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



COMMENDEE 2017-18: Mark is a Horticultural Instructor at HMP/YOI Isis, and is Commended for the care he shows towards the young prisoners he works with, and his gift at ‘bringing out the best’ in this vulnerable and challenging group.

Mark Barber is a horticulture instructor at HMP/YOI Isis, a London prison for young adults, with an unusual gift that particularly impresses colleagues: his ability to bring out the best in vulnerable prisoners. Governor Emily Thomas says, “Mark is the epitome of an ordinary job done to an extraordinary standard.”

As Emily explains:

“Mark has put himself forward to work with some of the most troubled and difficult prisoners at Isis and his gardens party has become the ‘go to’ place to support those with the greatest needs… Mark has made the gardens party a sanctuary for vulnerable, difficult young men. He is always willing to take on challenging individuals and time and again he has success with them.”

Prisoners and staff appreciate the results, explains initial nominator Julian Denton, Head of Reducing Re-offending at Isis. “There are marked changes in men that have worked with Mark. Individuals have taken better care of themselves, taken greater responsibility for themselves and their actions, and been more involved in the regime and contributing to a better environment.”

Julian recalls that during the most recent qualifications ceremony, “several of the men approached me to praise Mark and explain how his support and his integrity is the reason so many men succeed. Mark was continually described as being ‘a good man’, simple words which I feel in the prison setting mean so much more than it sounds.”

Mark teaches City & Guilds qualifications in horticulture and BICS (British Institute of Cleaning Science) to “some of the most vulnerable men in custody”, explains Julian, “either because of their self harm risk, their vulnerability due to conflict with others, or their learning difficulties including those with attention deficit or anger issues. Often they have exhausted other opportunities, but Mark has always given people the opportunity to work with him, learn new skills and gain qualifications often for the first time in their lives.”

Emily adds that, “Mark is an example of everything you would want in a member of staff; kind, compassionate, enthusiastic and committed. His work with the most vulnerable men has definitely prevented acts of self-harm and reduced levels of depression and despair.”

Cheryl Hart, Safer Custody Manager, agrees, saying, “Mark is a star who will always take on a young man when I’m struggling to get them a job because of their behaviour.” Head of Residence Keith Goldie calls Mark “one of the faces of Isis, he really represents the work we’re trying to do with prisoners we look after.”

One offender, Michael*, penned a three page letter in support of Mark, where he wrote: “he does activities in his own time to try and help others…he really helped me and I am grateful for all the time and effort he has put into me and many others feel the same way. I am not easy to work with and have quite a lot of issues but Mark never gave up on me and he helped and still comes and checks if I am doing well and gets me out so I can keep busy… He has also taught me skills so I can potentially get a job when released so I am very grateful for the support, help and time Mark has put into working with me.”

Mark also brings out the best in another offender, Alan*, as his supervisor Kev Morris explained. “Alan struggles to behave well – but he works well for Mark.” This unedited extract of Alan’s testimonial, presented here as written, is certainly heartfelt and moving testimony:

“he’s probley one of the best ppl u can meet if u wanna do somethink with ur life coz he will help u, he gave me the time he helped me achieve qualifations whilst workin with him and I might not use them now but he helped me a give me a focus of the real world and he’s willing to go dat extra mile for u to make sure u understood him so u achieve, he has worked in prisons for years n he hasn’t give up once he’s stuck at it and always gives ppl a chance”

As Emily says, “all the men who work for Mark praise his no nonsense approach because they recognise that he genuinely cares for them all. Everyone knows and loves him.”

* Name changed

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