Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

REV ALECIA JOHNSTONE (HMP/YOI Preston)

REV ALECIA JOHNSTONE (HMP/YOI Preston)

COMMENDEE 2020-21: The Reverend Alecia Johnstone is a Sessional Chaplain at HMP Preston who has driven a transformation in the approach to care leavers in custody. This often overlooked and significant group of prisoners bring their own set of complex issues, and Alecia has championed them at every step along their journeys.

Graham Platt is Alecia’s Line Manager’s manager and made the Initial Nomination. He describes how, when Alecia arrived at the prison in 2018, there was no particular Care Leaver provision, and “certainly no understanding of the impact of what it meant to be a care leaver within the prison system.” Realising the scale of the issue, Alecia “began to address this and provide support for this vulnerable group of prisoners.” (A detailed account of this work, in Alecia’s own words, is below).

Graham calls Alecia a “passionate champion throughout the prison and prison service as a whole for care leavers entering and leaving the prison system,” and notes that “without her support, there are a good many young people caught up in the Criminal Justice system who would be facing a very different future, both in and out of prison.”

Preston’s Butler Trust Local Champion, Custody Manager and People Manager Kev Nield shared a number of impressive testimonials by colleagues and care leavers. Debbie McKay, Operational Lead for Care Experienced People in Custody, says she has been “truly impressed with Alecia’s contribution both to the overarching national work with care experienced people and to the commitment she displays in supporting care experienced people at HMP Preston.” Debbie says “her passion and energy for this work is evident and her engaging manner and experience rubs off on others who work in this area.”

Josh*, a prisoner and care leaver describes his experience with Alecia: “Since coming to custody, I’ve had a lot of things going on. As well as being a care leaver, I always thought that we would be cast aside and forgot about. I would have to say a big thank you to her and I appreciate everything she supported me through.”

Another prisoner, Ronnie*, says Alecia “has always took the lead, in explaining how it all works and if we didn’t understand she would go out of her way to explain in a way that we all understood. She has shown myself and other care leavers that help was always available and she would point us in the right way for support in life.”

Meanwhile, Teresa Clark, Prison Group Director & Care Leavers Champion, simply says “It is fabulous to have her support in highlighting the needs of this group.”

Leanne Woodcock, a CRC Team Manager, says Alecia “has had a huge impact on the men’s lives”, and reports that “Social Workers are now visiting their clients and this is down to the determination of Alecia to make the system work for the men. The men have fed back that they now feel listened to and are getting the support they need to move away from their lifestyle. The anxieties of the men have reduced but because of the work she has done, the men are getting the support they need through the gate from social services.”

Another colleague, David Goodwin, Regional Reducing Reoffending Lead, says Alecia’s work “quickly stood out in the prison group as good practice”, which Alecia has helped share across the Cumbria and Lancashire Prison Group.

Kev Nield explains “Care Leavers are in every part of society, but in prisons they appear in profoundly disproportionate numbers,” and says “it isn’t hard to understand how the experience of being ‘in care’ could leave someone feeling disconnected, unvalued, rejected, outside of society,” but adds that “Alecia understands, she has empathy to spare and wants you to have some.”

Alecia’s own lived experience has informed her focus on vulnerable people, and Kev describes “her quest to highlight issues”, noting that Alecia “is passionately drawn to educate people about the needs of these vulnerable prisoners”.

Preston’s Governor Steve Lawrence praises Alecia’s important work championing the needs of care leavers, and commends her for “publicising that care leavers are disproportionately represented in custody, and their needs can be more acute and their expectations of the Prison lower than others.”

Alecia herself describes the journey of the work for which she has become a Butler Trust winner. As a sessional Chaplain, she had one day a week to achieve a turnaround change for care leavers, and no staff. She explains that the first task “was to identify those in custody who are care experienced. This was achieved by partnering with CRC (community resettlement services) who conduct interviews with each inmate on arrival.” Next, she created new job posts for inmates – ‘care-experienced prisoner reps’ – on each wing, who provide peer-to-peer support and assistance. With care leavers identified, Alecia made referrals for each individual to their Local Authority Leaving Care Team, informing them of their location, needs in custody and “inviting their Personal Advisors to visit and maintain their support throughout their sentence (rather than disengage as had been the practise of some).”

Next, she set about getting “specialist trained officers at all grades and Governors to understand who, what, why and how we need to progress, approach and support this group.” To this end, Alecia created and delivered training sessions and shared her lived experience. Soon she had “all echelons onboard, and understanding the urgency of this work…the vision was cast.” These officers, during keyworker sessions, then liaised with Local Authority Personal Advisers and fed back on how their young person was progressing and answer any queries. It soon became clear, says, Alecia, that closer partnership working with the local authorities and probation was required.

“I gathered the Local Authority Leaving Care team leaders from the adjacent authorities together in our establishment, educated them regarding their young person’s journey through custody, challenged preconceived ideas they had, and encouraged them to remain engaged and proactive during custody. This resulted,” she says, “in very positive outcomes for the young people including more money being sent in so they were enabled to stay in contact with significant others.”

Then Alecia set up forums to explain to the young people “their rights and entitlements, the criteria for leaving care and the role of a Personal Advisor. These forums, she says, “created a space for the care leavers to belong, feel connected, voice concerns, receive peer to peer support, explore issues such as identity, self-esteem, attachment issues, how to deal with failure, explore hopes and what a positive empowered future may look like.”

Alecia adds that “we listened to examples of individuals who had overcome incredible obstacles to achieve success, and had guest speakers in, such as Gethin Jones (a former ex-offender who is now a motivational speaker and charity founder), and local authority team managers for Q & A sessions. One of the changes that came about from these sessions was that we made family days inclusive, they are now family and significant other days, we challenged the status quo and ensured care experienced individuals mattered.”

Alecia went on to deliver training and help spread good practise, as well as partnering with probation at Preston “to implement joint release planning meetings so all parties were able to deliver a co-ordinated approach at this crucial time of release.”

Alecia concludes by saying it is a privilege “to benefit others in such a positive way”.

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