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



Clare Cowell (HMP Grendon)

AWARD WINNER 2014-15: Clare gets her Award for the care, dedication and compassion that she brings to her role as a Prison Officer. She was taken hostage by a prisoner in 1995 and considers that the driving force behind her passion to understand and help those in her charge. Clare’s Governor describes her as “quite simply… the best officer currently working at Grendon”. [This Award is supported by the Prison Officers Association.]

Clare CowellClare Cowell puts her passion for her work as a Prison Officer at HMP Grendon down to an extraordinary event: she was taken hostage by a prisoner while working at HMP Woodhill in 1995. “Rather than deterring me,” she says, “I wanted to understand why prisoners chose their paths in life and to help and support them in trying to change their behaviour for the better.”

That story reflects a degree of character that her nominator, David Hurst, Custodial Manager at HMP Grendon, says is built in. “It is an underestimate to say that the words “never give up” are engraved in her DNA.”

Her Governor, Jamie Bennett, agrees, and puts her virtues in a clear and direct statement: “Quite simply Clare Cowell is the best officer currently working in Grendon.” He adds that “she is extraordinarily energetic and compassionate, dedicated to therapeutic work with prisoners, building a positive team and engaging with external organisations.”

The string of testimonials to Clare’s dedication to her work as an outstanding Prison Officer are not confined to colleagues, either. A number of offenders were keen to sing her praises, too. Having been encouraged to train with a local gym and get a fitness qualification, one former offender said, “Clare was very efficient, my employer had a great rapport with her. Everything is positive – she still waves and asks how I am. I never see a different side to her.”

Clare has a deep passion for the power of positive family relationships to help prisoners reconnect to their communities, and reduce the likelihood of their reoffending. Another ex-offender, recalls how Clare “worked with me on my relationships, especially with women – I had a strange perception of women. She helped me emotionally when I was trying to find my mother, she gave me help and support to comes to terms with the situation…She’s just a very caring lady, also very challenging – she didn’t hold back on challenging my behaviour. That’s what I really respected about her…She changed how I see myself.”

He continued, “You could see she genuinely wanted to help people. The work she did with me really paid off – thank you very much!” Another offender described how Clare’s commitment to running outstanding Family Days involved an enormous amount of work. He also noted that “Clare has invited judges, magistrates, police commissioners, celebrities – all for the cause of supporting Grendon, with a goal of maintaining what Grendon offers!” Clare works with Friends of Grendon, a charity supporting the therapeutic work she is involved in delivering.

One offender bears witness to Clare’s ‘never give up’ philosophy, “I have personally seen Clare take verbal abuse from rude, angry, immature, upset, confused offenders and still she continued to help guide them on their journey regardless. Clare has helped so many people from B Wing, myself included.”

Another offender, still at Grendon, wrote to add these words about Clare. “The people that come to Grendon have a difficult journey to face and there is no doubt that there will come a time when they hit a brick wall and want to run away. When people get to this stage it can be quite daunting and…the help of staff like Clare [gets] us through this difficult time.

“There are not many people like Clare working in prison and if there were, I believe that life in prison and outside would be a much safer place…I am honoured in writing this contribution on behalf of the residents of Grendon because I believe she deserves some recognition for all her hard work.”

Jean Morgan, a Member of the IMB at HMP Grendon & Springhill, describes “an exemplary officer who always gives her best, whatever her role,” someone who is “innovative, and creative, as well as compassionate.”

Clare believes the power of creating positive relationships between prisoners and families can have a significant effect on resettlement, reducing reoffending as well as the risk of self-harm and any suicidal thoughts. It shines through in her own words: “It is never easy and does take lots of time and patience to develop, especially if the family are hurt by the actions of their family, but we don’t give up,” she says. “I think the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages and I would like to see many other prisons have Family Days.”

Now Clare is bringing her abilities to bear on her new role, working with prisoners with learning disabilities, who, as she notes, represent a population of some 30,000 prisoners in the United Kingdom. “I thoroughly enjoy my new job role,” she says, “as I am still delivering therapy and believe everybody can ‘turn a corner’ whatever their struggles may be.”


[Clare Cowell gives her account of the work for which she won her Award]

Who would of thought after 23 years working in the Prison Service I would be nominated for such an award! I was extremely proud of my ‘Long Service and Good Conduct Medal’ after 20 years and now this!

The day at St James Palace in April of this year was a mixture of excitement and nerves and then for my Award to be presented by HRH The Princess Royal who looked amazing in green. All the hard work from everyone at The Butler Trust, to make it an extra special time for all nominees, which is why it will be a day we will never forget.

I joined the Prison Service in 1992 as an Officer and my first posting was at HMP Woodhill. I was there for 3 years working with remand prisoners, sex offenders and eventually in the segregation unit. It was here in March 1995 I was taken hostage by a prisoner who could not cope on the units and would get placed on report so he could go to the segregation unit for time out. He seemed quite vulnerable and could also be erratic in his behaviour at times but we did manage to communicate whenever we could. On that day I was held for about 8 to 9 hours in total and was eventually released. It was a tough time especially having a sharpened blade made out of a metal teaspoon put to your eye. Also when I entered the cell initially he tied my hands together with shoe laces and I felt I had no control over any of it. Well I did!!

