Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
AWARD WINNER 2018-19: Alison is a Prison Custody Officer in the Social Care Unit at HMP & YOI Doncaster. Described as “extraordinarily caring”, she is granted an Award for the outstanding skill and compassion she shows towards some of the most isolated and challenging prisoners in the system.
[This Award is supported by Novus.]
Initial Nominator Mark* was one of seven prisoners in the Social Care Unit at Doncaster who nominated Alison. Although he starts by noting how Alison ‘enabled me to feel respected, comfortable and have my special requirements met as a disabled person’, he was particularly keen – as was everyone in the nomination papers – to cite the example of Alison’s work with Eddy*, an extremely vulnerable and unhappy prisoner who was having a negative impact on others in the unit. As Mark says, Alison ‘started by simply sitting with Eddy and talking with him’, adding that ‘her caring approach is really above the norm’ and that [because of Alison] ‘Eddy can now see a positive future for himself.’
Eddy’s story, as described by Local Butler Trust Champion Rachel Oleisky, although heart-breaking, is worth detailing:
‘Eddy is a 67-year-old man with a mental age of around 4 years old who has been at HMP Doncaster for 11 months. [The Butler Trust explored the Management & Care of Offenders with Learning Disabilities in a workshop with the Prison Reform Trust]. When he first arrived, Eddy never left his cell, he wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, wouldn’t speak, wash, shower, change or interact with anyone, he simply self-isolated; he also self-harmed by repeatedly banging his head on the wall. Alison took note of his behaviour and started spending more and more time with him; over the weeks, she built up Eddy’s trust. They would sit and draw and colour together; Alison even taught him to write his name. Eddy communicated through the pictures he drew and it soon became clear he had a love for cats, so Alison sought permission for Eddy to have a cuddly toy cat in his cell. He strokes and cuddles it and this stopped him from banging his head.
The rapport Alison has built up has changed Eddy completely; after several months he got to the point where he would at least communicate to others through Alison – even when the person was present and stood next to him and Alison, he would ask questions but direct them to, and look specifically at, Alison. By gently persuading him to ‘ask’ and ‘tell’ others himself, Eddy eventually gained confidence to do this… As time has passed and Eddy’s confidence increased, he now goes on to the exercise yard with others, eats in the dining room with everyone else, showers daily, changes his clothes and cleans his cell.
The work, and time Alison has spent, with Eddy will hopefully have an enormous impact on him when he is released, she has taught him so many social skills and has helped him to be more confident and independent.’ (Alison has also won a 2017 Serco Pulse Award in the ‘Care’ category for the care and support she has given to Eddy.)
Rachel adds that ‘Alison is always there to offer a cheery and infectious smile and a sympathetic ear,’ and goes on to describe another outstanding example of compassion in action. Richard*, an elderly prisoner long estranged from his family and with no friends or visitors, had ‘terminal cancer for a long time’, and ‘would have been extremely lonely in his final weeks and days had it not been for her actions… She sat with him for many hours and held his hand until he passed away, she then closed his eyes and said the Lord’s Prayer; healthcare staff who were present on the unit stated the behaviour of Alison was outstanding, she was exceptional and compassionate, and ensured he died with dignity and with a friendly face by his side. Alison’s actions were beyond that expected of any individual, she chose to ensure a dying man’s final hours were dignified, comfortable and that he was not alone.’
The testimonials of other prisoners are equally striking: ‘one in a million’, ‘an exceptional prison officer, respected by all who come into contact with her, both inmates and fellow officers’, ‘she really is the best.’
Unsurprisingly, Eddy’s own (dictated) testimonial is particularly affecting.
‘She has been a great support to me. I get very lonely and cry a lot. PCO Collins will make me a cup of tea and lets me talk to her about all the things that frighten me. I like it when PCO Collins is on shift because she looks after me and talks to me, I’m not sad or frightened when I talk to her.’
One prisoner said that there are people like Alison ‘you occasionally meet in life who are a rare breed of caring people and who simply shine in the lengths they will go,’ while another added that ‘she exemplifies all that is good in the prison service.’
Martin Booth, Deputy Director at Doncaster, says ‘there are too many examples to list of Alison’s exceptional work with prisoners over the years, she really is a prime example of an individual who exceeds all expectations of a prison custody officer. A fantastic support to prisoners as well as to colleagues, he calls her ‘a cultural leader’ who ‘leads by example’ and ‘is an excellent role model to all staff’ who has been chosen to mentor new PCOs.
Alison’s own words about her work with Eddy are, as you’d expect, particularly touching: ‘Now he eats out with others and doesn’t ‘live’ under his bed in a world filled with fear and self-isolation. He colours pictures for others on the unit and has learnt to write his name, something which he is so proud of achieving.’ She adds that ‘these achievements with the individuals in my care make my world a better one and I am so proud to continue to help those who need it most.’
Rachel calls Alison ‘a fantastic human being’, and notes, poignantly, that Eddy ‘has had a difficult life and it would seem Alison has given him more time, support and encouragement in the last 11 months than he has had in his 67 years.’
* Prisoners’ names have been anonymised.