You can’t avoid the negative headlines about prisons at present and whilst the news reporting can sometimes be sensationalist, it is the case that there are more incidents of suicide, self-harm and violence occurring at the moment. There is the worrying presence of new psychoactive substances, also known as Spice, on the wings. And there are currently lower numbers of prison staff. So it is clearly a more difficult environment for people in custody, prison staff and those providing support services and interventions.
Addressing some of these concerns is the recent Ministry of Justice ‘Prison Safety and Reform’ white paper, to which Clinks has published a response. Organisations such as The Howard League for Penal Reform continue to produce research and recommendations—see their recent Preventing prison suicide report, produced in partnership with the Centre for Mental Health, which focuses on the views of people currently in or with previous experience of prison. There is also information for prison staff on new psychoactive substances, produced by Public Health England.
As these strategies and independent report recommendations move forward, there is still the ongoing day-to-day engagement in the prison environment. The environment brings challenges that affect our members, and the thousands of voluntary sector staff and volunteers working in prison, as well as prison staff and people in custody. I want to highlight a few things that voluntary sector organisations could consider doing, to ensure their staff are fully aware of the environment in which they are currently working and to take steps to enable them to be safe. I also want to highlight how it might be possible to work alongside prison staff to develop safer prisons for everyone.
The following three points have recently been raised by voluntary sector organisations and I’ve suggested ways to address the issues:
- “We don’t get a prison officer in our group sessions anymore, as there aren’t any available”.
Negotiate your working arrangements: This should form part of your service level agreement/contract/partnership agreement and should be reviewed annually, as well as when there is a change in circumstances (e.g. when you have risk assessed your provision and need to mitigate against any emerging risks).
- Think how the dynamic of the group has changed without an officer present and the pros and cons that can inform how you work now.
- Is the provision of a member of staff a resource that the prison agreed to provide? If so, and there is an absence of that provision, what can be provided instead? For example, ideally you will already have attended breakaway training, but if not, speak to security staff about what training is available.
- Consider the suitability of the current location in which you work and what alternatives there may be—or if the size of your group, or your own staffing levels, needs to change. Discuss with the prison staff the risk information you receive given the changed situation.
- Any changes to your working arrangements should be jointly agreed with the prison, including whether it is a temporary or permanent change, and noted and attached to your existing agreement with the prison.
- “I was overcome by fumes from Spice in the prison”.
In the recent weeks we have heard of two voluntary sector staff being taken ill following exposure to smoke from Spice/new psychoactive substances. In both cases, it was a split second from noticing an odour on a prison wing, before them becoming unwell. In both cases the prisons provided excellent support and medical care.
Get in the know: Spice is present in prisons and is having a serious impact on those using it. This includes fits, strokes and psychotic episodes. It is also contributing to increased incidents of bullying and violence. You can be affected by secondary inhalation of fumes.
- Speak to prison staff and partner organisations about what awareness raising or training there is on Spice/new psychoactive substances. The substance misuse service in the prison should be able to give you information as well.
- Think about where you deliver your service and if you want to negotiate with the prison for a location away from areas where direct exposure to the use of Spice may occur.
- Your staff may not witness prisoners suffering ill effects, but if they do, it can be a very distressing experience. Your staff need support for such experiences, so ensure regular contact, especially with volunteers, so that they can get the support they need quickly and remain resilient.
- Your staff need to know how to raise the alarm if a prisoner is taken ill in their presence or if they suspect Spice or other drugs are being used. Talk to prison staff about the procedures in place (see below).
- “We need to better understand the prison systems”.
At Clinks we have recently revamped our working and volunteering in prison training as part of our Good Prison project. Following a successful pilot last month, we will be rolling out the training in 2017 to support voluntary sector staff to understand all prison related facts, figures and processes.
In the meantime, support your staff to understand:
- The Information Report (IR) form – an electronic form for raising any concerns. Security staff can help you with this.
- The Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) plan – used with those at risk of suicide or self-harm. There is specialist training run by prisons on this procedure. You must report any concerns to prison staff immediately, however small you think they may be.
- Find out who leads on Safer Custody in your prison. It will be a senior member of staff and you can ask what strategies are in place in the prison that your organisation can work with. Consider if there are any additional skills or resources that you may use in your work on the outside, which you can bring into the prison—for example mindfulness techniques and activities to occupy time in cells can help. Discuss your ideas with the Safer Custody lead.
Whilst prisons have a duty of care to all those within the establishment, the voluntary sector needs to keep its staff informed and safe too. We all need to work with prisons at a strategic and operational level to navigate the changing and sometimes volatile environment. At Clinks we will work to support the voluntary sector to be well informed, and in turn play a role in contributing to safer prisons.
Supporting the co-ordination of the voluntary sector working in prisons is the focus of our Good Prisons project. For more information on the project or to discuss any support needs in relation to your work in prison, contact the project lead Louise Clark email@example.com 07870 384569.
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.@hibiscuscharity have launched a report - funded by Clinks - which explores the complex issues faced by Black, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the CJS and the resulting impacts on their mental health.
Read the report here: https://hibiscusinitiatives.org.uk/media/2023/06/rmc-mental-health-report-document.pdf