Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
AWARD WINNER 2016-17: Bernadette, a Prison Officer at HMP Bullingdon, is described in her nomination as “just amazing”. She receives her Award for combining outstanding skill and compassion towards both inmates and staff, with a no-nonsense approach and commitment to the highest standards from prisoners, her colleagues and herself, for which she has earned respect and affection throughout the jail. [This Award is supported by the Prison Officers Association.]
Excellence is frequently easily recognised – but can be difficult to describe. Bernadette Hare’s work as a prison officer at HMP Bullingdon includes remarkable interventions during crises. Yet the overarching theme, among admiring prisoners and colleagues, is that of deep compassion combined with a clear set of expectations around decent behaviour that has earned ‘Bernie’ enduring respect.
Bullingdon’s Head of Performance & Reward is Gillian Kent. The Butler Trust Local Champion, she also nominated Bernie, who she calls “the Matriarch of the wing”. Praising her “genuine care and compassion, coupled with a constant desire to ensure the men are treated decently is the theme throughout this nomination,” Gillian observes – and this is another frequent theme with Butler Trust Award Winners – that “she really doesn’t see she is anything special.” But she is…
Gillian recalls a telling anecdote:
‘Faced with a young man running down the wing screaming and shouting, she simply stood in his path and asked what was wrong. It transpired he’d just found out a lifelong friend had died in a car crash. This man was close to three other men on the spur and Bernie took them into a quiet office so they could grieve together. Naturally, without hesitation, she hugged each of them and all of them! When I asked them what they thought of her, I was amazed by the depth of their respect. They said she is “one of the few officers that makes you feel human”, has “always got time for you” and “always tells you how it is”. “You know how you stand” and “she’s says it to your face, not behind your back”. “It’s more than a job,” she has “passion”, “treats you like one of her sons” and “checks in with us every day”. Surprisingly she “livens up the wing” and the “guys all respect her” – “she is the gaffer.”’
Bernie’s wide reaching compassion has had dramatic impacts, from single-handedly talking down a suicidal prisoner (the Officer in charge called her “nothing short of excellent”) to connecting with and calming down another banging his head against the wall and refusing to communicate with staff.
Known for her “supportive but no nonsense approach”, Gillian adds that “she thinks nothing of telling the staff when they have not performed as well as they need to – but always in a positive and supportive manner.” A new staff member told Gillian about how supportive Bernie was when she was going through a traumatic time.
“Bernie really does care about both staff and also the men in custody at Bullingdon,” says Gillian, and “above all treats them as individuals and reminds them that first and foremost they are people and they have the right to be treated as such.”
“She really gets to know the men, she writes things like “happy birthday” messages on the white boards and even sings to them! When a man’s daughter was due to be born, she was the one to make sure we got the info (it was out of hours and he had no access to the phone) and she sat and told him the news, and like she does hugged and cried with him. Just recently it was Father’s Day. It’s not easy being a dad in prison, but Bernie embraced this and she celebrated with the men making it a positive day for them.”
Gillian points out that Bernie has high standards, and won’t tolerate them being dropped: “she has a high expectation of the men, and they accept this.” It’s an attitude she extends to colleagues – including the Governor!
Bernie’s other colleagues are full of praise, too. “She’s just amazing!” “Her relationships with prisoners are brilliant, she knows what’s going on… Like when that guy got stabbed and she stepped in between them to intervene and stop him getting stabbed again, not many people have that sort of relationship with them.”
Gillian asked one experienced officer about Bernie and learned she was nicknamed ‘Top Girl’. The officer had met an ex-prisoner who specifically asked about “the lady on ‘C’ Wing, the short lady.” “Miss Hare?” “Yes, she’s a top girl she is, she treats you right, like you’re proper.”
Her Wing Manager says Bernie is “extremely decent, very open. It’s her tactile nature and her maturity that allows an excellent rapport with the men… She is excellent at dealing with challenging men.”
Helen Clayton-Hoar, Bullingdon’s Deputy Governor (writing at the behest of Governor Ian Blakeman while he was on leave) is enthusiastic, too, saying “There is no doubt Bernie does stand out from her peers” and adding that “It is always reassuring to know it is Bernie who is managing a particular circumstance… I believe she does an ordinary job extraordinarily well.”
Bernie’s own words give a flavour of how she sees her work. “I genuinely care about the men I work with. I feel that the system de-humanises the lads and I attempt in my own way to redress the balance.” She calls her methods “basic human decency. A cheery ‘Good morning’ on unlock, calling the lads by their preferred name, taking an active interest in them and their families – I attempt to give them the one most precious commodity in a place like this – my time… I believe praise and humour are two important things that we miss in a place like this. I try to implement both on a daily basis (the humour mainly at my own expense).”
She goes on, “I actively encourage the lads to talk to me especially when they are in trouble. I will sit with them when they cry, and am not above putting an arm around them and giving them a hug. Many of the lads I deal with have only ever had negative role models constantly putting them down and barking orders at them. I attempt to show them there is another way.” She concludes, “I feel that by treating the lads well whilst in custody they will be less angry when they leave our care.”
The examples given here are, as Helen notes, “the tip of a big iceberg”, and Bernadette Hare’s work reflects Aesop’s great truth that “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”