Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2015-16: Dave, now a senior manager at HMP Huntercombe, is Commended for his unfailing commitment to decency, and the compassion and skill he has shown, throughout his career, in his management of both prisoners and staff.
David Willis is Head of Residence and an Operational Manager who has spent over a quarter of a century working at HMP Huntercombe. His initial nominator, Huntercombe’s Deputy Governor, Martin Hatch, explains something of his unique contribution:
“Dave is nominated for his outstanding achievements and dedication to offender management for over 26 years. He is someone who has dedicated the majority of his working life, and a good part of his personal life, to helping reducing reoffending and assisting offenders in custody. His ability to create positivity out of negativity is amazing: if you cut Dave Willis in half, he would have HMP Huntercombe written through him like a stick of rock… Dave Willis is the epitome of not just a ‘good egg’ but an exceptional egg.”
Martin says “I have never known one individual to be so well respected by all staff and all prisoners alike. Dave has a lasting, positive effect on everyone he comes across. Dave constantly performs his job to very high standards: facing difficult and sometimes violent situations on a daily basis, he always manages to deal with everything with a compassionate and caring nature. Dave knows every rule, policy and procedure and how to get things done. He has carried out every kind of role and dealt with every kind of situation, and this experience makes him one of the best Functional Heads and an enormous asset to Huntercombe.”
Martin explains that Huntercombe currently accommodates 82 nationalities from “a variety of cultures, lifestyles and levels of understanding”, with prisoners “faced with life changing situations around deportation” who “often become frustrated and desperate.” He goes on, “Taking this into account, it is hard to believe how there are such positive staff-prisoner relationships at Huntercombe and that this is a prison where prisoners feel safe and respected by staff. This is not luck – Dave has been instrumental in driving this ethos within Huntercombe for many years, and he leads by example, spending time with the prisoners and helping them to resolve their problems, or just taking the time to listen to what they have to say.”
Martin adds that “Dave ensures there are regular wing forums for prisoners and staff to come together to discuss issues and help resolve them. With limited resources, what is needed is always ‘a bit more’ and Dave is always available to give just that. He takes on a problem regardless of importance and resolves it. Dave will find the time to just listen to someone’s issues, but more often than not he will then take actions to help the individual address their concerns.
If you asked any prisoner, any member of staff or any visitor to name someone at Huntercombe who has made a positive difference to them, nearly all would come up with the same name – Dave Willis.”
Martin says that when the prison ‘re-roled’ for young offenders, “Dave’s calm, positive and consistent approach inspired others and gave them confidence and resilience to work effectively with this new age group – skills [which] remain a key part of what makes Huntercombe as safe and decent as it is today. Dave was seen as a father figure to the boys; his mere presence was able to defuse and calm situations, and he often received letters of thanks from prisoners after release or from their families thanking him for what he did for their child while they were at Huntercombe.”
Martin recalls that “in 2013, the prison re-roled to a Cat C training prison, and then, only shortly after, re-roled again, this time to hold only foreign national offenders – the first in the country, and the largest in Europe at the time. Dave was once again key to the successful transition with his experience and skill in managing that process safely and decently. When HMIP visited the prison partway through this re-role, they described Huntercombe as a prison that had ‘not been overwhelmed by change’. This remains the case, and is in no small part down to Dave’s resilience and steadying hand.”
It is impressive, as Martin notes, that “given the anxieties and uncertain futures that many of our current population face, there are remarkably low levels of self-harm and violence in the prison and Dave has played a big part in achieving this by making sure the residential units are safe and decent places to live and work, and ensuring that the prison is clean and well-equipped with the men able to access the well-maintained outside areas almost throughout the day.”
It is clear that “Dave’s knowledge, experience, sense of decency and supportive style mean he is respected and held in high regard by staff, prisoners and colleagues. I’ve never heard Dave raise his voice at anyone. He has a strong moral compass and knows what is right and what to focus his energies on.”
Dave is clearly an enthusiast, too, telling people “this is the best prison in the country”, and this, says Martin, “is his legacy. He has a relentlessly positive attitude to anything he does. Dave has no hidden agenda, and staff and prisoners alike trust him. He knows his staff, and genuinely cares for them. He is quick to recognise others with thanks and praise, and instinctively knows when they need more care and support – and he makes sure they get it, from him or from others as needed.”
Dave also plays a supportive role in his local community, from Lions Clubs to being a School Governor and Scout Master.
