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AWARD WINNERS 2017-18: Karen and Laura are Prison Officers at HMP/YOI Low Newton. They are granted an Award for their outstanding contributions to the establishment’s Primrose Service for women with personality disorders, who, as Karen and Laura note, ‘are almost invariably victims of crime, as well as perpetrators’. [This Award is supported by the Prison Officers Association.]

Karen Laws and Laura Smillie are Prison Officers doing remarkable work with some of the most complex and challenging women in the system. Their story is one of personal growth as individuals, as well as real and very positive impacts on the lives of prisoners and staff. They work at HMP/YOI Low Newton, a closed prison for female adults and young offenders, and have played a transformative role in the pioneering work of The Primrose Service, which offers 12 places for high-risk violent female prisoners with severe personality disorder, and is the apex of such provision in female prisons.

One Primrose Service resident, about to leave prison, was particularly keen to contribute to the nomination, and wrote at length about their impact on her life. Her words are worth quoting in some detail, as they capture something of what Karen and Laura bring to their work, as well as its impact on lives in which, as Karen and Laura note, “without exception, the individuals we work with have been both victims of crime as well as perpetrators of it.”

“I was incredibly vulnerable when I came into Low Newton and… these officers went out of their way to help me. They were kind, sensible, supportive, positive and… gave me hope for my future. They have never turned me away, always making time for me, even when they were juggling so many things that they had to do. In fact they somehow managed to make time for everyone and make us all feel that we mattered.

I have had some really tough times and both officers have seen me through them all. I have the greatest of respect for them because I could always rely on their positive support but I also knew they would be honest: if I was in the wrong, they would tell me, guiding me in the right direction.

While on Primrose I have really improved my parenting skills, through in no small way to the discussion and honest sharing of my thoughts and ideas with both Ms Smillie and Miss Laws. I will be a better mam to my son on my return to the community… these two lovely ladies… have really big hearts and amazing engaging personalities. They constantly put other people before themselves and give selflessly again and again… They have helped me to change my life and I will be forever grateful to them both.”

Their initial nominator and local Butler Trust Champion, Dr. Annette McKeown, a Forensic Psychologist, notes that Karen and Laura are highly experienced officers, with over thirty years experience between them, and together have dedicated over 15 years to the Primrose Service.

Annette describes their array of therapeutic and psychological approaches as “both admirable and impressive. I have seen both Laura and Karen make such a difference to women prisoners when they were in extreme stages of crisis, including when women were feeling acutely suicidal or at extremely high-risk of violence.”

Annette, noting Laura’s “enviable” therapeutic skills, calls her an “inspirational mentor” seen by colleagues as someone to “look up to”. Karen, meanwhile, is described as showing such passion for the role on joining the Primrose Service, that “her potential was immediately clear”. Annette adds that, “having the opportunity to see Karen’s development, passion and consistent commitment has been an experience that I will not forget. By her own admission, she has achieved things she did not think was possible.”

A number of colleagues gave strong support to the nomination, including the Primrose Clinical Lead and the Offender Health Locality Lead; National Offender Personality Disorder Pathway commissioners; and the Primrose Governor. The commissioners noted that they “recognise the unique contribution that they have made with some of the most challenging women in the prison system through their sensitive interpretation of the complex role of officer facilitator”. Annette herself describes herself as “privileged to have had the opportunity to work with both Laura and Karen.”

As well as their ‘kindness and sincerity’, both Karen and Laura have presented at national conferences and training events as well as contributing to publications. They have helped spread understanding and confidence to colleagues – as well as making the holistic therapies they have developed at the Primrose Service available to staff in the prison at large. “I feel their exceptional professionalism has earned high levels of respect not just from colleagues but also women involved in the service,” says Officer Stu Bennett.

Low Newton’s Governor Gabrielle Lee describes Laura and Karen as “pioneers”, and notes their “empathy, resilience, discipline, and imagination.” She concludes by describing Karen and Laura’s work as “ground breaking.”

Both describe “a job that we love that has become a passion we both share,” noting that “over the years we have developed in ways we did not think possible [and] have become experienced facilitators.”

They are keen to see “a trauma-informed approach rolled out and adopted throughout the female prison estate”, and to develop their leadership skills to take forward new initiatives in the hope of creating “a more psychologically informed environment across the female prisons as a whole.”

They deserve the last word, not least because they answer a question in much the same way as do so many Butler Trust winners:

“We have been asked so many times ‘How on earth do you keep doing this job?’ and the answer quite simply is that we love it.”

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