Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2018-19: Marie is a Behavioural Change Officer at HMP Low Moss. She is granted a Commendation for her work in developing and leading ‘Talking Heads’, a support group for prisoners with complex mental health issues, giving them a chance to safely explore difficult issues.
Henry*, the Initial Nominator and one of three prisoners who nominated Marie, wrote a powerful handwritten testimony to Marie’s work:
‘Ms. Martin has singlehandedly pioneered and established a unique self-help group, ‘Talking Heads’, and, coupled with her other duties, worked tirelessly to enhance and maintain the quality of support to the participants of the group. It is designed for men with mental health problems, emotional problems, and those finding it difficult to come to terms with the crimes or sentence.
There is no certificate or assessment, only support, understanding, and compassion from Ms Martin and each group member. ‘Talking Heads’ is a sanctuary for many in difficult circumstances where trust, respect, and humanity are key components to the success of the group…
Having now served over 40 years of my sentence, and been labelled all the usual systematic nomenclatures – ‘difficult prisoner’ etc. – I am now a peer support mentor and work with Ms. Martin in a support role, so I evidence the change in my peers first hand, and the change in myself due to Ms. Martin’s efforts… Ms. Martin is one of those rare people we seldom encounter in life, let alone institutions, and I feel privileged to have worked with her and humbled by her humility.’
David Kinney, Butler Trust Local Champion and Staff Training & Development Manager, praises Marie’s ‘first class contribution to vulnerable prisoners’ with ‘Talking Heads’, which has led to staff and prisoner relationships flourishing. Guest speakers from Smart Recovery, often an ex-offender, join the group on occasions to offer hope and motivation. There is now a waiting list for the group, with demand growing weekly ‘and prisoners asking if the group will be available in all establishments.’
David also praises Marie’s ‘great sense of integrity and empathy’ and her ‘calming personality’. She is ’empathetic and non-judgemental,’ he says, and ‘able to communicate in an open, honest and caring manner allowing vulnerable individuals to open up and share their difficulties… Marie encourages self-belief, motivation and hope in individuals and does so through her personality, approach and caring manner.’
Kevin*, another long-term prisoner and nominator, says the group ‘has helped me through my down times and prepared me for my sentence better than I could have imagined. She talks, listens, and supports prisoners like no other person I have met. Always cheery, always there for us.” David, another prisoner and nominator, notes his 17-year progression through nine Scottish prisons and says:
‘I haven’t met an officer like this. Over the years I have met staff that care, staff that are professional, and staff who are just nice people – which is not always the case in prison… Marie has the patience and understanding needed to help prisoners… I am four years into an open university degree in criminology and psychological studies. I have also done a lot of research into prisons and rehabilitation etc. If Marie Martin could be replicated there would be far less problems in UK prisons.’
Governor in Charge Sharanne Findlay says ‘Marie’s own high personal values permeate the group’s charter as there has never been one instance of violence, breach of confidence or general breakdown of relationships in the years she has run this group.’ Sharanne adds that ‘Talking Heads’ is ‘a model in which we will be using to further the care for the men who live in HMP Low Moss.’
Marie explains that her intention with the group ‘is to bring some hope into their lives, by trying to introduce the positive aspects of their personalities and to nurture their confidence in themselves by being able to express themselves without feeling judged.’
She says the most popular visitor to the group is from the Dog’s Trust – Alfie the dog and ‘the star of the show!’ Marie adds that simple exercises in caring for the dog underpin the message that ‘as humans, we must care for other individuals too.’
A variety of expert guests have also come in, including Life Link to run relaxation courses, and a clinical psychologist with a mindfulness course. Marie says she set up the group ‘to allow people to air their feelings in a place where they feel listened to and respected. Talking Heads allows people to take their ‘mask off’ for a little while and just be themselves. I listen and I am non-judgemental, although at times, I cannot help but try and give some ‘pointers’.’
She herself has ‘never forgotten the people who gave me small words of encouragement and hope as a [troubled] seventeen-year-old… and this helped me to be the person I am today. It can be the smallest kindness that an individual can display that can make a difference to the way in which someone regards themselves and their situation.’
Marie concludes with some inspiring words: ‘I try each day to be the best version of myself that I can in order to be of use to others. My aim is to continue to encourage the people I meet to be the best version of themselves, too.’
* Prisoners’ names have been anonymised.