Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2021-22: When Chineme ‘Chi-Chi’ Mgbeike’s colleagues wrote testimonials about her, several reached for a particularly apt word, integrity: ‘soundness of moral principle and character; entire uprightness or fidelity, especially in regard to truth and fair dealing.’ As a Custodial Manager at HMP/YOI Isis, formerly at HMP Holloway, and with over two decades experience, Chi-Chi’s sterling qualities are abundantly clear from these testimonies, and the depth of personal and professional admiration is very evident.
‘Unwavering personal integrity’
Her Line Manager, Nandini Handa, thinks Chi-Chi’s 15 years at Holloway, working exclusively with women prisoners, helped forge a set of skills, values, and experience that she has since brought to bear among the young men at Isis. As a result, says Nandini, “she has influenced both staff and prisoners by the way she conducts herself. Driven by her values and principles, she is determined to ensure that both staff and prisoners are treated fairly, with respect and decency. She does not shy away from the difficult conversations and she is prepared to hold others to her own high standards.”
One feature of Chi-Chi’s work is that she regularly organises mediation sessions between staff and prisoners “when issues have arisen or misunderstandings have occurred. She is as keen that staff recognise where they could have done better as she is prisoners”, points out Nandini. “And her remarkable level of integrity means she does the right thing no matter the level of resistance she may be met with. She will always do the right thing by the men in our care, even when her decision may be unpopular.”
An array of colleagues added their own praise for Chi-Chi. “She always wants to help people less fortunate”, says one, while another praised her as “always supportive and protective”, adding “I am so proud she was my first manager.” Another called her “the best line manager I ever had: it was inspiring working with her”, and pointed out that “one of Chi-Chi’s ‘superpowers’ is de-escalation, as she strongly believes use of force is not necessary and everyone deserves the chance of explaining himself.”
Other colleagues were impressed by “her compassion for the prisoners”, “her eternally calm attitude when faced with challenges”, “her kindness and understanding to both staff and prisoners”, and her gifts as “a great mentor”.
Her colleague Florence Alake (who won a 2019-20 Butler Trust Award and that year’s Princess Royal Prize for Outstanding Achievement), praises Chi-Chi as “a role model, a mother figure and a great example of someone who wears so many hats in caring for staff and prisoners equally.”
Emily Thomas, Governor at Isis, says both women “share many similar qualities which set them apart as exemplars of all that should be admired in prison officers,” adding:
“Chi-Chi’s sense of personal integrity and her bravery in challenging both staff and prisoners when their actions do not adhere to the values and ethos of the service is unwavering. Kind and compassionate but strict and principled, I have always admired her willingness to sit prisoners and staff down together to address issues, always as equals, always with the aim of improving relationships and supporting behaviour change. She worked with a young man called Tyrone as his case manager and I think he might live his life now thinking ‘what would Chi-Chi say?’”
It is perhaps a further comment on Chi-Chi’s integrity that she chose to use the section of the nomination papers available to explain her work to praise her colleagues, her manager Nandini, and her Governor Emily “for the many opportunities I have had to make a difference. It’s an absolute privilege to work for the Prison Service. Being a Prison Officer is a very challenging role, it is also very rewarding.” She went on to say that she has worked “with some amazing people over the years who have helped me to get better at what I do.” She concluded by saying that, “as a mother of five grown up children, I am concerned when I see young people in prison. I often wonder what it feels like for parents and families whose children and loved ones are in prison and this is my driving force. I know I am blessed to be in a position where I can make a positive contribution to the lives of others.”