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AWARD WINNER 2020-21: Jo Brown is a Prison Officer at HMP Holme House who has taken her voluntary role, as a Family Liaison Officer, to new heights. Her work with families and offenders around terminal diagnoses, death, and bereavement, is a case study in truly excellent practice at one of the most difficult times imaginable.
[This Award is supported by Sodexo Justice Services.]
Initial Nominator and Head of Safer Custody at HMP Holme House, Sarah Wilson, and Butler Trust Local Champion Chloe Lincoln, Head of Business Assurance, started by sharing a written testimonial by Holme House’s former Governing Governor, Chris Dyer, who explains that Family Liaison Officer (FLO) is “a tough role, one that requires empathy, feeling, resilience, a cool head, and most of all, a hugely natural caring nature. Jo has all of these in abundance.” Chris adds that Jo “quickly brought a new dynamic to the FLO team after she joined. One that sought excellence in the way the role was fulfilled, and putting herself out for those families that she was supporting. She has brought comfort to a number of bereaved relatives of men in Holme House. She is meticulous in her research of the men and the families and seeks to provide a professional, but very personal relationship for the families, always being available to support, and often solving the problems before they even become an issue.”
Chris added that “Jo cares about how people die in custody, and ensuring that where possible they can die well in Holme House, with special memories that they and their loved ones can carry forward with them. I was hugely impressed by Jo’s thoughtfulness and innovative mind when she approached me with the idea for the Memory boxes for palliative care patients so they can build memories and act as a grieving aid for those who survive them.” Chris concluded that, on numerous occasions as the in-charge Governor, “I have been relieved to know that Jo is my on-call FLO – I know the family will be looked after no matter what, and that she will always go the extra mile to help in whatever way she can so that the family are able to cope with their loss. A great role model for other staff.”
Another endorsement came from a Head of Function in an email sent to Jo following the death of man where she acted as FLO: “What a fantastic job you did supporting Lee’s family from start to finish. It is always a pleasure to be deployed with you as initial FLO, even in the worst of situations, as you are a natural when it comes to dealing with families in crisis. The first few minutes that we spend in somebody’s living room as FLO can tear their life apart, and what is said will stay with them forever, and on this occasion, you did a sterling job, not just from my point of view but also from the family’s perspective. Each of his family members took the time to speak to me individually after the funeral today, and not one of them could find the words to express how much they appreciate the support that you gave them.” That family personally wrote a letter calling Jo “exceptional in her dedication in trying to make a hard time easier for us, and she succeeded in this. Would you please pass on our warmest thanks.”
In another heartfelt note, the Governing Governor wrote to Jo saying “Your motivation and commitment in these situations is truly inspirational. Having attended multiple bereaved families in my career, I am acutely aware that I am setting you off on a journey into the unknown every time I deploy you. You take this in your stride…I’m sure you don’t realise just how much strength I take from your approach to your role. Keep up the great work.”
Holme House’s Governor, Tim Healey, also noted that the role of a FLO “is a very difficult role to undertake, you are dealing with families during one of the saddest parts of their lives. This can be a very challenging, difficult and upsetting role,” before saying “Jo has been fabulous in carrying this out in a caring, professional and compassionate manner. Going out of her way to assist the families at all times of the day. Her idea of men preparing a gift for their families just goes to show how she puts their needs first and shows such compassion to others.”
Jo herself chose to write a lengthy summary of her work, and it’s reproduced here in detail because it outlines an example of good practice that is notably dedicated and compassionate. Terminal diagnoses and deaths in or shortly after custody are some of the most difficult experiences for staff and offenders alike to deal with, on many levels. Jo’s descriptions below offers inspiration in a very difficult role:
“My Family liaison role is something that I am passionate about as I feel that every person should have a dignified death and every effort should be made to try and meet all of their final wishes [as I] support men that have tragically had a diagnosis for a terminal illness and face the prospect of possibly dying within a custodial setting. I support the individual along with his family during the final weeks or months of their lives, this is such a terrifying time for them and it makes it so much more difficult being isolated and away from their loved ones when this is a time that they need them most. It is an absolute tragedy for any person to be diagnosed with a terminal illness; however, being told that devastating news, knowing that you may spend the rest of your life in prison is devastating and that is where I come in.
