Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2021-22: Simeon receives a Commendation for his work as a Chaplain at HMP/YOI Bronzefield, and in particular for the exceptional support he offers the women there in the critical period immediately before and after release.
‘One mile to make a difference’
One of the most vivid yet psychologically illuminating pieces of prison slang is ‘Gate fever’, defined by The Concise Dictionary of Crime and Justice as “the emotional feeling experienced by prison inmates scheduled for release. Gate fever includes anxiety about where they will live, what they will do to earn a living, and whether they will be able to refrain from engaging in crime.” Simeon Sturney’s work, as ‘Through the Gate Chaplain’ for Europe’s largest female prison, zeroes in on a key moment in this period. He calls it ‘the critical hour’ or ‘critical mile’, because he “firmly believes that the first half hour before release and half hour post release can shape the rest of their day and resettlement”. In a life dedicated to volunteering, ‘Through the Gate’ Chaplaincy, and community-based housing and other support, he always tries to make sure that critical hour really counts.
Although he started training to be a signalman in the Army, and then hoping to become an Army ‘padre’, Simeon’s own hard miles in education, later identified as caused by dyslexia, led him on another path, via probation work, to volunteering and prison chaplaincy. The “passion, energy, and dedication” he brings to his Through the Gate Chaplaincy is “outstanding”, says HMP/YOI Bronzefield’s Senior Communications Manager, Marianne Fagents. “And because he recognises how distressing it can be for women at the very point they are released from prison into the community, he supports them every step of the way from the prison to the station and beyond.” She explains why this is so important:
“Simeon always ensures the women are safe when he meets them in the holding cell on the day of their release. He makes sure their phone is charged, they know where they are going and often walks them to the local train station. He holds their bags and talks to them to ensure they get past the off licence, their ex-partner, their pimp, their drug dealer. He makes the women feel safe and confident at one of the most challenging times of their rehabilitative journey.”
She adds that Simeon has “a unique ability to talk openly, ask the right questions and listen to the women so they can then problem solve together.” He has developed partnerships with The Salvation Army, the local church St. Hilda’s, as well as others, including a strong volunteer base, who offer extra support. Simeon is so passionate about his work, she points out, that he wrote and self-funded publication of a book, One Mile to Make a Difference: Journeying With Former Prisoners on Their Road to True Freedom.
Simeon has also persuaded St. Hilda’s to use a house of theirs as a home for women on release from the prison, secured donations by the church and Sodexo to furnish it, and connected the church to a specialist charity, Hope into Action – “a unique three-way partnership between a local church, prison, and the charity.” Wearing his other main hat, as the house’s Empowerment Worker, he also supports the tenants with day-to-day rehabilitation.
The first tenant in the house, an ex-offender, wrote her own testimonial to thank Simeon “for believing in me and helping me to get where I am today, with all the support of the volunteers by keeping me busy every day, and encouraging words from Simeon by saying how proud he is and how well I’ve done already.”
Salvation Army Major Paul Billard praises Simeon’s “evident professionalism” as well as his “dedication, patience, and Christian compassion”. Vicky Robinson, Bronzefield’s Deputy Director, also speaks of Simeon’s “passion, energy and dedication”, calling him “an asset to the prison, the women and the local community” for whom he works “tirelessly”. She also highlights how “some of our women are very vulnerable and challenging”, and says the women “appreciate his approach” and the way he “de-labels and reduces the stigma” when they leave the prison.
Marcel McCarron, Managing Chaplain at HMP Bronzefield, also admires Simeon “energy and insight”, and his “innovative project bringing together secular and religious stakeholders” to create “a safe and happy home for female ex-offenders.”
Simeon himself says that, while “much is made of the importance of Through The Gate support,” there is “little regarding the first few minutes around a person’s release.” He points out that “accommodation, appointments and support networks can be arranged but sadly some people decide against these plans after having their minds challenged when waiting for release.”
It’s a further testament to Simeon’s dedication that he can be found, “at 06:45 most mornings, driving the first tenant to her new job which I enabled her to get – as a part-time cleaner at the prison she was released from. Driving her for a short period enables me to provide moral support while she familiarises herself with the new job, as well as establishing good work ethics and helping her readjust to life outside.”
Unsurprisingly, Simeon plans to take part in the Butler Trust Alumni Programme to help further raise awareness of his remarkable approach in ‘the critical hour’.