Isle of Wight prisons: where social work is making inroads

The giant grey walls topped with barbed wire surrounding HMP Isle of Wight's three sites, Parkhurst, Albany and Camp Hill, do not exactly say "caring environment".

The Isle of Wight is among the most pioneering areas when it comes to the use of social workers in its prisons. Vern Pitt reports

The giant grey walls topped with barbed wire surrounding HMP Isle of Wight’s three sites, Parkhurst, Albany and Camp Hill, do not exactly say “caring environment”. However, once inside visitors are greeted with colourful wings, manicured gardens and even Queen Victoria’s old hunting lodge, immaculately preserved. It is abundantly clear that appearances can be deceptive.

The Isle of Wight has, for some time, been at the forefront of introducing social care into the prison environment. It was the first council to partner with its prison service, providing a social worker to conduct assessments of prisoners’ needs as part of a Department of Health-funded older prisoners project in 2008.

See special report on social care in prisons

It was a move driven by the prison’s population, which is the oldest in the UK. It currently has 431 prisoners over 50, and 70% are on long sentences.

Following the end of that initiative, in April 2010, the island is now a development site for the DH’s common assessment framework for adults (CAF), which is designed to promote information-sharing between social care and other services and backed by £630,000 funding over two years.

Reablement is the ‘big thing’

Phil Parkinson, head of residence and prison liaison with the project, says it has “opened his eyes” to what can be achieved. “Reablement, to me, is the big thing,” he says. “The more people we can get through from the in-patient health wing and enable them to live on a wing and prepare for release, the better. The cell is their own home. We want to be doing what happens on the outside.”

Cheryl Garrett, the social worker who has been working in the prison since 2008, says her role is much more about developing services than it would in the community. “For instance, there are a lot of dementias which can get hidden within the prison system because it’s very regulated – things are all done at a certain time,” she says. “So, we have been working with the memory service and they are now doing the tests to pick up any dementias or poor cognitive functioning on the part of people in the prison.”

Perhaps the most successful project is the older person’s activity group, run by Mary Wozencroft, disability liaison officer. Wozencroft says that demand for the group, which allows older prisoners to socialise and learn some key living skills, has soared from 15 people to more than 70. She says Garrett’s input and the use of the CAF has helped her develop the support that is really needed but also control demand for the service to ensure it’s reaching those with the highest needs.

One prisoner, whom Community Care finds in the middle of game of dominoes, appears to be in high spirits, but he says it’s only the group that keeps him that way. “I have two budgies in my cell and I used to spend most of my time in the cell just doing paintings and looking after them. I was getting depressed,” he recalls. He says he did have difficulty reaching the group because of his ability to push his own wheelchair but since he has attended he can find any number of people to take him there.

However, Garrett’s influence can only stretch so far. She will take referrals for assessment from any part of the three sites but two prison officers on one older prisoners’ wing have no idea who she is when questioned. Her managers put this down to shift patterns which can mean certain staff have little contact with those that work office hours.

Barriers to integration

The council’s service commissioner, Jackie Raven, says there are other barriers to fully integrating social services with the prison. “We use our IT system, health uses another and the prison uses a third and they don’t necessarily talk to each other. That’s not a local issue it’s a national issue,” she says. It is further complicated by the high levels of IT security necessary in the prison.

It’s clear that Raven, Garrett and project manager Peter Smith all feel that the first step is effectively assessing people and sharing information about their needs. Introducing a common assessment framework has opened that door and enabled targeted development of services, they say.

Meanwhile, Parkinson has his eyes on a bigger prize. He hopes to use the information the CAF generates to argue for further funding from the Prison Service or the local authority to expand its social care provision.

When the final report is published on the project’s success in April 2012, prison governors and council commissioners across the country may also have evidence to finally argue for better partnership work and more funding for social care in prisons, plus how to make it a reality.

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