the whim of the organisers. And clearly being English in Scotland with no form whatsoever means there’s only one place to put me – after the humiliation of having to wait while every other name is called (sigh).

I turn to the bloke next to me after we both catch each other looking behind just to check that we are indeed, the last:

‘You got the same strategy as me huh? Pick ‘em off one at a time…’

Family Mouncey had fled the building site that is our house at the moment and headed north towards Perth on a wet Friday evening before turning sharp left to end up here http://www.comriecroft.com We’d visited twice previously and fallen a little in love with the Norwegian Kata accommodation – half wood half canvas tepee built around woodburner and sleeping platform – set in the old forest threaded by mountain bike trails.

‘A Mothers’ Day like you’ve never had before!’ I’d said to Mrs Mouncey as I’d handed her a race entry back in December – with one for the rest of us just so she didn’t feel left out.

I’ve seen her more appreciative, I have to say.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said ‘we have time to practice!’

Practice we did – though not really on the biking bit: The last few months have seen us head to crags and climbing walls as the new wholesome family activity of choice this winter. It’s been Joe our youngest who’s been riding most with his biking buddies: The rest of us? 

Not so much.

In my defence I’d had a plan for us all – and you know how that turned out – and for me in particular: Get A Coach.

Now, the regular readers among you will recall that my running had been curtailed at the end of last summer by the minor inconvenience of a broken ankle suffered – somewhat ironically – by fellracing. Autumn had been spent in repair and rehab and that meant lots strength-conditioning work with my toys in my garage. December rolled around and it was perfectly obvious that Mr Grumpy needed a new challenge: The prospect of returning to running silly long stuff still left me cold, and while the prospect of more silly short stuff got me hot my ankle was still not 100%.

Something else then.

I used to love my mtb racing: I was never any great shakes and I recall it being quite painful on lots of levels – but boy was it fun/hard/furious/satisfying. Those were the days when I could happily eat a packet of chocolate hob nobs with one pot of tea in one sitting and still sport ripped abs…

Yeah – some of that then.

I figured a few months biking focus would be good for the ankle and a fine foundation for a refreshed return to running. I set a goal to be on a start line by Easter and to be in shape enough to get round without looking and sounding like an arse. I wanted a test event a few weeks before Easter – Scotland, Mothers’ Day ‘cos we’ll need an escape from The Builders by then – well aware that the only way to really know where you’re actually at is to do as you plan to do before you plan to really do it. 

I also needed to keep it simple and that meant being told when and what to do by someone who knew what they were talking about and who got me too.

My work at the time was a huge mental and emotional ask which meant I just didn’t have the energy beans to figure my own stuff out as well. I just needed to contract that out and be told – so that’s what I did.

The Cunning Plan said a January start would put me in Scotland with 10 weeks training under my wheels. That plan quickly collided with Real Life in the shape of a respiratory infection which meant I couldn’t do any meaningful training till mid-Feb – which put me at my test event with a mighty 4 weeks training (cringe).

Well this should be interesting/humiliating/painful (delete as).

By 2pm that afternoon family precedents had been well and truly set: Mrs Mouncey had finished smiling and intact, and Joe had also handled his biggest competitive challenge in his 13 years with some style. Over to you then, Dad…

AND f**k me if everyone didn’t just shoot off at the (loooong uphill) start!

I mean, I expected most people to shoot off – but surely I could stay with some? Couldn’t I?

Er, no.

It took me 400m (halfway up the climb) to catch the bloke in front. 

400m to do an emergency reframe of some of my goals, lower the bar and be at peace with all that. 

400m to continue to piloting my steed, keep my effort-emotions under control and trying not to translate the shouts of support for this tail-end Charlie into good-natured patronising ribbing for the slow bloke at the back, (bless him).

And my bar was set pretty low to start with ‘cos hey, I’d only gone and chosen a national series event (?!), I’m really rusty and have done a whole 4 weeks training. On the plus side was that I knew there’d be a bunch of people who would not finish for various reasons, whereas I had a good engine and could outlast most people if I were smart in the early stages and managed not to wrap myself round a tree. So:

  1. Get round without breaking anything body or bike.
  2. Hold the lap times with a minute of each other – that means start EASY/at the back and increase effort as race progresses.
  3. Don’t be shit/bring shame on your House.

400m in and I congratulate myself on having already achieved Goal 2 Part 2: I have indeed started at the back!

After that it was, I suppose, a chance to practice the skills of enjoying the new and novel dimensions of a familiar experience:

Being lapped by the top boys and girls / meant I could watch the best at work.

Being passed by the top boys and girls on twisty-gaspy singletrack / meant I got to practice how-when to do that so that we both could keep riding.

