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COMMENDEES 2012-13: Senior Officer & Prison Officer: for contributions to the care and welfare of staff. (This Commendation is granted in memory of Paul Mason).
[Anthony Richardson gives his account of the work for which he won his Commendation]
The requirement for a Prison Officer to attend court regarding a serious assault can be an incredible stressful and challenging experience. The Care Team at Whitemoor has developed a service where Prison Officers are given the care, support and advice needed to manage the experience in a positive way.
My name is Anthony Richardson, and I work at HMP Whitemoor as a discipline officer on a main residential unit. I have been working for the Prison Service for 15 years 11 years at Whitemoor, and 4 years at Pentonville. I was member of the Care Team, who are a multidisciplinary group of staff across the prison who volunteer to help and support staff within the establishment.
This all started when the head of HR talked to a member of staff in the staff car park, after a court case where the member of staff hadn’t felt supported, and let their feelings know to the HR manager. After this chat the HR manager approached the head of the Care Team with a task. This was to set up a service for supporting staff who have to attend court. That was all I was given, “support the staff”.
Luckily, I’ve never had to go through the court process, so thought about a plan of what staff may ask in my role of supporting them. Some questions I found asking myself were, ‘What’s court like?’, ‘where can I find information from?’ and ‘Is there anyone I can ask about my concerns?’ This list expanded considerably as time went on, and gave me opportunities to develop the service through my, and other members experiences.
One development that I’ve found is that assaults in prisons have been steadily rising in the past years, but here at Whitemoor our Governor recently stated in a newsletter dated 2nd June 2013 ‘Last year gave witness to the lowest number of assaults in our history (this figure includes pushes and shoves and not just thumps’. Why is this happening?
Here at Whitemoor you could say that we have a larger staff to prisoner ratio, which is true, so assaults are less likely, due to having more staff to patrol the landings. However, most of the prisoners we have are serving very long sentences with little to lose in terms of adding time onto their sentences, what difference does a six month additional sentence for assaulting a member of staff really mean, to a prisoner doing a life sentence with a tariff of 20 years? Our prisoners are very young men, doing sentences for very serious and violent crimes, so have violent tendencies, and resort to these measures to get out of situations where ordinary people could sort out by other means, rather than resorting to violence.
“What’s court like?”
To be perfectly honest the closest I’ve come to it is watching a TV drama like Rumpole of the Bailey, so I thought I’d visit my local court to see if they could help me. The court services have a great witness team, so I contacted them at Peterborough for a visit.
I attempted to put myself in the shoes of a member of staff who would be turning up on the day, and going through the whole process of giving evidence. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive approaching the court, and I wasn’t even giving evidence, I was just visiting! The visit went really well and I asked as many questions as I could, hoping that if I were asked the questions by a member of staff I could answer them. I also did a small reconnaissance of the area outside the court, for coffee shops, restaurants and food outlets, as some staff would want refreshments throughout the day, and I wanted to know they’d be suitable and staff would feel comfortable.
I also wanted to know where the train station was in relation to the court, along with car parks and how much they would cost. The communications aspect of this process is and continues to be, a huge part of reassuring staff who are going somewhere for the first time. Also, if I know where to go it hopefully shows to the staff I know what I’m talking about and know where to go, which will lower their anxieties.
“Where can I find information?”
I attempted to find information out at work off our computer system. Why? The simple reason is that I could email staff the links they could access immediately, rather than writing a whole series of links to take home with them, to possibly fit in to their family life when they got the time. There were just a couple of web pages that the court produces that I could access, so I used these as a start, and still use them today.
With this information, I then contacted the Manager (a Governor in this instance) who dealt with the court cases and asked if they had any cases coming up. There was, so I then sent an email to all of the staff explaining why I was getting in touch with them, who I was, along with all of the information that I’d gathered. I then went out and saw the member of staff individually. This was done for several reasons. Firstly was to meet them face to face and to let them know who I was. I would also ask if they had all of the information I sent to them, and that the links worked, plus if it was relevant to their needs. I would then ask about travel arrangements, hotels and anything for anything else that might be playing on their minds.
The Court dates
Since starting this I can honestly say no one case is exactly the same as another, even though the offences are very similar. I’ve found that I had to tailor make the service you provide for staff on two main factors. Where is the court case being held, and how many staff are involved. This proved to be a steep learning curve in the first few cases.
Travel and Hotels
I’ve found that travelling with staff and staying overnight with them is a very positive practice. This allows you to build a bond of how staff are when they are relaxed, and then to see them when they are stressed. I haven’t met any members of staff that aren’t stressed out before going into a witness box, so I found it better to talk about things on the journey when they weren’t so stressed and anxious.
The travelling also is a stressful part of the experience, so going from the prison (if I was driving the car/minibus) or the train station, took away part of the pressure, especially if we were to go to an area that we didn’t know. To date staff who provide this support have travelled to Leeds, London, Peterborough, and Cambridge. Some are done in a single day, some take a few days, some take weeks.
Its also a good time the night before the case to have a chat, and help them with any little questions that may be bothering them. The normal family/friend support might not be there if your staying away overnight, so we are there to offer a degree of care and support.
