NICKI HARRIS, ANN HOPKINS & HELEN SMITH (HMP Hewell)
COMMENDEE 2022-23: Nominated by a prisoner, praised widely across the establishment, and described by the Governor as “this wonderful team”, Nicki, Ann, and Helen receive a Commendation for their truly outstanding work, both individually and collectively, in the Children and Families Department at HMP Hewell.
The original nomination was handwritten by a prisoner, ‘Matthew’, and is transcribed here in full:
‘I’ve been here in this Prison for just over 2 years. When I first come in, I had a job in the Chapel which was when I met Nicki, Helen & Ann from the family & children’s team, they saw that my confidence was a problem for me and they would sit me down and try and support me and at the time I had a lot of family issues and was just back in touch with my sister. They really helped me build a good relationship with my sister, listening to me and giving me good advice, and as time went on, I started to get more confident and more positive about life and in the past 20 years no one has been able to get me to who I am now – that’s how they have helped me.
I’ve been in contact with the family & children team all through this sentence and have seen all the work they have done for others and they have a lot of respect from a lot of prisoners. Prisoners who can have that contact with their children, and the family & children team do everything they can to ensure the children have contact with their dad making them feel comfortable. From what I’ve been told on a lot of occasions the family days they do has always been the best days for the lads in here, and from speaking to the lads after their family days it makes a bit difference with their mood and makes their time here less stressful.
It’s not just the family visits, there’s Storybook Dads and car club, but the main thing is the family and children team are dedicated in what they do and show nothing but care. I think it’s amazing what dedication they have and how they will help everyone, even lads who struggle with their mental health. I myself have had a lot of issues and I don’t think I would have got to where I am now if it wasn’t for them and I am truly grateful and so are a lot of us lads in here. They really deserve this nomination for their dedication I want to say thank you for everything they have done for me and others.’
Butler Trust Local Champion and Head of Business Assurance at HMP Hewell, Kelly Bassett, cites several indicative examples of the Team’s work, including a ‘Bump to Babies’ course for all expectant dads in the prison where over nine weeks the men can learn the basic skills of taking care of a baby, meet other expectant dads, and get support. Speaking in her capacity as the protected characteristic lead for Maternity and Pregnancy, Kelly calls it ‘an invaluable course’ that ‘helps us to further strengthen the bond between father and expectant mother, provides life skills and offers practical support and advice for families during this time.’ And once the baby has been born, the children and families team facilitate ‘that first visit where the dad gets to meet the baby and put the skills that he has learnt into practice.’
Kelly cites another example of the work the Children and Families Team do, in which they ‘supported a prisoner to have a reconnecting visit with his daughter who had been in Care. While in Care she had been sexually assaulted. The team supported him around this and organised for him to have a visit with her outside normal hours in order for them to have privacy. They maintained support and contact with him and his daughter assisting them both to develop an appropriate relationship. They changed two people’s lives and helped to repair some of the past trauma.’
In addition, says Kelly, the team’s card-making session on the Wellbeing unit allows men dealing with substance misuse and often complex mental health needs, ‘to engage in a therapeutic environment and undertake activities which allow them to be creative and express themselves.’ This work, she says, ‘has led to many of the prisoners involved to regulate their behaviour and reduce the stress they experience.’ Kelly says:
‘The team is led tenaciously by Nicki who, having been a part of Hewell for almost 20 years, has unlocked the secret of working with the prison restrictions whilst still making the impossible possible. They never take no for an answer and are masters at finding a way. They are compassionate advocates for our prisoners and their families in the face of the “machine” which is the prison. They remind us all that everyone’s family has something to offer to rehabilitation and that we ignore this untapped resource at our peril.’
Kelly adds, movingly, that:
‘This nomination is special because the team were recognised by a prisoner who they had helped; a prisoner many staff know well and who has struggled through his time here. As he explains in his beautifully written nomination they unlocked something in him which no one else had been able to do in over 20 years. Imagine affecting someone’s life in that way?’
