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

ALICE JAMES (HMYOI Werrington)

ALICE JAMES (HMYOI Werrington)

COMMENDEE 2021-22: When word got round that Alice James was being nominated, says Werrington’s Head of Enhanced Services Trevor Taylor, he was “inundated by messages of support and colleagues wanting to make commendations.” Next year Alice will be able to look back a quarter of a century to when she first started at Werrington – a lifetime of work during which she progressed from a Prison Officer to a Governor. The warmth and regard of the many colleagues and teenage boys whose lives she has influenced for the better is very obvious, and summed up well by Trevor. He says “every prison has someone who is its ‘soul’ – and in Werrington’s case, it’s Alice.”

A heart amongst hearts’

But he thinks his last words should go to the boys themselves who, he says, would “universally” agree with Alice’s own favourite comment, by a teen on A Wing who, when asked what he thought of Miss James, replied: “She’s like your Mum and your Nan all in one”. Alice’s wry remark that she’s “taking that as a compliment” reflects character and someone described by Werrington’s Head of Business Assurance, Graham Hickman, as “tough and pragmatic as well as tender and encouraging.” By any measure, surely, that’s also as good a description as any of the core qualities inherent to great mothers and grandmothers.

Graham calls Alice “a matriarch”, not only to an institution but to thousands of boys “whose early turbulent life journey has brought them into contact with her.” And on “the snakes and ladders board of these young lives,” he says, “Alice has been a ladder to transition them into a better adulthood.” Alice explains her approach crisply and vividly:

“I work on the basis that if a child of mine was in custody, how would I expect them to be treated? Would people care? What role models would they have? Would they be safe? I regularly instil these values into my staffing group. If we make one positive change that impacts on a young person’s life then we have done our job well.”

Her colleagues’ affection for Alice shines through each testimonial. Bev, who joined the Prison Service as the same time as Alice in 1998, says that “within weeks you could see that she was looking to change things for the benefit of staff and young people.” She says Alice has been “a constant source of support and reassurance”, and recalls how “in those days, the boys wore blue and white striped shirts when attending visits, so Alice came up with the plan that we would iron these shirts. Alice had the motto that they were ‘our boys’ – and when they went up to the visits hall they would look smart and presentable for their mums!”

Another colleague, Lucy, says Alice is “one of the most caring people I have worked with and an amazing person.” Nik, who has witnessed Alice’s progression from “a fresh-faced officer” to Head of Residential Services, admires Alice’s “high standards personally and professionally” and the way “she drives others to be their best.” Joe, a former Werrington Governor, added that, “as direct and assertive a person as Alice can be, she is also one of the most supportive.”

Examples of Alice’s support “are endless”, says Trevor, noting that “many are deeply personal.” From a Christmas Day, when the Duty Governor due to relieve her for the night shift had a miscarriage, and “Alice went home, donned her uniform, and came straight back in,” to a woman “who told me that when her husband died, Alice was not only the first person she called, but when funeral costs became an issue, Alice contributed from her own pocket.”

Another example given was a gardener at the prison “struggling so much with his mental health that he had written a suicide note” who had “the courage to hand it to Alice” – who made sure he got the support he needed. Another governor says “Alice’s comfort zone extends even to the chaos and crises most of us spend our career trying to avoid!” Another colleague, Wendy, says “I would trust her with anything.” Graham notes, too, the range of skills Alice deploys: “One minute challenging staff, driving standards and performance and the next, being agony aunt, chief supporter, and the person that holds everything together”.

Graham says Alice describes herself as “an Army brat”, and cites her father “as an example of practical public service”, something he notes “she’s carried into her own vocation.” Talking of that vocation, Alice herself says “I cannot even begin to explain the mix of emotions, incidents, highlights, sadness and laughter I have seen and experienced”, while noting that she still takes “the most satisfaction from the work I do directly with the young people in our care. This is not easy work, and it is not for everybody, but I feel privileged for the career that I have been able to have.”

Talking of privilege, her Governor Keith Atwood says of Alice that “it’s not often that you get the privilege of working with such a special person, so we are both grateful and lucky to have her as part of our team. Alice has a heart amongst hearts and will be the person still standing when everyone else has fallen. We owe her a debt of gratitude which underpins this nomination.”

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