COMMENDEE 2017-18: Governor Dr Jamie Bennett calls Prison Officer Paul ‘PJ’ Johnson “a Grendon legend”, and aspects of that legend are reflected in each of the five independent testimonials made by prisoners. Their testimony about how a remarkable, ‘indomitable’, and ‘exemplary’ character has made a real difference to their lives over the past quarter century is both moving and heartfelt.
[Summary of original nomination and supporting materials submitted to the Trust]
One serving offender, Joe*, wrote:
“He has always treated me with humility, respect, care and consideration, in my opinion all the qualities needed to best rehabilitate damaged individuals within the criminal justice system…some of his qualities I now possess through learning to trust again. I believe that his indomitable attitude and belief in therapy has contributed greatly to my journey.”
Another serving offender, Gareth*, agrees: “He is always honest and consistent. I feel I can trust him totally and I feel he is an example of what an officer should be in an ideal world. He cares.” Carl*, in his own testimonial, adds, “above all he continues to nurture the positives, no matter how small…I personally owe this man a debt of gratitude. Officer Paul Johnson epitomises what a prison officer should be.” Ray* says “Paul has a positive energy which is infectious,” while Mark* wrote: “There is something very real about Paul, he is a straight talker…this officer gives totally to his career but he gives it from his heart.”
Butler Trust Local Champion Carole Roe, Director of Capital Corporate Finance and a Friends of Grendon volunteer, says “there are several words which come up repeatedly when talking to both staff and prisoners about Paul Johnson and those are ‘trust, rock, care, humility, respect, humour and compassion’ – not words that are always associated with people doing this job.”
Both Carole and the Governor note that Paul is a “carrier of the culture” at HMP Grendon, a unique and pioneering ‘therapeutic’ prison working with ‘some of the most damaged and dangerous offenders within the prison system’. One example was his response to the importance of first impressions and early experiences: he now gives ‘induction sessions’ in his free time.
Carole, again: “When a new prisoner arrives he always greets them with an outstretched arm and a handshake, saying ‘I’m Paul, pleased to meet you’. Prisoners talk about this often, saying how it took them by surprise, being so different to their previous interaction with officers, but describing how from the very outset Paul has treated them as people, not prisoners, and that from here trust and respect begin. This is key to them being able to begin to engage in the difficult work they will do in therapy.”
Indeed, one prisoner recalls a poignant anecdote:
“When I arrived at Grendon as a name and number he offered his hand to me and said ‘My name’s Paul, pleased to meet you’ and I thought it was a trick as I’d only ever had negative contact with officers. It was actually the first time I’d ever shaken anyone’s hand. Five years on and I credit him for turning my life around. When he leaves I’m going to have some work to do, because it will be like losing the Dad I never had.”
Carole goes on to note that Paul “found a way of working that seemed to have a notable positive effect on the prisoners. He said he achieves this by looking upon each man as one of his sons. If they did something well he praised them, if not he would chastise them as a father would a son. He is well known for being able to de-escalate a volatile situation in this way and the ‘PJ hug’ is often talked about. Paul tells me “I truly believe there is good in everyone. I try to find the good and build upon it, praise it, work with it, which leads to trust. Once that trust is there we can start to work on the difficult issues”.
Carole goes on, “All of Paul’s colleagues admire and respect him. One says, ‘every officer could learn from Paul, but he has such a unique way about him I doubt anyone could copy it. He can put his arm round the shoulder of the most defensive of men, he can tell someone to go away until they’ve calmed down, and they do!’” When Carole asked one prisoner to describe Paul in three words, he said “Unique Human Being.”
Paul’s approach is “to spend time listening not judging, always finding something positive and affirming within the men to genuinely relate to. I always seek to respect the person as an individual with his own set of needs and concerns…I aim to build and maintain a culture of transparency, permissiveness and enquiry, making it okay to make mistakes.”
Paul is due to retire next year – and admits it’s not something he’s looking forward to. He says, “this is my life, these men are like family to me and it’s going to be very hard to leave it behind. I’m looking forward though to coming back as a visitor, not in a uniform, to show these men that this was never just a job to me.”
* Name changed