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

EILEEN WHITTAKER (HMP/YOI Styal)

EILEEN WHITTAKER (HMP/YOI Styal)

AWARD WINNER 2017-18: Eileen is a volunteer counsellor at HMP/YOI Styal. Described by the Governor as ‘exceptional’, she wins an Award for the outstanding support she has provided, over many years, to both prisoners and staff, and for developing a network of volunteers now delivering over 50 hours of counselling each week. [This Award is supported by Sodexo Justice Services.]

Eileen Whittaker’s achievements at HMP/YOI Styal – a prison for young and adult women – are, by any measure, truly remarkable. For seven years she has worked, unpaid, at least three days a week, and often more, delivering an outstanding counselling service to prisoners and staff alike.

The driving force behind ‘Room to Talk’, Eileen has developed and managed an entire network of volunteers, delivering hundreds of hours of counselling each week. Her extraordinary efforts have also been instrumental in securing funding to expand her work further, including into other jails. Interim research also shows that Eileen and her team deliver highly effective mental health interventions for female prisoners with often difficult and complex needs.

Starting alone, Eileen has built up a facility in which twenty counsellors now give fifty women a week a wide range of one-to-one, group, and other therapeutic interventions. The service additionally offers welcome counselling support to staff at Styal. Eileen successfully raised £200,000 in Lottery funding to expand her work. Her rationale for Room to Talk is a powerful and compassionate one:

“The women that we’re dealing with are very chaotic and nobody wants to work with them… They’re problematic, they take up time, they take up valuable resources… We have got the time and the patience to give them support… A lot of them have been let down by services [and] when they’ve given up on themselves they just need somebody that actually believes in them.”

Initial quantitative findings using CORE-10, a standardised measure, suggest that Eileen’s work is paying real dividends: the Room to Talk programme reduces women’s psychological distress by around half – with a dramatic shift from most women initially reporting ‘severe’ stress to most being rated at ‘non-clinical’ levels.

A notable feature of Eileen’s approach is her practice of always consulting with and involving the women in helping design and deliver aspects of Room to Talk, for example getting them to pitch in and help decorate “a tired clinical building”, transforming it into “a welcoming, warm, and tranquil space.”

One woman calls Eileen and her team “such amazing, giving, women.” The atmosphere she has helped forge is also distinctive, with one prisoner saying “it’s like counselling with fun, you don’t realise that you’re getting counselling at the same time and that’s what’s good about it.” A sense of the real need Eileen has continually responded to, and its impact, is found in another comment: “I need this…it made me think differently and my attitude changed.”

Eileen has also ensured a respectful and trusting atmosphere prevails, with some women particularly noting the often painful and personal information people share is not spread around the prison, which is ‘unusual but vitally important in a prison setting’. As one remarked, “We may be in here for different crimes but the lessons in life that we’ve had are quite similar, we’ve all been through bad things [and] that makes us understand one another as well.”

With 128 Styal staff having enjoyed the benefits of the counselling service she developed in 2016-17 alone, Eileen is particularly aware of the positive benefits not only for staff, but also for the prison at large. Eileen’s ambitions for Room to Talk are also impressive, and include extending the service ‘through the gate’ – which can be a particularly vulnerable period for prisoners – via a ‘Therapy Café’. Working closely with a wider network of support services and organisations, and dedicated to ensuring the service remains fully inclusive in terms of diversity, Eileen is also a powerful advocate for a ‘bottom up’ approach, where women who have been through the project volunteer to represent its benefits at meetings with prison service representatives and to the Ministry of Justice.

Although Eileen talks about her work exclusively in terms of involving other volunteers, women prisoners and staff, others went out of their way to praise her for her compassion, humanity, and for always helping the staff, the women, and their families beyond the walls. Styal’s Governor Mahala McGuffie calls Eileen “an exceptional individual” and her nominator – Styal’s Head of Reducing Reoffending, Anastasia Selby – describes her as a “passionate, committed, and very caring” person. As Community Engagement Manager Eddy Tarry says, “everyone who has dealt with Eileen sings her praises.” We are very pleased to add our voice to the choir!

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