“The prison officers have all been positive and friendly since the lockdown started, even with the difficulties they must all be facing. The usual heroes have carried on being great.”
So wrote a resident about our team at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Ashfield, UK. Others have shared similar sentiments, including an HMP Dovegate resident who said their empathy “has [made] me look at prison officers in a different light”.
Covid-19 has represented a massively complex challenge for prisons around the world. For the prisons we manage and prisoners we care for in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, we have taken the risks extremely seriously.
“Our priority has been to continue supporting the criminal justice system in the most effective, efficient and caring manner whilst rapidly implementing unprecedented safety protocols,” says Wyn Jones, Operations Director, UK Custodial. “We lost no time in dedicating our full capability to it and have been delighted with the low infection rate across our custodial estate, though we remain vigilant and focused.”
Even as our teams have wrestled with enormous challenges to safeguard the immediate health and safety of prisoners – such as the surge in demand for protective equipment and the need to reinvent first aid and physical contact training – they have not lost sight of prisoners’ mental, emotional and social wellbeing, all important elements in the care we deliver:
“We are all very proud of our work to provide positive, supportive environments and services focused on rehabilitation,” explains Wyn. “For every one of us, the mission has been clear: protect those in our care, which means protecting the full, rehabilitative quality of life in prison.”
Protecting spiritual wellbeing
The lockdown coincided with important events in the calendars of many faiths. For prisoners of faith, the opportunity to observe their religion is critical for rehabilitation. As Misbah Gulzar, Equalities & Chaplaincy Manager at HMP Dovegate, explains regarding Ramadan and the c.1,000 Muslims in our care in the UK, our teams were determined to keep disruption to a minimum:
“With little time to prepare, we found new ways to engage our Muslim communities and deliver key elements of the month-long festival, including proper provision of iftar meals and appropriate celebration of Eid. We have fantastic Imams in our team and their knowledge and support made a huge difference.”
Other festivals have also been celebrated to the fullest extent, including Easter, Vaisakhi and Passover for Christians, Sikhs and Jews, respectively.
Protecting family connections
One of the top priorities for our colleagues has been helping prisoners stay in touch with loved ones after all social visits were suspended.
Our team at Acacia Prison in Australia quickly developed a safe and secure solution using tablets and video calls, enabling prisoners to connect with family and friends at scheduled times.
“Face-to-face contact with family supports mental wellbeing and preparing for life in the community after release,” said Brenton Williams, Prison Director. “Prisoners and their loved ones have really appreciated these virtual visits, which are particularly important during this time of uncertainty.”
Similar solutions have been introduced in the UK, where our ‘Family and Friends at the Centre of Throughcare’ (FACT) initiative also plays an important role. Through FACT, prisoners nominate a friend or family member to join their support framework and be more closely involved in their rehabilitative journey. The FACT system has been an invaluable channel of communication between prisons and prisoner families during Covid-19.
Protecting positive, purposeful experiences
Meaningful daily engagement is integral to a positive, rehabilitative prison experience. With safety measures confining prisoners to their cells, our colleagues immediately recognised the mental health risks and the need to keep all prisoners purposefully occupied.
“We pooled resources across all prisons,” says Natalie Griffiths, Mobilisation Manager, about our UK In-cell Enrichment Programme. “Each prison builds their weekly schedule from a wide range of activities developed to cater for all ages, abilities and interests – such as in-cell exercise programmes and creative writing courses – and it keeps on growing. Some are provided by our custodial colleagues, but we’re also expanding our network of education and enrichment partners.”
Maintaining key development programmes has been a focus in Australia and New Zealand as well. For example, the ‘Pups in Prison' programme at Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC), in which prisoners train special needs assistance dogs:
“We currently have five pups in training,” said Nick Rowe, Prison Director. “It lasts about eight months and involves caring for them 24/7. Our challenge was keeping the pups here and continuing the program whilst maintaining government restrictions.”
Working with Assistance Dogs Australia, the SQCC team developed virtual training through video conference technology, a solution that is also being applied to other programmes.
Recognising our everyday heroes
Wyn Jones is keen not to let the rising tide of ingenuity and innovation overshadow the importance of those who are making the greatest difference of all:
“Our custodial colleagues in the prisons have continued to make us proud: rolling with the changes, stepping up to the challenges and always putting prisoners first. Only with their calm, compassionate and steadfast commitment – and the sacrifices and support of their families – have we been able to sustain our high standards of caring service whilst working to manage new and emerging risks.”
In some cases, their actions have saved lives – such as Prison Custody Officers Tim Wallace and Kelly Williams at HMP Ashfield, who fought to save a prisoner who collapsed with severe Covid-like symptoms. With full regard for safety and no hesitation, they administered emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation, keeping him alive whilst paramedics put him on the path to recovery.
Simple gestures and small kindnesses are of no less value. For many prisoners, it is the everyday heroics our custodial colleagues perform that are helping them through the lockdown. In the words of another HMP Dovegate resident:
“I would like to thank all staff for their hard work. They are key workers and essential to making our time in lockdown as stress free as possible. We should all be very grateful – I applaud them all. Thank you for your care.”