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AWARD WINNER 2021-22: Shona Pate manages HMP Edinburgh’s Visitor Centre and when Covid-19 hit Scotland and closed the centre, she did something remarkable. She knew how important visits were, especially for already vulnerable families who would feel even more isolated – so she decided to take the visitor centre to them…
[This Award is supported by MTC.]
‘A beacon of hope’
Head of Operations Scott Watson takes up the story of ‘what Shona did’ in the initial lockdown in March 2020. Already regarded as an inspirational, ‘highly visible’ manager, she stepped up and led an incredible response by the Barnardo’s Visitor Centre and HMP Edinburgh’s Family Contact Officer (FCO) team. She devised innovative ways to keep supporting vulnerable families who would normally be able to use the visitor centre for support. With many public bodies and third sector agencies stepping back in the crisis and now working from home, “Shona stepped in to fill the void. She co-ordinated with the FCOs to identify vulnerable families and offer welfare checks and food parcels for visitors who we were aware would require support during this time.”
In lockdown, many visitors were experiencing “high levels of isolation”, explains Scott, “and Shona recognised early on that those people who were already isolated within their communities were even less likely to receive support at this time. She ensured that the mental health of those most isolated – and particularly those with the added stress of caring responsibilities – were supported in order to prevent deterioration and further mental distress.”
This involved virtual welfare checks, supported where needed with face-to-face support – giving the team a chance to check in on some of their most vulnerable visitors. Weekly meetings reviewed any concerns raised by those in custody about their families – “Shona gained consent from the families and individuals in custody to work with Scottish Prison Service [SPS] colleagues in this way,” adds Scott. This relationship and information sharing helped alleviate stress for families, and those in custody, and also offered “reassurance that people were OK.”
When Christmas came, Shona and her team gave presents to 88 families and 178 children, so that “even during lockdown there was positivity in the children’s lives.” As well as supporting the families, Shona made sure her team were on hand to support prisoners released during the lockdown, “providing essential support that was no longer available due to agencies not being open.”
Like the entire estate, HMP Edinburgh was trying to overcome barriers and ensure families felt “they mattered at this difficult time.” With families unable to attend physical visits, a new way of working emerged. “The families felt that the visits had come to them – which has had a massive impact on breaking down barriers”, says Scott, “They have laughed and cried with the families who know that, no matter what, Shona, Barnardo’s and the FCOs are there for them – not just as a visitor centre but as a beacon of hope.”
HMP Edinburgh’s HR Business Partner Liz Fraser adds her own praise for Shona, picking up on her “clear leadership” as a “high visible manager” and “inspiring role model”. Liz says Shona started at the Visitor Centre five years earlier as a temporary worker, progressed to lead the service, and notes that her previous experience in youth offending, drug addiction, domestic abuse, and with those in or leaving care, no doubt enhanced her sensitivity to the likely impacts of the pandemic lockdown. Meanwhile Barnardo’s Visitors Centre colleague Patrizia Ventroni remembers Shona’s response as the crisis began to engulf the country:
“Shona immediately recognised the urgent need to reach out to the most vulnerable families directly. Shona drove thousands of miles to deliver food parcels and activity packs for children, and when she realised her car was not large enough, she managed to borrow a van from her relatives and led a team to deliver more food parcels.”
Patrizia notes Shona’s awareness “of how proud people in custody are, and her unique ability to make everyone comfortable, and not to feel ashamed, helped to highlight numerous families lacking basic needs.” Many children and families living with no bedding, furniture or clothing got extra support, she says. “Shona has never been judgmental but demonstrates compassion and gives practical support to families of every background.” Patrizia adds that “even on the most challenging days, Shona was supportive with her team, ensuring everyone was safe and giving a smile and a good laugh to everyone.”
Edinburgh’s Governor, David Abernethy, calls Shona “an amazing person”, “a bit of a force of nature”, and “someone whose enthusiasm is infectious.” He says “Shona led her team to do something phenomenal: she took the service to the visitors at home. They provided food, furniture, helped decorate rooms, and got people out of bed and supported them when they were feeling bereft and bewildered at not being able to see their loved ones in the prison.”
David says that now visits are back, Shona’s team continue to support families “and it is such a comfort for me to know that anyone coming to this prison will be welcomed and made to feel safe.” He says a lawyer recently went into the Visitor Centre on his way into the prison and emailed to say he had met ‘a lovely lady’ from Barnardo’s: “I didn’t need to ask who he meant.” Shona, he concludes, is “a great person who embodies all the best there is in the third sector in this country.”
Shona explains that, as a children’s charity, Barnardo’s felt they needed to support families during this time with home visits, telephone calls, emotional and practical support, because “some of them were finding it very difficult to manage not seeing their loved ones. We advertised on Prison TV, offering residents food parcels for their families and activity packs for their children… we hoped to alleviate some of the stress for families, and realised that if residents knew their families were being looked after this would also alleviate some of the stress and worry they were feeling.”
She recalls some of the children and families they visited “were finding it very difficult to manage not seeing their parent, and this gave us an opportunity to ensure that we could answer any concerns they have, offer emotional support as a lot of the families were isolated and have no support network.” This was also a chance to highlight and share any safeguarding concerns. When SPS introduced virtual visits, her team helped families get online and set up emailaprisoner – and with their confidence boosted, too, SPS reported increased virtual visits take up.
Barnardo’s have found funds for tablets and support, as well. Visiting homes helped Shona’s team realise some children’s basic needs were not being met so they also used a Government fund for beds, bedding, clothing and furniture for the families “as we found some children sleeping on the floor.” They even helped paint and decorate some family homes “to make them more liveable and support mental health.” Shona adds that in difficult and unsettling times, “the most important thing is to keep everyone safe.”
An anonymous visitor adds a final moving testimony:
“For someone who has never experienced the trauma of having someone they love imprisoned, it is hard to describe the despair, fear and bewilderment of visiting them in a truly alien environment. But from the first visit, when I was like a ‘rabbit in the headlights’, to my last visit prior to the pandemic, the Visitors Centre at HMP Edinburgh was a light in a place of darkness.
“The team is amazing but it is led by a truly exceptional woman, Shona Pate. Highly organised, professional and efficient, she puts families at the heart of all she does. From making sure that food is distributed to families struggling to provide for their children, to talking to family liaison officers about particular circumstances of individual families, she gives voice to the voiceless.
“Not afraid to ruffle feathers of authority, yet respectful of the difficulties of their roles, she navigates the gulf between vulnerable visitors and officers, with humour, compassion and kindness. She embodies qualities to which many of us can only aspire. She ‘saves’ families. She is pragmatic, a good listener and a resourceful problem solver. She is a champion of the underdog treating everyone she knows with respect and dignity. I am better for having known her.”