Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2021-22: ‘Omar’ (name changed) is one of no less than twenty-one separate nominations for Gemma Grahame-Wright’s work in HMP Grendon’s therapeutic community. He starts by calling her “outstanding, inspirational and exemplary”, then adds “friendly, inclusive and non-judgemental,” and keeps going: “patient, good-humoured and thoughtful…legendary.” He says her work changed residents’ “negative attitudes to the police, probation, and prison staff in general,” as a result of her “quiet professionalism, her personal integrity…common humanity and old-fashioned decency.”
‘A shining star’
Colleagues agree, with one calling her “an absolute force of nature and a joy to work with.” Prisoners repeatedly used the same sort of language to describe Gemma: “positive”, “supportive”, “energetic”, “constant”, “exceptional”, “a shining star”.
‘Friends of Grendon’ Treasurer, Carole Roe, reports one prisoner telling her:
“I am a man with learning difficulties so I need extra help. Gemma will always go the extra mile to help me, even if it means her staying when her shift has ended to check something on the computer or just to talk to me. She tells us every day she wants to help us get out and never come back. Before I came to this wing I had no drive, ambition or life goals, to be honest I was a complete mess. I now have direction and a purpose and this would not have happened without Gemma. She has given me something priceless, she’s given me hope.”
Another described how “all of us have struggled here during lockdown, yet Gemma never fails to raise morale. With Gemma’s advice, guidance and strong shoulder, I have improved my relationship with my son and wife and we are all thankful and will be forever grateful. My wife calls her ‘lovely Gemma’”.
A third – who went through a very difficult period during lockdown – says:
“Gemma has always been seen as the officer that will go above and beyond for any of us, giving us however much time we need to talk about our problems, and she will call us out on things – but we will take it from Gemma because we all respect her so much. I can’t imagine how any of us would have got through the last year without her. I’m not the only one who talks to my family about her on the limited time I have on the phone. This speaks volumes about the great respect we have for Officer Grahame-Wright.”
Gemma began in the service 23 years ago as a psychology graduate, and her continued training includes Offending Behaviour Programmes, Thinking Skills Programmes, and a programme for prisoners with a low IQ. Passionate about “trust and honesty”, Gemma calls the work she has been nominated for “just doing my job” – in that self-deprecating way so often found in the sector and among our winners.
“I just like to have a natter, and the men know that what they see is what they get with me,” she says. “I am not here to judge them; I am part of their journey too. I am always realistic about what change is possible, but believe that everyone has the potential to go on and lead a good and productive life. I feel privileged to be part of that process. I wear a lot of hats, and whilst I am always aware of professional boundaries, I am always happy to be a parent, a friend, a sibling or a carer.”
Gemma cites “her proudest work”, says Carole, as being “a prisoner who at the age of 30 had only spent 33 days out of prison since he was 16.” When he was released from Grendon to Springhill Open Prison, “Gemma actually walked there with him. Released 3 years ago, he now has a job – and Gemma regularly checks in with his parole officer to see how he’s doing.”
Two years ago, just before Covid, Gemma had a serious accident, says Carole, breaking her leg in three places which required two operations and time off work. “Even then Gemma came into work, not in uniform, to facilitate some therapy groups. She sat down with the men on her wing and explained what had happened and how long she’d be absent for, as she felt it important that she didn’t just disappear without explanation, especially as some of the men were quite attached to her.”
Full recovery may not be possible, but Gemma’s positive approach shines on, says Carole, who reports Gemma saying to her that “despite what doctors have told me, leaving has never been an option. I absolutely love my job and feel like I am part of the journey of the men I am working with. How could I possibly leave?”
Governor Rebecca Hayward, understandably, calls Gemma’s enthusiasm “infectious” and notes that it “has been very much appreciated during such difficult times” before adding a simple but touching final remark: “I feel lucky to work alongside Gemma and am honoured to be part of the same team.”