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COMMENDEE 2021-22: Martin Wilsdon, a Catering Manager at HMP/YOI Wymott, not only ‘stood his post’ when the COVID pandemic hit – he stepped up and showed remarkable leadership. He was tested early on when Wymott was rocked by the death of a much-loved colleague in his team from the virus. The compassion he showed then made a vital difference to Wymott – and to the family left behind. With all this happening, yet driven by a deep sense of duty, he had to make a near impossible decision, at great personal cost, to “put others before himself” – in this case, the thousand anxious and hungry prisoners he was responsible for feeding. “A truly remarkable, brave man”, say colleagues, and “an exemplar” of which the Service can be proud.
‘He epitomises all that we stand for’
Initial nominator Robert Edwards says that, as well as outstanding leadership, Martin showed “a selfless determination to succeed.” Thinking of others before himself, says Robert, he showed compassion, understanding and, most importantly, “belief in every single member of his team.”
When his close catering colleague died from COVID-19 early in the pandemic, “it shook everyone” and left “a void in the life of the close-knit team.” Martin not only consoled the team but also the colleague’s family, too, regularly visiting, dropping off groceries and, above all, giving them a chance to show and share their grief with a friend. Later he would arrange for a service, led by the Chaplain, with a plaque and tree planting, in Wymott’s memorial garden, attended by family and colleagues. Robert says that Martin “in his usual modest way says ‘it was just what anyone would do’, but to the family it meant the world, and to his team, it made coming into work that little bit more bearable.”
All this happened very early on, when little was known of the extent of the danger, and next Martin faced a near impossible dilemma. His young son had a serious condition requiring shielding, yet his team had lost someone directly and also had serious absences. There were real concerns that supplying meals – a vital element in prisons at the best of times; this was the worst of times – could be seriously affected. Martin took “the agonising decision” to move into a caravan so he could both protect his family and keep working.
For three months he only had socially distanced contact with his family, says Robert. But he also felt he had to keep coming in, both to ensure the new systems he’d developed for the pandemic bedded down and to keep up the morale of his team. Such leadership took a lot of grit – at one point then he worked for ten consecutive weeks without a break, at significant personal cost.
During the pandemic the Catering team adapted and evolved quickly, and again, Martin led, creating bespoke menus, served in pre-measured containers, and thus making sure prisoners got meals with minimised infection risks and equalised portion-control (which can become a bullying issue on serveries). Robert concludes:
“I can’t speak highly enough of the work Martin does for the Prison Service; he epitomises all that we stand for and I have no doubts he should be recognised for the support he has given to his catering team, the prisoners, and most importantly, [his colleague’s bereaved] family.”
Head of Reducing Reoffending David Coppack agrees, reminding us that in March 2020 “we faced a national pandemic that would shake the foundations of our society.” Catering delivery was a high priority, vital to safety, and to order and control. He says “Martin was exemplary, quickly adapting and working closely with the Command team” while making important contributions to contingency planning featuring every eventuality “should the infection destabilise the establishment and we still had to maintain catering delivery.”
Nurturing his team through incredibly tough times, Martin showed strength, care and commitment to keep going – not least, says David “to honour our colleague and his family.” Safety Lead Sam McDermott says Martin is “a truly remarkable, brave man who put others before himself so that we could save as many as possible.” Many others shared heartfelt testimonials, too, from colleagues and the Governor, Graham Beck – who notes that Martin has kept adapting and leading – to prisoners, including those in his team. Every single one remarks on Martin’s exceptional leadership, shown in exceptional times.
Martin shares some of the questions he felt driven by. “How do we continue to provide meals? How do we do it safely? How do we cope with the disrupted food supply? How do we overcome the issue of increased staff and prisoner worker absences? How do we do this all decently and fairly? How do we support staff as they process the changes and what is going on around them? How do we lead staff so they feel part of something positive and are contributing to the bigger picture?” The answers would emerge from his own sterling qualities of compassionate leadership. He concludes with some moving words:
“The Covid pandemic has been tough on so many people. However, HMP Wymott Catering Department has come though it with pride, and as a stronger, wiser, more resilient workforce, and having learned so much about ourselves and what we can achieve – earning the respect of our colleagues and the prisoners we serve.”