Having space to ride in rather than a competitive ding-dong / meant I got to do more of my thing my way.

Having Family Mouncey in support (and time-space to appreciate ‘em).

The last lap rolled around and I still hadn’t had a major spill. All that was left was to empty the tank over the next 20mins, staying upright-ish and think clearly while my legs – and family - did their screaming thing. 

Sometime later Dad did indeed finish intact having held a consistent pace and - according to those that know about these things – distinguished himself and his House with honour.

Next!

Why. So. Serious?*

My current in-prison work with elderly and disabled men has been a bumpy ride.

Now in this line of work bumps come with the territory but, y’know, there are bumps – and there are bumps. It’s been successful on many levels with some notable personal and professional firsts – one of which was securing permission to bring a professional photographer inside https://www.andyaitchison.uk/index . 

Now obviously there are rules about photos and prison and one of those is ‘No Faces’ – so the only face captured is mine. This was the first time I’d seen my behind-bars work through someone else’s eyes and I found the images fascinating – but something felt off. 

Then the penny dropped:

I am not smiling in any shot.

Now our photographer assured me that there are shots of me in there looking radiant – just not in the Top 50 he sent me.

Hmm.

This is highly unusual and prompted me to have a word or six with myself.

Something that took way more thinking, sharing and writing than I’d figured.

Inevitably, this is a tale of Compound & Cumulative: Many factors combining to affect me over time in what were/are extraordinary post-pandemic circumstances in our prisons.

So while the experience is mine and is time and place-specific, there may be stuff you recognise from your world too.

Which means if my stuff can help your stuff this is indeed a worthwhile post.

Plan v Reality

Now I have a whole bundle of goodies in my personal and professional toolbox that helps me manage my mood when the universe throws me a curve and then decides to keep throwing.

Sometimes the lid still comes off despite these measures and I go into safety-salvage mode:

Lower the bar to ‘just good enough’

Avoid risk, conflict and generally withdraw

Revert to reactive-rehearsed-safe

Such was the case right at the end of this project.

WHAT HAPPENED & WHY

Extended Solo Working In A Challenging Environment

It took 5 months from the award of funding to starting the work.

That’s 5 months of stop-start meetings, visits, phone calls, prep work as managers and staff blew hot and cold. This meant I was passed around till I found a need I could meet with a team that wanted my help and could make it happen.

I’d also lost my pre-Covid in-house advocate and fixer’: Someone who was alongside me throughout prep and delivery who had the inside knowledge to direct me and to troubleshoot with ease.

This time there was a mental and emotional toll before I even got to the start line – though the bastard was in stealth mode which meant I hadn’t noticed and no-one else close to me had either.

Intimate-Intensive Experience    

I work in a deliberately intimate way the better to establish a human-emotional connection the better to give the people I’m working with a reason to take action. 

I design my programs to be the direct opposite to a normal prison regime for the same reason. This is a challenge to enact in a stable environment – which this certainly wasn’t.

I adopt an inherently hopeful position that the person in front of me can and could move forward to do more/be better – and I was engaged to do just that in this work.

Compartmentalisation was crucial with these men because the following was also true:

They looked like my grandad – but they were inside for a reason. 

They were physically incapacitated which was hard to witness – but could do and be so much more (and many did by the program end). 

They had learned to be reticent, withdrawn – but many were also skilled manipulators.

So I was giving a lot and having to keep stuff in multiple boxes that didn’t seem to stack well together. Neither was I getting much back to reassure me that my program content was landing right – and lacking my fixer-advocate to check-challenge then and there.

Limited Feedback

Much of body language was absent and lingering afterwards to chat rarely happened.

This is unusual with my stuff.

Most men did not speak openly in a group – if any hint of conflict they’d quickly withdraw which could involve actually leaving the room.

I did handshakes, first names and eye contact religiously but all other tactile signals to go with e.g. celebrating success I considered a step too far. By program end I was getting some reciprocation but only in a few.

Many were on medication which affected their capacity to signal engagement, and many struggled with cognitive capacity – manifest in poor level of reading, writing, concentration.

This all meant that I was missing many of the normal signals of engagement and comprehension – even though the men were physically present – and what signals I had I wondered how much was a function of medication and, well…

Was the response I was getting genuine? 

How to know for sure?

Which meant that I was continually accumulating questions and by end of program had more questions about these men than I had answers.

Except I also had connections with many that felt warm and in the outside world would be called blossoming friendships.

WTF?? Ask the audience?

Extra Emotional Impact         

I was moved by the levels of physical, mental and emotional disfunction – many were frail and seemingly without hope, had limited agency and physiological function. 

And I was also acutely aware that there was a ton of other stuff I wasn’t seeing.

