NIYI AKINSEYE (HMP Wandsworth)
AWARD WINNER 2022-23: Niyi’s Award is for the “inspirational determination and courage” he has shown, as an Officer at HMP Wandsworth, in developing and driving forward Together Against Racism, which has helped to tackle discrimination in the jail and is now being rolled out across the prison estate.
[He also receives the POA Award for outstanding work by a Prison Officer.]
As Danielle Dodd, Niyi’s initial nominator and Southern Regional Head for Unlocked Graduates explains, in his role as a Band 3 Prison Officer in HMP Wandsworth – and as part of the Unlocked Graduates scheme – Niyi set out to ‘be the change he wanted to see in the world.’ And then some. In particular, Niyi wanted to work on ‘the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in positions in the prison service where they could make a difference’, says Danielle. And being a Band 3 Prison Officer in HMP Wandsworth, while pursuing a Master’s degree as part of the Unlocked programme, seemed like ‘a way to do something challenging and meaningful.’
Early on – in his first few months in the role – Niyi experienced ‘multiple incidents of racism from prisoners, as well as witnessing incidents of racism among the prisoners.’ Communications Lead for London Prisons Group Kevin Field says that Niyi also ‘shared with us an incident that happened on a wing, where a prisoner racially abused him and refused to apologise for his actions. He had immense feelings of pain, anger and frustration but these were quickly drowned out by the overwhelming gratitude and warmth he felt towards his colleagues, who came together to support him and ensured he was not alone in processing his emotions.’
Niyi’s response deepened when he began an awareness project that attached ribbons on to prison officer’s epaulettes with the slogan ‘Together Against Racism’, the aim being ‘to open up discussions.’ Danielle adds that Niyi wanted ‘to find a way to acknowledge that these racially motivated incidents exist in prisons, raising the issues in the spaces where they were happening so that that the prison service could look at addressing them.’
Building on this successful start, with colleagues wearing the ribbons to show both support and a willingness ‘to be a part of the conversation’, Niyi helped set-up staff awareness meetings and coffee days, too. As Danielle says, Niyi feels ‘you always have to stand up against injustice, you have to speak out and challenge when you see things wrong, otherwise you are contributing to the problem yourself.’
Niyi took the initiative and added still more energy – and it kept building momentum. He secured funding to roll the project out across the prison service and worked with the area manager for London prisons, Ian Bickers, to liaise with governors and deputy governors across the country to launch a national project. He signed up 27 prisons nationwide and briefed the Prisons Minister, Victoria Atkins who thought the ribbons were ‘a great way’ to show support of BAME prisoners and staff. Next, Niyi worked with the Race Action Programme to roll this out more widely.
Kevin calls Niyi ‘an inspirational person’, and notes that Niyi says the power that lies in coming together to offer mutual support ‘is what Together Against Racism is about. It is about coming together to support each other when racism occurs. It is about people from all backgrounds uniting against racism.’ He cites a prisoner who told Niyi that he had never reported his experiences of racism before, ‘because he never saw the point in it.’ However, having seen the ribbon and opened the conversation, ‘he asked that they put through a discrimination report together. That was the first report this prisoner had ever sent off.’
Unlocked CEO Natasha Porter adds her own testimonial, saying that she’s ‘really impressed’ by Niyi’s project and finds it ‘really exciting’ how he has worked to make links into other prisons’.
HMPPS Communications Business Support Officer Philippa Johnston agrees. She admires Niyi’s ‘collaborative and ambitious’ approach, and says ‘it is inspiring to see a young, new prison officer build this movement from the ground up.’
Wandsworth’s Governor, Graham Barrett, shared his own appreciation, too:
‘In Niyi I found a champion waiting to shine. Niyi demonstrated maturity and determination, [sharing] a compelling message that no reasonable person could object to. The drive, determination, and courage that Niyi has demonstrated since joining HMPPS at HMP Wandsworth has been inspirational.’
Niyi himself adds that ‘wearing the ribbons, sharing them with my colleagues and looking to expand them to more prisons within the UK, in my view, represented a powerful, yet easily achievable step towards improving the experiences of ethnic minority prisoners and prison staff due to the conversations about race which they sparked.’ He reports that he also noticed ‘that the ribbons helped to improve staff-prisoner relationships within my prison and improved the confidence prisoners had in reporting discrimination.’
From building on his own thinking, observations and experiences, Niyi’s initial response has taken on an extraordinary life of its own. Niyi has kept up the momentum, and he recently deepened his insights with further evidence based on a research element in which he set out to explore the impact of Together Against Racism by undertaking a survey ‘in which I gained insights of 108 prisoners and prison staff across 8 London prisons,’ he says. ‘I discovered that 87% of people interviewed believed that the TAR ribbons increased their confidence in DIRFs’ (Discrimination Incident Reporting Forms). 92% stated that they felt that the ribbons improved relationships and communication with ethnic minority prisoners and 85% stated that the ribbons helped HMPPS achieve its business strategy aim of creating a more inclusive work environment.’
‘When we first spoke, Niyi wanted to offer the yellow Together Against Racism ribbons to every prison in London. To find the time to create and promote such a positive idea, whilst being a prison officer and completing the Unlocked Graduate scheme is impressive, and at no point did I get the impression that he didn’t think it was possible. With such a high proportion of black and ethnic minority prisoners across the UK, the yellow TAR ribbons are an important signal to prisoners that their heritage and history is acknowledged, and discrimination in the form of racism will not be tolerated.’