Conflicts of Courtship

By Andy Mouncey, October 6, 2023

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.


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:

  • As an educated middle-aged white bloke with agency and economic means I recognise that I am operating at the least level of difficulty in this (my) society. (Thanks to author John Scalzi for that nugget).
  • I’ve never served time and there is no history of prison service in my family.
  • Writing and podcasting about my experiences is first and foremost a selfish act: It helps me make sense of ‘em. If other people are moved to consider their own stuff as a result of being drawn into mine then that’s just peachy.

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

  • With very few exceptions prison should return men and women who have committed a crime back to society ready and able to contribute and participate as a paid-up member of the human race.
  • With very few exceptions those people deserve that chance.
  • 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 supported by NHS

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

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