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PAUL CONLEY & RITA CONLEY (HMP Wymott)

PAUL CONLEY & RITA CONLEY (HMP Wymott)

Paul Conley & Rita Conley (HMP Wymott)

AWARD WINNERS 2014-15: Paul and Rita, Majors in the Salvation Army, receive an Award for their volunteer chaplaincy work over more than 17 years, in particular for the services they have set up for HMP Wymott’s elderly and disabled prisoners. According to their nomination, they are “a priceless resource for Wymott’s growing elderly prisoner group” and “the commitment they show is amazing”. [This Award is supported by Sodexo Justice Services.]

PaulConleyRitaConleyAlthough Paul Conley and his wife Rita Conley, both Salvation Army Majors, first volunteered as Chaplains in prisons 17 years ago, their Butler Trust Award is in specific recognition of their work setting up a CAMEO centre (Come And Meet Each Other’) for elderly and disabled prisoners at HMP Wymott.

Paul and Rita had identified that many elderly and disabled prisoners, who were not obliged to work, were living isolated and unstimulated lives. They lobbied for some unused space, and set about building a wide and varied range of activities for this oft-overlooked (and growing) population.

HMP Wymott has a large group – over one hundred – of these prisoners, many of whom are in their seventies and eighties, who have a particular set of physical and social care needs. After campaigning for suitable space, they were allocated two offices with access to a kitchen which was separated from the Elderly and Disabled Wing by a small garden. They raised funds from Age UK, and converted the space into what their Karen Fidoe, of Learning & Skills at HMP Wymott, calls “a fabulous area” offering the men an opportunity to get off the wing and to spend time in a supportive, relaxed, and comfortable environment.

The CAMEO centre attracts many visitors interested in this pioneering project who are, says, Karen, “absolutely impressed” by the project and the evident atmosphere it generates. The prison education provider offers courses including Function Skills, IT for the Terrified, and a Craft group. Other popular activities run by the Physical Education department include an ‘armchair gym’, carpet bowls, and a Nature Watch involving walking around the gardens when the weather is good.

Library staff run a reading group, and garden access (designed to include the disabled) allows those with green fingers a chance to explore gardening activities. Once a week a local college comes in to deliver ‘Survival Cookery’ – many of these men have no experience cooking, and they are often anxious about how they will cope with it when they leave prison. Local Department of Work and Pensions officers also provide advice on setting up pensions so they’ll be active on release.

Visitors can expect to see prisoners doing jigsaws, playing Scrabble or chess, sewing or painting, and making models and cards. On Tuesday mornings, they’ll witness “the main event”, when all retired prisoners are welcome to attend, and activities include guest speakers, quizzes, a themed DVD and the History Box or Music Memories where users are encouraged to share their memories.

Staff across the establishment, who are particularly aware of the difficulties of working with this sometimes difficult group, also “greatly respect” the value of Paul and Rita’s work with the centre. Without the centre, many of these men would never leave their cells, and be at risk of isolation and depression. Indeed, visits to hospital – one measure of the impact of their work – have shown a significant decrease since the centre opened in 2011.

In short, says Anita Archer, Head of Reducing Reoffending at HMP Wymott, Paul and Rita “provide an essential lifeline to many elderly prisoners who would otherwise have no contact with others and no physical or mental stimulation.” The team, says Anita, “are a priceless resource for Wymott’s growing elderly prisoner group. The commitment they show to their work is amazing and they are totally worthy of recognition.”

Paul and Rita’s tireless work (they’ve persuaded The Salvation Army to allow them to spend all their time on the CAMEO centre) is clearly impressive. Paul and Rita themselves have noted that there are some prisoners, who are difficult to manage on the wings or unable to interact with fellow prisoners, who particularly benefit from the project – and Rita adds that “To see the other inmates working with them is an encouraging sight.”

Part of the strength of their work is its practical focus, aiming to reduce reoffending by equipping offenders with practical skills for their release. Their four week ‘Preparation for Living Course’ covers Practical Living (e.g. paying accounts, benefits, healthcare and accessing resources like libraries etc); Domestic Living (e.g. washing, personal hygiene etc); Reality Living (e.g. Wills, planning a funeral, ‘Enjoying Life’ etc) and, charmingly, Really Living (including ‘eating well’!)

Paul and Rita also have ambitions to extend their work by developing nearby empty cells into a palliative care centre. Currently at full stretch, serving sixty men a day, they’re keen to see the centre embedded as a permanent part of the programme for elderly inmates.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

[Paul Conley gives his account of the work for which they won their Award]

Sitting together tasting various cheeses is just one of the ways elderly inmates at HMP Wymott interact with each other.

Older Prisoners are the largest growing population within the prison service. At HMP Wymott there are 120 men over 60 years of age. This number is expected to double within the next 12 months. It is a real issue for the modern prison service.

The CAMEO Centre (Come And Meet Each Other) was established by my wife Rita and myself in 2011. It seeks to meet part of the needs of the older prison population.

CAMEO’s early beginnings…

In 2006 whilst walking on a wing, Rita found an elderly prisoner sat in his cell, looking absolutely bemused and lost. It was if ‘an alien’ had landed on earth in the centre of the wing. He was amongst younger men enjoying loud music and banter. It was clear he had nothing in common with those around him.