Given the ‘limited feedback/way more questions’ situation it was – unexpectedly - the recorded audio interviews at end of program that provided answers. The interviewees spoke - I believe - from the heart about life inside and the impact of this work. 

Capturing feedback this way was a first for me but it was clearly a right way for this group – reticent to speak openly in public – but by joining some of the dots it added to the emotional impact of the work and strengthened human connections right at the end.

The irony that this work has been funded by NHS from a post-Covid mental health pot is not lost on me. And I’m OK – really - richer for the experience, made some changes to my own stuff and will be pitching hard and smart for support to develop this work. 

‘Cos I love my work and I recognise that this is a rare privilege.

It’s also a reminder yet again of Some Fundamental Truths:

The world is messy.

People are complex.

And compartments can leak.


*Blatently borrowed from the late-great Heath Ledger’s demonic Joker in The Dark Knight.

Further Reading

Older people in prison https://www.russellwebster.com/the-needs-of-older-people-in-prison/Staffing trends prison and probation https://www.russellwebster.com/prison-and-probation-officers-leaving-in-droves/

The Difficulty With Disruptive

…is that one can be – how shall I put this – Disruptive.

‘Too disruptive’ means folks just walk off taking their balls with them.

‘Too disruptive’ means yours truly is left on the field holding his…

Well.

In my defence it hasn’t got quite as bad as that, but on Day 2 with Group 1 from my Vulnerable Prisoner unit I was indeed staring at half the group I started with and there were rumblings of rebellion in the air.

This was somewhat of a surprise as to my mind I’d lowered the bar significantly and appropriately. (FFS!) I’d spent bloomin’ hours on the unit prior to this point getting to know the people, the place and what normal looked like – and bloomin’ hours at home planning and scheming. 

And lowering the bar.

And lowering the bar.

And here we are and they’re telling me – via very polite spokesman – that Day 1 was…

Too long.

Too hard.

Don’t like it that we can’t do this.

Don’t like it that we have to do that.

But we did actually really enjoy it / getting out of cell / doing something different / doing something different together.

But it’s too long.

And too hard.

WTF?!*$!!!!

I feel somewhat conflicted ‘cos on the one hand it’s really not supposed to be a walk in the park or like anything they’re used to – and I know from previous work that people wobble after the first day, grit their teeth through the middle bit but then come around at the end.

So it’s beholden on me to just hold the line – right? 

‘Cos nothing worthwhile comes easy – right?

On the other hand attendance is voluntary, some are choosing to come here over work time that they are paid for and many of them do have a sleep early afternoon.

Yes, really.

(There we were 1pm Day 1 and I can see Bob nodding off in his chair right infront of me. The inspirational speaker part of me was most affronted until everyone reassured me this was all perfectly normal. Three times in the next few minutes we had to give him a wee nudge).

But here’s the clincher for men like these: 

So Bloomin’ What??

Most are in their twilight years with very limited physical and mental capacity, little hope of doing much about that and well, little hope at all really. Whatever I know to be true about neuro-elasticity and ‘Use It Or Lose It’ means very little to men who have only known their capacities and world to be one where shrinkage is normal and inevitable.

Most have spent years and decades perfecting the skills of withdrawing, doing least with less and have rituals and habits to this end that have the strength of blood rites.

My ability to position this gig and sell the benefits in a way they recognise and that is credibly realistic is only part of the battle: The other part is that it - and they - have to be robust enough to withstand the Rock Throwers.

‘Cos there are always people who love to throw rocks from the safety of the side lines.

Just ‘cos they like throwing rocks without those rocks coming back at them.

Social media is rife - but a place like this is arguably even worse because…

There’s no off button.

There’s no escape.

There’s no volume control.

Which means you have to have some serious shields up and deflection strategies running and to put up with that s**t until the benefits are clear even to the naysayers.

And all this in a place where hope and resilience seem out of reach for so many men. 

So while it does feel like I’m in a pretty pickle I also have two things going for me:

Half are still here and at least half-smiling.

The other half are still talking to me albeit from a distance and via a proxy.

If I’m thinking clearly I’ll also remember that this is not about me or my arbitrary Line Of Difficulty. Which means a handful of (yet more) changes to the what-how-when of the programme - assuming they can be made to stick operationally - are not an act of surrender by me but one that could well be enough to persuade my rebels to return.

For positive ‘moving towards’ reasons.

Which is more or less what happens over the next few days.

Another thing that happens over the next few days is that I discover how low the bar really is and what that actually means for my content and delivery.

They start to talk to me about slips and stumbles and falls that dump them on the floor of their 8x 4’ cell and unable to get up again. That may be ‘cos they are trapped under/around furniture, are stranded on their back turtle-style unable to turn and/or are just too big and weak and struggling for breath in a cramped space to do anything except lie there slowly blacking out.

