The phrases “young offender institution” and “award-winning” seldom appear in the same sentence. An exception is Swinfen Hall Prison and Young Offender Institution in Staffordshire, which has just received a World Health Organization best practice award for its healthy living centre project. This achievement is even more remarkable given that it is one of only 14 awards given by the WHO in Europe this year.
Located at the end of a cul-de-sac of yellow brick houses on the outskirts of Lichfield, Staffordshire, Swinfen Hall is home to up to 620 men aged 17 to 25. In September 2006, it began a six-week pilot of a mental health course for young prisoners.
Funded by South Staffordshire Primary Care Trust, the pilot – delivered in partnership with other specialist professionals – aimed to raise the self-esteem of three young offenders and help them identify positive changes to improve their mental well-being. It was so successful that the programme was officially launched two months later, and now there are nine young vulnerable prisoners completing the 12-week course at any one time throughout the year.
Participants have access to aromatherapy, art and music, and undertake sessions on depression prevention, relaxation and mediation, cognitive behavioural therapies and anti-bullying strategies. The course costs £60,000 a year to operate.
The programme is delivered in Swinfen Hall’s lilac-walled healthcare centre. Healthcare manager Kate Clay says the initiative began because the centre realised it lacked a specific service for young prisoners with non-severe mental health issues. “We wanted to be a resource to give young offenders good life skills to take into the prison environment and beyond,” she says.
One specialist brought in to deliver the programme is Donna Adams, a service manager for mental health charity Rethink. Last year she was approached by Clay’s predecessor, Helen Merricks, to construct and deliver the programme and spent six months in a designate role before it went live in November. Adams spends two days a week at Swinfen Hall and runs sessions for young prisoners about how issues such as anxiety and depression can affect their mood.
“A lot of young people haven’t heard of Rethink but, when we talk about what we do, they think about how we can support them,” Adam says. “They don’t look at the mental health tag.”
Creating and delivering the initiative has been “pretty plain sailing”, she says, adding: “The prison staff and the governors have all been fantastic.”
Working alongside Adams to facilitate and co-ordinate the programme is Carl Cooper, Swinfen Hall’s instructional officer and healthy living centre co-ordinator for the past 12 months. He cites his 22 years’ service in the army as an excellent foundation for working with young offenders with mental health issues. “As a warrant officer, I was used to dealing with young men and their welfare issues,” Cooper says.
He says the programme has also benefited the prison staff. “They have a better understanding of the young men they are dealing with and take mental health very seriously.”
One graduate of the programme is 20-year-old Ceri Davies, who spent two years at Swinfen Hall before his release two months ago. When he arrived at the YOI he felt nervous and out of his depth. “The building was undergoing major construction work and it looked like an army military camp,” Davies recounts. “It was scary and lonely you feel isolated and paranoid.”
In autumn 2006 he was approached to take part in the pilot programme after experiencing severe manic depression and trying to cut off his own fingers. “I thought, ‘oh yeah, here’s another one of the prison’s botched-up courses’,” says Davies, recalling his initial doubts. “But after the first week of the pilot I knew I wanted to be a part of it, whatever happened.”
Davies was so pleased with his experience of the course that he became a mentor. “I could go back to my cell at the end of each day and feel proud of myself for being able to use my skills and knowledge to help others.”
Winning the WHO award has given Swinfen Hall a huge boost, says Cooper, adding that its work can be mimicked by others: “Our end-model is flexible and can be adapted to any prison environment.” Adams agrees, but emphasises that any organisation following Swinfen Hall’s example must ensure they take a person-centred approach.
● Recognise not all young people will be aware they have mental health problems so use language they understand.
● Use creative ways to help them express themselves, such as through art, music and group discussion.
● Encourage young people to reflect on how their negative feelings impact on their behaviour and suggest suitable activities instead.
● Ensure all staff working with young offenders understand mental health problems.
Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale
This article appeared in the 1 November issue under the headline “Hall of fame”