“I offer emotional support to the men and their families during this time and help them to fulfil as many wishes as they possibly can before they are too poorly to do so. From the day an individual is diagnosed with a terminal illness, I make it my priority to attend hospital appointments with them, I often organise for a family member to attend appointments with us to ensure the family feel involved in the care that their loved one is receiving, I attend multi-disciplinary meetings with different agencies to ensure that all relevant information is shared and the care the man is receiving is focused around his needs and wishes, I facilitate visits within our palliative care suite for the family, I always make it my priority to have an understanding of the individuals wishes (e.g. dying at home/hospice/prison, funeral wishes, favourite songs etc.) and I work tirelessly with many different departments to ensure that all wishes are fulfilled.
“Many men wish to spend their final days either in a hospice or at their family home. To fulfil these wishes I liaise with many internal and external agencies to ensure that early release on compassionate grounds is processed and granted. As well as supporting our men who are terminally ill, I also support families whose loved one has tragically chosen to end their life or has died very unexpectedly. At times like this, this is extremely emotionally challenging for both myself, my colleagues and of course the family that I deliver this terrible news to. As well as supporting family members, I am also a member of the staff care and welfare team at Holme House and I also spend a lot of time with staff following a death in custody to ensure that they are coping okay, give them time and confidential space to offload and signpost them to relevant services if needs be.
“I have learnt over the years that grief is shown in many different ways, and more times than not, I have been the target of that grief and anger from families; however, I have remained calm and I know that over time I will build a great rapport up with this family and I will be their pillar of strength and support whenever they need me and this has shown to be the case with every family I have ever worked with.
“When we tragically have an unexpected death in custody, I am deployed almost immediately with another Family Liaison Officer to deliver the terrible news to the family, this can be anytime of the day or night. Knocking at somebody’s front door at 3am and delivering this devastating news is the most difficult part of my role. You see the family’s world come crumbling down and there is nothing that I can do other than support them through these moments and these moments they never forget – their lives are changed forever from this point which is why I believe my support and care during these times is critical.
“I get to know the family on a personal but professional level and will support them going forward. I help with planning the funeral, I support them at the funeral and through Coroner’s Court which is often years after the death of their loved one. Every family/man which I work with, I create a family liaison log and within this log I record everything from hospital appointments, phone calls, conversations, the man’s wishes etc and when the individual passes away my log is sent to the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and recently Holme House received amazing feedback from the PPO for one of my logs which said: ‘this family liaison log is the best we have received nationally’ which gave me a great sense of achievement.
“During the years of carrying out my role, I have noticed the lack of support and focus on children who have suffered bereavement of a parent or sibling so I recently reached out into the community and spoke to local palliative care facilities to see what they offer to children. I was kindly put in touch with a charity called ‘Made A Mark’ who create beautiful memory boxes for children – I got to know the lovely founder of this charity and she kindly donated Holme House 20 memory boxes for us to use in the future. These boxes are nothing short of amazing – they contain two small teddy bears (one for the child, one to stay with the palliative care patient or to stay with the deceased), lots of age-appropriate information and activity books, handprint sets, and a beautiful box for the child to keep all of his/her memories in one place.
“I feel these memory boxes are so important in helping these young children deal with their grief, express themselves and to enable them to keep their special memories in one place. I received permission from my governor to adopt this scheme and put it into our standard practice at Holme House to which he was overjoyed with, and as far as I am aware, we are the only establishment within the country providing memory boxes to our bereaved children.
“I also created small comfort packs to gift to the adult family members which consist of a small pack of forget me not seeds, a small button which says ‘made with love’, a knitted love heart and a small ‘thinking of you’ card – these so far have been greatly appreciated by family members.
“Overall, my role as a Family Liaison Officer is quite a broad role and I deal with many families during some of the darkest days in their lives and I feel it is so important to support these families during this time. I am so proud of the role that I carry out and it gives me great satisfaction knowing how much my support has impacted on a family. Dying well in custody is something I feel so strongly about, and I know I achieve this due to the positive feedback and gratitude I have received from family members I have worked with.”
“I can only imagine how many outstanding nominations there must have been because I know that I personally work with some amazing people who all deserve to be recognised. Without the care, support, and guidance from my Family Liaison colleagues, I would have never built the confidence to develop into the Family Liaison Officer that I am today and for that I am thankful.”
Jo concludes with these words:
“Any death in custody is an utter tragedy, however I strive to do everything I possibly can to ensure that nobody spends their final days in a custodial environment and if that does happen, I ensure the devastating time is as dignified as it can possibly be for the man and his family. I am immensely proud of the work that I carry out and the impact my care has on the lives of the men and their families.”
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