Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2017-18: Tressa is the Visits Manager at HMP Grendon & Spring Hill, and is Commended for her dedication to helping prisoners and their families to maintain their relationships, and improving the visiting experience for all concerned.
Tressa Vaill devises, co-ordinates, and runs visits at HMP Grendon, a unique therapeutic community, and HMP Springhill, an open prison nearby. Her pioneering approach to rethinking visits – recognising them as an important way to foster rehabilitation – is inspiring, as are the moving words of many of the prisoners who, alongside senior colleagues, nominated her.
Ryan* is one of eight prisoners who wrote in praise of Tressa:
“Tressa is the driving force behind many unique experiences, including ‘Visits with a Difference’, where two members of our families can come to visit and spend the day witnessing not only the work, pain and sadness that is a reoccurring theme within most men’s lives, but also the hope, repair and inclusion of our families towards our collective futures.”
Carole Roe, a Friend of Grendon, explains two of Tressa’s most outstanding innovations: “Visits with a Difference and Children’s Days at Grendon go beyond anything that’s been done before.” Creating ‘Visits with a Difference’ takes eight months of planning. Its purpose is to let family members learn from staff and prisoners about Grendon’s ethos. The men talk about the difficult work they’re undertaking in therapy. Thirty prisoners each invite two guests, and in the planning stages they, with Tressa, decide the theme and running order of the day, and each prepare a speech that they will make to the guests. “This speech will usually discuss what brought them to Grendon, and why, this time, they feel they are addressing what led to their criminal behaviour. Many use this time to publicly apologise for what they have done. It is a powerful and moving day.”
Tressa’s “Children’s Day” visits allow men to interact with their children in a different way to normal visits, says Carole. “Tressa organises games in the gym for the men and their children, story-telling sessions, and at Christmas time organises a small gift for every child, many of which she buys herself. Tressa says ‘it is rare for a child in this situation to be able to open a gift with both parents there; it is very moving.’”
Tressa’s colleague, and one of her initial nominators, Neil McAndrew, calls her “the mainstay of HMP Grendon and HMP Springhill visits,” and the prisoners concur. “I believe Tressa is a stand-out member of staff whose passion for her job makes HMP Grendon’s visits probably the best visits in the country”, wrote Ibrahim*. Jacob* agreed: “our visits are the best I have had…I recently got married here at Grendon and Tressa put everything together and made the best day of my life the happiest day of my life… she is Person of the year, Woman of the year, Officer of the year, and we are so blessed to have her here.”
Jacob* explains the personal impact of Visits with a Difference on his own life, after Tressa encouraged his son to attend. “I was able to be vulnerable in front of so many people but most important was my son and mother. I was able to say sorry for all the hurt and pain I had put them through and I was able to take responsibility for how I have impacted on them… My relationships now have a positive energy when we see each other, we have moved on, they have been able to forgive me.” He added as a postscript: “Tressa treats residents and their families like her own equal. That is one of her many qualities.”
Another offender, Liam*, described his “personal experience of her compassion and care during an extremely tough time when my partner Leanne* was dying of terminal cancer.” Luke*, who as a ‘Red Band’ orderly works closely with Tressa, reports that “families comment on the commitment, efforts and the hard work that Tressa has taken upon herself, often displaying a sense of being both at ease and welcomed by Grendon.”
Tressa has built further on her Children’s Visits approach, explains Grendon’s Governor, Dr Jamie Bennett. “At Grendon we are currently tendering for a service to provide therapeutic support to the children of imprisoned men…these innovations are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a prison, showing that Tressa is trying to bring imagination to her role and respond to what prisoners and their families need.” He goes on:
“The way the men have talked about Tressa and the way I see them work with her, I have to say that what I see is a familial, loving relationship. Tressa deeply cares about the men she works with and they respond to that. They know that she wants to help them be the best people they can be and to rebuild their family lives. She is able to challenge people when needed and they will respond to this. She brings energy and imagination in a way that ensures that the prison is a place where families can flourish. She is always there, in good times and bad, trying to make a positive difference. She is a wonderful colleague.”
Tressa has also pioneered outdoor play, “an integral part of family life and bonding for everyone”, by developing facilities in both establishments “where families can spend time together in a more relaxed and natural environment for the children”, including a special Woodland Walk. She is also exploring the possibility of ‘virtual visits’ in future, which will let dads “see their children grow and so assist with homework, hobbies and feel part of a close family environment.”
* Name changed