Kelly concludes by noting that this is, as Matthew also states, ‘in no way a one off – the team have helped far more prisoners than staff will ever know about. They see any interaction as an opportunity to start a discussion about families and support available.’ Kelly’s enthusiasm for the team is powerfully reinforced by HMP Hewell’s Governor Ralph Lubkowski, who explains that The Rainbows Team (as they are known), ‘working on a self-funded basis for YMCA, have done an exceptional amount of invaluable work prior to and during COVID and now, as we move into business as usual. He calls the nomination:
‘A wonderful example of the power of this work. I met Mr Court in my early days at Hewell. He was, and to some extent still is, a very troubled man, with a number of very complex issues including substance misuse and self-harm. His progress here has been nothing short of remarkable, and the team have been a huge part of that. They have never given up on him, despite the odd wobble, which is something that can be said for their work with every prisoner here.’
They are singularly dedicated to harnessing the power of reuniting or maintaining contact between men and their families, but also to supporting those men who have become estranged or the families themselves who may be struggling. They are integral to my vision for HMP Hewell… I think the words of Matt speak louder than I ever could, but I hope the strength of my support gives some indication of the value in which I and the prison hold this wonderful team.
Nichola (Nicki) Harris who is the Children and Families Manager at HMP Hewell and now works through The Rainbow YMCA Project at HMP Hewell has been at Hewell for over 16 years, firstly as a Play Worker, supervising play for children visiting loved ones in Hewell, then as the Play Coordinator coordinating four play areas and Family Days across all Hewell prison sites. For the last 10 years she’s been the Children and Families Manager, and here she gives an idea what her work entails – and the pressures as well as pleasures it involves:
‘I now oversee and develop the children and family work within Hewell with our dedicated team of Play Workers/Course Tutors and a Family Intervention Coordinator. Our funding initially came from Children in Need and for the last 9 years via National Lottery, Reaching Communities. Every three years I have to write a new bid with YMCA for further funding (Hewell contribute some match funding for us to continue and develop our work) and every 3 years we hold our breath to see if we have been successful.
‘I feel extremely privileged to be in a position where we are trusted enough to be able to support and empower prisoners and their families when they are feeling at their most powerless. No two days are ever the same and this, to me, is one of the main attractions of the job. Our work is needs led, therefore we are providing/offering support at the right time for each individual prisoner and their family.
‘We run parenting courses: Me and My Dad – a bespoke parenting course for prisoners, more recently adapted during the pandemic, for completion in-cell; Storybook Dads – recording stories/poems/music onto CDs; and Bumps to Babies, a bespoke course for new and expectant dads coping from within prison. We hold themed 5-hour Family Days; Sports Day; Visit from Father Christmas etc.; supervise 2 play areas, and hold Family Surgeries on each Houseblock, Prisoner Family Forums, offer Card and Craft Making workshops and card-making and distraction packs. We work closely with social services and our public protection department. We offer individual visits for children who are looked after by a local authority and facilitate ‘Goodbye Visits’ for children who are imminently being placed for adoption.
‘We support any prisoner who needs our help whether it is liaising with social workers regarding contact with their children or supporting and encouraging estranged Fathers to write letters via letter-box contact or via Cafcass through Family court and provide them with writing materials. Basically, anything and everything that we can help with we try our best to do so. We support some prisoners who do not have children; many have mental health issues with chaotic family backgrounds. We can help with art materials, memory scrapbooks, journals, facilitating difficult phone calls with estranged family members or even just listening and signposting to the best available support. We care about our families and help their voices to be heard and adapt and review our work regularly. We facilitate, along with prisoners, Hidden Sentence, a training course for professionals within Hewell and in the community who work with children who may be affected by imprisonment. Our work is so diverse and I can honestly say I actually do love my job.
