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“They wanted us to be the programme”

I have probably had more opportunities than most people to travel abroad for work. In the last 20 years, I have been to Nicaragua, New York, Washington, Costa Rica, Denmark, Johannesburg; and in the last four years, Turkey and Romania with work.

Last month, however, probably goes down as the most exotic trip so far in my professional history.

Through a long story of support for Family Man over 15 years and one man’s dream of rehabilitation including family relationship support in a Caribbean prison, HMP Balsam Ghut, myself and two Safe Ground colleagues, Holly Conroy and Ali Moran, travelled to Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, an archipelago to the right of Puerto Rico on the way down from Cuba.

We had been commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to design a bespoke new relationships support programme for the adult male population of the one HMP establishment on the island.

The genesis of the commission had been originated with Stephen Fradley, Regional Prisons Advisor for the FCO. Steve had been Deputy Governor at HMP Wandsworth almost 15 years ago and had recently written to us to ask that, as his final contribution to the development of the rehabilitative culture of the prison system in the Overseas Territories, we would deliver Family Man in Tortola.

We said “no”.

We said, we didn’t think the Family Man programme would necessarily fit in a context where public services, local NGO infrastructure, employment and educational opportunities are so vastly different from those in the UK. We weren’t sure that in a small Caribbean island, the expectations, norms and cultural assumptions about family, resettlement, housing, drugs and finance would be similar to those we that inform delivery of the Family Man programme in the UK.

We said we would need to come and understand the context in order to create something appropriate.

And, to cut a very long story short, Steve obviously agreed.

We arrived after a very long and convoluted journey involving a taxi, 4 planes, 4 airports and 24 hours.

We were collected by our right hand man, Mr. Royston Percival, who, almost without exaggeration, never left our side again until he delivered us back to the airport ten days later. Nor did he ever stop talking. Percy was our driver, confidante, advisor, guide, mentor, security boss, prison intelligence and comedy feed during our entire visit.
When we said we wanted a group of 30 prisoners in the training centre, Percy made it happen.

When we said we needed the men to work with the staff in a joint presentation, Percy released the staff.

When we said we didn’t need any more food, Percy was there with baked goods and offers of nights out in town.

We never went for a night out in town because we were exhausted. Most evenings we spent by the light of the moon (and the bar at the hotel, under the stars, keeping drunk US yachtsmen at bay) while we planned the next day’s session.

We worked with a team of 18 staff for 6 days and two groups of 12 men for 4 days and brought them together to design and deliver a joint presentation to all the senior managers (including the Superintendent) and staff that had been involved, along with the group of 25 men that had taken part, on the last day.

We were lucky enough to work with some of the funniest, most creative, engaged, participative, keen and reliable men in the prison.

The men’s reputations were not presented to us in this way- however, our experience of the guys was that each of them was respectful, made excellent contributions and was extremely thoughtful about what a programme in a prison like theirs would need to offer men who might take it.

The men thought about issues of employability, educational opportunities and family relationships. It became clear quite quickly that these would all be principle components to be considered in any programme design.

However, the men also presented us the opportunity to work with them on a much more profound level; on day 1 one of the men asked us what on earth we could possibly offer them. We were three women of European descent standing in an all male prison in the Caribbean. It was a fair question.

We answered it the only way we could- honestly; by saying that all we had to offer was our intention to genuinely listen and our skills in working with the group to make something special.

The men seemed to really believe us. Which was great, but led us to the next revelation of the first day: the pre-emptive regret that if the group did bond with us or get attached to us, we, like so many others, would leave.

During the work we did with the men and the staff, time and again, issues of conflict, pain, grief, loss, anger and sadness arose.

We had a crisis point to manage when what appeared to be a fairly innocuous group exercise about simply mapping with whom the men had relationships, became a much more significant and sub-text conversation about whether Jah or Jesus was a more important ‘God’. That conversation was a catalyst to working with the men about communication, conflict and group dynamics, the power of the unsaid and the potential for violence that can erupt from the depths of what is hidden.

For so many of our participants, feeling uncared for, unrecognised and unable to make anything better, were huge obstacles in their lives.

Of course there were enormous differences between the men in Tortola and the men we work with across the UK. The staff face different challenges and have different experiences.

In the UK, all prisons have a secure roof. Not in Tortola. The main wing of the jail is partly covered by a tarpaulin which every time a storm rages, could be torn off. There is no budget to fix the roof, and the men understand it is more important for a school to have a decent building than for them.

In the UK, most prisons house between 400-1600 men. In Tortola there are 158 men in jail.

Most Prison Service staff in the UK work full time and have little time to do anything else. In Tortola, it is very common for prison officers to have two jobs.

The view from HMP Pentonville is of the Pentonville Road. From HMP Balsam Ghut, the view is of the Caribbean sea.

The similarities, however, are probably more striking. People feel strongly about being cared for; people express (in many different ways) the need to be looked after, to feel important and to develop trust.

The men we work with have committed some extremely violent and anti-social crimes and many people would read this and think I am naïve at best, thoughtless and inconsiderate of victims at worst.

I would like to think I am neither. I am the leader of an organisation founded on the principle that people can change; that people are complicated and messy and that life is difficult for all of us.

I care as much about the victims of crime as I do about the perpetrators; and yes, I do care about the perpetrators of crimes because the most depraved acts we inflict upon each other are the marker of our worst possible expressions. How do we come to do those things to each other? Don’t we care about the people we hurt?

One of the men who worked with us throughout the entire programme was called Hussein. On the final day, in the presentation to the staff and other men, it was Hussein’s role to describe the purpose of the work we had been doing together.

Hussein said this:

“They came all the way from Safeguard (sic) to make a new programme. They worked with us and the staff to design that programme and work out what the content and the format should be. But, they didn’t come here to put the programme on us, to impose a programme. They wanted us to be the programme.”

And, we were the programme- the men, staff and Safe Ground members who worked together to support the new rehabilitative culture in the prison at the top of the hill in Tortola. I hope we can continue to be the programme for a long time to come.

 

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