COMMENDEE 2017-18: Rachel O’Connor developed a new and more holistic approach to help some of the most complex offenders in HMP Styal, a women’s prison in Cheshire. Intelligently connecting the dots between numerous agencies and women’s support groups, Rachel has changed ‘hundreds of lives’. Her impact is movingly captured in one former, longstanding, prolific offender’s words, who finally found the courage to give evidence against a domestic abuser, and recently commented that, “she feels so much stronger having the support of so many strong women around her now.”
[Summary of original nomination and supporting materials submitted to the Trust]
Rachel is the Team Leader for Cheshire & Greater Manchester CRC’s ‘Through the Gate’ programme, in partnership with Shelter. She pioneered her holistic approach in HMP Styal, and has since extended it into HMP Risley, a men’s Category C prison. The impact Rachel has made has been recognised by Government Ministers, by ‘Women in Prison’, a national charity providing specialist support for and by women, and in numerous enthusiastic testimonials by prisoners, among others.
These results are, as initial Nominator & Local Butler Trust Champion Sarah Cooke of Shelter notes, “positive outcomes for individuals who have been trapped in the criminal justice system for most of their lives.” Sarah says Rachel’s “pro-activity, dedication, excellent interpersonal and stakeholder engagement skills have been pivotal in the success of the service.”
Rachel identified peers – serving women in HMP Styal – to be advocates for ten local Women’s Centres, and set up training and support for them. The result increased engagement by the women both in Styal and after their release.
Rachel’s initiative started when she decided to “do something different” because there were women who weren’t tapping into existing provision. Collaborative exploration with twenty of the most complex female offenders explored what hadn’t worked – and what could be done “rather than repeating historic practice.” Extensive co-ordination of agencies, while keeping the women “at the heart of it”, led to more individually responsive approaches that didn’t lean on “the past history or assumptions.” As a result, Sarah explains:
“Rachel increased the engagement of traditionally hostile and hard-to-reach women. She has been pivotal in women gaining settled and suitable accommodation for the first time in numerous years and attending training and appointments…This is astonishing given the cohort she is working with.”
On a more personal note, Rachel is described as “a joy to work with. She is always positive, solution focused, innovative, and dedicated…she has a passion for helping people and empowering clients and staff to believe in themselves.”
Chris Edwards, Chief Executive, Cheshire & Greater Manchester CRC, calls Rachel:
“an outstanding example of how one person can make such a difference to what is an innovative approach to tackling reoffending”.
Rachel herself points out that the project relies on “developing strong relationships with the women in order to build trust with a group of women who have often experienced some high levels of trauma through their life.” Extensive handwritten feedback from eight male prisoners in HMP Risley about how Rachel extended her approach there, including the involvement of a professional musician, suggests that this more holistic engagement has value across gender, too. Some of the men subsequently took up instruments or writing music, and the impact was clear:
“It made me feel human again”, said one offender, while another said it was great “to be reminded that we are not just criminals. It made a big difference to me personally as music was a big part of my life before all this. Thank you so much.”
Impressively, one of those recently released after being involved in the project has now set up his own business – finding employment for ex-offenders!