‘In 2009 I was invited to complete a Butler Trust training course, ‘Developing and Disseminating Good Practice in Correctional Settings’, at Newbold Revel. This gave me the confidence and spurred me on to do my degree in ‘Childhood and Youth Studies’ – it took me six years, part-time, as a single mum of three girls and I passed and achieved my BA (Hons.) while working full time as Play Coordinator at Hewell. It is an honour to be nominated and for our work to be recognised. I am proud of how far we have come both as a team and personally, despite it being a somewhat uphill struggle, writing new bids for funding every 3 years and particularly through the period of the pandemic, I feel we have truly, finally, been accepted. We are appreciated by the prisoners and their families and the majority of staff, including our Governor who values and sees the importance of the men maintaining a relationship with family, where appropriate, he supports our work and makes us feel part of a wider team within Hewell.
Ann Hopkins, Storybook Dads Coordinator/Group Tutor, explains her role in the team, and shows how responsive the work can be:
‘I work with prisoners in the Oak Unit, offering craft activities once a week, along with a craft group for the general population to attend. However, most of my time is spent making up and distributing distraction packs. These contain crosswords, Suduko, word searches etc, as well as colouring sheets with crayons, packs with just colouring sheets and pencils, but the most popular are the card making packs, these have enough resources to make 3 cards for their partner and children, so contain bits for ladies, boys, girls, babies. Specific pack requests for mums/dads, birthdays, condolence, anniversaries, get well, thank you are also available [extra resources are added for larger families]. This allows the prisoners to keep in touch with their families, the children especially, and I like to make sure that all the packs are fit for purpose. Application is usually by general application form, but officers on the house blocks ring and ask for packs when prisoners need help with their mental health issues. If they need paper and paints or just a paper and pencil to draw I will do my utmost to supply it.
Alongside this I run the Storybook Dads programme at Hewell, a very important part of my work, keeping the dads in their children’s daily lives, and on occasions the partners find great comfort in putting on the CDs to listen to their husband/partner once the children have gone to bed.
Finally, Helen Smith, who is the Family Intervention Co-ordinator for the Children & Families Department and YMCA Hewell Rainbow Project, underlines yet again the complexity of this work – as complex as families, and in need of as much careful efforts to really succeed:
‘I have a very diverse job role within the prison where every day is different from the next; it comes as a surprise if my day goes to plan. But this is why I love my job. I run a parenting course called ‘Me and My Dad’ and during Covid re-wrote this so the men could do it in-cell as we could not do group work. This is extremely popular so we still offer this alongside the group sessions.
‘We provide drop-in surgeries on each houseblock, so any men with child contact issues or questions about our services can come and get support. This may often lead to us getting in contact with social workers and facilitating phone calls for parenting assessments.
‘We have just started a new ‘Bumps to Babies’ workshop for new and expectant dads, which is extremely popular. This is where dads can learn practical skills like bathing etc, alongside how to support Mom and baby from home. Leading on from this is a baby bonding visit where Dad can feed and change their baby’s nappy, can paint their feet, and have the chance for a photo with their newborn baby. After a prisoner has finished one of our courses, they will get the opportunity to apply for ‘Family Time’. These are weekly sessions where the prisoners’ children can come in for an extra allocated visit and take part in structured activities which promote family ties. For example, painting, Storytime, and so on.
‘We provide family days for the men and their families, which are a 5 hour visit held in the gym. The families will be encouraged to play, chat, eat and have fun together in a more relaxed environment. We also provide card and craft packs, the men can make a card, colour a picture, or have special letter writing paper to send out to their children. We provide all the resources needed including glue, crayons, paper etc.
‘We have a Children and Families representative on each houseblock, who each have a folder containing our referral form and information on our support services. Every 6-8 weeks we will have a forum where the reps will get together with us and ask any questions, bring up any issues that need sorting out – all relating to the children and families work that we do.
‘I also Line Manage the playworkers that run the two play areas within the prison: one in the Visitors’ Centre, and one in the main room. This entails being the first port of call for the staff in providing information, support, holidays and completing the monthly rota. I also help to facilitate our ‘Hidden Sentence’ training to professionals within the community and prison staff, about what it is actually like for children and families to have a loved one incarcerated. This is not an exhaustive list of what my job includes, we are often asked to support with an array of requests! The men are appreciative of our work and mostly show us care and respect.’