Walking into a prison can be an intimidating experience, but social workers can take steps to make the process easier, finds Kirsty McGregor
1 Learn about prison culture
Remember you are working in a setting which is primarily that of another agency, says Keith Davies, principal social work lecturer at Kingston University. Davies, who used to work as a probation officer and often visited service users in prison, recommends making sure you thoroughly understand prison culture, so you know when to challenge decisions or actions. “Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the goals and practices of the prison service, try to reflect on how to maintain a social work identity in such a different environment,” he says.
Davies cautions against becoming frustrated by prison priorities. “Lock-downs can ruin your plans, but they will happen whether you like them or not because the prison will prioritise security,” he points out.
Learn the prison hierarchy, so you know whom to approach for what. It is also worth remembering that many prisons are fiercely governed by performance management targets. “Learn what the key targets are for prison staff,” says Davies. “It will help to explain why officers act as they do.”
2 Follow basic procedures
There are several practical points to remember when visiting prisons. First, observe rules on security – apart from ensuring your own safety, it will help to keep the prison staff onside.
Find out whether the prison has an information pack for visitors; this will tell you what you can and cannot do or take in. “We’ve had social workers ring up and ask to speak to a young person or ask whether they can bring in their clothes or belongings,” says Helen Chambers, senior social worker at Hindley Young Offenders’ Institution. “You can’t do that.” In addition, you cannot take a mobile phone or a laptop into most prisons, and you will always need to carry identification.
Prisons are not mixed-gender, but professional dress will help you to maintain clear boundaries with service users.
3 Take responsibility for your safety
Be sensibly aware of personal safety and follow the prison rules. Davies says you should always interview prisoners in designated areas, and make sure you’re aware of risk assessments in relation to them.
Dot Fraser, social work team manager at Edinburgh Prison, adds that visitors concerned for their safety can ask for personal alarms. Find out whether such a service is available at the prison you are visiting. Fraser also recommends alerting the prison staff in advance if you think a service user might become upset or violent. Equally, if a service user threatens to harm themselves or you have concerns about their mental health, tell the prison staff.
4 Communicate with other professionals
“It’s worth establishing who you are with the prison staff,” says Chambers. “That way you can alert them immediately to any concerns about a service user, and they can provide extra support.”
Work out who your allies might be, including chaplains, substance-misuse specialists, educators and prison officers.
One-third of Hindley’s population are looked-after children, but Chambers says many community social workers fail to warn the prison-based team when a young person is coming into custody. Chambers advises forging links with the internal social work or youth offending team, if there is one. “Contact us, send in all the relevant documentation and tell us about any concerns you may have.”
5 Be sensitive to the situation
Remember it’s not easy being a prisoner; be sensitive to the fact that they are powerless and offer support.
Be clear about what service users can expect from you when they are in prison, and talk to them about staying safe.
Chambers points out that it can be difficult to build relationships with people in such a setting. “Even though you’ve got a captive audience, access to and time with people is restricted. You have to be more focused on what you’re trying to get out of each meeting.”
In Edinburgh Prison, says Fraser, if you need to carry out a longer piece of work with a service user or discuss a sensitive issue, you can arrange to meet them in a space other than the usual visiting area.
“People can get upset; you might be telling them their children are going into care,” she says. “If you need to have a confidential conversation, it might be worthwhile ringing ahead and asking if you can arrange a confidential space.”
See special report on social work in prisons
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