by David Breakspear

Whilst going about my daily ritual of spending hours in front of a computer screen researching in a variety of areas, one of which being the criminal justice system, I came across this piece with the headline ‘Mental health trust takes back contract for more serious conditions at Norwich prison’. It was a report in an edition of the Great Yarmouth Mercury.

I have served as a prisoner for a good number of years at HMP Norwich, and as someone who has a complex mental health history, I came into contact with the mental health team on a regular basis. I was also a trained listener and would have dealings with the team as a third party on behalf of individual prisoners.

A listener is a prisoner who is trained (after a selection process) by a team of Samaritans over a set period of time. Listeners, who are voluntary, are then available at any time to speak to someone who may need to talk about personal issues that are affecting them.

This is a confidential, valuable scheme that has been running since 1991. No doubt, listeners have saved countless more lives than those that are being added to government statistics in relation to the bleaker side of prison life.

The article in the Mercury highlights two issues. The first: it shows what happens when you put profit before people. The second: the good work of those at the coalface is let down by those that live in their ivory towers.

In a report contained in the 15th Dec 2017 edition of the Bath Chronicle, Bart Johnson, the head of Virgin Care, apologised to Bath staff – after taking over the £700 million NHS contract a few months previously – for the health and care services in Bath and North East Somerset.

“Patients had appointments cancelled, letters and reports were not sent out, and nurses had problems updating patient records during those first months […] managers worried about the risks to patient safety were told to ‘hold off’ from reporting their concerns to the health watchdog, as is their statutory duty.”

If all that was going on in full view of the public and the media, can you imagine the service that we received from Virgin in prison? Bearing in mind this was December 2017. We are now in January 2019. The problems the privatisation of probation services have caused is another area which shows profit before person. Anyone would think that government ministers have a vested interest in privatisation. Conflict of interest, anybody?

I cannot lie and say every member of the mental health team had compassion and empathy. Yes! Some were that bad. However, I would like to talk about two who not only made my prison life bearable, but also helped countless others. One nurse was female, the other was male. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to name them. So, I will call the female nurse “F” and the male nurse – you guessed it – “M.”

Given the work they do, I’m sure those who know, will know, including them if, of course, they read this.

I was fortunate to have been involved, either directly or indirectly, with both of them. I would see F around the jail and on the wings, and I saw M at my places of work. I had worked with both of them in respect of my own mental health. Now, I’m not saying I’m special, and I am sure those that know me will agree: I can be difficult to work with. However, I can also be very rewarding if I trust you… or so I have been told. F, even after I disengaged from the service, used to pop into the wing on her way home, two or three times a week, just for a chat and a coffee.

M would pop in to waste management for a cup of tea and a chat, occasionally, but regularly enough to have my respect. These meetings would only briefly be about me. I would then discuss any prisoner that I had spoken to who had asked for my assistance – especially those who asked during a listener call.

I also used to give them both a heads up on prisoners I was concerned about, whether I had witnessed it, or if the tip came from someone else asking me to keep an eye. Mental health needs an immediate response and prisoners may not be in a position mentally, or emotionally, to wait six weeks for an appointment.

There’s an area of prison life that runs like clockwork. It’s the one that doesn’t involve management or reams of applications. The area where, if you get it right, the prison runs smoothly by itself. It’s a fine balance. It’s a shady tone of grey. It’s that relationship, between key staff and prisoners, which creates a relaxed environment. Built on a mutual, them-and-us respect. There’s still a game to be played, after all. Jailcraft!

If you need help, the Samaritans can be reached via email at or via phone twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on any day of the year at 116 123.

Featured image via Contando Estrelas

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