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

PHIL FORDER (HMP Parc)

PHIL FORDER (HMP Parc)

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COMMENDEE 2015-16: Phil is the Community Inclusion Manager (and Arts & Community Lead) at HMP/YOI Parc and is Commended for his work in promoting a more inclusive LGBT environment in the prison and across the sector.

Phil Forder is the Community Inclusion Manager (and Arts & Community Lead) at HMP/YOI Parc and is Commended for his remarkable contribution to promoting a more inclusive LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) environment at Parc and across the sector – including creating the world’s first LGBT prisoner football team.

His lead nominator is Janet Wallsgrove, Director at Parc, who takes up the story: “I would like to nominate Phil Forder for his work in challenging homophobia at HMP/YOI Parc (1,700 prisoners) thus making it one of the safest prisons in the UK for LGBT prisoners. As Director, I have received many letters from prisoners that are very moving and sincere and that show his level of working.”

Janet describes how “Phil has set up a thriving LGBT community in a place that many considered impossible. He supports prisoners both individually and in groups, with one saying that before talking to Phil, he contemplated suicide.  He tackles homophobia by any means and set up the UK’s first gay prisoner football team.  It secured plaudits from across Wales and the Chair of Sports Wales, Professor Laura McAllister, said the ground breaking team was ‘truly a moment in history’. Phil recently published a book of LGBT writing from prisoners and staff.  In his foreword, Peter Tatchell commended the pioneering initiative and said that ‘where Parc goes may others follow’. Phil has championed LGBT rights by being a positive role model with a vision for how prisons can become inclusive places.  His work has changed Parc and the whole prison estate for the better.”

She continues, “His work has been to mentor LGBT individuals in order to feel safe and to work with the community at large to become more inclusive and challenge entrenched prejudices. This has involved working with different departments in creative ways to change attitudes. The result has been a number of innovative projects that have proved themselves over and again.  His own decision to be ‘out’ himself to prisoners and staff alike was brave and paramount in beginning this work.” Janet quotes Phil’s remark “How can I expect others to do this if I can’t myself?”

Phil’s nomination covers a breadth of work, described here in more detail:

“Phil has established an LGBT prisoner football team – the first in the world. He also established a ‘Prisoners Accord’, which challenges negative ‘banter’ and homophobia, and has set up a ‘buddy’ system to welcome any new gay prisoner. Phil also represents Parc on the Sports Wales LGBT Forum.”

Phil has also taken an active role looking at healthcare, including pioneering an ‘easy access’ condom policy, as well as establishing regular sessions from the Terrence Higgins Trust, teaching sexual health to prisoners and general awareness of blood borne viruses (like HIV and Hepatitis B) to prisoners and staff.

Phil established ‘Hay in the Parc’, a collaboration of seven years standing between the world renowned Hay Literary Festival and Parc prison. He has also brought many LGBT authors, including writers Val McDermid and John Sam Jones, Welsh International Rugby referee Nigel Owens, and campaigner Peter Tatchell, as well as facilitated workshops with Pride Sport on tackling homophobia. Phil has also put together a book called ‘Inside and Out’ (available as a free download here), described as “a first of its kind”, which has LGBT writings in it from both staff and prisoners. This has attracted national attention (an article and extracts can be found in this Guardian article) and “has done much to promote the difficulties that many have had to overcome.”

In his work on Equality & Diversity issues, Phil oversees an LGBT support group which brings together many outside agencies to offer support, including ABFABB, the local LGBT support group, hate crime officers, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Cardiff Gay Mans Reading Group, Pride Cymru, and Prostrate Cancer Wales. He also runs a DVD channel producing films depicting minority groups in a positive light, and has written a booklet for gay prisoners “Gay and Safe in Prison”.

“Phil stands out,” says Janet, “because he is sincere about the work he does.” She quotes a recent letter from Weston College, which has no direct dealings with Parc, which, as Janet notes, “make this the more amazing.”

Chris Emmett is the Director of Strategy for Offender Learning at Weston College in Weston Super Mare, and wrote:

“I have known Phil for some years now due to our offender learning roles. I previously worked for NOMS/HMPS and now for Weston College (an OLASS [Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service] Phase 4 provider for the SW region).

From our first meeting, where we were both engaged in award-winning innovative projects to support offenders and reduce re-offending, I was overwhelmed by Phil’s huge belief in and passion to change lives for the better. Phil’s enthusiasm is infectious, as is his genuine belief in treating everyone with respect and his aim to instil in them self-belief and high aspirations. Phil’s influence has contributed positively to HMP Parc’s success and the proactive environment he has developed for learners and staff.

