Warming Up

By Andy Mouncey, March 12, 2021

This work at HMP/YOI Brinsford is funded by HM Prison & Probation Service through Clinks Covid19 Winter Support Grant Programme.

‘So…’ projecting big smiley face from distance with big wide arms for added fill-the-space--ness - ‘everyone be up-standing ‘cos we’re gonna go in 3-2-1 GO!’

Nothing happens.

Nobody moves.

The 10 young men around me may as well be made of stone and they’re all telegraphing the same silent message:

Your move, smartarse.


This is not as advertised:

‘We’ve got you in front of the prison council,’ said the staff. ‘There’s some good lads there – we’ve talked to them about this and they’re up for it.’

So I’m a happy boy: I’m here to do some focus group stuff – to involve the lads in the program design bit – and to get ‘em engaged in a teeny tiny bit of physical activity (fizz) so I can see what I’m gonna be working with.

I’ve thought carefully about my opening remarks, scripted them and rehearsed them as I always do – that vital first 30second ‘Land ‘Em Or Lose ‘Em window’

And this should be top of the intellectual food chain: 2 representatives from each of the 5 blocks or Residences, as they’re called. 

Break the ice – warm ‘em up.

Only half an hour ago I’d walked my staff hosts here at HMP/YOI Brinsford near Birmingham through everything I was about to do – and not a hint of a red flag was waved.

And that included taking them through this same fizz challenge in their office space in full uniform that I’ve just set up now.

Meanwhile back in the real world I know full well what’s next – and sure enough…

Here come the rocks.

Objections-excuses are lobbed into the middle while nerves are hidden in ridicule.

I can spot the gym-bunnies a mile off and sure enough we have one here – and Biceps bless him, could look more affronted if he tried.

Gonna have to do this the hard way then (sigh).

It takes many minutes of round the houses from me and the staff and in the end I resort to getting 3 staff to complete the 3 x 17 second challenge as a way of throwing down a gauntlet and reassuring the lads that I’m not about to turn them into an onion or get them to do something they really can’t.

And trust me I know how to pitch this stuff by now: The challenge I’ve set them is to stand up, lie down face up on the floor then stand up again. They can use both hands to do this, or one hand or do it no-hands with hands on head. How many times in 17 secs? Match it then beat it.

(Hey – you can join in a home too!)

FINALLY the cracks start to appear: we get one up for it – as long as everyone else does, of course – then another, before I declare an away win and get it done with 3.

I don’t have to be a mind reader to see that the staff are pissed and embarrassed (for me) in equal measure. But I have one of my three boxes ticked and sure enough ticking the second – getting some of them to contribute to programme content – proves a little easier.

Everything’s relative of course, and there’s still only 4 out of 10 playing.

Now for number 3 and I go for the blunt approach:

‘Stand up if you want to work with me next week.’

And that’s how I end up with a 5-strong first cohort and to my relief they’re not all white. Gang culture is real here on the inside because it is real on the outside and some of those divides are indeed skin color.

As the lads start to disperse with their escorts the one closest to me - and one of my 5 - catches my eye and leans in. And that’s how right at the end I’m given a glimpse of the vulnerability behind the façade that peer pressure has created:

‘Thanks for coming in and trying to do something – we all really need it.’

Locked Up In A Pandemic: What’s It Really Like?

HM Inspectorate of Prisons has published a report that includes voice transcripts from people who have spent 22hrs/day in a cell for the last year. Please look & listen

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