Across two workshops in January and February 2018, Spark Inside delivered our award-winningsystems coaching programme on a wing at HMP Brixton. Facilitated by qualified, professional coaches, the programme focuses on systemic change in prison, creating a safer, more rehabilitative prison environment.
Our Service Delivery Manager, Ciaran Thapar, tells us more about the experience…
A prison wing is an intense place. Social hierarchies, stringent regimes and scarce resources cause stress to run high. Sustaining positive relationships can be a challenge. What’s more, each wing has its own character and feel. In other words, like a school, a sports team or business, a wing is a system: a group of people interacting within a controlled environment.
As youth workers who are familiar with working in prisons, Simone (my fellow Service Delivery Manager) and I were set to gain an insight into how staff and prisoners engaged with each other, and to gain an understanding of how coaching is applied to a group context.
The aim of systems coaching is to bring people together to enhance their relationships, improve empathy and support positive cultural change. Similar to life coaching, it uses probing questions to inspire constructive transformation. Uniquely, however, it curates a conversation between multiple people, so that the system to which they belong can function better and achieve greater collective harmony.
Both workshops took place in HMP Brixton’s multi-faith chapel. We assembled for the first session on a rainy January morning; officers sat on one side of the room and prisoners on the other, yawning and jovially greeting one another.
All 31 participants were instructed to stand in a big circle and raise their hands to speak on issues relating to life on the wing. At first, no one said anything as people glanced around the room.
“You can ask any officer in here,” one prisoner finally announced, cutting the awkward silence, walking into the centre of the circle. “I don’t give trouble, so they don’t give me trouble. But some people don’t have enough respect.”
Guided by the coaches, more participants stepped forward. A dialogue had been sparked. It became obvious how important respect is for prisoners and officers alike on that wing – or, predictably, in prison life altogether.
Topics such as younger prisoners’ apparent lack of respect, the conduct of new officers, and the cleanliness of the wing were addressed. People were encouraged to move around the room, speaking from their own, as well as others’, perspectives.
One prisoner stepped into the role of a governor and responded to challenges about the wing’s regime. An officer pretended to be a young prisoner, expressing his frustrations about how he is treated (much to the amusement of the group). A fluid debate took place for 90 minutes, and the group was dynamic and engaged.
The workshop concluded in small groups. Each was required to discuss their priorities for improving life on the wing. One group suggested providing more positions of responsibility, such as cleaners and trusted ‘reps’ to support staff with mediating conflicts. It felt like a constructive end to a lively morning.
A month later we returned to the cold, airy chapel. Another cohort of prisoners and staff took their seat, and we recognised some, but there were many new faces.
Prompted by insights gleaned from the previous month, the coaches instructed participants to stand along a line stretching from 1 to 10 to reflect how strongly they agreed with statements posed, for example, one statement was: “I believe it is my responsibility to be respectful on the wing.” As most participants gathered at one end of the created spectrum, prisoners and staff alike were able to physically witness their shared set of values. It was a powerful way to start the day.
With the tone set, everyone gathered in a big circle again and an open, honest conversation was sustained. Three things were particularly interesting to witness.
The first was how, despite the different cohort, similar issues about respect and fair treatment arose.
The second was how a small group of young prisoners, initially hidden at the back of the room, were in attendance this time around. This meant that when the claim was made that younger prisoners are worst behaved, they could both challenge and reflect on what was being said.
The third was how fulfilling it was to see some participants who had attended both workshops – roughly a third of the group – leading the conversation. Their developed experience of the programme since January had clearly granted them a voice to articulate their feelings in an impactful way, to benefit the system as a whole.
With systems coaching programmes planned at HMP Wandsworth this spring and summer, we look forward to seeing the further impact it can have on the culture of prison wings we work in.