“Phil is also unselfish about sharing their good practice with others as he wants to see similar improvements in offender learning nationwide. He is proud to demonstrate the vision and activities taking place at Parc to visitors from other prisons and organisations. Never one to rest on his laurels, Phil’s energy is boundless and he is continually evolving the prison provision: improving existing projects and creating new opportunities for offenders and their families to support resettlement. His Hay-style artistic festival is a fabulous example of celebrating and encouraging creative talent and bringing the ‘outside’ in by engaging many authors and other speakers to engage with the prison community. Phil has not hidden his sexual orientation and has encouraged others to be true to themselves, be tolerant and celebrate differences and that everyone can conduct themselves respectfully and professionally.

“By his excellent example Phil has broken down barriers by promoting and fostering an environment of honesty, trust, respect and safety which is not universal in prisons. A custodial sentence can be an isolating and frightening experience especially for vulnerable individuals but Phil’s engaging manner encourages and welcomes prisoners to seek support which must reduce self-harm incidents and mental health problems. Phil is a sensible individual who raises and seeks to resolve potentially uncomfortable, covert or contentious issues and does so in a pleasant, optimistic and realistic manner that avoids any lecturing or hectoring that might have a negative effect on breaking down barriers. Phil is approachable and great company and values individuals as individuals regardless of any unhelpful categorisation and he has earned the respect and appreciation of all who work with or meet him.”

Janet goes on to say, “I receive many letters about Phil’s work – here are a few notable ones:

Michael*: “I am part of the Traveller community and have had a lot of problems from them over my sexuality. Not long after arriving in prison this started again with some serious threats being made to me.  Didn’t know who to turn to or trust. I told my personal officer some of it who then asked Phil Forder to come and see me. As travellers we are told from childhood NEVER to trust non travellers. I never trusted any staff or prisoners enough to tell them my problems or indeed my sexuality. When I met Phil I was so frightened, scared and alone and I didn’t know this man from Adam and felt frightened to talk to him. After a few minutes I opened up to him and told him of the troubles I was having and how terrified I was.  I don’t know why or how I trusted him Maybe it was his warm voice, maybe his friendly face? But ever since I have met Phil he has been there for me. Before I met Phil I was a total mess – frightened, scared and alone in a macho prison, but I don’t feel like that anymore. Phil has boosted my confidence and self worth and I honestly believe that without his support I would have probably ended my life.”

David: “Being LGBT is difficult. Being LGBT in a heterosexual dominant prison system is even more difficult. When I first came into prison it was easier to hide your sexuality than be a victim of homophobia. Prison is full of people with negative views about sexuality which mainly span from their upbringings, cultural or religious beliefs and lack of education. Somehow Phil and the team have created unity among prisoners and have managed, to some extent, to get rid of the ‘us and them’ mentality. Phil and his team mentor and support the many prisoners that struggle to accept who they are. Many come into prison fighting their sexuality and have no one ever to talk to, but through the support and the ability to share and hear different experiences, they have learnt they are not alone and accept and embrace who they are. Phil is an extraordinary man and has helped me with my fight. He is a light in times of darkness. He puts 110% into his duty to help LGBT prisoners feel safe and accepted.”

Janet adds that she has “worked closely with Phil and has seen at first hand his commitment, drive and energy to make a difference.” Talking of his book, Inside and Out, she notes that “The foreword is written by Peter Tatchell who describes the book as ‘ground breaking’. The stories are varied but are all evidence to the work pioneered by Phil at HMP/YOI Parc. The book is due for review in the Guardian which is further example of how far Phil has pushed the boundaries. He is an exceptional talent and a genuinely good man.”

Janet goes on to describe how Phil’s work “is acknowledged by prisoners, staff, outside agencies and many individuals. His work goes much further than the prison walls. He is a role model for both prisoners and staff alike, always accessible and visible in the prison and beyond.” She quotes another prisoner, Simon, who says “I believe Phil deserves an award as very few of the officers share his dedication, passion and drive to help prisoners who are LGBT or not. Few have the courage to be as open, honest and to lead the way for others to follow. We are blessed to have an insightful and dedicated man in our corner to help us feel accepted and part of the community as a whole and many people here feel the same.”

Phil describes his own journey in more detail. “I have set up a culture in Parc prison which challenges homophobia and supports LGBT prisoners and staff to be themselves. I have done this over a period of three and a half years by establishing support groups, setting up training programmes, using arts events, promoting positive role modelling and involvement in sport.”

He continues, “I personally have struggled with being gay all my life having spent my formative years during a time when homosexuality was illegal and as a result I have always hidden who I really was. It wasn’t until at the age of 55 (seven years ago) I decided to ‘come out’ as I realised how much damage had been done and that it is never too late to change. I did so while working in prison, probably not the ideal place to do it. This was without doubt, the biggest decision I have ever had to make which as a result made me acutely aware of the even greater difficulties facing prisoners who were LGBT living in an incarcerated world where you cannot walk away from discrimination and bullying. The degree of fear is illustrated by how few prisoners are openly gay in a prison with a population of 1700 men. It was this that motivated me to do something about it. I began by running programmes for staff to get them on my side, so to speak, and then began working with prisoners directly.”