Also feeding back experiences to the senior management team at Whitemoor are important. I remember a very unpleasant journey where 5 members of staff had to travel with their kit to Leeds in a small car for an overnight court case. It was very uncomfortable, plus overloaded. If it wasn’t for the skill of the driver over speed humps, some of the car would still be in Leeds! I was able to feedback to the SMT the staffs discomfort and potential problems of damaging a prison car in a way that this policy has changed in how staff are transported to court. A well written humorous account!
In no way, shape or form was I ever coaching the member of staff how to be in court. I was just trying to make the minutes or hours pass in a more pleasant way, and rather than meeting them at the door to the court and not knowing much else, I found the journey to and from the venue a key part to travelling with them.
The unexpected surprises?
There are lots of unexpected surprises when attending court. Firstly and more seriously is actually getting into court, especially when there are press outside. Some staff aren’t aware of this, so coming into court with them rather than meeting them in court is a good practice. I’ve also had the press coming looking for staff and they are nearly always in the public gallery.
Uniformed staff also aren’t popular with some of the general public in a court waiting room, so when the staff are checked in we always try to get a private room so they can relax. Having to keep on guard in a waiting room is an exhausting experience for anyone, plus the travel, and then put the stress of putting them into a witness box can be overwhelming. Having a Care Team member with them means that they don’t have to ask for things, especially when you have a group of so called rufty-tufty members of staff who are putting on a brave face, and won’t ask for any help no matter what!
Whitemoor also has a policy of sending a care team member and a custodial manager to court. This helps hugely as you can ask staff what they want. Do you want the support in court, out in the waiting area, or after giving their evidence? With a couple of members of staff you can do this, as a single person this becomes a very difficult task to perform.
You have to remember that staff may have to watch CCTV of themselves being assaulted. This can be extremely upsetting and disturbing for them, plus you may have witnesses who have to watch the footage too.
Explaining sentences is a difficult subject too. It’s good and helpful to give good accurate feedback to staff to the pluses and minuses of concurrent and consecutive sentences, and can help in the long term. You’d be surprised that staff wouldn’t know what had happened at the end of the day when sentencing was finally given, they were to mentally drained to take it in. It also gives you the opportunity to feed the information back to the SMT on the return journey, so they are kept in the loop.
So the brief was to support the staff, and this was mainly done by learning from our experiences. If there is an incident at Whitemoor, there is an expectation that a member of the care team attends. With this in mind we can give support from the initial incident, all the way through to the final conclusion at court. This service can be provided by a single member of staff from the care team, as I and others have attended incidents, seen the staff at hospital, supported them coming back to work and now support them all the way through the court process.
The care team have talked to each other since we set up the service, and this communication is a key part to the success. Its allowed us to develop a valued service not only for the Officers it benefits, but the wider community at Whitemoor and hopefully the Prison Service as a whole.
And finally, why are the assaults lower at HMP Whitemoor? That was one of the questions in my introduction, and I don’t think that there is a single answer. Firstly, the Governor pursues all assaults on staff, and attempts to get the CPS to press charges on all cases. Staff are also supported in a varied way, from the care team with a listening ear, all the way through to professional counselling. And finally from the professionalism of all of the staff at Whitemoor and their approach in dealing some challenging prisoners. If you feel if the prison is safe to work in, and justice will be sought if something terrible happens to you, you feel valued, and a valued member of staff is going to do more for you in the future than an undervalued officer.
[The following article appeared in issue 5 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]
In the category of staff care, Supervising Officer Pete Brotherton and Prison Officer Anthony Richardson at HMP Whitemoor have been commended for their ‘contributions to the care and welfare of staff’ through the prison’s witness care initiative. Pete and Anthony are active members of the prison’s staff care team, which provides peer support for staff members in difficulty on a purely voluntary basis, juggling the commitment with their fulltime roles – Pete as part of the orderly officer group and Anthony in the establishment’s dangerous, severe and personality disorder (DSPD) unit.
The profile of Whitemoor’s prison population has changed significantly in recent years, with prisoners tending to be much younger than in other dispersal prisons, and gang membership, a history of violent crime and very long sentences often the norm. The establishment has a zero tolerance to acts of violence and actively pursues prosecutions, but while employee and victim testimonies can be crucial to securing convictions, staff find the process daunting and stressful, prompting Pete and Anthony to establish a support process for witnesses called to give evidence.
‘As Whitemoor is a high security prison it holds some of the most dangerous and violent prisoners,’ says Pete. ‘To take these people to court while they are already serving long sentences is very challenging.’ The system now supports staff before, during and after trials, involving the provision of courtroom training as well as organising appropriate transport and pre-trial visits to the court to address staff anxieties around what will happen on the day.
There is now a single point of contact at the CPS for each case, regular communication with all agencies, and staff are shielded from press intrusions. Feedback is also gathered and acted upon after each trial. ‘The most important task is to be there with staff,to listen to their anxieties and worries and be reassuring,’he says. ‘The trials can be a nerve-wracking process.’
As of 2012, half of all prisoners to have attacked a staff member since 2010 had been convicted, with the others either on trial or under police investigation. Only one assault at the prison had not been proceeded with by the CPS.
• Pete Brotherton and Anthony Richardson’s Commendation was granted in memory of Paul Mason.
For more information: contact HMP Whitemoor