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

SARAH FLEMING (HMP Kirkham)

SARAH FLEMING (HMP Kirkham)

COMMENDEE 2016-17: Sarah is granted a Commendation for the compassion, infectious enthusiasm, and commitment to the transformational power of learning that she has brought to her role as Library Manager at HMP Kirkham.

Sarah Fleming’s work as HMP Kirkham’s Library Manager not only redefines what a prison library can be, it has also stretched out to have an impact on the entire establishment, through activities such as art and the prisoner-produced magazine ‘Kirkham Chronicle’. And her work has spread farther afield, too, with the acclaimed and stunning artwork ‘The White Rose’ – created by the library’s ‘Inside Art’ group which she set up – one of just 12 works commissioned for the 2016 Holocaust Memorial Day “Flames for Humanity’s Heroes” exhibition, which was also selected for the Koestler Trust’s “We Are All Human” exhibition curated by Benjamin Zephaniah.

When David Bland, Head of Reducing Re-offending at Kirkham, arrived in his role, he was “immediately impressed” with Sarah, “and equally astonished with the incredible things she had already achieved.” In a quarter of a century of seeing many prison libraries, he adds, “nothing had prepared me for this one. I very quickly grasped Sarah’s love of learning, people, and her endless joy for doing new things and taking on challenges.”

As well as books, CDs, and DVDs, there’s a newspaper service, reading groups, Storybook Dads, Turning Pages (teaching literacy skills), Spanish classes, chess, jigsaws, and an art group, Inside Art. There’s also a prisoner-produced prison magazine, the Kirkham Chronicle, with “each edition oozing articles” about books, staff interviews, questions and answers from readers, articles with news and history, items about rehabilitation and starting businesses, puzzles, poetry, health and wellbeing, quizzes, gym circuits, prisoner successes and charity events, “the list goes on.” Sarah, says, David, “has a genuinely infectious “Can’t we?” attitude.” People like Sarah, he adds, “brim with life, enthusiasm, and warmth.”

Karen Phillips, Butler Trust Local Champion and People Hub Manager at Kirkham, described Sarah’s “visionary work” as helping inspire in prisoners “the confidence to engage in activities that they may never had access to before.” Sarah, says Karen, “has the enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude to take an idea and make it something for all to be proud of.”

“What makes Sarah stand out from the crowd,” Karen continues, “is her endless enthusiasm to move forward and continually improve the opportunities for prisoners. She has a lust for life and the ability to inspire this in others.”

The prisoners she works with agree, with Mark* saying, “Sarah constantly goes out of her way to help others. She is always polite, upbeat, and focusing on how to improve things with prisoners in mind.” Another prisoner, James*, adds, “Sarah has been a constantly supportive figure behind all the various groups that use the library. She always strives for the inclusion of as many individuals as possible.” Dave* adds, “She works tirelessly in the library to offer a wonderful service for us as prisoners.”

Graham Beck, Kirkham’s Governor, says that Sarah’s work “has gone from excellent to absolutely outstanding”, and hails her ability “to translate good ideas into brilliant reality. Sarah changes lives for the better. She does so with constant cheer and modesty.”

Sarah’s enthusiasm for the power of creativity to change prisoners is notable. “Their knowledge, information, creativity, skills and ideas shine through, and as Manager, I work from them.” Discussing her literacy programme, Turning Pages, Sarah recalls “one [prisoner] in particular who now writes articles for the Chronicle. Giving him the confidence to put pen to paper has shown a totally different side to him.”

Sarah gives another recent example of the impact of art on a prisoner’s confidence. “One prisoner started working for me, head down, long hair, solemn face. Since he has started drawing and painting and seeing his results around the prison – pictures are now hung in visits and the dining hall – he walks in tall, proud, hair cut and clean shaven every day, motivated for the next task. I see this in numerous prisoners every single day.”

Another case involved a prisoner asked to produce an art piece in the dining room on the wall. “This was one of the biggest projects he had ever worked on, and his own self achievement was clear to see. It helped him to come to terms with his near release date, a challenge for him to produce the finished article, and a vision for what his future will be. A lasting legacy at HMP Kirkham from this particular prisoner is now on the wall.”

Her own experience over the last seven years, says Sarah, has shown her that “if you invest a little time, and praise prisoners for their work they produce, you can transform them inside.”

Meanwhile, with the excellent Storybook Dads project, “we have reached out to families of some prisoners who never thought they would ever read to their children. We produce over 100 DVDs here at Kirkham every year. I utilise our prisoners to paint the backdrop sets and help out with recording, whilst our editing orderly learns new computer skills on Adobe to edit and produce the DVD. This can only help with their confidence and wellbeing on their release to help them find a job.”

As Sarah points out, “Art is known to help with stress and anxiety. Once men give it a go, their own realisation that they have a skill is priceless. The change in a person who may get praise instead of being told he can’t do it helps their confidence and mindset to go forth even more. It truly motivates a person.”

Henry*, nominating Sarah for an internal Kirkham “Prisoner’s Champion Award”, put this idea – and Sarah’s impact – poignantly: “She made the art class come to my attention and now I’ve found something that’s enjoyable and will help me resettle as my brain changes.”

*Name changed

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