We recreate the layout of a cell in our activity space and the more able ones show me. Look: This is how we get stuck. 

We somehow manage to get our biggest specimen – probably north of 18 stone - safely on the deck so I can really see what Wedged really looks like. We have men on crutches and sticks in this group and in wheelchairs too, and all pitch in with their own versions of what is clearly a nightmare and very real scenario. 

These mainly timid and withdrawn men are by now really animated as we have clearly hit a nerve that I belatedly realise I should have seen coming. I discovered early on that most struggle to stand out of a chair - but more importantly most had never been shown how to do that efficiently either.

So that night I work on my ‘Un-Stuck Scenarios’ pulling together efficient movement patterns from elite sport, safe movement skills from rock climbing and breathing patterns from weightlifting.

And I teach them how to move and breathe to get themselves un-stuck from the floor in a variety of positions. I teach them how to get into the recovery position - because sometimes all else will fail - and I coach them in how to do that for others.

Because the question that reveals how low the bar is for these men is this one: ‘Can you get up from the floor today?’


Beware: Bias 

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work

2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Vulnerable Prisoners

Forgotten Few

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:


Forgotten Few

It was supposed to be easier this time around. (see earlier blog Putting The Band Back Together)

But September rolled around and I had still not managed to re-start my work in prison with folks on the other side of the bars.

And I’ve had funding from NHS to do just that since April.

Trust me I’ve tried – oh yes by crikey I’ve tried.

Because it felt like theft I’d checked back at least twice along the lines of:

‘Er, you know that money you gave me back in Easter? Well, I really am trying to find a way to spend it on what we agreed I’d spend it on but so far…

You OK that I’m still sitting on it?’

Bless ‘em they were and are because what I was telling them about my experience of bashing my head against a brick wall this time around chimed with what they were finding too: Usual system chaos ramped up to Number 11 by a post-Covid staff crisis – namely that lots of the recently recruited new young ones are leaving.*

Which means a successful day reduces down to covering just the essential functions.

Which means that people like me – easy to dismiss as ‘non-essential’ – become one ball too many in the great game of keepy-upy.

‘Cos the reality is that I need the presence and support of staff to do what I do in the way that I do it in there. It’s a bit out of the ordinary and requires a touch of operational stretch.

So ‘we’ve not got enough staff’ can be both true and a smokescreen to hide behind – if you’re a disciple of the Church of Learned Helplessness.

I really didn’t expect to have to sell this thing all over again either.

My path to re-start had been further broken by two other changes: New staff in roles that mattered to me and my stuff, and my key staff advocate moved to a new more distant role.

The loss of the latter made me realise how much he’d flown the flag at ground level for us and generally oiled the wheels. Sh** was just way easier with him on board and his loss meant more unexpected hard yards for me.

I was pissed ‘cos it felt like I’d earned my stripes with the pre-Covid work – and here I was being given short thrift in short order.

Anyway.

Before this descends into full rant let’s bring you right up to date:

As I write I am deep into pre-start work with the Elderly & Disabled men – known as the Vulnerable Prisoner group. ‘Vulnerable’ because they are old and frail and need help to look after themselves even at a basic level, and/or Vulnerable because they are at risk from other men in the prison.

Because of the nature of their offences.

This group is also the fastest growing population in our prisons in part because prosecutions have been catching up with crimes committed 10-20-30 years ago and more.

They are housed in a prison within the prison that sounds, looks and feels quite different:

It’s very quiet with very little movement.

Everywhere is clean and neat – ‘one careful owner’ comes to mind.

The pace is slow, staff are measured and operationally it feels very therapeutic.

And yet here be monsters.

There are indeed men here who have been convicted of truly horrific crimes – which means I have a choice to make.

Do I choose to see the monstrosity or the potential for something else/better?

And that’s also a stretch because there are men here with sentences longer than their expected lifespan.

It’s also an illusion because the reality is that this is not a simple binary choice about the perspective I hold: I need to be able to hold both because (a) reality is always more shades of grey than black and white and (b) there are men here who are very good at hiding world class manipulation skills behind a friendly face. So I need my wits alongside my compassion.

By now the support system I run to keep me where I need to be for this work is well developed. By no means bomb-proof but seems to repair well after saturation:

I choose to see a human being with potential

I use first names and make eye contact

I use open questions

I never ask after the offence

If the offence is offered I’ll listen – and that’s all I’ll do

I make sure I exercise before I end my day

I have people I can talk to if I’m really caught in a loop

And remember that the world is messy and people are complex.

*15% of prison officers left the service last year - half had been in post for less than 3 years and a quarter in post for less than a year (Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing summer 2022)


Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work

2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Vulnerable Prisoners