‘Less pressure to portray as macho’: the prison that does things a little differently

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 25 July 2018

At the Civil Service Awards 2015, an HMP Standford Hill team won for operational excellence. Three years on, manager Joe Rook tells Civil Service World about all the employment and training opportunities on offer for offenders

Photos: Joe Rook/ HMP Standford Hill

On the Isle of Sheppey, just off England’s south east coast, 460 prisoners share their residence with hives for the rare black British honey bee, an aviation museum dedicated to the island’s RAF heritage, and a recycling plant.

Joe Rook, HMP Standford Hill’s stakeholder engagement manager, is proud of this eclectic mix. Part of his job in the male resettlement prison is to expose prisoners to learning and employment opportunities that will equip them for life on the outside. It’s also to expose the public to prisoners, and challenge preconceptions – when people get to know a soon-to-be-released offender they realise, “he’s not an axe-wielding maniac,” he says. “Or he used to be and isn’t anymore.”

At a time of soaring prison violence and the most “disturbing” conditions the prisons inspector says he’s ever seen, HMP Standford Hill stands out in terms of progress made over the past several years. As a category D, open prison, it does not have to contend with the serious overcrowding found elsewhere – it only houses those who can be reasonably trusted not to try and escape – but it has been commended for trialling some innovative responses to tight budgets.

In 2015, the prison’s Working Out Team – which helps offenders access volunteering, training and job opportunities outside the prison – won the Dame Leslie Strathie Operational Excellence Award at the Civil Service Awards. The team was praised for “opening up genuine job opportunities for prisoners in preparation for their release”, including by introducing HGV and forklift truck driving lessons for inmates with support from local charities – a first for the UK prison system.

In the same year, the chief inspector of prisons published a report describing HMP Standford Hill as “a much improved resettlement prison” where learning and skills provision was “very good” and resettlement work – described as “fragmented and inconsistent” in a 2011 report – was now at the core of prison services. The Working Out Team, once regarded as “slightly fluffy by the other officers here”, has become bigger and more integral, Rook says.

When Civil Service World visits the prison in the summer of 2018, there are countless activities taking place designed to prepare the men for release. A local college has built a campus on the site of the prison, with classrooms and facilities where offenders – and members of the public – can gain qualifications in plumbing, electrics and IT. There’s an on-site cafe staffed by prisoners which is open to the public, and a community chef who comes in to teach the men how to cook and other life skills. The prisoners have also just built a furniture shop, where they are selling – direct to the public – tables, spice racks, rocking horses and other objects built from recycled scrap wood. Money raised is invested in prison services, and the shop offers offenders with a background in carpentry not only a creative outlet but the chance to gain customer service experience. One offender, whose metre-long boat built from matchsticks is on display, tells CSW that he gets ideas for new projects from Pinterest.

Most of the prison population at HMP Standford Hill are offenders coming to the end of long sentences, and many have come from closed prisons. Transferring to an open prison can prove to be quite an adjustment for some prisoners, and most new arrivals aren’t allowed to leave the prison for at least three months, Rook says. This is to enable staff to “see who they are, not just who they are on paper. It stabilises them”, he explains.

During this time the prisoners can get involved in on-site training activities, such as the courses in plumbing and electrics. After three months they can, depending on the outcome of risk assessments conducted by the Offender Management Unit (OMU), start doing volunteer work in the local community, including litter picking, gardening and refurbishment of village halls. The prisoners can then graduate to paid work – and the prison inspector in 2015 said it was notable that 10% of the men released temporarily from prison were in paid employment. On the day CSW visits, 199 prisoners had been given release on temporary license (ROTL): 121 to do community work, 29 for off-site training or education and 49 for paid work, in everything from scaffolding to jobs in restaurants and opticians.

Many of the jobs are located nearby or in the capital – usually around a third of the prison population are from greater London – but the prisoners are allowed to travel to Ipswich, Brighton or even further afield. Some employers pay their travel costs. Risk assessment processes are “suitably robust”, according to the inspector’s 2015 report, which states that despite the high proportion of temporary releases granted, the number of people absconding was decreasing. The OMU risk assesses offenders, including by flagging up those whose movements outside the prison need to be restricted because they were convicted of a violent crime (85 on the day CSW visits). The Working Out Team, meanwhile, risk assesses the employers, charities and other organisations that take on temporarily released prisoners.

Despite the generally positive 2015 report, the prisons inspector did raise concerns about outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners. Officers have since carried out an Equalities Impact Assessment, Rook says, adding that they are still trying to work out why proportionately fewer BAME people end up in paid employment through the Working Out scheme, and what to do about it.

The scheme allows offenders to improve their employability, work ethic and independence, Rook says – if an inmate has a job that starts at 8am, he’s responsible for getting himself up and into work on time. “Once they get a bit of responsibility for themselves, they can then start to respect other people,” he adds. Rook believes there’s less pressure to “portray as macho” at HMP Standford Hill than there is in other prisons, which he says contributes to the low levels of violence and low reoffending rate (9.4%). This stands in stark contrast to the more than 40% of adults released from prisons nationwide who are reconvicted within a year, according to Ministry of Justice figures – though the rate is higher for those serving less than 12 months, who aren’t generally housed at HMP Standford Hill.

Some of the resettlement activities undertaken are successful because of partnerships initiated by the prison. While Standford Hill doesn’t have a lot of spare money, it does have a lot of land – which it’s been able to give away in exchange for opportunities for the offenders. The prison allowed the recycling plant to be constructed on prison premises, for example, in exchange for a nominal amenities fee and training and paid employment opportunities for offenders. There’s now a community allotment on the site of a former prison farm, where offenders help local people to maintain their plots. The college classrooms were once empty derelict offices. “We couldn’t afford to do them up,” says Rook, adding that the prison allowed the rooms to be used for free in return for free college courses for offenders and building maintenance undertaken by the college.

The other key to success has been a shift in attitudes, brought about by brave decisions taken by the governor and other prison leaders over the past seven years, Rook says. “It [the prison environment] changes with the small things,” he explains – the introduction of “soft” uniforms for prison officers instead of a shirt and tie, to avoid the negative associations of other prisons; using polite forms of address when talking to offenders; redecorating the visitors centre with bright colours and lots of toys. It can be difficult for some officers new to Standford Hill to adjust to this kind of environment, says Rook. “They will think I’m a big fluffy stuffed toy and it won’t work. It currently works for us.”

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter