Three Stories From The Inside

By Andy Mouncey, June 7, 2024

I’m inside for days at a time every month at the moment and have been since the start of the year. It will be by far the longest block of delivery I’ve done and while most of my focus is on delivering the work I also have bandwidth available to clock the other and often equally important stuff. Like this:

Staring Out

I turn round to see Steve standing stock still in the open doorway at the other end of the sports hall.

The gated bars are still secure so he’s not going anywhere but there’s not even a twitch: He’s just standing looking out at the cityscape…like he’s never seen it before??

I’m a little slow on the uptake: I know this man and at least some of his history so the penny should really have dropped by now…

I watch him watching and after a while he slowly turns like he almost can’t bear to look away.

He’s in awe of the sports hall – the light and space – and keeps looking up and around and can’t quite stop smiling:

‘I’ve never been here, Andy’ he explains. ‘This place is amazing – and the view…I’ve not seen that for…’

About a decade.

Steve has spent most of that time – only around half his sentence - as a Category A prisoner in a part of the prison where there are no views, no natural light and nothing that you or I would describe as ‘space.’ In that time he has had something of a Damascus moment, thrown himself in helping others who are struggling and earned the right to have trusted status and some of his conditions of sentence eased.

We met in March and he is now a mentor on my programs.


And every so often there has been a glimpse of the trauma that’s part of him – and this is the latest and probably the most telling image for me so far: Something I take for granted that is available for me to savour every day that he is utterly captivated by.

I figure there’s not much I can say without sounding well, rubbish – so I don’t and just smile, listen and be happy for him (in a sad way?) as he almost gushes with child-like delight.

It’s only later when I’m talking with a member of staff who points out cause-effect:

Steve attends my program.

I ask him to be mentor.

He gets permission to work with me in the sports hall.

He comes to sports hall for the first time and supports me on my program.

He is made an offer from the PE team to become a gym orderly: More trusted status and another lifeline to another chance.

And a reminder that doing good things is er, a good thing not least because it usually leads to more good things – even if those are out of sight at the time - and that It’s Never Too Late…

For anyone.

Not That Simple

Nev is a deep thinker and an articulate and considered speaker who I’ve never yet heard raise his voice. When he speaks people tend to listen.

He came to my first program back in Feb and I quickly tagged him as mentor material. He’s worked in support of me and my stuff since then and if we were anywhere else and I was in the employment game I’d happily employ him.

As is my learned habit, I work with the person as they are when in front of me – never asking the how and why of their situation. It’s a coping strategy – and it’s also none of my damn business. Sometimes (later) that information is offered, and sometimes bits come out in conversation with other men or staff. Sometimes that helps me square a circle and sometimes it absolutely does not. 

Such was the case with Nev.

I’d figured here was a young man in his early 30’s and that was as far as I’d got. What came out in dribs and drabs was he’d already done 14 years of a long sentence which would put him inside when he was in his late teens/early 20’s sentenced to a long time for a serious violent offence – i.e murder. A few years in he too had had his own Damascus Moment – deciding to give himself a second chance. This involved educating himself, earning positions of trust and putting his energy into helping others in order to help himself.

For the life of me I can’t make that lot make any kind of sense.

There remains an utter disconnect between that origin information and the young man I’d become familiar with.

This is the same with many of the young men I’ve worked with over the last few months:

They are in a high security prison serving a long sentence because they killed someone or were an accessory to that act – and yes, we do put away the accessory for life too in this country – and being in their late teens/early 20’s puts them only a scant few years older than my eldest son. 

Which, to be brutally honest, is an utter head-f**k.

As a father I see the boy in them: As a practitioner doing specialist work I have to see the something else as well. Sometimes holding both is too much of an ask so I’ve learned to put the pieces in a box and have faith that at some point I’ll be able to make more of ‘em fit than not – and all are part of a whole.

I need my compassion way more than my condemnation but holding onto that makes me weep on occasion.

Condemnation is sooo much easier…

I try very hard these days not to do the weeping thing in public (or prison) – it tends to scare people – but sometimes it just comes out.

And scares people.

People, huh? Not That Simple…

Dad & Dying Inside

I’ve learned over the years that one of the most powerful pieces that I have is the talking, listening and giving thing. A group exercise with rules and rituals designed to make it easier for (men) to give themselves permission to ask for advice, be OK with receiving gifts of feedback in return and to offer their own gift from the heart in service of others.

And in my world these are very definitely Gifts, not least because as we all know there are universal rules for receiving gifts.

Aren’t there?

Accept the gift in the spirit it is given – look the giver in the eye and say ‘thank you’ using their first name.

And that’s just what we do: You’d be amazed at how much role modelling and coaching and practice most people need to make eye contact and say ‘thank you’ and be comfortable with it.

Or would you?

Topics are the usual suspects e.g.

Fitting in

Keeping fit

Kicking a bad habit

Saying sorry

Keeping hope alive

And anything else that anyone wants to bring.

It’s a piece with a high level of intimacy that requires high levels of trust – so it’s not something I dive into on the morning of Day 1. This is back end of program stuff when we’ve all spent a ton of time together.

It’s especially powerful if a member of staff is brave enough to embrace the practice of Controlled Vulnerability and does the first ask. I’ve also had times when nothing is forthcoming from anyone – staff or men – so I’ve chosen to lead instead with a topic that is real for me and comes from the heart.

That’s been interesting.

On this occasion I was spared as one of the senior men led with Being A Good Dad.

(The full title in brackets was actually: Being a good dad while I’m inside and my kids are outside and they are growing and time is passing and I feel powerless…)

Oh. My. Word. Did that ever resonate.

In a group around 16 strong of men aged from early 20’s to mid 50’s all bar two were fathers.

Most spoke, everyone listened and I suspect all of us had a crash course of insights into others in the room rarely or never glimpsed previously. 

We had 40mins, I suspect we could have stayed on topic all day and it was yet another reminder of a truth I’ve had proof of time and again through this work: We have more in common than we have differences which is why there is always hope – if we have the wit to choose to look.

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 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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Photo Credits: Phil   Summit Fever  and  Racing Snakes