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Community focus is important – even for those behind bars

In her latest blog, Alison Hernandez talks about her recent visit to Dartmoor Prison.

On 12 January I visited Dartmoor Prison. After an atmospheric drive across a misty and grey Dartmoor I arrived at the iconic building whose reputation extends beyond its immediate surroundings.

As a Victorian listed building it’s hardly changed since it was first built in the early 1800s. The barred windows and razor wire can be seen from the road and have become something of a tourist attraction now.

There is history at every turn of this prison. When it first opened in 1809 it housed survivors of the Napoleonic wars before it opened as a civilian prison in 1851.

Dartmoor is now a Category C training prison for men. Its population comes from all over the country and includes those on life sentences. It differs from HMP Exeter in that it does not hold people for court or receive anyone directly from custody – anyone who arrives here has already been through the courts.

The building retains its intimidating stature, rising up out of the mist, the view through the main archway shows only bleak moorland ahead but things are very different behind the walls.

I was invited to meet Bridie Oakes-Richards, the governor of the prison, along with her deputy governor and regional director of the South West group of prisons, Jeannine Hendrick who manages the three prisons we have in Devon and Cornwall, HMP Dartmoor, HMP Exeter and HMP Channing Wood, as well as, HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset.

There were two main reasons why I was so keen to visit Dartmoor Prison.

It was an opportunity for me to learn more about the realities of prison life and meet those who live and work there; and secondly, I wanted to discuss joint working between the Prison Service, my office and the Devon and Cornwall Local Criminal Justice Board (LCJB), which I now chair. I have written more about this subject here >

Bridie has been commended on several occasions for her innovative approach to governing the prison. In 2015 Dartmoor moved to an integrated regime, where prisoners live and work alongside each other not separated by the nature of their offence. It is one of the only prisons in the country to take this approach and many have credited it with improved general behaviour and atmosphere.

When I arrived, the governor explained to me that it is the people who make the prison and not to be distracted by the ageing environment, both in bricks and prisoners – from the staff, to the men and partner organisations who are part of the prison community, everyone contributes to bringing a positive atmosphere.

It is clear that the role of the staff is paramount, the relationships they are able to form with the men are key to safety. She stressed the importance of investing in her staff as a significant part of their job is dealing with conflict and offering care and support, often for very vulnerable people.

The onsite learning for prison officers and staff is vital for them to be able to do their job and means that everyone can partake in training without leaving site.

At Dartmoor Prison they have a number of prisoners who become deaf whilst in custody, something that can be incredibly isolating. However, a number of prison staff at Dartmoor have undertaken training in British sign language so they can keep these men engaged.

I think this is a fantastic approach because if there is a good relationship between the staff and inmates there is better engagement in education and rehabilitation and it’s proven that re-offending rates drop which, of course, protects the public long-term.

I was also lucky enough to get to sample some of the delights from the prison kitchen. As part of their engagement and rehabilitation, inmates are encouraged to learn valuable skills such as cooking which they can take with them to life beyond Dartmoor.

As part of the transforming justice project, for which the governance is the LCJB Reducing Offending Board, the OPCC is working with the prisons to improve the rehabilitative and resettlement services for prisoners. 

One area which we are assisting the prisons with, is connecting them to employers who will employ ex-offenders and businesses who are willing to offer training for prisoners. 

Businesses need a diverse and highly skilled workforce and we are trying to make sure prisoners have the training and skills they need to provide them with work opportunities – once in a job ex-offenders are less likely to reoffend and more likely to reintegrate into the community.

I also heard more about the importance of maintaining family links with partners, children and parents to the successful resettlement of men into the community. This is a challenging topic exasperated by the isolation of Dartmoor prison and a lack of regular public transport.

Many of the men living at Dartmoor prison are disconnected from society, which as we would understand it is the punishment element of their sentence, however and yet we recognise that social inclusion is a key element in breaking the cycle of criminality.

This disconnect from society for some of the men in prison has been a significant feature of their lives, often going back to childhood.

While we may all believe the exclusion from society should be a punishment to many it has always been a part of their lives. The challenge for our rehabilitative services when trying to change their behaviour is to help build a sense of belonging. This feels like a dichotomy for society but I believe we need to focus on what will stop offending based on evidence.

I will do what I can to help while in office and ask any business or employer that would like to get in touch and help in any way to do so.

Alison Hernandez