As experienced ministers we felt we could do more to help people like this man. We gave the older prisoners an invitation to gather together in the chapel. We explained our idea to start a CAMEO group and albeit with some reluctance the prisoners agreed to “Give it a go”.

A CAMEO group started initially on a monthly basis, but due to its popularity and need it became bi weekly, weekly and eventually a daily event.

We were given temporary rooms so the men were able to enjoy board games, discussion groups and quizzes as well as educational DVDs. Our numbers continued to grow and it became clear we needed our own space to develop the work. With space at a premium it would be extraordinary achievement to find a room we could use, but we did just that!

A very dirty empty storeroom that was unused was discovered. We develop a business plan for using it and once approved we were able to moved in. The men helped to clean it, they started to own and respect it and so from humble beginnings the CAMEO Centre became our home.

The CAMEO Centre, open on a daily basis, is available to all men over 60 years of age and any men on the Elderly and Disabled unit.

From time to time younger prisoners are able to attend whose mental health or personality needs means they have been unable to cope with peers their own age in mainstream prison training. These younger men generally attend for a short period, although a couple of chaps have been with us for 3 years.

There are, on occasion, men who are not suitable for the Centre, perhaps due to their health or personality issues, however we accept most. All who attend are asked and agree to respect each other, exercise patience with each other, and abide by the prison rules. In the history of the CAMEO Centre we have only banned one man. The men know that Rita and I are no pushover or a soft option.

So what does the CAMEO Centre offer?

In the Centre men find their own space to relax, read, think or engage in a programme of activities. These are as varied as indoor bowls, geography, history, handicrafts and microwave cooking, music and book appreciation, discussion groups and cheese tasting. Yes, Cheese tasting!

To see the men gathered at a table exploring new tastes and eating together is a real privilege. Many have not shared a meal with another for some years. It is amazing to see how cheese tasting is such a uniting factor amongst the men.

To mentally escape the prison environment, watching DVDs which feature train journeys is very popular. The journey on screen has the effect of taking the men briefly outside the prison walls in their minds and creates an opportunity to discuss travel and journeys that many of them have taken.

National and International events are recognised such as Holocaust Week and Remembrance Sunday etc. The weekly film is a popular event with films such as Lord of The Rings to the Iron Lady (The story of Mrs Thatcher) being viewed and discussed by the prisoners. Visits by different people to CAMEO are very popular. We have visits from, a brass band, singer songwriters and undertakers, African drummers, a man with a pair of Swans wings and a bag of stones and a person who specialised in street names.

The CAMEO Centre is a source of practical support for the men who attend. Some have taken the opportunity to find help to write official letters and monthly visits from the Department of Work and Pensions has enabled their benefits/pensions to be in place for them in readiness of release. The group has also become the springboard for an older Prisoners forum.

One of the prisoners had been totally illiterate; he now leads our scrabble group, after a fellow prisoner in the Centre taught him to read. Others have discovered new skills in card making and other crafts.

We asked some of the men to describe CAMEO

“It has literally been a life saver …… It’s a place of peace, prayer and grace”

“I fully appreciate the non-judgemental advice and reassurance. Cameo has enabled me to rise above the negativity of Prison life”

Consider for a moment a man of 84, he was due to leave prison after 8 years, he has no family contact (due to his offence) he did not cook nor shop as he believed that this was a ‘wife’s job’. He didn’t understand modern banking or even modern life. A very daunting future lay ahead of him.

To respond to the needs of this man and others like him, a tailor made resettlement programme called P4L was developed. The aim was to equip participants with resources and knowledge needed for move back into society. We look at practical issues such as where to seek support on release, how to use a bank card machine, where to shop for the best value items, how to iron a shirt, how to do the washing etc. All very practical but essential knowledge.

Some of the men, (because of their crimes) will leave prison without the support of family or friends into a world that is hostile and new to them.

Before they reach the release gate there are issues to be faced. General daily care is often an issue, as some have dementia or cancer. Other’s needs are more practical with requirements such as extra bedding, pillows or an extra vest.

Mobility can be an issue, especially if you are living with onset of Alzheimer’s disease or you are unable to move without wheelchair or crutches.

Occasionally outside probation officers will meet with our men in the centre as our visits room is too daunting or inaccessible. We also try to ensure the men have access to transport when they are released to probation hostels or other places.

Much has to be done to help fellow staff members to appreciate the needs of older prisoners who at times need to be treated slightly differently than the younger men in the prison setting.

Palliative care is an issue that is very real for the men who attend the CAMEO Centre. Some, who know they will die in Prison need the assurance they will be cared for in the correct way.

The Cameo has a distinct feel and many visitors have commented: “This place doesn’t feel like prison, it feels so special.” It is a place of honesty and trust occasionally laughter and always tea toast & coffee.

As a result of The CAMEO Centre, visits to hospital, suicides, and re-offending have all been lowered.

CAMEO is not a panacea of all ills; in fact it’s a journey of transition and discovery as we understand the complex underlying issues faced by older prisoners. We are constantly adjusting our programme and hopefully moving forward to becoming a centre of excellence which meets the needs of both the Prison and the older prisoners within it.

The future of The CAMEO centre is daunting but exciting. With the older prisoner groups growing in number, there is clearly a need and in some areas a change in attitude required to met their needs.

Older people within the prison establishment pose a real challenge. Older prisoners bring maturity, life experience, common sense and an insight to the world. Their experience should be used to inform the care and support given to prisoners across the entire prison estate.

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