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

SHARON ARNOLD (Oakhill Secure Training Centre)

SHARON ARNOLD (Oakhill Secure Training Centre)

COMMENDEE 2021-22: This is why ‘M’, a teenage boy in custody at Oakhill Secure Training Centre, wanted to nominate Residential Manager Sharon Arnold:

‘She is like my mum in prison’

“because she looks after us.
She supports us and encourages us to do well.
She tries to keep us on track to do well in our regime
she is a good listener and she always works hard
She is like my mum in prison”

And that’s it – the whole of his nomination. Just 44 words and more than adequate in its brevity and power, like a poem. His words become even more potent once you discover M was recently diagnosed with ‘cognitive difficulties in all areas’, probably from historic trauma affecting his development and emotional regulation skills, and has needed high levels of support while in custody. Oakhill’s Mandy Berriman says M “often struggles to express himself at all – and tends to isolate away from others when struggling emotionally,” preferring to ‘bottle things up’ rather than discuss how he is feeling.”

But for Sharon, he dug deep: found something extra, something remarkable, used the power of his words to connect with the wider world. His nomination speaks volumes about M’s trust in Sharon, her support, their positive relationship, and the impact of Sharon on his life.

M is “one of our most complex children”, says Director Richard Stedman, but alongside the “exceptional” Sharon, has built “a meaningful relationship with an adult professional for the first time.”

Another teen – also an ‘M’ – wanted to share his own testimonial. He, too, succeeds in getting the essentials across in a small number of words:

“She has helped me a lot when I need it and knows how to interact positively with all the young people. Sharon also always helps me get things that I need, like shower gel, toothpaste, etc. and knows how to keep us calm on the unit; this has been making me be able to get through my time quicker.”

Then there’s G, using a few more words, but equally effective and pithy, bringing alive why Sharon is special while adding some vividly recognisable teenager details:

“I think Sharon is one of the best RMs in the whole of Oakhill. She is funny, she works hard and in general she’s just a nice person. Almost every day Sharon’s telling me to clean my room because it’s messy or telling me to get ready quicker and even though she sometimes gets stressed it’s only because she cares and treats us like one of her own. The first time I ever seen Sharon cry was when someone on W1 unit left and even though the trainee was only here for around three months, Sharon invested all her time bonding and looking after the children who come in no matter who you are She’s one of the most lovely people to talk to and just have a laugh with. It’s always a good day when Sharon’s working on the unit and everything gets done as it should be.”

Colleague Ashley Mlambo also praises Sharon’s hard work, and says she “always goes above and beyond” supporting staff and colleagues. “An excellent manager” with “a great relationship with the boys who respect her highly, not only as an RM, but also as a ‘mother figure’”, he says Sharon “really helped me in becoming the SCO [Secure Custody Officer] I am today. Working with her has been my happiest period at Oakhill because I knew I always had her full support.”

Oakhill has had some difficult periods recently, including a highly public rebuke under the secure training centres inspection framework. Notwithstanding that evolving context, amid their criticisms inspectors also saw positive relationships, children who felt there was someone among the staff they could turn to, as well as care and dedication making an impact. Sharon, clearly all of the above and more, is also, to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, “a candle” to these incarcerated teenage boys, bringing light and warmth and laughter into all too often dark lives. Such energy shines through – and can’t be extinguished.

Sharon’s “incredibly high level of care and compassion”, says Richard, means children in her unit “feel safe and supported.” Recognising such support, wherever we come across the exceptional people who bring it – and especially when nominations are so powerful and well written – is core to the Butler Trust.

Sharon herself notes that teenage boys in custody, often with complex backgrounds and needs, can be challenging, and may resort to violent ‘challenging behaviour’. Yet the very fact they made this nomination, she says, “shows great appreciation. It also shows the children who nominated me that they have also been recognised for some positive input and their work towards this.”

They certainly have. In fact, their lively and affecting words, among the best of this year’s nominations, deserve their own accolade. Indeed, they could school more than a few people, worldwide, to stick to Sir Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.”

Sharon concludes with a touching example of teenagers’ resilience and capacity for bouts of optimistic generosity – which surely says something about her work, too: “The children in my care ask me about this award daily and wish for me to be successful.” Well, she has been: and well done to the young men for helping to make her win possible, too –  a job well done.

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