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




COMMENDEE 2015-16: Gary, an Officer Instructor at HMP Exeter, is granted a Commendation for his role in setting up and running a unique, highly popular, and commercially successful prison workshop making fishing flies.

Gary Pearson, an Officer Instructor who has worked at HMP Exeter since 1988, is Commended for developing a remarkable – and commercially successful – fly-tying unit.

Lead nominator, Alexander Squire of Workshop Industries, says Gary exercises “his full dedication to HMPS, his understanding of the prisoner population and reducing re-offending and also his passion and skills in helping others” in his work. He notes that, having invested “an extraordinary amount of his personal time and efforts, Gary successfully started his own pilot workshop, making fishing flies. Having knowledge of the market area and being a keen fisherman himself, Gary was ideally placed to make this pilot work, and work well.”

From the outset, Gary wanted to create “a viable, locally sourced and developed workshop achieving a financial turnover and teaching prisoners real, skilled and creative work.” The result is highly innovative, offering prisoners “rewarding, paid work benefitting them upon release whilst providing a positive contribution to the Reducing Re-offending function as a whole.”

The workshop has generated many benefits, which, as Alexander explains, “HMP Exeter is beginning to realise. There has already been a beneficial effect on both prisoners and staff who have displayed positive reactions and comments regarding the fresh, creative and innovative steer of the workshop.” These positive sentiments have been widely echoed, including by Phil Copple, Director of Public Sector Prisons at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), Andy Rogers, Deputy Director for Custody at NOMS as well as South-West Industries Lead, Paul Wiltshire.

Gary, an impressive fisherman in his own right, set out to make the workshop commercially viable. Using his links to the sport, he began communicating with two well-known fishing supply companies who, on receiving a sample from the workshop, “deemed them to be of a quality comparable to their existing private suppliers – a considerable achievement for a workshop in relative infancy.” The workshop has now received large orders from these companies, as well as from internal and external customers.

Due to its innovative nature, the workshop has been covered in three articles published in various fishing publications, including Trout and Salmon Magazine (February 2015 & April 2015) and Fly Fishing & Fly-Tying Magazine (January, 2015). These highlighted the extraordinary efforts required to make the venture work – as well as the positive impact it has had on the prisoner population. Additionally, notes Alexander, “they have served as advertising for the prison to excellent effect, boosting the commercial aspect of the workshop,” and he concludes by adding that the “continuous dedication Gary has given HMP Exeter is a model of excellence for others to follow, both prisoners and staff. These qualities are unwavering and whilst Gary has achieved a lot in his career, I have no doubt that he will continue to offer excellence to the end.”

Butler Trust Local Champion Mark Omand, Custodial and People Hub Manager at Exeter, recalls that “throughout the years [Gary] has never diminished in his commitment to delivering meaningful purposeful activity for offenders which delivers learning and skills outcomes linked to employment opportunities on resettlement.” The current work, Mark notes, “is intricate and creative; it requires considerable concentration, dexterity and attention to detail to deliver products which are sold commercially to discerning users. Gary has trained and coached offenders in the skills required to deliver a high quality product consistently. This has yielded an impressive contract which will maintain this workshop in the foreseeable future. To achieve this, he has invested a considerable amount of his personal time and skill in thoroughly planning and implementing this project.”

Mark goes on to describe Gary’s “belief in offenders being able to deliver this work to the exacting standards required. Offenders love the work; they appreciate the trust placed in them to deliver such a highly prized commercial product; they talk of being lost in the work; time going fast and articulate passion and enjoyment for the work,” adding “It is impressive that Gary has not set this up in any way for personal gratification or glory, he has done this for the benefit of the establishment and prisoners in delivering purposeful activity and for the benefit of offenders to learn skills which are transferable to the community.  The commercial contractor is delighted with the quality of the work and the timeliness of delivery and has rewarded contracts as a result. Fishing is apparently one of the biggest sports in the country and Gary has established the HMP Exeter Workshop within that lucrative market.”

A number of offenders explicitly asked to add their testimonials. James* calls the Fly Tying workshop “a great idea as it keeps the brain active whilst learning new skills. I worked in the main workshop for many months. Tying Flies is much more creative and having a keen interest in fishing I feel it is much more rewarding. I have learnt lots of skills I didn’t know I had and I think it is something I will carry on doing when I am released from prison.” Luke added that “Working with Mr. P. tying flies is an ideal job for me because I enjoy making things with my hands and I also do a fair bit of sea fishing. The job keeps your mind busy and takes a lot of concentration so you’re not thinking about anything else and the time seems to go a lot quicker.”

Paul says that “what I enjoy about the fly-tying workshop is the relaxed atmosphere where everyone behaves themselves. The work itself is different but that’s a positive. The instructor is polite and helpful and has patience with new starters to the workshop.” While another offender, Nick, says “I feel the work I’m doing here is very good. I enjoy learning the craft and never thought I could do it. The way we are taught is very good and the workshop is very clean and quiet.”

Don thinks the workshop “is very good and Mr. P. is very good. It’s a very nice place to work and makes the day go quickly. I am also learning new skills” and, finally among the prisoner testimonials, Brian: “I like fly-tying as you need to use your brain. I’m doing something different most days so don’t get bored. It’s a nice, relaxing and quiet workshop.”

HMP Exeter’s Governor, Peter Elbourn, notes of Gary’s nomination that “it is an absolute joy to see that it has also been supported by offenders as I know from personal experience how motivated Gary is and how highly he is regarded by offenders,” adding that Gary “epitomizes every quality we expect from our very best employees. He has put his personal circumstances aside to establish meaningful purposeful activity.”

He continues by pointing out that it is “so very rewarding to see the men doing good quality work, that they appreciate and enjoy; and to see them respond positively to the trust and belief placed in them. All this is testimony to Gary’s drive and commitment to achieve a model of excellence. Gary provides a fine role model for colleagues in terms of his engagement… He is an asset to HMP Exeter and his work is highly regarded by the commercial industry… I highly value the contribution he makes to ensuring Exeter is a safe, decent and secure prison where offenders are engaged in meaningful and purposeful activity and maintaining family ties; but more than that, he helps them to look to the future in a positive way.”

Gary himself explains that “the majority of the offenders my workshop employs have never had permanent, full-time employment. The work I conduct with the prisoners provides them structure, routine and also an insight into expectations of quality standards within a workplace.” He further notes that the workshop’s commercial clients are “select and discerning companies [who] have strict quality standards and expectations of timeliness. This translates into their customer base who are often, like me, professional fishermen. Thus the offenders within the workshop develop a strong understanding of quality standards and working to deadlines.”

Gary describes how “those offenders who may prove recalcitrant on the residential units often have a turnaround in attitude following a short tenure in my workshop. The concentration required and the satisfaction received when completing a quality product often has this effect. The understanding of quality control, working to deadlines, attending work when required and developing a work ethic translates into employable traits upon release, often with positive results.”

Keen to introduce a peer-mentoring programme, Gary has plans to expand. His largest customer currently buys around 1200 flies each year, “and is pushing for us to increase production three-fold for them in the next year – this will be quite a challenge but one I feel is achievable.” Meanwhile, given that “at present, top end, high quality artisan handmade fishing floats have a purchase price of between £16 to £23 each”, Gary would like to explore the possibility of producing “our own floats within our workshop. This will add another skill set for our prisoners to learn whilst expanding our portfolio of products.”

[* Prisoners’ names have been changed to protect their identity.]

Top of the page