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



Natalie Adams

AWARD WINNER 2022-23: Praised by the Governor for her “infectious enthusiasm” and ability to “get things done”, Natalie receives her Award for her exceptional work setting up the Drug Recovery Wing at HMP/YOI Pentonville, which has won widespread acclaim from colleagues and prisoners alike.
[Her Award is supported by G4S Care and Rehabilitation Services.]

Initial nominator, and HMP Pentonville’s Head of Reducing Reoffending, Noel Young gives the background: Pentonville’s Governor, Ian Blakeman, wanted to set up a Drug Recovery Wing – and it was Natalie who volunteered to lead on this, and Natalie who made it happen. The scale of the task at Pentonville was significant, says Noel. Indeed, there had been no meaningful drug recovery work of this nature done for many years, so setting up a rehabilitative project was not easy to get off the ground. Noel calls Natalie ‘a true force of nature’ who shows ‘a level of determination and drive rarely seen.’

Natalie herself ‘saw that tackling drug use in a busy local prison would help rehabilitation and drive down violence’, says Noel, and her planning for the wing was excellent.’ She tackled the task from scratch – and these were the core tasks she undertook:

Natalie visited several establishments with similar enterprises.

Selecting a prisoner team with building and maintenance skills to refurbish an entire wing.


  • The wing has different colour schemes, soft furnishings, dining out furniture and two self-cook areas – a first for Pentonville;
  • A regime and a ‘core day’, with full activity throughout (including substance misuse classes and education & workshop activities);
  • Selection criteria for prisoners – in partnership with the Substance Misuse Team.

Advertising the wing throughout the prison & ensuring staff and prisoners bought into the vision.

Selecting the right staff and managers to run the unit on a day-to-day basis.

The wing opened in July 2021 – and the results are already striking, says Noel. Compliance with voluntary drug testing has been ‘exceptional’, with only very minimal failure rates, and the regime runs exceptionally well with all 60 prisoners on the wing engaged in drug intervention work and a wide range of educational and reflective activities.

‘There is no doubt that the wing holds many challenging prisoners,’ he adds, ‘but thanks to Natalie’s vision, tenaciousness and drive it is a relative ‘oasis’ of calm. Natalie is a truly exceptional individual who made the Governor’s wish a reality. With the drug recovery wing set up, Natalie volunteered to be the drug strategy lead – a task ‘not to be underestimated’ as Pentonville had long suffered from a lack of systems, and ‘the drug strategy had not been meaningfully engaged with for some time.’ The outcome? A revitalised drug strategy with a whole prison approach. Noel concludes by pointing out that, even more remarkably, Natalie managed to achieve all this during a pandemic – when so many areas were less active than usual.

Understandably, given that he started this ball rolling, Ian Blakeman, Pentonville’s Governor, is full of praise for Natalie, too:

‘When I joined Pentonville, a previous Governor of the jail told me that one person I could rely on most was Natalie Adams. I quickly found out who she was and I think she is remarkable. Not only does she have an infectious enthusiasm, she gets things done. I could not think of anyone better to look after our drug strategy at Pentonville and if I had ten more like her the prison would be a dream to run!’ 

Butler Trust Local Champion and Head of Decency at Pentonville, Sarah Bourn, shared some of the many testimonials she personally collected from both J Wing Residents and staff – we start with the Residents:

‘We now do Yoga and meditation on the wing. I can’t believe I am doing it with the other men but I am and I am enjoying it. I am going to carry it on when I get out because it is really helping me.’ (Mr V)

‘She has really helped me to believe in myself. Natalie had helped me re-engage with my family, which has really helped with my rehabilitation.’ (Mr P)

‘Natalie had a vision for the wing. I helped her right from the start and it is excellent. I really feel safe on the wing.’ (Mr R)

‘Nothing is too much trouble for Natalie. She goes above and beyond for prisoners like me and I am very grateful to her for believing in me.’ (Mr G)

‘The landings are safe and I like the atmosphere on the wing. Miss Adams had created a great Unit. I wish it was bigger because all wings should be like this.’ (Mr W)

Her colleagues, too, unsurprisingly, were keen to add their own praise:

‘Natalie is full of enthusiasm and drive. She is a force of nature. I really enjoy working with her because she gets things done. She doesn’t let other people deter her and she is always positive. She is keen to make a difference in other people’s lives and is determined to help rehabilitate the men we work with.’ (Miss B)

‘Natalie has worked incredibly hard to create the ISFL (Incentivised Substance-Free Living Wing). She has put in a lot of her own time to make sure it works. And it does. I have seen the lives of some of the men turn a corner. It is good to see.’ (Mr H)

‘Natalie is so driven. I enjoy working with her and I believe we have created a great unit under her leadership. She has developed all the paperwork for us to use and help track the progress of the prisoners.’ (Miss W)

Ian Blakeman again:

‘Natalie is remarkable. The drug free wing has been recognised as one of the best in the system and this is almost completely down to her drive and determination to make it a success. I have just been amazed at how she gets things done. Nothing is too much trouble for her and she will overcome any barriers that get in her way.