Among the array of work he has done, he considers the most important to be setting up and running a support group for LGBT prisoners, ‘Parc United’ which, he explains, ‘is a forum that meets monthly where invited guests deliver talks and dialogue takes place.” Then there is his booklet for prisoners, ‘Being Gay and Safe in Prison -What You Need to Know’. He also mentions organising “training sessions for staff and prisoners on sexual health with Terrence Higgins Trust and Prostrate Cancer Wales”, as well as “overhauling the condom policy making it easier for prisoners to access them and challenging the taboo surrounding the subject.”

Having joined the LGBT Sports Wales forum, Phil was able as a result to bring several LGBT teams into Parc, including Cardiff Dragons FC, Cardiff Lions RFC and Swansea Vikings RFC. These teams play both gay and straight prisoners as well as staff. Phil also set up a female staff football team and a gay prisoner team. Also on Phil’s list are mentions of the Hay in the Parc collaboration, and the guest ‘role model’ speakers he’s brought in (mentioned by Janet above), his DVD channel showing films portraying LGBT people in a positive light, and a talk he gave at the first LGBT Human Rights Conference held in the UK on ‘The Challenges facing LGBT prisoners’.

Not resting on his laurels, Phil adds that “This year I edited and contributed to a book of LGBT writings from prisoners compiled in workshops I ran that was printed in August called ‘Inside and Out’. This received National Acclaim and received positive reviews in The Guardian, The Mirror, BBC Wales Online, Golwg, Pink News and Gay Times. I also was interviewed about the plight of LGBT prisoners by Jason Mohammad on BBC Radio Wales as well as Radio Dublin and Columbia Radio. The articles have been translated into Polish, Japanese and Spanish. In September this year I was a National Diversity Award finalist from over 22,000 nominees for my LGBT work in prisons.”

As Phil says, his work contributes to the fact that “making prison a safer place is in everyone’s interest. Several prisoners are now confident on being ‘out’ both on the VPU and Main Location (18 in total) and although the numbers are small –like all change the ‘ripple’ effect is taking effect.” He says that “Knowing the support is there is essential for someone who could resort to self harm or suicide otherwise, and being able to talk about issues is the biggest step to stopping them actually happening.”

Phil notes that he “didn’t realise at the time how my own coming out would empower others – I thought it was just about me, but many now feel they can talk to me confidentially about things that they didn’t do before. Being visible is important and was a factor in the success of ‘Inside and Out’ the fact that LGBT staff – albeit anonymously – were also involved writing about their own difficulties of working in a ‘macho’ environment enabled prisoners to empathise with them on a shared level and thus feel more confident and less isolated.”

He reports that “every month we receive more DIRFs (Discrimination Information Report Forms) that are LGBT related (it is second only to race) reflecting a more confident population” and says “For me the best way to bring about change is by example – standing on a soapbox, lecturing, can often make feelings more negative.”

He cites, as a notable case, Nigel Owens’ talk to prisoners during Hay in the Parc: “everyone expected him to speak about his rugby career, which he did, but we also used it as an opportunity for him to talk about his own struggle with his sexuality. This subtle way of bringing difficult subjects into consciousness is invaluable. The prisoners learnt more that day about LGBT issues than they did about rugby.”

As Phil points out, “Prison can be a golden opportunity to change mind-sets for the better. I feel the work we are doing here has ramifications for the public at large, breaking down stereotypes and promoting acceptance.”

“There is so much more work to do with LGBT prisoners”, he says. “In the first instance it is about challenging homophobia and allowing people to be themselves. Although we have made progress here, there is still a lot to do in this field as our population is forever changing – each new group of prisoners bringing their own problems and prejudices. This, I see as stage one: ‘creating a safe, caring environment.’ However, the ironic thing is, should we realise our aims, the result would be a sizeable ‘out’ population. In a prison such as ours, there would be a minimum of 170 gay prisoners by the laws of average.”

Ruminating on how that might play out, Phil says, “This realisation would promote many questions – such as cell-sharing and the law on sexual activity in prisons which would need to be reviewed.” Other issues Phil mentions include Marriage and Civil Partnership between prisoners, and, he says, “We also need a clear policy on the position of Trans prisoners with regard to their eligibility to go to a female estate.”

He adds that “finally there is the whole subject of ‘prison gay’ – men who identify as heterosexual but who resort to gay activity as an available sexual outlet. This much ignored subject happens and although seen as ‘embarrassing’ for many – both authorities and prisoners alike – needs to be discussed to promote safe sex, deter abuse and stop bullying.”

He concludes: “I am dedicated to continue to work in this area. I couldn’t really not do so if I tried.”

[* Names of prisoners have been changed to protect their identity]

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