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

AMANDA WILSON (HMP Maghaberry)

AMANDA WILSON (HMP Maghaberry)

COMMENDEE 2021-22: Amanda receives a Commendation, as an Officer at HMP Maghaberry, for transforming the prison’s approach to neurodiversity, including introducing Autism Friendly Visits, leading to the jail gaining a Charter Mark from Autism NI.

‘There was barely a dry eye in the house’

Maghaberry Governor and Butler Trust Winner David Savage says Amanda’s focus is on positive relationships, family connections, and the “huge benefits” for those in, or leaving, custody, for their families, and for their communities. Amanda herself notes – and quotes – Lord Farmer’s observation that families are “the golden thread” in rehabilitation.

Her drive inspired a high security prison to find ways for children with complex needs to finally visit. The pioneering initiative, called ‘TIME’ (‘This Is Me Equal’), means children are no longer “punished and deprived of family life due to their disability.” The ‘needs-specific’ Standard Operating Procedure she developed – covering comfort toys, ear defenders, medication, and much more besides – is a ground-breaking model of decency in action.

It wasn’t easy. “Security is always at the forefront in a Category A prison”, so changes meant “challenging the norm”. Prisoners, too, were challenged to change their behaviour. One man hadn’t seen his children in years and was excited “to see how they have grown and to help keep the family unit together.” Now, he says, “I am motivated to be a better person.”

 Another prisoner’s account is profoundly moving:

For the first time after 5 years in custody I felt that Prison Officers actually cared. Amanda made every adaption imaginable for my profoundly disabled son. He was allowed to bring in his digital tablet that played soothing music, and I was allowed to move around the visit area pushing him in his pram.

“Amanda inspired me to conform with prison rules and the prospect of further visits motivated me to engage in my sentence plan for the first time ever. I have remained drug free and engaged in learning and hope to get a job upon my release. I know I never would have made any change for myself but my son I would move heaven and earth for.”

A new prison officer, meanwhile, was simply “blown away with Amanda’s drive” – and has since got accredited to manage individuals with autism, “helping me as an officer understand those in our care need to be treated as individuals as everyone is unique.”

David calls Amanda “an exemplary officer” who has “smashed the stereotype” of what a prison officer can be. He describes several of her unique and inspiring initiatives, from getting men in the horticulture unit growing sunflower seeds as small gifts for children on Father’s Day visits and working with ‘Creepy Crawlies NI’ on a Halloween experience to a ‘Winter Wonderland’ letting men have ‘the Santa’ experience with their children and grandchildren.

The impact of the TIME project (which won the Ruth Mann Trophy) is helping embed learning inside and beyond the prison, says David. He recalls one visit which, for the first time in three years, brought a father together with his wheelchair-bound daughter: “The father, the family and the staff – there was barely a dry eye in the house.” The father’s behaviour improved dramatically. He’s now in fully paid employment in the community and “a far cry from a man who was on basic regime, who had no interest in education or work and a very chequered discipline history.”

Amanda helped Maghaberry get an Autism NI Charter Mark, with staff throughout the service now trained and improving the quality of life for many – including staff managing prisoners with autism previously thought uncooperative. “The visits hall is now vibrant, full of family laughter, and accessible by all,” he says. “Her efforts have created a lasting legacy.” David and his Senior Managers are understandably “extremely proud,” and the men in the care of the prison “will reap the dividends for years to come.”

Amanda details just some of those extraordinary efforts: specialised equipment; ‘choice boards’ for nonverbal children; revamped prison café menus; leaflets; pre-visit guides; and support packs to help fathers, families and the children plan and prepare their visit. Detailed itineraries for Governors, Security, Reception, the Dog section and management cover each child’s traits and specialised equipment they need to bring. And there’s a new sensory garden and quiet room inside the prison, while outside it she got logos put on partner agency Alert Cards to help identify and address the needs for those with autism entering custody.

Even under Covid, her Winter Wonderland meant that families could “walk through an enchanted forest” to the visits hall. It’s “a totally new concept to prisons,” she says, recalling her “absolute delight” at the joy unleashed. As a mother of young children herself, Amanda knew the Santa experience meant “lifelong memories for the children”. It also showed “the men in my care and their families that, even though they were in a High Security Prison, Santa had no boundaries.”

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