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



Keith McDonagh

COMMENDEE 2022-23: Described by prisoners as “a real inspiration”, “the hardest worker I’ve ever seen”, and “a prime example of what a man should be”, Keith receives his Commendation for his work and “exceptional leadership”, as a Band 4 Officer on HMP Grendon’s TC+ unit for people with learning disabilities.

Keith’s initial nominator, ‘JB’, is an offender at HMP Grendon. His entire nomination is just four sentences long:

‘My nomination goes to Keith’s outstanding work as an officer and an individual. At Grendon we showcase what it’s like to be a community and try to live up to that. We have officers who set an example and Keith is one of them. To express yourself and show empathy to one another, Keith is a big vote in our community, sharing ideas, from sports day and competitions. Well done.’

As HMP Grendon’s Governor Becky Hayward notes, JB’s nomination is ‘succinct…but I know it is full of feeling and admiration for the support that Keith has shown to him personally and the whole TC+ community [Therapeutic Community Plus] at Grendon.’ She adds that Keith’s steadfast dedication to his work – particularly throughout the pandemic – has not wavered once, and calls his leadership ‘exceptional’. She concludes by saying:

‘I am proud to work with Keith and see him as the archetypal public servant – he does his best each and every day in everything that he does to do good and change the lives of those around him.’

Butler Trust Local Champion Carole Roe, a Board Member of the Friends of Grendon, shares some further words from offenders Keith works with. One describes him as ‘the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,’ while another says he is ‘a real inspiration and someone who doesn’t shy away from talking about the harsh realities of life while giving us all things to reflect on.’ A third said of Keith that his behaviour meant it was ‘the first time I’ve ever been able to look beyond a uniform and a prime example of what a man should be.’

Carole explains that Keith, working his ‘difficult day job’ as an officer on a special wing housing men with low IQ and learning difficulties, also recently orchestrated an entire wing move that was both ‘logistically difficult for staff’ and also ‘unsettling for these offenders who have quite special needs and can find change very difficult to cope with.’ She quotes another offender who explained how worried they had all been about the move, and added that ‘as most of us can’t read or write, Keith has used pictures and photographs to try to explain things to us and he has been very patient as we are all very worried and anxious.’ A colleague meanwhile called Keith ‘fantastic’, and praised each element of his work on the move.

Keith also played an instrumental role in organising a wing sports day after COVID restrictions were lifted, explains Carole, and one offender gave her a moving account:

‘A lot of men didn’t want to take part as they were embarrassed that they didn’t exercise or were anxious about going outside. In the end every single person took part and that’s because Keith spoke to everyone individually and built them up in the weeks before. He made it fun and encouraged everyone. That day broke down so many barriers as we had a good laugh with the other officers and it brought all of our community together.’

Carole says that when she met Keith to discuss his nomination, ‘he was quite embarrassed’ and said ‘the biggest reward to me is that I’ve absolutely loved coming to work every day. Working on this wing where the men have special needs has been the highlight of my career. My son has autism and so I feel I can relate to a lot of the issues and behaviours and I think that’s helped.’ She sums up Keith’s approach using some moving remarks about him she heard from an offender:

‘The day I arrived on the induction wing Keith shook my hand and said to me “Welcome to your fresh start.” That really stuck with me. Not only that, he helped me integrate by constantly checking in with me in those first weeks and introducing me to others. This is going to be my first and last time in prison, Keith is a massive part of my change.’

Keith started his career in a private sector immigration detention centre before joining the Prison Service in 2002 as an officer working on a drug rehab programme at HMP Bullingdon. This ‘ignited his interest in therapeutic work and the impact it can have on offending behaviour’, and he applied for a job at HMP Grendon – ‘the only prison in the UK where prisoners commit to spending a number of years of their sentence in a solely therapeutic community and commit to doing some deep and difficult therapeutic work.’

Keith has worked in numerous roles at Grendon, says Carole, including the ‘very challenging’ induction wing and the sex offenders’ wing. She also notes that Keith instigated and developed the ‘Waddesdon Manor Project’ where ex-offenders work as volunteers on the estate. Many have since been offered paid employment. Keith in turn explains that his work involves asking those in the unit  ‘to be accountable to each other for their behaviour and actions’, and to take on roles within the community ‘that support and benefit themselves and others.’ He notes that for many it’s ‘their first experience of this and living with boundaries.’

He describes his role as ‘to guide and nurture and help develop the right culture,’ and says his aim is ‘to impact positively on the men in our care and it was great to hear I had been nominated by one of the men for having a positive impact on him.’