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'It is not an environment that most of us see'

Carole-Ann Duff
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When I told people that I was working in the prison on a health improvement project the usual response was either “do you not feel scared?” or “why are we spending money helping criminals?”

I always responded by saying that I would be more scared of walking through our city centre on a Saturday night and that prisoners deserve the same healthcare as the rest of us – whether we agree with that or not.

Not all prisoners are bad people. For some it is their upbringing or substance misuse that has led them to the world of crime, while for others it is just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Haven’t most of us had a few close shaves behind the wheel of a car?

Our local prison is only five years old, so once you get through the security at the entrance and collect your keys and alarm, you could be mistaken for being in a new school. Yes, there are lots of doors to get through but, once in the body of the prison, you come across an education centre, a library which is very well used, a gym and a “Links Centre” where outside agencies can meet with prisoners.

It is only on entering the residential wings that you realise where you really are and the stark reality hits home. The first thing that struck me when I walked into the wings was the level of noise – loud voices, music, buzzers, phones – it is constant.

For me, that alone was stressful particularly working out if loud voices were banter or actual arguments – everyone seemed to be shouting.

While I generally saw prisoners in the “Links Centre” on a one-to-one or small group basis, officers were never far away. I also had an alarm, had completed personal protection training and I knew there were CCTV cameras everywhere. 

At the end of the day I trusted the judgements of the officers in that, if they did not think it appropriate for me to see someone, then I accepted that and I was told to just press my alarm at any time – fortunately I never had to do that. After all, I was not providing an emergency service.

While I was never complacent about my safety, prisoners often said they would not allow anyone to harm me as they seemed to value the help being offered, particularly as I was seen as a visitor and they were coming to see me voluntarily.

Working with the Scottish Prison Service was an eye-opener. Meetings were short and very concise, people left the meeting knowing exactly what their actions were, what the deadlines were and who they had to report to. There was a real sense of partnership working. In other words, no messing about.

One of my personal challenges was working with very serious criminals who presented to me as perfectly decent. This forced me to look at my own preconceptions and give thought to the assumptions that we all make about people that we don’t even know.

“I feel quite privileged to have worked at the prison on such a big project”

At times I found dealing with officers and their attitudes a challenge – after all, they are the ones on the front line and had to implement the smoking ban.

Establishing relationships with officers and other staff working in the various departments, such as the library and media unit, was just as important to me as building up good working relationships with prisoners.

It may sound strange to some but, looking back, I feel quite privileged to have worked at the prison on such a big project – it is not an environment that most of us see.

I certainly hope that my learnings and experiences have been able to inform the rest of my colleagues in the work that we are doing to improve the health of other vulnerable groups with challenging and complex needs.

Carole-Ann Duff is public health practitioner, NHS Grampian Public Health Directorate

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