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Coaching prison staff & prisoners together
Spark Inside's systems coaching programme brings together prison staff and prisoners to promote positive cultural change on the wing.

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This is a guest post by Duncan Müller, a systems coach for Spark Inside

The Conversation

My first day in prison is a blur. Back in February 2016, everything flashed by… the dehumanising feeling of giving up one’s autonomy, of being under relentless scrutiny, the disorientating effect as you went further into the rabbit warren, the incessant locking and unlocking of gates as you made your way deeper in, the acrid smell of the cleaning fluids. As a child I remember watching Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, but nothing really prepares you for the assault on the senses of a prison landing.

So what’s brought me ‘inside’? I’m a leadership and team coach, used to working with senior business leaders and teams to help them achieve their goals. But I’ve swapped the board room for prison. The coach’s ‘toolkit’ travels and adapts. The charity I coach for, Spark Inside, has been successfully coaching boys and young men under 25 in prisons across London and the South East since 2012, facilitating positive change and lowering the risk of reoffending (the Hero’s Journey programme)

More recently, following the request of a prison governor, Spark Inside developed a new systems coaching programme, called ‘The Conversation’. Specially trained coaches like me bring officers and prisoners together for group sessions from both sides of the fence, in order to improve relationships and wing culture. So far we have worked with 350 prison staff and prisoners in five different men’s prisons, HMPs Brixton, Pentonville, Wormwood Scrubs, Belmarsh, and Wandsworth.

If you’re reading this, you’ll more than likely know the human cost our prisons are currently having. The latest government statistics show that self-harm among prisoners has increased by 23%, attacks on staff is up by 29% and suicide has increased by 31%, all compared to last year. These figures make mine and my colleagues’ work all the more important. The government’s successful recruitment drive to bring on 3,500 new prison staff will help to an extent. But however well-trained they are, these new officers will not solve a fundamental tension at the heart of our prisons.

Prisoner-Staff relationships

Meet Colin [not his real name or age]

A 47-year-old, long serving prison officer at one of the country’s best known prisons, HMP Pentonville. A large, imposing Victorian building in North London with the barbed wire and bars that we have come to expect. Colin is one of the first officers to take part in The Conversation programme to improve the relationship between prison staff like himself who can go home at night, and prisoners on the wing, who can’t. Colin is worried about a particular prisoner’s behaviour on the wing. 

“I’ve had a chat with him, and then I’ve, sort of, established possibly what’s causing that.”

 Since coming on our coaching programme Colin tells me he does his job differently.

“Now, whenever I see him about to erupt, I pull him aside to have a little chat with him. Then he, sort of, realises, and goes away and he’s calm.” Colin continues, “Well — calm for an hour, but he’s calm. The situation is calm.”

©Andy Aitchison

A focus on relationships

Anyone involved in prisons know these issues were years in the making. The rationale behind Spark Inside’s systems programme is simple enough. We bring together as many as 45 prison staff at a time – from wing governors to officers like Colin – to have a conversation in workshops with young men inside about their day to day problems.

This isn’t just any conversation. Forget cosy ‘chats’.

So how does coaching in prisons work – bringing both sides of the fence together?

Firstly, we take the focus off individuals, and zone in on their relationship. This shift of focus is key. Having time to reflect how they as an individual could play a more positive role in their daily dealings with other people, helps build empathy and deepens personal responsibility.

Lightbulb moments are what people on the outside ask me about most. In reality there are usually several ‘aha moments’ each time we run The Conversation programme. Typically, the first lightbulb moment is when prison officers and prisoners realise they themselves might unintentionally be contributing to tension on the wing – cleanliness, respect, treatment and attitudes of specific staff or prisoners – come up regularly.

The skill of a coach is to ensure honest and open dialogue is possible in a safe environment, to break down the vicious circle of unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. This helps both prison staff and prisoners reframe narrow stereotypes of what the ‘other’ is and most importantly, what the ‘other’ isn’t.

Curiosity on both sides is key. ‘Maybe prisoners can be trustworthy?’ ‘Maybe prison officers can respect me and keep me safe?’ ‘Maybe some governors actually care?’ ‘Maybe I can have hope?’

Once this point is reached, staff and prisoners are then more able to step into what we in coaching-speak call our ‘better self’. They’re then able to empathise and see the possibilities of the human being behind the uniform or the prison number – how this person can also be a dad, a brother, a friend.

Apologies are another common lightbulb moment.  I vividly remember a prisoner – in front of over 40 other prisoners and prison officers – expressing deep remorse to a prison officer.

“In my first few days of being here I was so rude to you, I shouted and swore at you. But you’d done nothing wrong to me. And after getting to know you, you’re a nice guy. You respect us. I apologise for my bad behavior. I’m very sorry.”

The prison officer nodded, thanking him for his words. Such a simple acknowledgement probably doesn’t get across the depth of what happened that day – my understanding is that apologies are a rarity inside prison walls.

Wanting to make the most of the moment, I shared that I had goosebumps all over my body. I asked how the group felt. “Tender”, “caring”, “beautiful”, “hopeful” came the answers. My belief is that the safe context of coaching provided the catalyst for this prisoner to express how he truly felt.

Tender moments in a prison? I know… But it works. Spark Inside’s recent independent research shows prisoners’ behaviour improved by over 80% and prisoners’ relationships with prison officers – their understanding of, and empathy toward each other – improved significantly after taking part in The Conversation. Practical solutions range from giving prisoners more responsibility, to better communication about regime changes. Seemingly little things matter.

We know coaching isn’t a panacea to our under-resourced, violent prisons. But improving wing culture is making a genuine difference (and the Hero’s Journey coaching programme has been proven to reduce young men’s violence in prison, and reoffending after their release). I am glad I made the leap from the boardroom to the prison wing to facilitate calmer, more positive relationships between those like officer Colin who can go home at the end of the day and those who can’t. 

Find out more about Spark Inside here.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission for use of all images in this post.

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2 Responses

  1. Russell,
    I hope this finds you well and in great spirits. I loved your article, it was inspiring. We are creating a coaching program here at the Maine State Prison in Maine and are enthusiastic about creating change. I am an incarcerated resident, but I am also a graduate student studying positive psychology and coaching. My hope with my thesis work is to show that through coaching we can change the narrative and lift a residents consciousness to a higher level where they can become earn their citizenship once again. If you have any ideas or suggestions please let me know. I would love to Zoom with you and hear about your experiences.

    Much peace.

  2. Hi Steven
    Good to hear from you and great to read about your new program. Although this is my blog, the coaching work was done by an organisation called Spark Inside who are linked to in the article. You’d be better off speaking to them.
    Good luck

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