In my very first week at Citizenship Foundation, I travelled to Bridgend in Wales with Ade, the Director of Youth Act. We were delivering Youth Act Training to staff from a young offenders unit at HMP and YOI Parc Prison. Youth Act is a training project for young people who want to achieve political or social change in their community. But this was a whole new setting and we were prepared to learn as much from the prison staff as they would hopefully get from us!
The day began with a very early start in order to make the long journey to Bridgend in Wales…coffee was definitely the first thought! I’m not sure what my expectations were having never been inside a prison before. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for the size of the prison – 1200 prisoners and 600 staff. A new block is currently being built, which will make HMP and YOI Parc one of the top three largest prisons in the UK. There are 64 boys aged between 15-18 in the young offenders unit of the prison. Once they reach 18, they are generally moved onto the adult ward. There are two youth wings, each with around 30 young people and six staff on duty at any one time.
On arriving at the prison, we had to leave in lockers most of what we had brought with us and after signing a couple of forms, a staff member escorted us through. It was interesting to note the feelings of powerlessness that take over when you have no control over your movement within a building. The guard took us through many locked doors and we found ourselves passively waiting for doors to be unlocked for us. We were taken to a small room we understood was the training room. The guard went off to collect the staff we would be training. However, twenty minutes passed and I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I became hyper-aware of my surroundings…the fact there were no windows in the room, the artificial lighting and especially the sounds. It’s what hits you the most, the silence, only broken by two sounds. The sound of keys rattling as guards move around the prison and the sound of doors slamming. I was very conscious of the fact that the two doors at either end of the corridor were locked and that we did not have our phones. Luckily, the mix up was quickly spotted and we were moved to the right room.
We spent the day training five staff members who all work in the young offenders wings. They were really interested in how the techniques and theory behind Youth Act could be applied in the prison setting. I left feeling that there really was an opportunity for the Youth Act training to make an impact, although there was recognition during the training of the challenges that make such a programme difficult and the need to think carefully about group dynamics and how to set up a team. We ran an example activity with the group of mapping the local area – in this case YOI Parc. The aim of this activity was to think about the problem areas and what solutions could be found. An activity like this could easily be run in such a setting, where everyone will be very familiar with such issues. When talking about incentives there was a strong feeling that if offered certificates or formal accreditation, the young people would engage quite quickly with the idea.
I’m really interested to learn what happens with the plans to form a Youth Act group at YOI Parc. There are plenty of challenges in this setting, which we were made aware of. However, the opportunities are great, especially if giving young people ownership over the space helps them to think about the consequences of different types of behaviour on the ward. We hope to keep in touch with the five staff members we met and to support them in putting into practice the ideas and plans they made during the training.