A month into the first semester, students are settling in well to their courses. Welcome Week was a success in making students feel comfortable and getting them excited for their new course. We had trips, personal tutor meetings and team exercises to help them adjust. One of our students, Annie Middleton – a first year Criminal Justice with Offender Management student – has shared her experience of a valuable trip to HMP Drake Hall during Welcome Week.
During the university’s Welcome Week, Level 4 Offender Management students had the opportunity to visit HMP Drake Hall – a closed Women’s resettlement prison with an operational capacity of approximately 340 adults and young offenders. HMP Drake Hall also holds 25 prisoners in an open unit situated outside of the prison gate, which allows the women to access the local community and facilities such as the gym, work opportunities, and the local town centres, prior to their release.
Upon our arrival we were welcomed into the prison’s visitor centre. Unlike other prisons, and those depicted in movies and on TV, this visitor centre was a vast contrast from the dark and dingy visiting rooms that most of us were expecting. The pavement outside was covered in bright paintings where children could play and learn to count, and the centre itself was no different; bright blue walls and picture, comfortable chairs and a spacious environment where children and families would be made to feel safe and welcomed. It felt more like a community centre than a prison.
Our class were split into three separate groups, and as the first group were taken on a tour of the prison by Tim, who had kindly organised and made this visit possible, my group sat down with an offender, who also volunteers within the prison as a ‘Peer Advisor’. While talking with this offender, and a second one later in the day, we were given the opportunity to ask whatever questions we had about their experiences during their sentences.
The first offender we spoke to spoke about her experience living her life without her children. We learnt that the prison offers special ‘children’s days’ during school holidays, where the prison officers dress in normal clothes, and the environment is made to feel more normal for the children and their families. These days can be extremely beneficial to the women and the children, and as we learnt, can help keep the offender’s spirits up during their sentences, and help maintain a sense of normality into the lives of the children. The second offender we spoke to had very contrasting views from the first; she felt that she had been failed by the criminal justice system and was angry and dissatisfied with the support she had been receiving – or lack thereof. I asked her if she had received any mental health support to help deal with the emotional impact of her prosecution and sentence, and she spoke of how many women in the prison system never receive mental health intervention because the waiting time is usually longer than their sentence.
After, we were shown around the prison grounds, being shown the voluntary and paid outwork programmes; including the opportunity to work in an on-site call centre, the Halfords Academy and the Greggs Academy; all of which have the possibility of employment on release. The prison also offers schemes such as education, workshops, farming and gardening, a gym and a beauty salon where the women can spend money earnt from work. Walking around the prison was unlike anything we could have expected; it was, as the prisoners described “a holiday-camp gone wrong”; there were patches of bright sunflowers scattered around the grounds, and we caught a glimpse of a wandering duck; images you would never associate with a prison. The accommodation the women were in could not be further from typical cells; women are housed with approximately 20 other women, with laundry facilities, kitchens, and single bedrooms that can be easily compared to University accommodation.
Overall, this visit was an extremely eye-opening insight into the prison systems from the views of the prisoners themselves. The visit was also shocking to most as Drake Hall does not at all come close to the typical prison settings that most picture. However, as Tim said to us during our visit; does locking offenders away in dingy cells with no educational opportunities work in rehabilitation?
On behalf of myself and the rest of the Level 4 Class, I would like to thank Louis, Keith, Tim and the rest of the HMP Drake Hall staff for making this opportunity safe and educational and first and foremost possible.