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COMMENDEE 2012-13: Prison Officer: for dedication and skill in the management and care of challenging offenders in a prison setting.


[Sandra Umfreville gives her account of the work for which she won her Commendation]

I was commended for my work in HMP Exeter’s segregation unit, supporting prisoners with psychiatric problems, receiving praise from Broadmoor consultants as the “finest example ever seen in a prison”. This has resulted in a safer working environment for all staff in the segregation unit.

HMP Exeter is a Category ‘B’ Male prison housing a total of around 530 prisoners. It has a long-established segregation unit, housed in an old part of the prison, containing 9 cells. The unit takes on prisoners who, following an adjudication hearing, have been found to have broken prison rules. Typically prisoners stay on the unit for 5-7 days before returning to normal location; however it is not uncommon for one prisoner to make several visits to the unit during their sentence. Prisoners who spend time on the unit typically have a range of psychiatric problems which result in them finding it difficult to cope on normal location.

Prison staff can apply to work on the unit and the final decisions on who is allocated to the unit are made by the Governor. Due to the nature of the work, staff can only spend a maximum of two years working on the unit (although there is the possibility of a one year extension, based on the Governor’s approval). I joined the unit in 2010.

The segregation unit is run by a small team of six full time members of staff. Typically, three members of staff are on duty each morning whilst the Governor hears adjudications; it is their job to collect prisoners from adjudication, sort out their paperwork and induct them on to the unit. The staff who are on duty in the afternoon are responsible for overseeing regimes such as exercise, cleaning, etc.

Adjudication hearings are the responsibility of the duty governor, meaning that the responsibility falls to a different person each day. As the duty governors do not carry out this role full time they often look to the segregation unit staff for extra support and advice, e.g. previous adjudication results, behaviour reports, etc. The duty governor has the final say on each adjudication hearing and it is their responsibility to ensure that the prisoner is only moved to the unit for a correct and legal reason.

In normal circumstances, the segregation unit works by ensuring that the same officers deal with the same prisoners each day. The continuity helps most prisoners deal with their time on the unit; the size of the unit means that officers get to know the prisoners better than they would on a regular wing and can find out more about their problems and issues.

Approximately two years ago, the unit received a spate of extremely difficult prisoners, all at around the same time, who were unable to cope with prison life on normal location and who could sometimes stay on the unit for 1-2 months at a time. It was during this time that my colleagues and I realised that the system we had in place on the unit wasn’t working effectively for the most difficult prisoners.

One particular prisoner was extraordinarily difficult. He was extremely aggressive, although highly intelligent, and would try to divide staff whenever he could. He would stand in his cell screaming that he wanted you and your family to die (he had three years added to his sentence for threats to kill, due to the severity of the threats). He received visits from four different psychiatrists from various institutions who all established that he required more help than they could give him.

During the time that this prisoner was in our care on the segregation unit I, along with my colleagues and manager, devised and implemented a ‘buddy’ system. The concept behind it was that officers in the segregation unit would take daily turns in being this prisoner’s main point of contact, instead of one person being allocated to him on a full time basis. As communication was difficult and challenging at best, due to the continuous bombardment of very personal threats and abuse to staff and their families, this meant that one member of staff a day would take the lead in talking to him; staff could therefore avoid having to face the same level and nature of abuse every single day.

The buddy system worked by ensuring that, for safety, there was a minimum of one senior officer and four members of unit staff present each time we entered his cell. We had a full briefing before each conversation to ensure everyone was up to speed on the prisoner’s recent behaviour etc. Despite the number of officers present, it was extremely important that the ‘point of contact’ for each particular day was the only person who responded to the prisoner. If the prisoner tried to talk to other staff, they would simply not respond, leaving all conversations to the point of contact.

The buddy system allowed staff some much needed ‘down time’ from the abuse, whilst continuing to work in the segregation unit. In the case of the prisoner described above, it was eventually agreed that Broadmoor Hospital would take him into their care. However, such was the success of the buddy system (leading to Broadmoor describing the unit as the “finest example ever seen in a prison”) that the segregation unit continues to use it for its most difficult prisoners.

For the most difficult prisoners of all, the system works by containing the situation – its primary use is as a coping strategy for staff. For most prisoners, however, it works so effectively because it naturally helps to diffuse difficult or unpleasant situations between prisoners and staff. Issues don’t have a chance to build up over days and weeks; if the prisoner has an issue with the ‘lead’ person for the day, they have someone else to deal with the next day. It gives people time to move on, so that very often by the time the prisoner talks to the officer again, previous issues have been forgotten.

The impact of housing such difficult prisoners together can be substantial. Conversations would affect other prisoners, whilst some prisoners would hurl direct abuse at others. It was constantly explained to other prisoners that the abuse was not personal; that it was not necessarily targeted at them; and that they should be strongly dissuaded from joining in.

The impact on staff can also be profound. We made sure that there was a culture of openness and that staff had the confidence to be able to say that they were struggling, having a difficult day etc. Not being ashamed to admit to this encouraged others to do the same.

One of the main things that came out of my time on the unit was being part of a very close team and how important this was to all of us. It was very much a team effort – and even though I ended up taking some of the credit I felt that teamwork was a hugely important aspect of our success.


[The following article appeared in issue 5 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Sandra Umfreville, a Prison Officer in HMP Exeter’s segregation unit, has been commended for ‘dedication and skill in the management and care of challenging offenders in a prison setting.’

She started work at the unit in 2010, and was instantly proactive and unafraid to challenge ingrained working methods. Colleagues praise her professionalism, humility and diligence, particularly during a period in 2012 when the unit had to deal with a number of ‘extremely difficult and violent offenders.’ Sandra displayed ‘calm, clarity and decency’ in the face of extreme provocation, helping to diffuse potentially serious situations, and her work in managing and supporting prisoners with psychiatric problems was described by senior consultant psychiatrists as ‘the finest example ever seen in a prison.’

She has been called a ‘role model for anyone joining the service’, she also energetically mentors both prisoners and staff – many of whom look to her for guidance – and has frequently attended work on her rest days so that she can supply relevant information during mental health assessments as well support prisoners during the process.

‘Despite the hostile environment and challenging prisoners, you will never see Sandy act any differently,’ said one colleague. ‘She always offers consideration and respect to prisoners and encourages behaviour that will allow successful reintegration into the main units.’ HMP Exeter’s Governor, meanwhile, described her as ‘dynamic, proactive, caring and professional.’

For more information: contact HMP Exeter

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