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



Stephen Duckworth

COMMENDEE 2022-23: Stephen, a Prison Officer at HMP Buckley Hall, is Commended for his work supporting vulnerable people, both in the prison and in the wider community, through his deep-seated humanity, exceptional people skills, and an absolute determination to make a difference wherever he can.

Initial nominator and HMP Buckley Hall’s Head of Reducing Reoffending, Andrew Mielczarski, says Steve ‘works tirelessly to support a variety of prisoners with complex emotional and social needs’, and ‘very much echoes the Buckley Hall ethos, rehab culture and positive working relationships with the prisoners under our care.’ He also notes Steve’s role as a charity pioneer, especially in substance misuse, making a real difference in his local community ‘for over 25 years.’

Here’s just some of what Steve has done in that quarter century and it helps give an idea of who he is – and how his background is a kind of superpower in his role as a Prison Officer. Almost three decades ago, along with some volunteers, he began a charity, Drugline, offering help to local young people which, after several years, became a High Level Northern Trust – with a new focus on ‘the very serious heroin problems in Rochdale.’ Very successful, it ‘quickly gained a good reputation’ as well as Local Authority funding, and in 2012, up against national organisations, ‘we won a much larger contract of nearly a million pounds annually’ and were soon employing around 25 staff. When the contract was regionalised, they decided it was ‘too big for our small charity’ – so they took on ‘a truly enormous building’ instead: Champness Hall, a beautiful 1920s art deco building in Rochdale’s centre. The Champness Hall Trust now has ‘a 1200 seated theatre; a café; nine office suites; High Level’s substance misuse service; a centre for home-schooled children to meet other children; two churches; a homeless project; an employment project; a soup kitchen; and a food bank.’ Recent National Lottery funding has led to plans for ‘satellite services within BAME communities’ and to develop ‘new initiatives around dual diagnosis, working alongside mental health providers.’

Steve recently got Buckley Hall’s Governing Governor and Senior Management Team members engaged in one of his charity initiatives, says Andrew, where ‘hard-to-engage prisoners’ painted scenery for a local pantomime ‘supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable families in one of the highest poverty-stricken areas of the country.’ As Andrew says, Steve ‘has worked tirelessly to put Buckley Hall front and centre in this.’ Not one to rest on his laurels, Steve is now working with a local provider ‘to support men upon release back into the local community by starting a new mentor initiative within the prison.’

Andrew cites several examples of the kind of work Steve does as a Key Worker and Prison Officer at HMP Buckley Hall, and they make it clear that his decades of wider local charitable experience really pay off in what he brings to the lives of prisoners there. For one ‘very complex and vulnerable prisoner with trust issues’, who rarely spent any time out of his cell’, Steve arranged a move and encouraged him to leave his cell and attend off wing employment. ‘Every weekend on shift Steve arranges to have a coffee sat out on the wing… where they chat and Steve offers advice and support to him’. That prisoner is now doing deliveries around the prison ‘and, for the first time, is talking about progressing and his future.’

Another prisoner is going blind, so Steve arranged a move to a different cell, a helper, and a special TV. The prisoner’s son was in a mental hospital in Liverpool, so Steve liaised with social workers at the hospital and the Deputy Governor to arrange a compassionate visit before he lost his sight. Other examples given all involve this complex but vital mix of a practical approach combined with deep compassion to deliver real change. As Butler Trust Local Champion and Head of Business Assurance at HMP Buckley Hall, Andrea Lacey, says, Steve is ‘a driving force’, and Deputy Governor Vicky Pryce echoes this, too, saying:

‘Prisoners feel lucky to have Steve as their Key Worker [due to] his helpful, no-nonsense approach.’

As so often among our winners, Steve wants to praise others, including Jim Bailey, who inspired his original work on the Community Drugs Team, and helped set up both Drugline and High Level. Jim was a mentor and trainer for staff and volunteers, ‘creating a service that was different to the other services’, says Steve.

‘Rather than focusing on a theory around addictions, such as the 12 steps working with the substance theory, or cognitive approach working with learned behaviour, he encouraged an eclectic approach working with all beliefs and attitudes towards addiction.’

Then Steve turns to David Bargh, ‘the man who gifted me Champness Hall. On day one of High Level opening its doors he gave us rent-free accommodation.’ David’s approach was ‘just give me some money for the electricity and pay rent when you can.’ Steve adds that ‘twenty years on I was able to do the same thing for the soup kitchen and food bank charity when they first set up – in the very same rooms. This made me immensely proud and things had come full circle.’

As Steve himself notes, ‘I was able to bring much of this approach back into the Prison Service assisting with the local drug strategies for many years. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s I was able to develop new substance misuse programmes’, collaborating with other establishments, including the Probation Service, in creating new interventions. ‘Altogether five new programmes were accredited with the Nation Open College Network and delivered in several establishments over the next years.’

Steve notes that ‘running two large charities takes a great deal of time and my family are very understanding’, adding:

‘Occasionally I have times when I wish that I had never met Jim or set foot in Champness Hall as the issues and problems mount up; these are fleeting moments. I am very proud of what I have achieved but I am very aware that I couldn’t have done it without a fantastic bunch of trustees and dedicated employees. The Prison Service allowed me to develop courses and interventions at a time when this was possible and hopefully played a role in changing some lives. I am still in awe of Jim Bailey and David Bargh and should I be lucky enough to win this prize, the very first toast will be to my mentors and friends who took a risk with me, I hope it paid off.’