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

CHRIS CURZON & ANN JOHNSON (HMP Preston)

CHRIS CURZON & ANN JOHNSON (HMP Preston)

AWARD WINNERS 2016-17: Chris and Ann win their Award for their work as Horticultural Instructors at HMP Preston. Nominated by a group of offenders, their determination and infectious enthusiasm saw them take a tiny plot of land and a handful of seeds, and grow them into something which has not only transformed the prison environment, but also helped change the lives of those offenders who work with them. [This Award is supported by MTCnovo.]

Chris Curzon and Ann Johnson’s work as horticultural instructors at HMP Preston started with small and unpromising patches of land, a handful of seeds, and a great deal of enthusiasm. The results have visibly bloomed for prisoners, staff, and visitors alike. But as well as growing plants, this work has helped the prisoners involved grow, too – and one result is this powerful and affecting account, longer than usual and largely in the words of prisoners. As one of them, Mark*, touchingly remarks: “At work I am not in prison and each day is different.”

Dave*, one of many prisoners who together nominated Ann and Chris, gives a potted history:

“Preston is an old Victorian local and there isn’t much space because it’s right in town. There has never been enough workplaces here so loads of us were banged up all the time. 2 years ago the prison made a horticulture department and nobody thought it would work because there was no grounds and no grass or anything. Ann and Chris worked here as OSGs [Operational Support Grade] and didn’t know anything about gardening or plants so they were learning at the same time as us.

“Ann and Chris got given a tiny patch which had been used for rubbish skips and dog kennels. There were 5 containers which took up most of the space. Ann and Chris got a poly tunnel and a big shed and started emptying the containers to use them for tools and equipment. They insulated and boarded out the shed and painted it and kitted it out so there was an office for them and a big classroom for us so we could still do maths and literacy so we didn’t need to choose between education and work.

“In the poly tunnel we started to grow things from seed. We grew tomatoes, strawberries and bedding plants in the first year. We made raised beds for around the prison so it looked nicer. That summer there was a big event at Preston to launch a project on substance misuse in the North West called Gateways. The Minister from Health and Ministry of Justice were coming, so we made display tubs, hanging baskets and flower beds so it looked really nice for all the people who came that day. What really mattered though was that it looked nice afterwards for the inmates who live here and the staff who work here too.

“Preston has a healthcare wing for other prisons in the North West and it had a small little exercise yard. Ann and Chris and the lads on horticulture designed and made a sensory garden for the inmates on healthcare to use. The healthcare garden has got lots of different plants that smell nice as well as look nice, and grasses and plants that move in the breeze. There is a water feature and a tree in the middle which was planted in honour of Anne Frank after the prison did an event to remember her. The healthcare garden won a Windlesham Trophy in 2015 which is an amazing achievement in a local. The Healthcare Garden also won an award in 2015 from Britain in Bloom which is in association with the Royal Horticulture Society.

“In early 2015 we started growing loads of plants from seed to eat. We grew tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, courgettes, herbs, aubergine, and potatoes. Ann and Chris came up with ‘Edible Preston’ and put tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberry plants around the prison for inmates to eat. Some people said they shouldn’t do it because the plants would get pulled up and thrown about but not one plant was damaged.

“Ann and Chris were really pleased that everyone could eat the stuff, not just the lads on horticulture. There was so much stuff growing even in such a small place that Chris and Ann had the idea to sell some of the produce to staff. They wanted to get some money together to buy things for us to do in the winter when there wasn’t much gardening for us to do. The money from selling the fruit and veg was put aside and used to buy wood, art equipment and stuff for us to make.

“Ann and Chris knew there wasn’t going to be much for us to do in the in the winter so we started making things in one of the containers. We made bird boxes, habitat boxes, planters for the spring, insect houses. It was really cold so being able to do something indoors with heaters on stopped loads of us packing it in. Everybody wants to work in horticulture in the summer but it isn’t as popular in the winter. Last year we started making Christmas decorations which inmates and staff could order. They were personalised with names and looked really good. They were sold at a price inmates could afford and the prison sent them out to our families. It made such a difference to us being able to create something positive that was nice for our families to receive when their loved ones were in prison over Christmas.

“This year we transformed a little area outside the weights room into a Cottage Garden for the inmates and staff. It was so good the Governor entered it for Windlesham Trophy and Lancashire in Bloom! When the Windlesham Judge came to see it he was amazed at what we had done in such a small space and a short period of time.

“Ann and Chris always take the time to talk to us and help us with our work. Working in Horticulture allows us to ‘forget’ we are in prison for a few hours every day. We’ve learned woodwork, how to make and decorate things and loads about plants, growing things you can eat, the seasons of the year and how even the smallest places can be transformed by some plants and flowers. Ann and Chris help us face up to what we’ve done and make us want to try harder to be a better person, in here and when we get out.”

Eileen Fenerty-Lyons, Preston’s Head of Business Development and Local Butler Trust Champion, says Ann and Chris “have demonstrated there really is no limit to what can be achieved with the right mix of determination and imagination,” praising their “passion and vision.” As Eileen points out, this work opens up discussion, and not just about horticulture, biology, conservation, cookery, and nutrition. “Crucially, it enables more conceptual conversations about time, growth, patience and rehabilitation… Horticulture is a place where some of our most challenging offenders have been placed specifically because of the way Ann and Chris work with offenders.”

Eileen explains that Ann and Chris “have been silently enacting a prison reform agenda in a small space in the corner of Lancashire with vision, passion and determination to make a difference for the men who work in Horticulture and all the people who live and work in, and visit, Preston,” adding that this is “a story worth sharing to prove ‘building hope, changing lives’ isn’t about giant projects or mass investment, but about what can literally grow from the smallest seeds when nurtured and tended.”

Eileen praises Ann for her authenticity and “wonderfully dry sense of humour which she uses to great effect with the men who work on Horticulture. She uses her excellent interpersonal skills to help the men to look at their own behaviours and consider different choices for the future.” She describes Chris, meanwhile, as “a quietly modest man who perfectly complements Ann. He is enthusiastic and brave in his plans and designs for improving the prison environment at Preston… He has a fantastic approach to trying new things and an infectious enthusiasm about what can be achieved.”

Several prisoners added a variety of testimonials, too. “Anne and Chris are great, and very good at teaching, helping us learning at work. It’s a brilliant environment to work in while in prison” said Keith*, while a prisoner on transfer touchingly remarked, “I am going to miss you as you helped me become the person I am.” Mark* added “Their enthusiasm, work ethic and motivation is very contagious.”

Governor John Hewitson recalls when he arrived at Preston he was “astounded by the pockets of greenery that had been created and dotted around a prison with such a compact footprint,” describing “a formidable team” who have “improved the environment for everyone who lives and works at Preston.”

John was “particularly touched by the initiative they came up with for the men to create and decorate tree decorations. Christmas can be such a difficult time for the people in our care and their skills of persuasion, lobbying on behalf of the men, for permission to buy and send out decorations to families and friends typifies our mission at Preston which is ‘Building Hope, Changing Lives’”. One seed at a time…

* Name changed

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