Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2019-20: A Case Worker for DLNR CRC based in HMP Leicester, Simon is granted a Commendation for his creative and inspiring use of the arts – and particularly music – to engage with even the most hard-to-reach prisoners.
Simon works as a Case Worker for the Reducing Reoffending Partnership’s (RRP†) Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire & Rutland Community Rehabilitation Company (DLNR CRC) at HMP Leicester. He is Commended for his inspiring dedication to the arts – and particularly music – as a powerful route to reach, encourage, and offer an alternative kind of discipline for often challenging prisoners.
Initial nominator, Carrie Peters, RRP’s Head of Resettlement and Pathway Interventions, explains that “Simon Bland is a dedicated and talented case worker for the Reducing Reoffending Partnership who gets unprecedented results with some of our most challenging service users. He does this by thinking outside the box and getting creative in the way he reaches people who don’t ordinarily engage.”
Carrie goes on to report that, through Simon’s work, “I have seen at first-hand how playing an instrument and writing songs can help people to process problems in a non-confrontational way, give an outlet for their emotions, help build social networks, and subsequently offer a low-cost pastime to continue with on release. Music and the wider arts can also help to change the narrative for people from negative to positive; Simon helps them to unlock talent and do something that makes them feel proud and valued, sometimes for the first time.”
Carrie cites one young prisoner, James*, who had been struggling with prison life and living in segregation for some time and “became a massive part of an arts festival Simon organised at HMP Leicester after Simon spotted ‘something special’ in his interest. James enthusiastically promoted the festival in the prison and has since developed an interest in rapping and playing the guitar. Alongside local partners, Simon is now working on resettling James permanently in Leicester.”
Simon began his career at HMP Glen Parva in 2000, and had extensive experience working with young offenders and care leavers. He understands, says Carrie, “their often unique issues and barriers and how to effectively access support networks and services.”
Butler Trust Local Champion and HMPPS Contract & Governance Manager for DLNR and SWM Community Rehabilitation Companies, Sarah Brookes, says Simon “has been instrumental in supporting the provision of guitars to prisons across the East Midlands (HMPs Dovegate, Sudbury, Nottingham and Leicester)”, via Jail Guitar Doors, an independent initiative founded by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. To date, 24 guitars have been provided in Leicester “with Simon managing their secure use and integration into the prison.”
Sarah adds that Simon “has provided learning resources for prisoners via two online guitar tutors. He gained agreement from both to utilise their materials copyright-free, and was sent DVD boxsets of tuition materials from one of them. Simon has made DVDs for prisoners’ use and set up informal networks within the prison of people interested in learning to play and maintain the guitars.” In addition, she explains, Simon has used his past connections “to arrange a volunteer guitar tutor to host guitar lessons in the prison one afternoon a week and successfully gained arts council funding for associated recording equipment including four laptops, an iMac and digital recording equipment.”
Simon was also instrumental in an arts festival, piloted at HMP Leicester in 2017, and its success prompted a return in late 2018, “thanks largely to Simon, who successfully bid for almost £14,000 of Arts Council funding to host the event and ensure a lasting legacy of activity from it. The festival ran in November 2018 and included arts activities and pop-up performances all around the prison.”
Simon has also facilitated a weekly class by Soft Touch Arts – a Leicester-based charity which engages disadvantaged people in creative activities class – at HMP Leicester. This group is now, Sarah reports, the subject of an academic study by De Montfort University on the mental health impacts of visual arts. She adds that:
“Simon’s passion and enthusiasm soon became apparent, as was his creative way of engaging with those in his care. He began fostering links with local arts organisations and used his own equipment and time away from work to support offenders’ music projects – as he still routinely does now.”
After an open university degree and PGCE qualification, while still working at Glen Parva, Simon become a qualified music teacher, and “is also a talented musician in his own right.” Sarah explains that:
“Simon is a great believer in not cheating your way in life. Being good at anything takes time and dedication and this is a lesson he instils in the prisoners and service users he works with.”
One of Simon’s students, Jah*, is being supported with his music and drama ideas and is moving towards licensing his material. Simon is also working with students from De Montfort University on ideas for a new music video – and with a Leicester Anti Knife Crime project to contribute his materials. Wes*, another offender, says of Simon’s work:
“The sessions help me get through stressful times. When I was having a bad time, he came and found me, just for a chat. He actually listens to my work, talks to me about it and works on it in his own time.”
Mandy Lee, Acting Deputy Governor at HMP Leicester, adds that “You watch prisoners grow in confidence and develop positive relationships with staff, for some it is the first time, as all previous experiences of people in authority have been negative.”
Meanwhile, Vanda Szilagyi, Custodial Manager at the Segregation and Lambert Unit in HMP Leicester calls Simon “a great asset to HMP Leicester. His work on the Lambert Unit helps not just prisoners but staff as well. He works with disruptive prisoners who often struggle to sit still let alone concentrate for long periods.”
Another prisoner, Steph*, adds that Simon “takes an interest in stuff outside the music sessions, helping me on my sentence plan and with my ship out, even though he admitted he’d prefer me to stay in Leicester.”
Adam Hart, Chief Executive at RRP, is also full of praise:
“Simon is endlessly enthusiastic, yet calmly down to earth and has shown time and again how his projects can reach even the most challenging prisoner or service user. I don’t believe HMP Leicester would be quite the place it is without him… His can-do attitude is the epitome of dedication and fresh thinking and simply, his work provides men with purpose and hope.”
Simon himself explains that his work “is based on the idea that the core values of arts align with those that can be of help to prisoners, both in terms of resettlement and rehabilitation. E.g. the rewards of hard work and discipline can be seen in someone’s improvement, without the requirement of any third party permissions.” He shares an interesting insight, too, that: “unlike job/college applications etc. your guitar will not judge you.”
Simon goes on to say that “joining a local arts community can have numerous benefits for released prisoners, though the 2 that stand out for me are the sense of belonging and support that comes with it, as well as an ability to be materially poor.”
He concludes by saying:
“I firmly believe that my work is still only in its early stages, and that it needs maintaining for a number of years before the real benefits can begin to be seen, as it is my hope that the longer term prisoners I have helped begin their artistic journeys will be tomorrow’s tutors, mentors and advocates.”
* Names have been anonymised.
† “The Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire & Rutland and Staffordshire & West Midlands Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) are managed by the Reducing Reoffending Partnership (RRP) to provide supervision and a range of interventions to enable offending men and women to successfully rehabilitate. RRP is comprised of Ingeus, a major provider of people-centre services, CGL, the largest substance misuse provider in the UK and St Giles Trust, a leading criminal justice charity.”
With thanks to RRP’s DLNR & SWM CRC and HMP Leicester, and especially to initial nominator and RRP Head of Resettlement and Pathway Interventions Carrie Peters, prisoners Danny, James, Jah, Wes, Steph, Butler Trust Local Champion and HMPPS Contract & Governance Manager (DLNR and SWM Community Rehabilitation Companies) Sarah Brookes, Arts Project Leader at Soft Touch Arts Kieran Walsh, Acting Deputy Governor Mandy Lee, Custodial Manager (Segregation and Lambert Unit) Vanda Szilagyi, at HMP Leicester, and Chief Executive at RRP Adam Hart, for their contributions.