A number of prisoners were keen to add their own testimonials. Joaquin* wrote that “Mr Willis takes the approach that he will help you, whatever the problem, no matter what its importance” while Luke said “money cannot buy what Mr Willis does for all us prisoners here and we do not really have any way to show our appreciation and gratitude for what he does… We do not ask this for ourselves only but for our families and loved ones who sleep better at night.”
Another offender wrote that “Mr Willis shows a real interest in prisoners; he makes me feel safe, and knowing someone like him is in this prison is special to us all. I am not the only one who feels like this – it is very difficult to find a person like Mr Willis.” Finally, one prisoner described that “since I arrived at Huntercombe, Mr Willis has been of great help to me. Sometimes when other officers could not help me, Mr Willis took the time to listen to me – and he was the person who made things possible.”
A fellow officer described how “Dave has been a fantastic support to me and my partner following my partner’s ill health, supporting us both inside and outside of work, even spending a night in hospital with my partner, driving him to appointments and assisting with childcare arrangements.”
Kevin Leggett, who was Governor of Huntercombe for five years, said “Dave knows all the prisoners and they all know him. He is a very decent and hard working member of staff who is a credit to both Huntercombe and the Prison Service.”
Huntercombe’s current Governor, Laura Sapwell, added these remarks: “Dave Willis is extremely deserving of recognition by the prestigious Butler Trust Awards. He is one of the most trustworthy, hard-working and decent people I have worked with. After 26 years in the job he remains 100% committed to his work, ensuring that the establishment is safe and decent for all those who live and work here. Dave has built excellent relationships with colleagues at all levels. People talk to him, people trust him and go to him for help when they need it.
“Despite all the changes that he has seen at Huntercombe, Dave remains highly motivated. His mantra is always ‘we’ll get there’ – and he means it. Always looking to do more, improve, make things better: he is never discouraged or cynical about the challenges he faces at work – even when dealing with the most demanding of situations (whether this be with staff or prisoners). He is always upbeat and cheerful and I think this comes from his conviction that he can make a real difference to the people around him. I feel very lucky to have Dave on my team – he is a brilliant example of what it means to be decent.”
Dave added these thoughts, in his own words: “We hold prisoners of around 82 different nationalities, and the diversity of language and cultures is vast. As Head of Residence, my aim is to create a culture of open communication and decency, so that these potential barriers are dissolved. We have low numbers of complaints on the Residential Units as prisoners feel that they are able to approach staff or managers and speak freely about their issues with the majority being resolved at wing level or within very short time frames. We also have low levels of violence, bullying and self-harm, and very positive prisoner and staff relationships.”
Dave reflects that “Many prisoners have never achieved any goals in their lives, nor been recognised for anything positive. I have ensured that all prisoners are encouraged to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them in our regime, and get involved in helping others. I promote the Peer Mentor Scheme, where prisoners are working alongside staff in a variety of roles, and in particular to make sure that all the information displayed in the establishment is both up to date and easily understood by all our prisoners, given that some speak little English.”
Dave emphasises the importance of communication in the work. “Throughout my service I believe that the single most important tool to manage staff and prisoners is communication. I treat all people – staff, prisoners and visitors – with dignity and respect, and listen to what they have to say. I feel that listening is a much under-used communication tool, but in my experience it is one of the most effective. By taking the time to listen to people’s concerns and problems, and understanding what is troubling them, it allows me to show empathy, build trust and give useful advice or information to support or guide them. This is the approach I have used throughout my service. I believe there is good in everybody and try to find that good no matter how hard I have to dig. I make sure I am visible around the prison, taking time to talk to staff and offenders every day.”
Dave acknowledges that “some days in prison can be extremely distressing, and we all sometimes need someone to turn to, to talk through our problems or get things off our chest.” He found that “staff would often come to me for support; therefore, I volunteered to be part of the Care Team so I could provide the support in a more structured manner.”
Like many Butler Trust winners, Dave acknowledged “staff supporting me and making things happen in their day to day work”, adding that “having a safe, decent and secure environment means staff are able to carry out their roles effectively. They are able to build good relationships with prisoners and have more job satisfaction as a result. When things are tough for staff, I adopt the same supportive approach as I do with prisoners. I take the time to listen and show understanding, and this hopefully provides comfort and assurance that there is help and support for them when incidents occur.”
Dave concludes by reporting that ‘in recent months we have received several visits from other establishments holding foreign national offenders looking to learn from and introduce our working practices in their establishments, which makes me proud of what we have achieved here.”
[* Names of prisoners have been changed to protect their identity]