It’s way too quiet.
There should be background hubbub punctuated with the occasional shout and sometimes in some places the frisson of a fragile surface tension stretched to almost…
I’m back in a prison nearly a year into a global pandemic and while somethings remain the same somethings are very different.
A little over a week ago I clocked another milestone that has taken 8 years and 37 attempts to achieve:
WE GOT FUNDING!
Just before Xmas more monies suddenly became available from HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) https://www.clinks.org/community/blog-posts/new-funding-available-covid-19-winter-support-grants which prompted yours truly to utter something along the lines of ‘f**k it – you gotta be in it to win it’ and dash off what was actually my third application to this pandemic-related fund.
Someone must have given me points for perseverance.
Since then more reports have been published highlighting the hidden human cost of a successful policy of containing the spread of Covid-19 in the prison system https://www.russellwebster.com/the-state-of-the-criminal-justice-nation/
In my experience doing Something is almost always better than Nothing – and while Nothing might look like an easier option in the short term, it usually means you’re trading it for a big nasty Something in the future.
My application was to do Something so here I am doing the rounds at a prison in the Midlands starting to figure out exactly what that Something could look like in a site housing some 450 men who have been mostly staring at their cell walls for the last 10 months.
It’s way too quiet.
I check what I’ve read previously with my staff escort: ‘So…this confined-to-cells normality?’
Pretty much – can be 23 hours a day…
But what has been less well reported comes next:
It’s actually given us more time with the men: We’re not moving them around from one activity to the next, they’re spending more time in-cell so it’s easier for us to talk to them – build relationships, give them individual help…
‘You’d want to retain that then in the new post-covid normal?’
Add that to the New Something list then.
The Morning Meeting
Every prison holds a first-thing brief for the senior people. Pre-pandemic this would be seated cosily round a table sipping from a hot beverage of choice with a familiar hubbub of professional-personal exchange around the formal business.
Not so now.
I’m escorted into the prison chapel which – as one of the largest floor spaces in the prison (once the chairs are cleared) – now serves as the venue of choice. The reason for that is that the dozen or so people attending are seated 2-3m apart around the edge of the room which puts them at least 10m from the person opposite.
They deliver their updates in turn through a facemask.
What exchange there is is brief, purely transactional and at the governors’ direction – and it’s all over way faster than normal.
This is bad news for me ‘cos it means I have even less time than normal to decide what to say – and this is important ‘cos as we walked in I was casually told that I’d be introduced and that it would be nice to say something.
Except I’m rusty after 10months off games in the real world and I really should have anticipated this and come prepared rather than just open-minded.
So while doing my level best to project calm compassionate authority, inside I’m frantically trying out and discarding options for opening remarks. I’ve quickly shifted from What do I want to tell them? to What do they want – no, need – to hear?
Then it’s the staff member closest to me and then it’s the governor saying my name and then it comes to me. I stand, pause, take them all in cross everything and say what I think they need to hear:
Thank you for continuing to find the energy from somewhere to do a difficult job in almost impossible circumstances…
People Want To Talk
Almost everyone I met wanted to talk. Some even sought me out to talk. And without exception they wanted to talk about how to make it – the experience and operation of the prison – better.
I found it uplifting and humbling with a hint of surprising thrown in – this last one because I’ve always experienced fear projected as hostility from some staff in every prison I’ve ever been in. That tends to be the wanna-be dominant males in the PE team.
Not this time.
This time people speak freely and from the heart – and it warms mine.
Rules, Regs & The Space In The Middle
HMPPS has rules and regulations. Lots of them – down to the enth degree.
There is good reason for that because one of its’ central reasons-for-being is keeping the public safe: A big expensive job with high stakes and even bigger consequences if it goes wrong.
This means there are also lots of rules for how to operate a prison during a pandemic – and because the nature of the pandemic changes those rules have been changing too.
To the enth degree.
Sometimes every few days.
By people who are in genuinely uncharted territory.
So I’m expecting to be heavily choregraphed and limited in what we can do – but it also becomes increasingly apparent that there is some wriggle room to be had as well.
IF we can make a case, manage ‘risk’ and influence those who ought to have work like this already tagged in the ‘Essential-Urgent’ column.
My big picture question coming in was how possible would it be to deliver a covid19-safe version of my 24 hour intensive program I refined at HMP Wymott nearly a year ago https://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/blog/4584755693/A-Glimpse-Of-The-Real-Inside/11437358 Or am I reaching for that proverbial blank sheet?
I’m left with a blurred picture of my intended operational landscape and an elusive sense of opportunity.
And some very specific questions:
Can I do a full day contact time through a facemask?
Does the facemask rule totally f**k us re meaningful in-person communication?
Can my stuff still work as well without physical contact? Handshakes? Hugs?
Physical exertion + facemask = route to disaster (surely?)
After 10months relative isolation and inactivity will I simply be working with men who are presenting symptoms that are more post-traumatic stress than anything else?
And some stark early realisations:
I need to shake out what I don’t know.
We’re gonna need a full rehearsal (to shake out most of what I don’t know).
With staff – and unions.
Bottom Line: I’ve really missed the work – and it’s a joy to be back inside.
Timeline RFYL CIC
So you think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in.
This is what it takes for a new social enterprise with One Big Idea to get going in our Justice sector – as lived by Andy Mouncey of Run For Your Life CIC www.runforyourlife.org.uk
Timeline To Date
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 (sad face)
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 business sponsorship (v surprised smiley face) from Kebbell Homes
2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Lancs.
2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown
2020 June: Start an online service supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut
2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP Brinsford
Funding Bids Written & Rejected: 37
Funding Bids Successful: 1
Times I’ve Honestly Thought About Quitting: 4
Times My Wife Has Given Me Permission To Quit: 2
Times My Wife Has Really Meant It: 1