The testimony of prisoners on the wing is incredibly moving and it is clear that they hold her responsible for their personal success. In all my career I have never seen someone so determined to make a difference and get the job done. She is a real force of nature and if Pentonville had more Natalie’s it would be a dream to run. I cannot thank her enough.’

Natalie explains in some detail – here reproduced with only light editing – her approach and some of the many tasks she undertook to make the new wing work. We can’t bottle Natalie, but we can capture some of her thinking she’s shared:

‘My substantive role at HMP Pentonville is the Learning & Skills Manager [but] I took on the role of Drug Strategy when my boss had an accident outside of work,’ she explains, before reiterating the three key strands to tackle drugs in prisons –restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery. The Incentivised Substance-Free Living Wing supports prisoners with addiction issues and helps others to stay away from the drugs culture in the prison. Natalie then points out that she isn’t from an operational background, and with some understatement notes ‘there were many hurdles along the way.’

I asked prisoners what incentives they would like and sourced some money to purchase these items. I surveyed the wing and organised for the stairs to be repaired as they were clearly falling apart. We had to clear the wing of new reception prisoners so the work could commence to change its function but every time we moved prisoners off more would get located back on and the company would leave the prison as they couldn’t get on with their work, however eventually we moved all prisoners off and the work commenced. I created a planning document and documented my vision for the wing. I consulted many experts including the National Drug Strategy Team, Regional Drug Strategy Lead and Substance misuse experts when putting the plan together.

I worked out criteria for the wing i.e. what medications were permitted, an interview schedule to assess prisoners motivation to move to the wing, and many others including considerations such as mapping out a core day to follow. I recruited staff to work on the wing who had a vested interest in supporting prisoners with addiction issues – two of those staff have since gone onto become Supervising Officers. The wing was refurbished by the prisoners located on the wing. Ten were initially moved on and they started changing the identity of the wing. I had a belief that if it looked different it would feel different and prisoners would behave differently and look after their environment. Myself, along with the staff and the Red Band prisoners on the wing, worked tirelessly to change and develop the wing into what it is today.

All cells were freshly painted and the wing was painted lime green on the 2’s, turquoise on the 3’s, yellow on the 4’s and orange on the 5’s landing. We have a cuckoo clock and a number of elephant and lion pictures on the wing to brighten up the environment. More prisoners moved onto the wing due to the pressure on spaces but work continued and they joined in with the refurbishment work. Prisoners created two kitchen areas where they can self-cook. I changed the canteen sheet so that they could have items to cook with. We have a barber’s shop so that they can get a haircut, and also created a Voluntary Drug Testing room.

The wing is very much based on a rehab model whereby prisoners participate in yoga, exercise DVDs, Qigong and Meditation; this is delivered on the 2’s landing, and was a bit of a surprise to both staff and prisoners as it had not previously been done at Pentonville. More and more prisoners needed to move to the wing due to the pressure on spaces but work continued and they joined in the refurbishment work.

I organised whole wing meetings and weekly forums. I negotiated with other stake holders to ensure prisoners had purposeful activities to do and despite prisoners not moving across wings I managed to negotiate a workshop space to ensure prisoners had jobs to go to.

Education sessions are delivered in the morning and recovery sessions in the afternoon. Some of the low times have been when staff across the prison were negative about the wing, and commented that the wing was ‘like a playground.’

However, some of the massive highlights have been the implementation of peer led activity sessions, communal dining and observing Narcotics Anonymous meetings which prisoners set up themselves in the absence of outside visitors coming in – and also prisoners progressing from the wing on to an outside rehab. A prisoner had the idea to create a ‘6 Week Recovery Programme’, which the substance misuse team brought to life with the first cohort of 10 prisoners recently graduating.

Setting up this wing has been the highlight of my career in the prison service. There are significant reductions in violence, self-harm and drug use. I recently secured another £30K to purchase more incentives and to replace existing ones which will help to maintain the function of the wing.’