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How HMP Edinburgh sweetens porridge, The FT Weekend

‘Krol, 45, is stocky, with watchful eyes, shaven head and thick, strong hands. “I do the anti-bullying presentation.’”

The prisoner reception area of HMP Edinburgh has cream walls and a grey linoleum floor. Here, in rooms leading off a corridor to the inner prison door, prisoners are searched, processed and change into prison clothes.

Prison Officer Stuart Wright, 44, stands in the corridor, thick-set and amiable, a faded Saltire tattoo on his wide right forearm, and on his immaculate black tie a red enamelled Butler Trust badge.

The Trust was established in 1985, in memory of the reforming Home Secretary ‘Rab’ Butler (1957-62) to promote positive regimes in UK prisons. Its annual awards mark exceptional work by prison staff and volunteers. The badge is Wright’s third award, and his second for the new inmate induction course he has run at Edinburgh since 2003.

Wright is helped by ‘peer supporters’ – long-term inmates such as Jack Walker. A 58-year-old with swept-back hair and a cultured, confident manner, Walker ‘meets and greets’ prisoners.

“We were the first establishment in Scotland to have a peer supporter in reception,” says Wright, speaking in an office off the corridor. “There’d never been an individual who pulls you aside, goes ‘Look, it’s not all bad.’ ”

Walker says, “If you have a group of YOs [young offenders] coming through, trying to control them can be quite difficult. They’ve been in court all day so they are bored, hyper. They want to prove they are number-one guys. You’ve got to somehow get their attention. And the ones holding back, you’ve got to look out for them.”

Wright says, nodding towards the quietly whistling Walker, “They’re more inclined to listen to these guys because they are fellow prisoners.”

The five-day course itself starts on Monday mornings. Different intakes have different temperaments. “I don’t know what I’m going into,” says Wright. “But I have the peer supporters with me. I’ll give the [new inmates] a run-down of the programme. Cup of tea, bit of banter, then get down to the work.” That includes presentations on the prison’s approach to bullying, racism and skills training, but the course also tries to make arrivals reassess their lives.

“I’ll say to individuals,” says Wright, “ ‘Why do you take drugs?’ ‘I’m bored.’ ‘Why’re you bored?’ ‘Cause I don’t work.’ ‘Why don’t you work?’ ‘Got no skills.’ ‘OK, if we can furnish you with skills, when you go into the big wide world, you’re more employable, you get a job, you’re not going to be bored.’”

“We’re saying to them,” says Walker, “ ‘If you don’t help yourself, where are you going to be? You’ll be back in here.’ ”

We head for the course, walking between modern, three-storey ‘halls’ (cell wings) with pitched roofs like giant semis. The empty Pentland Hills shine beyond razor-wired fences.

Outside the course room, a poster shows a clock inscribed with ‘Doing time? Time for a change?’ Inside, walls are covered in noticeboards (‘The Journey’, ‘Weekly News’), posters (‘Bullies Come In All Colours’) and encouragement (‘Unlock A Positive Future’). The sun shines in through white, angled floor-to-ceiling bars. Fourteen young inmates in prison sweatshirts and polo shirts sit or lounge around a horseshoe of tables.

Wright sits to one side. Prison Officer Anne Gibb sits at the front, across from Charlie Woolard, a tall, thin, young peer supporter. Gibb, blonde and in her early 40s, talks about alcohol, how it can mess up lives, the programmes that can help. She asks how many have drink problems. Half a dozen arms creep up. Gibb is friendly but firm, stirring day-dreamers with “Hello-oh?”

As Wright had said, the inmates listen up when Walker gives his presentation, with managerial ease, on punishment. He gets them to talk about tagging and bail. Walker asks, “Should the victim of an offence be offered the opportunity of confronting the offender?” There is a guilty, thoughtful pause. “What, for a fight?”, jokes an inmate. Wright: “Behave yourself.”

Afterwards, new inmates give me their views on the course: “It reminds you what is available”; “better than the last one I was at [at another prison]”; “you’ll at least have a head-start when you walk out of here.” A lean, black-haired inmate dissents. “It can work for some people, say they’ve got the motive, they’ve got roots. Nothing would work for me.”

Wright, fatherly, pulls his chair next to him and says, “The problem is, the gentleman concerned is good enough but needs support.” Wright looks at him. “We’ve got to keep chipping away. He’s just a young man.” The prisoner shrugs, nods. Another adds, “It’s not going to do harm, is it?”

The course over for the day, I talk to Charlie Woolard and another peer supporter, Gordon Krol. Krol, 45, is stocky, with watchful eyes, shaven head and thick, strong hands. “I do the anti-bullying presentation. A lot of kids come in here petrified, but you can relax them, make sure they know the situation. When I’ve done the presentation, you see a big change in the guys’ faces.”

Peer supporters’ work goes beyond the course. “We pick up on guys who are very depressed in the hall,” says Krol. “We have a blather with them. If they’re suicidal, they’re not going to say it to the officers. But we will.”

It is rewarding work. “It makes me feel I’m doing some good here,” says Woolard. “I’m the same as them; I’m a prisoner but if someone needs help, I’ll try and sort it out.”

Wright is not naive. He says, “You get people who want to be peer supporters but they have an ulterior motive. If people want to do it, I’ll follow them for about a month, let them settle in, see what they’ve been up to.”

It was peer supporters who nominated Wright for the recent award. But perhaps his most impressive testament is this: since the course started, five peer supporters, including Walker, have turned down places at open prisons. They stayed on, to help the new arrivals.

17 August 2007

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