Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2021-22: To change a life is to change a world – and this story is about how Bridgette Setters, a Supervising Officer at HMP/YOI Exeter, utterly transformed the life of a single person: a well-known prisoner with a long, unhappy history. It’s a kind of redemption song about a man finding the strength, with Bridgette’s care and support, to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
‘I got Enhanced!’
She knew Darren [not his real name] well, having seen him rotate many times over the years in and out of Exeter. He had a reputation “as being unstable, a danger to staff and other prisoners, someone who would not think twice to smash up his cell.” Joseph Belso, Exeter’s Head of Function, adds that “tragically, over time, there had been a real deterioration in Darren.” His self-harm was increasing in frequency and severity, leading to several periods of constant supervision following attempts on his life. As well as significant mental health issues, Darren was also a “dual harmer”, with unprovoked attacks on others common.
“Other prisoners would often use him to do their bidding,” says Joseph, “paying him to carry out an assault – knowing Darren would take the punishment coming.” This would lead to segregation and “a downward spiral of low self-esteem and hopelessness. It was easy to view Darren as a lost cause. But Bridgette saw a side to Darren that others couldn’t – hidden away by the intensive management of his self-harm and violence. She gave him what was often lacking from others – her time.” She takes up the story:
“As his case manager, many times, it proved difficult and fruitless trying to address his behaviour. But in early 2020, I saw things were different, and despite still adopting the same behaviour, he told me he was ready to change. But Covid restrictions meant limited interactions, they were a real challenge. So I devised a plan: I moved him to the landing where my office was, so I could speak with him more often and gauge his improvement.
I asked him to write a daily log of his feelings to show me when I was on shift. This very quickly showed a pattern: when his mental health injection was due his mood dropped significantly. This insight gave him a personal understanding of himself.
Over time we developed a rapport where he was totally open with me. I discovered his behaviour was linked to being in debt, always being on losses due to property damage, and then having to carry out tasks such as assaults on others to pay those debts. I sat down with Darren and we came up with a plan to change this debt cycle – but it depended on Darren stopping taking Spice and other drugs on the wings. Every day he was clean and behaved I personally praised him.
This praise made him very emotional, and seemed to empower him. I made sure all the other staff were on board, too. When he was stable, I gave him small goals to achieve. There were some setbacks, where Darren self-harmed and became erratic, but he never slipped back fully – and we just kept the plan running. Finally, he was working towards being on Enhanced [privileges] and a wing worker. I was very straight and clear that I wouldn’t give him any of these before he had earned it.
And then Darren became a wing cleaner, and an Enhanced prisoner, for the first time ever.
The day this happened was very emotional for him, and myself, and he couldn’t stop telling whoever would listen. I felt very proud, and thanked him for keeping my passion for the job alive – because recently it has been so difficult, in a Cat B local during Covid times and with so many limitations.”
Bridgette concludes with a modesty typical of our winners. “All in all, this is only been me doing my job and my duty, as a prison officer to see hope in prisoners and explore it.”
Joseph also remembers when Darren was given his first job, and one with trust – as a Covid Orderly. “He beamed with pride as he wiped down kiosks, telling everyone who passed that he was now ‘a cleaner’, often several times!” And when Darren got his enhanced, “it was the talk of the prison.” Joseph adds that “We are told that Prison Officers can change lives. In practice, this is really difficult.”
Exeter’s Governor, Richard Luscombe, says Bridgette “has given real hope to a prisoner who had a really bad reputation within prisons locally, and turned him into a positive individual, who has self-worth for probably the first time in his life.” He calls her “a superb role model” for new staff, regularly on the landing challenging staff and prisoners while showing visible compassion and outstanding leadership. Bridgette,” he concludes, “changes lives for the better – for both staff and prisoners.”