HMP Hewell – Hidden Sentences Training
As Communications Manager for YMCA George Williams College I get fantastic opportunities to work on, attend, experience and report back on projects the College collaborates with. On 16th October 2019, I attended the Hewell Rainbow Project training based in HMP Hewell, Redditch. The training is managed by the Children and Families Team, who run a variety of programmes for prisoners and their families. The programmes provide unique support to prisoners to stay connected and involved with their families and children. Being sentenced to serve time in prison can trigger a range of consequences, not only for the prisoner, but also their families, partners and especially their children.
To start the day, we all met with the Children’s and Families Team to prepare for the training, there were a variety of attendees from schools, councils and other YMCA’s. We were escorted through the entrance of the prison, with an explanation of what the families and children of prisoners might experience when attending their visit to the prison. Security was tight and there were several gates to go through. Once we had been screened by the prison warden/guards, we were led towards the Chaplaincy Department. As we walked through the prison, we were surrounded by high rise metal gates, a number of locked doors we had to access; I lost count of these in the end. The sound of the doors slamming and the rustle of the keys locking were a poignant reminder that the prison itself is highly secure. As we continued our way to the Chaplaincy, we got to view the Children and Families visiting rooms which are a confined area. Before entry is authorised, there was another search process to complete, to double check the visitor’s area was clear. After which, the enclosed visit could proceed.
The rooms were small and had some toys for the children to play with whilst their visit proceeded. We then headed to another family area, which was more open for prisoners to watch and observe their children having fun whilst also being able to sit with their family, converse and enjoy each other’s company for the allocated time they had. One thing I reflected on from this experience was the importance of time, because time was of the essence, when attending a visit. It took time to be screened, cleared and searched. It took time to walk through the prison, time to arrive in the visiting area and wait for prisoners to be released to enjoy time with their families.
We then arrived at the Chaplaincy for the training to begin around 11am. At this point, we settled down to be presented a series of slides and videos which explained the purpose and the achievements of the Children and Families team. An overview of the history was given, including how the project started by the Mother’s Union almost 20 years ago. The project is now working in partnership with YMCA and HMPPS (Her Majesty Prisons and Probation Service). Following the review of Lord Michael Farmer known as the ‘The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’, the importance of maintaining strong relationships between prisoners and their families was highlighted, as this can assist the prisoner in reforming, ultimately preventing them from reoffending and returning back to prison.
The separation impact that prison sentencing has on families and children is intense, mothers/fathers become single parents and soul providers to their families, having to cope with the impact that sentencing has on their families. Children can develop anxiety, experience disruption and feelings of guilt. A prison sentence is beyond the prisoner, the families are effectively sentenced too.
The important work being delivered by the Children’s and Families Department helps strengthen prisoners’ relationships with their family, helping build trust, acknowledging where there are family issues and offering them support as the families cope whilst their family member is away serving time in prison. The team offer a range of programmes, such as: Baby Bonding, Me and My Dad, Card and Craft workshops and Story Book Dads. These workshops facilitate positive bonding mechanisms for prisoners and their families.
Before lunch was served, we got to talk with a small group of prisoners, who volunteered their time to attend the training, and joined the group and discussed the impact that the Rainbow Project has had on them and their families whilst serving their sentences. The prisoners kindly and proudly served us lunch, which they had prepared prior to our arrival.
During our discussions over lunch, some personal stories were shared amongst prisoners about how they came to be sentenced to prison and what the impact had been on them and their families. These prisoners explained to us some of the difficulties they had faced whilst also recognising their part in being accountable for their actions.
One prisoner explained:
“My absence from my family is extremely difficult, it is a continuous emotion of guilt that I feel when they come and visit or when I look at the photos in my cell. If it wasn’t for the Children’s and Families team, I would never have been aware of these programmes and the benefits they bring to me and my family. It makes you reflect and strive to make the right steps in reforming and restarting a new life outside of prison”
Another prisoner stated:
“Coming to these programmes has given me access to engage actively with my family, building stronger bonds, even though I am absent from the family home. Being here in Hewell you’re surrounded by murderers and paedophiles, it makes you go into a certain mode, this place can be intense and testing, you are constantly on edge, literally sleeping with one eye open. So, it’s good to have programmes like this, it’s our sanctuary and gives prisoners who are Father’s a chance to bond and build a brotherhood, we are all in the same boat, so if we can support each other whist we are away, it motivates us all to do better collectively.”
It was inspiring to see how prisoners had created a brotherhood amongst themselves, through things like working out together, cooking meals, supporting each other in preparation for Family Day events. This was an important factor that clearly impacted each prisoner’s rehabilitation. As I’ve already mentioned, time is of the essence and can move very quickly, sometimes for visitors more than prisoners. On this occasion for us too, time also passed very quickly, as we wrapped up the training session, we were given the opportunity to go around certain wings in the prison and view the living arrangements for prisoners.
Attending the training helped me better understand some of the impacts prison sentences can have on prisoner’s children and families. There is also a need to make schools, training institutions and professionals who work with young people aware of the Hidden Sentence programme, to help raise awareness of the effects sentencing has on young people and their families. Attending the training at HMP Hewell has educated me about prisoners and their experiences of how they become incarcerated. Many people have committed crimes with the intention of getting away with it, yet some were simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
What I came to realise is that the Hidden Sentence Programme offers crucial support to the men at HMP Hewell, because it is so important to help keep family relationships active, ensuring that the prisoners continue to build proactive bonds with their children and families. The men that I met were so positive and had a strong focus, although not all the men on the programme were able to see their children. However, it was clear that the opportunity they had to engage with other fathers, set up family days, do things like dress up as Santa Claus or prepare and cook food, was something they found incredibly rewarding. The Hewell Rainbow Project is an indispensable part of these men’s reforming process and is reflective and positive. It is something that should be available in all prisons, to both men and women.
For more information and to read the edited Interim Evaluation Report conducted by our very own Dr. Jennifer Brooker.