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Working with veterans in custody and the community

Working with veterans in custody and the community

viccoverThis workshop, run by The Butler Trust, focused on best practice in working with veterans in custody and the community.

[For further examples of good practice in this area see the veterans interest group on good-practice.net.]

“They’ve gone from hero to zero, from being Batman to bad man.”
Workshop delegate

The Military Covenant

The 2015 Good Practice Workshop on Veterans in Custody brought together the usual blend of expert presenters and equally expert delegates from prisons, the probation service, as well as a representative from NOMS.

There are almost five million military veterans in the United Kingdom, as well as at least as many dependents, and around 6.5% of prisoners are veterans in custody (VIC). Following a long period of wars involving active service in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a growing sense of obligation to those who have served their country.

The idea of a specific moral debt to those who have served in the United Kingdom’s armed forces dates at least as far back as 1593, when Elizabeth I allowed for a local parish tax, so disabled army veterans “should at their return be relieved and rewarded to the end that they may reap the fruit of their good deservings, and others may be encouraged to perform the like endeavours”.

Over 400 years later, the phrase “Military Covenant” entered the language via a 2000 policy paper. Although not enshrined in law, government commitments and an annual report have ensured a growing number of responses across a wide variety of institutions, including an increasing awareness within the prison system of VIC who have failed – unlike 87% of their peers – to successfully adapt on their return to civilian life.

According to an opening presentation by Nick Wood, Armed Forces and Veterans Development & Veterans Awareness Continuing Personal Development (CPD) Lecturer at York St John University, and Karen Oldfield, Head of Specialist Services at SSAFA – the Armed Forces charity, formerly known as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the UK’s oldest military charity:

“A Veteran is anyone who has served in HM Armed Forces, Regular or Reservist including National Servicemen, former Polish forces under British Command and Merchant Mariners who have seen duty in military operations (e.g. the Falklands Conflict).”

Identification, please

And while new prisoners with a service background entering the system have meant to be identified since January 2015, there are a number of issues which may prevent that happening. As one delegate noted, the induction process is not always the best time to be asking the question: some veterans may wish to keep their service private, may have concerns about how some other prisoners may react, or may not even realise they qualify. As Nick and Karen noted, “you are a veteran even if you have only been paid for one day’s service in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.” [Emphasis added]. Others may struggle with feelings of shame, of having ‘let down the military family’. As one delegate put it, “they’ve gone from hero to zero, from being Batman to bad man.”

Again and again, presenters emphasised that it all starts with asking the question – with identification, support can then follow. Asking at the earliest opportunity is the key, because it can take a long time for veterans to be identified – around six years on average for veterans who served in Afghanistan.

Additional Resources

Further, while the VIC may not personally need help, family problems can have an impact, too. Karen cited an example of SSAFA being able to directly help a VIC’s family in Leeds, and how “his anxiety fell away”.

SSAFA have an international network of over seven thousand selected and trained volunteers to draw on, who undertake case work. This might start with a visit to assess support needs. The majority of their financial support, says Karen, is focussed “around training, education, and employment.” SSAFA also ‘almonise’ – channel resources from other charities – in an integrated approach designed to avoid duplication of effort. (There are hundreds of military charities, large and small). And while SSAFA’s approach has a broadly practical focus, it might also involve friendship or emotional support. They especially recognise the importance of “the period in the run up to release”, Karen said, adding, “The big ask is to follow on from identifying veterans to tap into the resources of those who work with veterans – because we do have access.” Karen concluded by noting “we’re a tool in your toolbox, essentially.”

Nick explained that many elements of the Military Covenant resemble the offender management pathways and that “it’s all beginning to come together on a national level.” He also pointed out that the NHS has added the Covenant to its Constitutional Handbook, which he regards as “a big shift” – making it worth asking NHS providers if they’re aware of this. He argues that not only are people “really, really embracing this”, but that reducing reoffending rates at a low cost is the benefit, “and so the question is: why wouldn’t we do that?” With many prison officers, police, and others in the system having an armed forces background, there’s also, undoubtedly, a lot of goodwill in the system to tap into.

That said, there are clearly, as speakers and our expert audience noted, gaps in provision, something of “a postcode lottery”, in which some “just pay lip service”, while others really do make a difference. Nick acknowledged “we were playing catch up”, but also cited some work as being “really inspirational”. [view Nick & Karen’s presentation]

Reach Out

Our next speaker, Graeme Hogg from HMP Kirklevington Grange, took us through his story, from being tasked on VIC by his Governor because he had a background in the Royal Air Force, through to redefining his VICS (Veterans in Custody Support) group, and on to a detailed ‘essential Action List’ of how to get a really effective group working among both veterans – and other prisoners.

He started by trying to think through the problem from a Veterans perspective and by asking two questions:

  • Why would I want to be identified as a veteran?
  • How could VICS benefit me?