We built up a good rapport in that time and I wanted to go home and be with the people I loved and be in a place I felt safe. I just did what I had to do to survive. You do not know what was going to come next. I remember he wanted to let me go for a Governor who had upset him that day and I refused because deep down I knew he would seriously hurt that Governor and would be less likely to hurt me.

When it was all over I questioned myself for quite a while about things like – is the Prison Service for me? What difference do I make in their lives? The physical injuries heal before people’s eyes but what about the emotional scars, ones you are left with like ‘Why me? Will this pain ever go? Why do I feel different?’ – These were just some of many.

I decided to leave my friends and colleagues at HMP Woodhill because I felt different and couldn’t escape that feeling of ‘I am different’. I asked if I could go on a secondment to HMP Grendon where I knew a little about the therapeutic work and understood there was a completely different regime to where I came from. Everyone was so welcoming and I fitted in really well. My confidence within myself grew and doing the job which became more than a job it was something I really enjoyed and excelled in. I felt I made a difference.

The then Governor asked me if I would like to transfer after 6 months and I knew I could never go back. I missed my friends but preferred the work at HMP Grendon. At HMP Grendon I had a purpose. I could build healthy working relationships with the residents, challenge their behaviours and give them positive feedback as they knew it all came from good place.

My manager CM Hurst wrote ‘the words “never give up “ are engraved in her DNA’ which I found enlightening as I don’t give up on anyone and do have faith that everyone potentially could do something better with their life.

Looking back I did have some faith in the prisoner who took me hostage and HMP Grendon would have been the ideal place for him to have started that journey for himself. Sadly he committed suicide on the day he was due in court for the charges against me. I went through various emotions at that time including one of feeling guilty. For me I had viewed court as part of my own closure because I never knew the reasons behind it.

At HMP Grendon, I feel, I am part of the men’s journey through the therapeutic work that we do and an important part of their journey is the Family Days that each wing arranges. I particularly enjoy this role and feel that it is essential that each member of a man’s family is involved throughout from initially making contact via telephone or letters to visits to eventually having a day visit on the wing. This also creates positive relationships and can have a significant effect on resettlement, reducing re-offending and the risk of self-harm and suicide. This would not be a given right but a reward for the hard work the man has put into his therapy. It can be given for the right reasons but can also be taken away if a resident is presenting anti-social behaviours.

The organisation of such an event is hard work but again it is something I enjoy and I always have a good team working alongside of me. There can be disappointments along the way especially when a family member doesn’t turn up and gives no reason which can have a big impact on someone emotionally. With the right encouragement and compassion someone will make sure their rejection does not have an effect on the other residents Family Day.

I feel I am ‘just doing my job’ but when I read The Butler Trust nominations it did feel a bit overwhelming. Especially reading an extract from an ex resident whom I had supported on his journey for 4 to 5 years. I treat everyone how I like to be treated and do enjoy everything that I do. When it comes to what could I improve, I am not sure? I feel that I put in over 100% in my work because that is what I do, I am enthusiastic, creative, passionate and I am proud of what I do, but it does not mean everyone is like me!

My role at present is working with prisoners with learning disabilities on F wing (TC+). It is very challenging, demanding and at times hard work emotionally. Some have learning disabilities with personality disorders and mental health issues. It is a Therapeutic Community but the groups are more structured and each resident has a different learning style e.g. some learn from talking and listening, some from creative work and some learn from classroom based activities. They are all working to reduce their risk factors. My aim when I won the award was to plan a Family Day for F wing. I did this in June of this year and it was a great day. The only thing that saddened me was the amount of prisoners who had no family. We also had very few families in attendance. I have to say I was so honoured to be part of F Wing as the residents who had no family really did make themselves proud. They cooked, cleaned the wing, served teas and coffees to the guests and really did make a special effort for the ones who had their families. We had some great feedback from the families and the main one was ‘they had not seen or been to a Family Day like it’ which meant something special to not just the staff but the residents themselves.

I have been funded by the Pathways to complete a Post Graduate Certificate in ‘Adults with Learning Disabilities who have Significant and Complex Needs’. This will help me in my current role and to also have a better understanding. I need to plan my time to study and focus on one module at a time. What I would like to achieve from this is also to eventually introduce an information guide for staff who are or thinking of working on F wing (TC +). We have only been open for 16 months so this is a relatively new TC and we are still in the early stages which means we are learning new things every day. This would explain the different challenging behaviours they may face and ways to deal with them when they present themselves, impact on staff and the different types of mental health and personality disorders.

The staff and prisoners are very proud of what I have achieved and for me in my own humble way will continue in my work seeking no recognition, praise or thanks. What I do is nothing out of the ordinary but is contradicted by CM Hurst who stated ‘her drive and enthusiasm to help prisoners, their families and to provide support her colleagues is out of the ordinary’. I will carry on what I have been doing for the duration of my career and will continue the great work that myself and my colleagues do at HMP Grendon.

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