The Cost Of Energy

By Andy Mouncey, May 3, 2024

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:

  • 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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