It starts as I am escorted from the prison gate to the self-enclosed unit that is the Theraputic Centre inside HMP Wymott.
Wymott is a ‘C’ class of prison – so fairly low level of security – with around 1100 men serving time across the full range of categories. The TC is a 70-bed building housing men 24-7 who are in recovery from addiction and have committed to be so.
Whatever you think of the levels of drug use/abuse in society at large the problem is way worse in prisons for lots of reasons – one of which is the removal of detection-treatment resources as part of the so-called austerity drive of the last decade. We’ve also had the rapid rise in use of new ‘legal highs.’ All this has meant more people inside behaving out of control and less resources to deal with that. This has led to more violence with staff and inmates on the receiving end and yet more sticking plaster solutions as our political leaders run scared from the braying masses.
You could say there is a need.
The TC is something of an island amidst this storm – it has some of it’s own rules and rituals - and it’s where I will be working from next month.
Except some of the men clearly think I start today.
I pick up the odd greeting and comment as I get closer from the small groups on fresh air time. I return these automatically making sure I do eye contact…This is something I’ve worked hard on from the early days: Being proactive with a greeting and eye contact even when I was having kittens inside. It matters...but it still doesn’t register that I’m being greeted by people who seem to know (of) me
Through the door and more of the same – this time very warmly by three members of staff including…
‘This is Mike, Andy – he’ll be with you for the program…’ I register the smile and handshake and the fact that this means I will now have two members of the team with me for the duration – the first being Fi who has been designated Point for this pilot and has met me at the gate today.
She’s also clearly been doing some groundwork.
Fi: ‘We’ve selected the men in buddy pairs as we discussed ‘– (we had) – ‘and we’ve been talking about it quite a lot. They’re really keen to get started’ - she throws me a grin – ‘ as you can see!’
No shit. Which either means she’s done a helluva selling job or they’re just really bored…
As we work our way through the TC the greetings and questions keep coming which is lovely and suprising and…
Not what I asked for or anticipated today.
‘Do you want to meet the men?’ asked Fi when we were discussing today.
‘No.’ I’d said. ‘This is about meeting the key staff, doing the hearts and minds bit and casing the joint. What I learn (today) will inform what I say when I met the men – and when I do meet ‘em I want it to be about them.’
Hmm. Might not be able to hold that line the way this is going…and Fi gives me a nudge:
‘You might want to think about saying a few words…’
Yeah, I might.
Before that though there is the small matter in pitching this thing to key members of staff from across the prison – and while I know Fi has been warming ‘em up this is still crucial First Contact.
I take a deep breath and do what I’ve rehearsed recalling that time-honored advice from HMP Stafford:
‘Just don’t be shit, OK?’
It also helps that Craig from HMP Stafford came up to Wymott with me last month to meet some senior staff and to vouch for what we did:
‘It works, this is how – and you need it’ he’d said.
And here we are.
Over the years I’ve got way better at this bit so now there’s no selling at all. I lay out where we could go and let them figure out a ‘how’ that would work here. An hour and change later and I find myself sitting back in almost wonder as the pieces are being knit together by the people present as yours truly is almost redundant.
As we start to wrap up Fi catches my eye once again and I know what’s coming:
‘It would be really nice if you could say something to the lads Andy…’
Here’s what sometimes happens at home with our boys at bedtime: They will think of a question to ask Mum or Dad that means they HAVE to come downstairs and take a peek round the living room door to see what the parents are watching on the telly. Oh, and then forget the question.
Well, it’s been a bit like that this afternoon: We’ve had periodic interruptions for seemingly innocuous reasons from folks who are clearly desperate to join the party. And now almost as if by magic as we wind up our session the lads who are due to be Group One have infiltrated the room seemingly by osmosis and are all on the spare chairs looking up at me expectedly.
I look at Fi.
Fi looks at me.
I look at the lads.
Now at this point in the film the tumbleweed blows past to the mournful sound of a tolling bell. Or I remember that if I can’t pull a Hearts & Minds bit out of the hat at a moment notice by now I really need to find a new vocation. So I take a breath, go inside and trust that I can take them where they need to go.