Prison officers are hidden key workers
This is the ninth in a new blog series chronicling the different ways in which organisations in the criminal justice sector are helping their service users survive the impact of coronavirus. It is written by Life Coach, Dorottya Szuk, from Spark Inside.
If your organisation – statutory, voluntary, or private – would like to share how you’ve had to adapt to be able to continue to provide your service, please get in touch.
I’ve spent my entire career working in the criminal justice system and I believe we need to look after the people who support those in the system. Prison officers are hidden key workers and their job has been forced to change with the virus, while people are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and more, whilst worrying about their own and their families’ health, and the health of those in their care. It is stressful. They are justice heroes. If we can give the front-line workers the support they need and deserve, I am certain that they will ultimately be better at their jobs.
As a coach for Spark Inside, I coach young men in prisons so that they feel empowered and are given the tools to develop a growth mind-set, helping them to turn their lives around. Like all of the team, I was deeply saddened by having to pause the coaching programmes due to the national lockdown. So, when Spark Inside made the decision to stand with the prison staff and support these essential key workers by offering them life coaching sessions, I was at the front of the sign-up queue. In fact, all of Spark Inside’s life coaches wanted to take part, in solidarity with those who continue to put their lives on the line.
Prison officers care
Along with my fellow life coaches, we are coaching staff across three London prisons and YOIs – HMP Wormwood Scrubs, HMPYOI Isis and YOI Cookham Wood. And as I reflect on the daily challenges prison officers face, what stands out for me is that they care. They really care. They don’t want to go to work to lock people away in their cells. They want to ensure that they can access education, coaching and the gym, and that they can see their families and friends when they visit. And in these times, when not only are the prisons officers dealing with their own personal stresses, they can’t provide anything that rehabilitates the people in prison, it’s a struggle to stay motivated. They feel useless when they can’t do anything meaningful, yet they are still going to work every day, and doing vital work for us all.
Their job is a difficult one, made even more difficult during this crisis. Now they have been given the chance to be coached, and the biggest thing I can do is give them the space to think about themselves (when most of the time, they’re just thinking of others – in the sessions, I always ask, ‘but what about you?’). Having spent years working in criminal justice, I can understand what it’s like in the system and just being able to understand prison terminology has helped to create an instant connection with who I’m coaching. Those coaching sessions offer dedicated and structured time to reflect, so that they can go into situations in the prisons with careful thought and intention. For example, when dealing with a young prisoner that seems agitated and aggressive, coaching develops self-awareness and furthers their professional development, so that they are able to take a step back and reflect on what’s happening for that young man before reacting.
A cultural shift
Which brings me onto the point that, not only is coaching prison staff beneficial to that individual, it can completely transform their interactions with others, which in turn, will hopefully be felt positively by the people living in the prison. During this crisis, the young men in prison that we coach will only have contact with prison staff, so by coaching prison officers to also develop that growth mind-set, we can start to see a cultural shift.
This is why I feel strongly that coaching prison officers should be a normal thing. All front-line staff (in fact, prison staff at all levels) should be coached, in order to create a change for the better. Spark Inside has responded to the crisis in an innovative way – if we can’t reach the young men we usually coach, we will reach the people at the front-line.
But, for now, my message to our justice heroes is simply this: You matter. As we all clap for our key workers on Thursday, I feel proud to be a part of something tangible – to translate our coaching into action. I feel so passionate about being able to do this, because I know how much they need it. They are not forgotten.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.