He spoke casually to several veterans, and discovered that “it was obvious that they were proud of their service, that it had been a high point in their lives and where they had felt most relevant.” He began to think in terms of a VICS approach that made them feel “relevant” again. (An interesting echo of some recent work by Dr Ben Crewe on long term prisoners, reported in our 30th Anniversary Conference, about prisoners’ perceptual shift towards “making the sentence constructive” and “finding meaning in the predicament”. This is, further, arguably a moral perspective that might be sharper for some veterans, given the gap between the ‘meaning’ and ‘relevance’ of their service career and imprisonment).

Graeme described the current VICS group as “a ‘knitting circle’ for a few regulars, no agenda, just chatting and reminiscing.” He wanted to develop that and, putting up posters and sending out letters, called a meeting with a fresh agenda he kept flexible, so veterans could contribute and ‘buy in’. Several new veterans were identified (and NOMIS data updated).

Working with another former serviceman, RC Chaplain Neil Galloway, they reached out to Neil’s former station at RAF Leeming, and started exploratory talks, involving much reassurance, about how they could get involved. The results would eventually include veteran prisoners refurbishing and redecorating the Chapel, Family Building, Youth Club and Junior Ranks Club.

“The results,” said Graeme, “were very well received by the RAF, who supplied all the required materials, and enthusiastically undertaken by the veterans involved. They enjoyed the experiences, being in the company of serving service personnel, exchanging stories, and the opportunity to become re-acquainted in a limited extent with day to day military life. This really invigorated the veterans to remain engaged and motivated.”

Graeme didn’t stop there. He helped developed a memorial Long March in 2013 and 2014, in which a joint team of prisoners, both veterans and non-veterans, Prison Officers and serving RAF Regiment personnel, marched 60 miles over 3 days in the community. They raised £4,000 for local and national charities.

Local papers published pictures of the handover of a cheque to Combat Stress, which led to the local mayor reaching out with a view to involving prisoners – predominantly but not exclusively veterans – in the centennial anniversary of the commencement of WW1. “We were inundated with volunteers”, reports Graeme, who made sure there was room in the project for the less able-bodied to take part. (Incidentally, finding opportunities for a closed prison to get involved involves, as Graeme notes, being “‘creative’ in your thinking and pushing the boundaries in what you want to achieve.” For example, prisoners in one London jail once “rowed the Atlantic” in their gym for charity).

Graeme finished by sharing his ‘essential actions’ list, which offers an extremely useful template for all interested in this area:

Actions List

I have made a list of ‘essential’ actions which I consider will have a positive effect and make your life a lot easier in respect of working with veterans… this is by no means an exhaustive list but will be a good starting point.

  • Get a copy of ‘Working with Veterans in Custody’ (and read it).
  • Ensure raising profile of VICS is your first priority – if no-one knows about it then you are on the back foot immediately.
  • There is a tangible genuine ‘thirst’ from veterans to maintain meaningful links with the military, use that to your advantage.
  • Prisoner veterans are both proud of their previous service in the military and conversely usually embarrassed with their position as a serving prisoner and are consequently very willing engage in activities which will (in their view) mitigate that perception of themselves.
  • Publish details of the availability of Veterans badges and make an issue of presenting them, see if the Governor or a Governor with military service will present the badges i.e. make a fuss of them.
  • Remain open to what the veterans also want to achieve from the group, listen to their comments and be prepared to make changes to your views or targets, that way they should remain engaged and you will be in receipt of a range of ideas…

For Graeme Hogg’s presentation & full Action List, click here.

Peer Mentoring

Next on parade was John ‘Jed’ Stone, the Veterans’ Peer Mentor Scheme Co-ordinator at the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Community Rehabilitation Company. It’s an area with a high density of serving and former military. His project, initially funded by the Department of Health and part of a larger ‘Court Diversion’ scheme in Hampshire, included visits to any custody suite where mental health issues have been identified. They also engage with both post-sentence and non-custodial cases, and his pool of sixteen voluntary mentors, both serving and retired, range from a Naval Seaman to a Colonel.

Like Graeme, Jed also noted that “links with current military are very useful – if only to get up self-esteem.” Jed also emphasises the value of taking meetings elsewhere – in cafés or clients’ homes, for example – to “get away from the probation environment”.

One of the key issues, which many delegates affirmed, is accommodation. “Getting the message across in Local Authorities (LA)”, said Jed, “is an on-going struggle.” Leaflets and posters help, he added – but so does physical presence, “being there offering support” alongside a client, for example, in meetings with LAs.

