Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2013-14: Development Officer (Torry Trust): for dedication and skill in supporting the care and resettlement of women offenders, in custody and after release.
(This Commendation is supported by the Wates Foundation.)
[Valerie Taylor gives her account of the work for which she won her Commendation]
Free to Succeed contributed to the work of HMP Aberdeen’s newly opened Women’s Community Integration Unit achieving a “Graduate” success rate of 86%. The project offers all women offenders in the CIU access to bespoke, neutral and non-judgemental support pre and post release to realise a positive resettlement experience.
In the period between 2007 and 2010, commissioned reports such as “Breakthrough Britain: Locked Up Potential” by the Prison Reform Working Group, the Corston Report, Scottish Parliamentary debate (on the Equality Opportunity Committee’s Report “Female Offenders in the Criminal Justice System), the Cornton Vale Project, funded by the Robertson Trust and carried out by Circle Scotland were but a few of the voices calling for a change in the resettlement provision for female offenders.
It was in response to this need for more effective care, that the Scottish Government created two Community Integration Units, one of which was based at HMP Aberdeen and opened in June 2010.
In the months leading up to the opening of the Community Integration Unit, the Chairman of the Torry Trust, also a part-time Prison Chaplain at HMP Aberdeen, recommended that the Trustees should consider setting up a project offering pro social support to women in the Community Integration Unit pre and post release.
As a consequence of this, I made a funding application to the Fairer Scotland Fund to create a new project called Free To Succeed. Funding has been allocated year on year since 2010 to date.
I wrote the project remit, the justification for it, the activities and benefits it would deliver and set the targets and outcomes that would be achieved.
The project seeks to meet women whilst in prison to form a positive supportive relationship with them and to continue the relationship after release from prison. It does not replace the work of Criminal Justice support or social workers. It enhances that work because the project, whilst resource limited in some ways, has the advantage of being able to allocate a significant number of hours in a befriending capacity to each woman, and it does not suffer from some of the restraints that might be experienced by statutory organisations. The project is geared toward offering a high quality service. It is also able to offer support in areas that may fall outwith the remit of statutory organisations such as helping someone to cope with bereavement without resorting to the use of substances to numb the pain and the potential of relapse.
To build effective relationships whilst women are in the prison setting, I arrange various activities such as cooking healthy meals, spend time with women in group or one-to-one settings listening to their stories, their family circumstances and their hopes and aspirations. I accompany women to appointments outwith prison whilst they rebuild their confidence in the community and through a second part-time job offer volunteering opportunities in a community café. I visit women on home visits and spend time with them when they get open access and would otherwise be alone and finding it difficult to fill their day.
I also support prison staff in the CIU by signposting them to a variety of options for women such as training courses, alternative places to volunteer, a range of agencies that offer specialised support in areas such as domestic violence, prostitution, places to find furniture and household goods and so on.
At other times I have just provided a listening ear when a woman wants to let off a bit of steam because things are not going to plan, helped them to move themselves and their belongings from prison into accommodation and from supported accommodation into their first home. Sometimes accommodation has been provided in a location miles from friends and family and totally unfamiliar to the woman. I have helped them to fill in long, empty and lonely days purposefully and to orient themselves in new surroundings.
As an example, I met with one woman every week for up to 4 hours at a time for 6 months. During that time, she was supported to meet licence conditions and to comply with the criteria to qualify for jobseekers allowance. We completed the necessary job applications each week at the local library. The applications for quite menial jobs were surprisingly challenging and one in particular stands out as it took 2 hours to complete the on-line process for a job as a retail assistant for a national supermarket. This typically creates a huge amount of impatience and frustration. A neutral person takes a lot of the heat out of the situation and encourages someone to keep trying. This woman was eventually successful in finding work. A large amount of our contact time, was involved with day-to-day issues, getting a TV licence, sorting out a mobile phone, finding bedding, providing a peep hole and door chain so that she would feel less vulnerable in her home.
I was “the friend” that helped to fill in job applications, went to meetings with housing and finance, was the companion at meetings with social work staff, sat down after challenging meetings to review a situation and to make a plan for moving forward. I have been there during times of frustration, fear, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, setbacks and disappointments and more positively times when things have gone well and achievement and progress is being made.
When she was asked what the project had done for her, (I was eliciting quotes for funder feedback) she said:
“Well, you know. You hear all my moans. I’ve no work. I’m bored. I want to work. You saw how hard it was to fill that one in for *****. It took two hours on the computer to be a shop assistant.”
On another occasion:
“Spending time with you just helps with the boredom. It helps to sort my head out. Nobody gives me this amount of time. I haven’t had a drink since before Christmas and I’m so proud of myself. My mum has said I can visit her. I told you she didn’t want anything to do with me. I have a job now.”
On another occasion:
“What do you mean, what have you done? It’s obvious inn ‘it?”
It is a long slow process to gain the trust and confidence of another person. Offenders are no different. It takes a lot of time and requires reliability, consistency, effectiveness and honesty on my part. It is important to always leave the decision making in the hands of the offender. My role is to help them to explore good choices; choices that are realistic and achievable, and to evaluate what is going to work for them.
In 2011, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice established an independent Commission on Women Offenders to find a more effective way of dealing with women in the criminal justice system. Their report highlighted the significant and positive benefits that pro-social befrienders can offer to offenders to enable them to break the cycle of re-offending.
[The following article appeared in issue 6 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]
Valerie Taylor of the third sector organisation, the Torry Trust, has been commended for her ‘friendly and unassuming approach’ to female offenders at HMP Aberdeen.
In 2011, she applied to the Fairer Scotland Fund to establish a project working with female offenders in the pilot Community Integration Unit (CIU) at HMP Aberdeen. The Free to Succeed project involves building a relationship with prisoners as soon as they arrive in the unit, before creating, as described by Valerie, ‘an intensive bespoke service for as long as it is necessary without creating dependency.’
Many of the women have gone through traumatic life events, and Valerie aims to provide support for them and their families so that they can re-establish positive relationships, helping them along the road to recovery. Eilidh Fleming, an Officer at the CIU, describes Valerie’s approach as ‘non judgemental and always positive’ when dealing with the CIU occupants, ensuring the women ‘realise their potential and keep their goals in sight.’
Going further in her effort to help, she has linked her work at the Free To Succeed project with her other commitments by offering some of the women voluntary work placements at the café she manages for the Church of Scotland. The placements are offered after release to promote a stable lifestyle routine, providing both practical and emotional support for the women for as long as they need it.
Her good work is reflected in a report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland after an inspection held in April 2013, where it was reported, ‘The integrated working with the community with the local authority and other agencies is a very positive way ahead and amongst the best practice I have seen.’
The success was the result of hard work and determination by a small group of individuals who strove to establish a community-integrated approach, of which ‘Valerie Taylor has been a lead individual in keeping the concept alive and turning an idea into a real tangible service,’ according to HMP Aberdeen’s Human Resource Manager, Chris Ashe. She spends much of her free time filling out further funding applications and networking with third sector organisations, promoting a culture shift toward a joined-up approach to working.
She has had direct impact in assisting some women to remain out of prison, using interventions such as verbal support and help with job applications. Speaking of the support offered by Valerie, an ex-offender said, ‘I didn’t always like the advice Valerie gave me at the time but as always hindsight is a great thing – suffice to say I would not have the life I have had it not been for Valerie’s tolerance, honesty and guidance.’
For more information: contact c/o Scottish Prison Service