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COMMENDEE 2013-14: Fire Safety Advisor: for work with female prisoners at risk of fire setting, to reduce the risk they pose to themselves and others.


[Robert Walker gives his account of the work for which he won his Commendation]

I developed a Firesetters intervention Plan and a Firesetters Awareness course interacting with women who set fire to property in the community and in Prison. The course focuses on triggers, such as drugs and alcohol, working with women to help them accept responsibility, helping them rebuild their confidence and develop coping mechanisms. The course has resulted in a 100% success rate in the reduction of re-offending.

In 2008 I was concerned at the number of fires that had occurred at Styal and what I could do to try and reduce the numbers. I started carrying out “one to one” interviews with prisoners received into custody for arson  related offences and over a period of time from these interviews I started to see a pattern forming, a large number of the women had problems with alcohol, suffered domestic violence and depression, I also noted that the level of fire incidents was falling.

I shared my findings with a member of our Psychology team who conducted interviews with the women and she then presented a paper to the Women’s Team at Burton on Trent.

As a result we were both asked to attend a meeting at their offices along with other staff from the female estate in November 2010.

At this meeting I was asked if I could produce a process to identify “Firesetters” in prisons and how we could deal with their problems.

I put together a draft procedure and met with Caroline Stewart from the Women’s team in January 2012 who agreed we should trial it at Styal, this we did over a 6 month period with excellent results.

I was asked to give a presentation in Newbold Revel at the Gender Specific Safer Custody meeting which was received very well by representatives from other Prison’s, also in December 2012 it was presented at the Crown Premises Inspection Group Forum on Prisons in Sheffield by Clive Webster of the Office of Chief Fire and Rescue Advisors from there it was taken to the Home Office.

The Firesetters Intervention Plan as it became known is proving to be a valuable tool in identifying arsonists on reception looking at their immediate needs and alerting other agencies such as Mental health Teams, Safer Custody and all staff working within where they would be located.

Other Fire Advisors have asked for copies of the plan and are adopting this in their Prisons.

Following on from the success of the plan I have put together a Firesetters Awareness Course and to date 17 Prisoners sentenced for Arson related offences have attended the course.

By attending the course I want them to:

  1. Identify the triggers that made them set fire.
  2. Discuss how they felt when setting fire.
  3. How they felt after setting fire and being arrested.
  4. Accept the sentence they received and if not why.
  5. Look at what the outcomes were and how they have affected others.
  6. Look to the future and what further help we could offer them and what help could be provided when they are released back into the community.

Delegates selected to attend the course are required to sign a contract and issued with a workbook to complete, from what they write in these books and from their engagement in discussions I complete a report which is shared with their Offender Supervisor who in turn will share it with the delegates Probation worker in the community.

Of the delegates who have attended the course to date, all expressed to me that although they had struggled at times confronting their offence, they had completed the course feeling positive and glad that they had attended.

After submitting their individual reports I meet with them and give them back their workbooks and advise that they keep them and use what they have written to remind them of how far they have progressed.

Most delegates had never before set fire and the one defining trigger with the majority of them was alcohol,  they have had or are now receiving help in combating alcohol addiction.

For these women it was their first offence and outside “triggers” put them where they are today and by giving them help and support they will realise they are not “bad people” they have been in a place not of their choosing, and hopefully in the future they will choose where they want to be.

  1. Offenders feel that they are supported therefore they feel safer and calmer, many come into Styal in a dreadful state, detoxing from alcohol, suffering years of domestic violence and feeling suicidal, by working with and supporting them they have now all got jobs or attending further education within the prison, they look healthier and when I see them they are always smiling and eager to talk.
  2. By not setting fire they are reducing the risk of ill health or even fatalities to themselves and staff due to smoke and flames. They have learned the dangers of setting fire and are adamant that they never want to endanger lives again.
  3. If they can build in confidence, identify with where they were at the time of setting fire and learn to deal with the triggers they will not re-offend when back in the community, which will not be easy for them but they are making good progress, all of the delegates are now classed as low risk of setting fire in custody so are therefore located on housing units either in single or shared dormitories rather than cellular accommodation. Some are even located on self catering houses doing their own cooking.
  4. Hopefully they will not set fire again therefore the public will not be in danger, damage to property will not occur, hopefully gain employment and rebuild friendships and family ties.

I can only open this course to sentenced prisoners but I still talk with remand prisoners with regard to setting fire, highlighting the dangers not only to themselves but others as well. One young prisoner told me that her Solicitor stated that if she had evidence of attending a fire safety course it would help in court, I carried out a one to one training session with her, set a small exam which she passed gaining a certificate. She received a Community Service Sentence. It made my day.

The struggle against prisoners setting fire is always with us but by good identification, intervention and looking at their immediate needs we can reduce the risk, sadly there are some prisoners who may need more professional help in a secure hospital or specific units in other jails.

Below is a breakdown of incidents from 2008 -2013.

2008 – 25 Malicious ignitions. 3 prisoners sent to secure hospitals, 3 to other prisons.

2009 – 19 Malicious ignitions. 2 prisoners sent to secure hospitals.

2010 – 12 Malicious ignitions. 1 prisoner sent to a secure hospital. 1 prisoner received an indeterminate sentence and sent to Low Newton (Primrose Unit)

2011 – 7 Malicious ignitions. 2 prisoners sent to secure hospitals.

2012 – 3 Malicious ignitions.

2013 – 6 Malicious ignitions. 2 prisoners sent to secure hospitals after setting multiple fires.

2014 – To date, 0 incidents


[The following article appeared in issue 6 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Fire Safety Officer at HMP Styal, Robert Walker, has been commended for the way he works with prisoners convicted or remanded for arson. His Firesetters Intervention Plan has proved to be a vital tool in reducing the number of fires set at the establishment, and his non-judgemental approach sees him working closely with mental health, in-reach and other teams.

The plan was initiated in 2008, following concerns over the number of fires at Styal, and focuses on identification of people who might pose a risk of starting a fire, their immediate needs, location, restriction and management.

Many prisoners come to the women’s prison ‘in a dreadful state’, says Robert – suicidal, detoxing from alcohol or having suffered years of domestic abuse. However, once they sense they’re being supported they feel safer and calmer, and he’ll then work with them to build their confidence, ‘identify with where they were at the time of setting fire’ and learn to recognise and deal with the triggers for that behaviour.

Robert has also developed a Firesetters Awareness Course, which looks at feelings before and after setting the fire, implications for others, reactions to the sentence imposed and future intentions. At the moment the course is only available to sentenced prisoners, but Robert also works with remand prisoners to highlight the dangers of firesetting to them and others.

In 2008 there were 25 maliciously started fires in Styal, but by 2012 the number had dropped to two, and no fires have ever been set by prisoners subject to the plan. ‘I would like every prison throughout the estate to adopt this form of plan in some way to cut the number of fires we have within the prison estate,’ says Robert.

‘The prison service is very good at identifying prisoners we receive into custody with mental health issues and giving them the help they need, but I feel that here at Styal by adopting the process of identifying prisoners with arson-related offences early and working with them we can reduce the number of fires in the prison and even back in the community.’


For more information: contact HMP/YOI Styal

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