Currently working with around twenty military charities, Jed pointed to an approach that was “open and non-judgemental” and created action plans that often dealt with three issue areas in particular:

  • a sense of isolation, low self esteem, mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse
  • anger management problems leading to possible domestic violence
  • lack of accommodation, employment and debt issues

Jed saw their role as “bringing the person up, if you’re making progress on even a part of their action plan.” He cited two examples, which helped bring alive the reality. ‘Frank’, a former Royal Navy Petty Officer charged with criminal damage, who had alcohol issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), felt isolated, was unemployed, and had previously been sleeping rough. ‘Mary’, meanwhile, had served in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC) as a Corporal, and had been charged with actual bodily harm. As well as alcohol issues and low self esteem and confidence, she was unemployed, homeless – and separated from her two children.

He finished by emphasising the importance of banging the drum in the wider community, better communications – and relentless networking. [view John’s presentation]

We then heard from Nick Pemberton of HMP Winchester. Nick joined the prison service in 1983 after twelve years in the Royal Corps of Signals, and quickly took a personal interest in VIC. Working mostly in his own time (often necessitated by the need for one-to-one meetings to help break down barriers and build trust), he’s partly responsible for driving VICS as a subject on to NOMS’ agenda, as well as playing a role linking up multiple prisons, providers, agencies, and charities.

Nick’s also taken a leading role in Care After Combat Phoenix, a scheme involving several prisons. The well-known Falklands veteran Simon Weston OBE is a Trustee, and has notably remarked that “You just don’t turn from being a proud warrior into a criminal without a reason…we hope to find the reasons and deal with them.”

Drawing on his considerable depth of experience, he described how he’d got seventeen serving personnel involved, in less than a year, helping support others ‘on the quiet’. A great believer in “encouraging everybody”, he too noted the issue of shame – and reported that a survey had suggested that, prior to the higher profile for VICS, for every identified veteran there were three others in the system. He pointed out the value of ‘signed disclaimers’ in which “what’s said in the room, stays in the room.”

Nick also noted that not every veteran had positive memories of their service – some had done national service “and didn’t like it”, but they were nonetheless eligible for specific support, too. He also shared a way he’d broken through some people’s reserve (which Graeme also talks about in his Essentials Actions List): putting up a photograph of himself in uniform. This specific action alone led to around dozen other former servicemen getting involved.

With several delegates having an armed forces background, the discussion and workshop sessions were, unsurprisingly, both lively and engaged. There was a palpable sense of focus and discipline in the room, as small groups worked through key action areas: what were the key needs and challenges, how could disclosure be increased, and what could people do in their workplace to facilitate VICS? Many of the points already raised were reinforced, while others added fresh insights:

Afternoon Session Notes

Needs & Challenges

  • Being told what to do: going from being a leader to being led
  • Not being understood by staff / other prisoners: a lack of common understanding between those who have served and those who haven’t
  • Isolation: particularly a lack of the type of emotional bond with others they had whilst serving

Ways of increasing rates of disclosure

  • Relay information from the point of arrest (veterans may disclose at any point, not just when in prison – so ensure information is shared from earliest possible stage)
  • Ensure disclosure is recorded: even if offender is only in establishment for very short period of time, make sure it’s noted
  • Think about why a veteran would want to disclose: what’s in it for them?

Improvements people could make in their own workplaces

  • Get veterans on the agenda at monthly meetings: to raise discussion points / areas of concern &c. – and encourage ‘buy-in’ from senior management
  • Issue notices to prisoners & staff re: events / activities involving veterans to help promote a sense of inclusion and community
  • Invite guest speakers into the establishments: ask offenders who they’d like to hear from

Action points for people to take back to their workplaces

  • Formalise a veteran ‘lead’ member of staff
  • Give a presentation at a full staff briefing – to increase awareness
  • Make use of the Ministry of Defence Veterans UK website

For the full set of bullet points from the workshops’ afternoon session, click here.

As the workshop finished, there was a genuine sense that the key ingredients for an effective VICS recipe had begun to emerge. They included increasing identification; getting the issue on the agenda with senior management support; building networks of support inside prisons and beyond; communicating effectively; reaching into the wide range of expertise among military charities and other partners; tapping into the willingness of former and current armed forces personnel to help (and the wider pool of goodwill); and creating ‘relevance’ that can help VICs rebuild self-respect.

None of this work is easy – and it’s often done in addition in personal time or on top of other work commitments. But both prison officers and those with a forces background are known for getting things done – albeit with wry humour salted with vigorous language. If the wider establishment can tap into a fraction the enthusiasm on display at the workshop, the prospects for veterans in custody are much improved.

And the Military Covenant deserves our attention, not least when things go wrong for those who have served. 2015 marks 125 years since Kipling’s famous ditty “Tommy” (or “The Queen’s Uniform”) was published, and the truth of his words still resonates – precisely because military life is special…

“We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints:
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints…”


[For further examples of good practice in this area see the veterans interest group on good-practice.net.]

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