A last look at the bloke in the mirror: ‘Just don’t be shit, OK?’
Climb out of the car gathering my goods and chattels and round to the main gate at HMP Stafford practicing the skills of projecting Cool & Calm & Completely In Control.
Act As If, right?
The gods clearly think so - presenting my ID at the gatehouse something momentous happens:
‘Ah – Mr Mouncey. You are expected!’
In all my prison visits this has never happened: Yeah, today’s gonna f**kin’ ROCK!
Before we can get to the effin’ rocking I need folks in the mosh pit. It’s coming up to 8am and I’ve asked for my 12 to assemble for a pre-breakfast Welcome Workout. The clue’s in the title - though I’m fairly sure most will think Welcome and Workout don’t necessarily go together. Still, I put my faith in Gavin and sure enough the men start to arrive singly or in small groups.
Basics first: Recall and check first names, eye contact, welcome, handshake, smile and thanks for coming x 12.
‘Turns out it’s only 11 in the end but that’s just life here.
And suddenly we’re all over the threshold and committed: I’ve got ‘em, they’re waiting and Gavin’s watching.
Let’s rock fellas…
Half hour later and I’ve turned their concept of ‘warm up’ and ‘workout’ inside out and upside down. But we’re all smiling, the tension’s gone and Gavin is still letting me run with this thing. I’ve made our virtual classroom in a corner of the sports hall – low benches, crash mats, floor mats, big pads of paper, colored post-its, stuff taped to the wall – and over a communal breakfast in our new home for the next 3 days I do the formal welcome stuff and lay out what we have in store.
The attention-grabber as far as they are concerned is that on the morning of Day 3 they will all be taking part in a gym-based triathlon challenge row-bike-run format. Which means I have 2 days to get ‘em ready in body, mind and spirit. Along the way they’ll be learning some stuff very familiar to all those who do endurance sports the world over:
• How to persevere through multiple setbacks in a challenging changing environment and still stay on course
• How to manage your mood and take charge of your mind
• How (and why) to play by the rules when no-one is watching for a long period of time
Or as I’ve described it:
How to control how you feel in here (tap over heart) and think clearly up here (tap head) so that you can make the most of your time inside to stay outside on release.
We’re eating communally so I can keep ‘em together and do everything from one base as a group all day – genuine deep immersion stuff. Keeping ‘em engaged throughout will mean turning the traditional silo programing on it’s head – go to Breakfast, go to Education, go to Workshop, go to Lunch etc - so of course I’ve done that as well: We start with physical activity, then we do some learning, then we test and check where they’re at. Then we repeat the cycle.
And we don’t ‘go’ anywhere.
I still have them all with me at 6pm that evening at the end of our seventh or eighth cycle. But all that’s for later…
Testing & Checking
Bottom line is that this is an experiment and like all experiments there are some hypotheses we want to test and some evidence we need to gather. Three from our collection are:
1. Sustainable Rehabilitation: Putting fitness first produces quick, direct mental health benefits so that rehabilitation is faster, broader, more cost-effective and sustainable
2. Emotional Resilience can be taught and this…is how you teach and test it using physical activity for this population
3. Engagement: Learning is made easy and attractive when done out of a classroom and after physical exercise (preferably outside)
(Every parent of every small child knows the truth of the last one and yet prison still defaults to putting men and women who have typically struggled with mainstream education back in an environment they have so much baggage about: In a white room on a chair behind a desk being talked at).
By the time we get to lunch – which arrives at our base as if by magic on a trolley to much enthusiasm…(Easy to forget that simple upgrades/changes to routine for these men – especially any involving food – have a huge impact. Plates are piled and bar a few shreds of lettuce the food is GONE. For Gavin this is clearly old news but I find myself somewhat shocked: No-one asked Gavin or I and no-one thought to leave any for us. My Manners Monitor is about to explode but then…
Why would they? Staff and men don’t eat together here so odds-on it’s just not on their radar.
So while I do have my own supplies in my favorite Shaun The Sheep lunchbox I am momentarily nonplussed).
By the time we get to lunch…we’ve gone through the fizz-learn-check cycle at least four times and I’m definitely calmer inside. Gavin checks in:
‘Just trying not to be shit’ I reply. ‘Working quite hard at it..!’
I leave ‘em some gym homework to do under Gavin’s beady eye for the first part of the afternoon while I go fly the flag and press the flesh among other key staff members. I need to understand ‘normal’ and Big Picture here and I wont get that if my world remains my 11 blokes. This thing needs to solve problems for as many other folks here as possible and it needs to fit into what already works.
I have an informative break and then it’s back to the chaps. Tea is another locust-fest and I lead a final shorter session post-tea before the rush to make the most of the early evening allocated telephone time. Suddenly Day 1 is done: No-one has thrown their toys out, Gavin hasn’t had to rescue me and it’s all gone pretty much to plan.
Day 2 is much the same except for two things: We’re outside much more and come mid afternoon it’s very obvious that they are all at input-capacity and are starting to flag big-style. So we dial it all down and call it quits just before tea. Tomorrow we tri…
Putting It Out There & Wrapping It Up
We’ve made it easy for people to see and hear what’s going on by making sure the event is visible. Come mid morning there is quite a crowd and Gavin breaks out the banging tunes to add to the atmosphere as we rotate our 11 through 1000m of rowing, 5000m of cycling and 800m of running and much cheering. Everyone completes and some really do leave nothing behind – and almost inevitably this comes from the least expected quarters.
And I miss one thing: There are a lot of nerves made worse by a fair amount of waiting for those further down the competition order. I’m wrapped up in the Making Happen bit and it’s Gavin who clocks it. I catch him working 1:1 with a very withdrawn looking Kevin before the penny drops for me. I give a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of Gavin and make a note:
You’ll be plugging that gap next time then, won’t you Mr Mouncey?
The final wrap up is deeply moving in parts.
We’re all gathered in our base for the final time – after I feared they’d eat the furniture along with the post-race food - with one of the senior staff sitting in. For the final two questions I ask them to speak out loud in turn to the group while I remove myself out of view so I can transcribe and they can make eye contact with their peers.
Last up is John - one of the seemingly more assured:
‘We’re all in a sorry situation here…’ There’s a pause and I can see everyone turn inward and heads drop in unison. ‘So we all got so much more out of this. I now realize I can do more than I thought – this has given me the confidence to raise my standards and test myself.’
After that there’s a minor matter of awarding the certificates and this time the handshakes are firmer and the smiles come from within. All that remains is that rather important final check with Gavin.
A pause and a grin.
‘No – you weren’t. Definitely not.