For years Wakefield prison has been home to the phrase: “It’s the Wakefield Way”, uttered by prisoners and staff alike whenever a completely irrational decision is questioned. There has been no effort towards change and no desire or appetite for it either. Until now.
In the last year we have seen a change of Governor here and, like all new governors, this one seems to want to make his mark. Recently I was invited to attend a meeting aimed at introducing change to Wakefield. The Governor wants to create what is called an ‘Enabling Environment’ here.
It is a concept which has long been worked towards in care homes and secure hospitals and the like, but it is fairly rare in prisons.
In brief, an Enabling Environment is one which lives up to certain set standards focused on Belonging, Boundaries, Communication, Development, Involvement, Safety, Structure, Empowerment, Leadership and Openness. Many of these are concepts which have been sadly lacking at Wakefield for some time now, but the most heartening thing that I heard the coordinator say during the meeting was “we may not be able to change the world, but if we work together there is nothing to stop us from changing Wakefield.” I don’t think it’s going to be half as easy as they seem to believe, but the sheer fact that they recognise Wakefield as being a place that is in need of change, is hugely encouraging.
However, I can’t help but think that they have failed to recognise what the biggest obstacle to this process could be. Staff. I was at Frankland when they created an Enabling Environment there (although there they did limit it to one wing to start with whereas Wakefield intends to transform the whole establishment) and I cannot deny that facilities and standards did improve. But it came at a cost. Delivering on the above standards relies upon everyone in the environment (staff and prisoners) feeling more supported, communicated with, empowered to question and challenge decisions, involved in making those decisions, able to gain leadership roles, and even be in a position to take part in activities outside of the establishment. At Frankland many prisoners rolled their eyes at these aims, but they all gave it a go. Staff were another story altogether. Within weeks around half the staff normally located on the wing which became the pilot for Frankland’s Enabling Environment refused to participate and had to be relocated. It is not in the interests of prison officers to open themselves up to challenge by those they are in control of and they simply do not like it.
Will the same happen here? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But so far it seems as though the possibility hasn’t even been considered.
To return to the positive side of this time of change though, if the transition process is handled well and a fully working Enabling Environment is established here, I have no doubt that life will be better for everyone at Wakefield, including both staff and prisoners. At the meeting I attended a number of problems were raised regarding the way Wakefield currently runs and every single one of them could very clearly be solved in just three steps. Firstly, there needs to be consistency. Secondly, communication must improve. And thirdly, there must be more accountability. When established procedures are deviated from when making decisions or taking actions, or when the reasons for those actions and decisions are not communicated to everyone they affect, and especially when the individuals responsible for those things are not accountable for them, it creates nothing but confusion, resentment and division. When consistency, communication and accountability improve, people feel that even if they don’t agree with the decisions that are made, they are at least understandable and justified and that enables them to accept those decisions far more easily.
The current proposals that have been announced for the creation of an Enabling Environment at Wakefield include the formation of a forum involving both staff and prisoner representatives who will be able to feed back from their respective areas and to become a driving force behind this period of change. This will go a long way towards improving the current communication problem and, if staff do embrace it, it will also create an air of accountability which does not have to reduce itself to accusation and discipline but is far more constructive in empowering everyone to challenge actions and decisions and to review and improve them in the future. Consistency will only come with time, but it is by improving accountability and communication that everyone builds a clearer idea of expectations and established procedures.
The prison magazine could become a huge part of that. I have been part of the prison magazine team for almost a year now and have always respectfully disagreed with the long standing editorial policy that we do not include anything about prisons because many people read the magazine for a break from jail life. I don’t think the magazine should be full with prison issues, and it should certainly not be allowed to become a local version of Inside Time. But I do think there is room for some prison information. If some individuals do not want to read about jail, then they will skip that article and turn to another on something they are interested in. I certainly do not read the whole magazine myself. There are plenty of things in it which, as a reader, I have no interest in. I’ll help proof read it as a member of the editorial team, but I won’t read it for content. For me, variety is the key. But until now my view has been strongly outvoted by the rest of the team and I have bowed to the will of the majority. With the inception of an Enabling Environment however, we have been asked to produce either a newsletter or a section within the magazine which reports on Wakefield’s continuing journey through this process. I can’t help but think that this could be exactly the balance that is needed. It would create awareness between different areas of the prison, improve communication with the very people that executive decisions are going to affect most, and simultaneously inject a small amount of prison news into a publication which has so far been void of it. I believe this is exactly the balance that is needed. But more than that, I also think that it may increase the support we are given as an editorial team from prison management. If they want us to report on their efforts and the results of them, we need to know that we are going to be able to go to print without issues such as finding classroom space and hours, obtaining funding for ink and paper, and security clearing content. These are things that often we have had trouble with and yet our magazine has continued to win Koestler awards for what we produce. Imagine what we could achieve if the magazine is taken into the heart of the Enabling Environment initiative and supported from the top in a move towards mutual cooperation.