Falling Through The Cracks

By Andy Mouncey, February 22, 2024

‘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:

  • 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 https://whatever.scalzi.com 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

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)

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