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COMMENDEES 2017-18: John and Neill, Prison Officers at HMP Maghaberry in Northern Ireland, were nominated by a prisoner and are Commended for their ‘Family Matters’ project, which brings hope, trust, and reconciliation to prisoners and their families.

John Bell and Neil Rippon are two Northern Irish Prison Officers whose commitment to Family Matters, an initiative with Barnado’s NI as lead partner, has brought hope, trust, and reconciliation to fathers in prison and their families. A singular image sums up their gifts: a former prisoner ringing the prison to talk to them – because he felt he had no one else he could trust and rely on to be there for him.

Family Matters, inspired by a pioneering project in HMP Parc, is a course designed to deepen prisoners understanding of, skills in, and relationship to fatherhood. As David Kennedy, Maghaberry’s Governor, explains, this “innovative pro-active work offers tremendous support and encouragement to those who are most vulnerable.”

Neil and John, with over half a century of service between them, are described as “outstanding role models”, and also act as peer mentors “for our young and less experienced staff and through their voluntary mentoring approach have enabled and promoted resilience in this staff group”, says Butler Trust Local Champion David Savage, Head of Function at Maghaberry. He adds:

“John and Neil have been the architects in moulding the Family Matters Programme from its embryonic state into a programme which has gained widespread acclaim for its efforts in reducing re-offending, in supporting and improving those men in their care and for ultimately making all our communities a safer place. They are held in the highest regard by their peers, their managers and by all prisoners alike [and are] shining examples of the systemic cultural change which is being completed within the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and which is benefitting all those people in our care.”

He concludes, “John and Neil should be immensely proud of their endeavours, because the entire workforce and many prisoners are proud and grateful for the positive impact they have had on their lives.”

Prisoners have added their own personal testimonials. One, Lee*, praises what these two “outstanding gentlemen” have done “for me and the wider family of HMP Maghaberry”, adding, “my family had the utmost respect for John and Neil as they contacted the family regularly to make sure they were okay and to reassure them I was okay.”

Another, Trevor*, calls John Bell and Neil Rippon:

“By a mile the most unselfish, genuine and best people I have ever met who no matter what day or time will give you 100% of their support. Nothing is too hard and I and many other fathers on the landing would say that without them on this course it would not be a success.”

Custody Prison Officer Andrea Clarke, meanwhile, describes their impact on colleagues in her personal testimonial rather well: “Through all aspects of life you look for guidance, someone to look out for you and lead you in the right direction. That was exactly what I found in my colleagues, Officer Neil Rippon and Officer John Bell. They welcomed me with open arms and a lot of knowledge.” She gives an eyewitness account of the impact of their work, too. “They keep the inmates on the right track and push them to do their best for themselves… I have witnessed inmates deal with deaths in the family, losing their children, and the struggle of bringing up their own childhood. Not one of the inmates could have dealt with these situations without the support of John and Neil.”

She concludes by describing some unsolicited testimonials that, as she notes, reflect extremely well on both men: “I have seen postcards and letters from prisoners who have been out for a good while but still take the time to remain in contact, because they do make such a difference in people’s lives and the impressions they make last a lifetime.”

As to the ex-prisoner who was having trouble outside, and who contacted the prison to talk to Neil and John for advice and reassurance, because he felt they were “the only people they could trust”, the nomination notes this is “definitely not the norm within Northern Ireland society.”

* Name changed

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