Reflections from a Serco Forensic Psychologist

Among the many departments and teams help make a prison run smoothly, is the psychological services team.

Psychological services are embedded in all Serco prisons, overseen by Serco’s Head of Custodial Psychological Services and they perform a wide range of services within each prison.

One of their main roles is the provision of courses and treatment to prisoners in order to address their offending behaviour and help reduce their risk of reoffending. These treatments are known as interventions.

There is also a major focus in the work they do relating to safer custody in prisons for both prisoners and staff, which include work with self-harming or suicidal behaviour, violence reduction, substance abuse, conditioning behaviour, involvement in critical incidents and consultation on the more complex residents who have individual needs.

Serco’s team of Psychologists carry out high-level research for the prisons, some of which has been presented in national and international conferences or published in academic journals.

The following is written by Emma-Jayne Williams, Senior Forensic Psychologist at HMP Dovegate reflecting on the more recent work psychological services have been performing in the light of Covid-19:

Unprecedented, probably the most overused word of 2020, “without previous instance; never before known or experienced; unexampled or unparalleled.”  Whilst there have been global pandemics before, very few people have personal experience of these and never has anyone experienced a global pandemic in the interconnected and global economy in which we all currently reside. 

2020 has been the curveball thrown at us all that none of us wanted, we may have sat with friends or loved ones on the 31st December 2019 making plans for 2020 to be ‘our year’, the year that would be the ‘best year ever’.  It would be easy to think that CV19 has made 2020 the worst year ever however as a Psychologist I am fully aware of the power of changing thoughts to change emotions and behaviour.  If we consider the glass half full scenario then many of us have had the benefit of seeing both ourselves, our children and loved ones adapt in different ways and learned to enjoy (or at least have) a slower pace of life…with all of this said however, I am not ignorant of the hardships from the year, the lives lost, the missed contact with loved ones and the financial difficulties endured by many.  However, it is important for me and my mental health to reflect in the most balanced way I can.  Reflection is a fundamental skill of a Psychologist, one we develop throughout our ‘in-training’ period, at the time resent but eventually struggle to switch off as it just becomes a part of who we are and how we think.  As practitioners we are guided by models and literature for example Gibbs Reflective Model[1] to guide our reflections.   We reflect on our own behaviour and the behaviours of others, what we give and what we take away from any interaction and as a result working as a Psychologist during a pandemic within an essential service means we have all engaged in many hours and days of individual and shared reflective analysis.

Whilst reflection is the ‘bread and butter’ of our work, we are very conscious of the importance of action also.  When the impact of CV19 became more widespread and lockdowns were enforced, as a service we needed to consider our role and how we could support the establishments within which we were based including the staff and residents working and residing within these.  We adapted quickly to the use of online technology, this allowed us to stay connected as a team, for example through engaging in virtual team meetings and supervision using Teams, and also has provided significant benefits to our everyday practice.  We have utilised online technology to deliver and attend training, allowing us to become more upskilled and thus offer a wider service moving forward.  Additionally we have been supported to use technology to provide support to our residents, and whilst we have not been able to deliver face-to-face interventions, support and guidance has continued using in-cell telephones which we hope has alleviated some of the pressure on our incredibly hard working Prison Custody Officers.   

Our Serco Psychological Services staff have also been able to utilise their creative side and support the development of distraction packs and posters for our residents to help them to pass the time and support emotional wellbeing.  We have supported staff by providing psychological advice regarding individual residents through the use of summary documents detailing what staff need to know about a resident’s history and what makes things better or worse for them, this has allowed their needs to be acknowledged and work to be carried out in a psychologically informed way.  We have used our skills and experiences to cultivate a compassionate culture where we look after ourselves and each other.  We have provided reflective spaces for all staff to use in addition to providing advice and guidance on self-care and psychological recovery.    

Whilst adapting to the change in demands on our work we have also needed to ensure that we have not neglected our usual roles.  As a service we have still been required to undertake assessments of risk and need, for example for parole or interventions.  Again we have needed to use creative methods with the support of the establishment to carry out these essential tasks in different ways.  Our goal has continued to be that the resident is provided with an opportunity to take part in the assessments required even if this has been carried out in different ways, for example through the use of different locations in the prison, by wearing PPE provided or even through the use of telephones and written communication. 

Whilst this does not mark the end of our CV19 journey, in fact the day I am writing this is the day that England has entered Lockdown 2.0, I feel we have learnt a lot as individuals, professionals, companies and generally as a country to move forward positively.  What is clear is that we all have the ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome.  The future, both at a personal and professional level, continues to remain uncertain however what is certain is that Psychology, the scientific study of the mind and how it dictates and influences our behaviour, can continue to support our responses at all levels from individual to worldwide.  A final message, and one that Serco Psychological Services will continue to promote is the importance of social support to moderate the negative impact of stress and increase personal resilience.

Revealing why verbalising helps heal our emotional pain, neuroscience studies by Lieberman et. al. (2007)[2] among others, have found that labelling our feelings reduces activation in the amygdala, our brain’s alarm system that triggers the fight-or-flight reaction.  It’s an old saying that a problem shared really is a problem halved, so if things feel tough talk to someone, a family member, friend, loved one, colleague or professional, talking helps!

Emma-Jayne Williams

BPS Chartered and HCPC Registered Senior Forensic Psychologist

BSc (Hons) MSc C.Psychol, AFBPsS

[1] Gibbs G (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford. [1] Gibbs G (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.

 [1] Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M.J., Tom, S. M., Pfeiffer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-427.