Ali Barker, Custody Director at MTC, takes a look at our new service user offerings
I was excited to visit the new Departure Lounges at HMP Brixton and HMP Wandsworth last Thursday. The Departure Lounges are a brilliant example of partnership working between the prisons and the MTC Through the Gate (TtG) resettlement teams. They ensure that 100% of prisoners returning to the community in these challenging times are getting up-to-date resettlement support and advice at the most critical moment (as well as all the preparatory work before this).
Why we’re creating Departure Lounges
Departure Lounges at prison gates are being set up as part of our Exceptional Delivery Model (EDM) for TtG services across London and Thames Valley CRCs to provide assurance that 100 per cent of prisoners being released have received resettlement support and advice before re-entering the community.
This arrangement is necessary at this time because access to prisoners has become more difficult as they are locked in their cells every day to maximise social distancing, and early releases on ROTL (Release on Temporary Licence) are happening at short notice. TtG teams are putting resettlement information packs and questionnaires under cell doors and following up with conversations where they can.
Where there are in-cell phones, TtG teams are using these to reach out to prisoners, but nothing is as reassuring as a face-to-face meeting at the moment of re-entering the community in these strange and frightening times, when many of the usual community support services are closed or at least less accessible.
Visiting HMP Brixton’s Departure Lounge
At HMP Brixton, TtG manager Annabelle and her team had worked with prison manager Jack and prison officer Katrina to set up the Departure Lounge in the old visitors’ centre just outside the gate, which has been recently refurbished by Pact (Prison Advice and Care Trust) and the prison. The Departure Lounge, located just beyond the prison gate, is staffed by the Resettlement Team, who are available to provide additional support at the point of release, ensuring a truly Through the Gate service.
Pact kindly agreed that we could use the space as a Departure Lounge for the duration of the pandemic and as they do not have employees working or supporting the lounge, it has very much been the lending of the space for the good of our service users. Help is on hand to access all key agencies, such as accommodation, benefits and health services.
This is an interim solution to provide additional support during the COVID-19 lockdown. Once social distancing restrictions are lifted, Pact will take the lead on developing and delivering the Departure Lounge, in partnership with the prison, MTC and Penrose (the latter of whom provide resettlement services on behalf of London CRC and are staffing the lounge on a daily basis). We are already planning future conversations as to how we will support Pact and share the learning we have gained from running the departure lounge through lockdown.
What happens in a Departure Lounge?
The Departure Lounge is set up as a suitably social distanced meeting place with all the information discharged prisoners may need to help them start their journey to begin their new life in these strange times, including that buses are now free – but don’t sit next to anyone!
Annabelle, Katrina and the whole team were motivated and enthused to ensure all those being discharged were equipped for their transition to the community. The team started their day by welcoming and chatting to prisoners’ family and friends who had arrived to meet them and were feeling a bit anxious – they were already caring, listening and supporting before prisoners were discharged.
The team were also sharing information regarding what they knew about the hopes, fears and practical concerns of the men due to be discharged that day. The men being discharged were met by the resettlement team with friendly waves, greeted by their first names and offered a cup of tea and chat about the next steps on their journey.
Some knew where they were going and didn’t need any practical support, but still stopped for a quick chat and I imagine were slightly buoyed by knowing that someone cared about them beyond the gate. Others needed help with transport and housing and where to find the probation office. All advice and support was provided with care and compassion.
I spent a lovely morning sitting on a bench in the sunshine, feeling inspired by watching all this. In the 19 years that I have worked in prisons I have never really seen a prisoner be discharged and reunited with his or her family. Not all family relationships were straight forward and simple – there were some tensions and not everyone got in the same car to leave, but everything was peaceful and supported by the friendly calm resettlement and prison teams.
Visiting HMP Wandsworth’s Departure Lounge
At Wandsworth prison, the set-up is slightly different, because due to a lack of suitable space outside the prison gate, the Departure Lounge is set up in an office in reception. Aiesha had been working in the Departure Lounge all week and enthusiastically told us how she had developed great working relationships with the officers and healthcare staff working in reception to improve communication and flow of prisoners. She had enjoyed helping men leaving pick some suitable new clothes from donations collected by the prison.
As well as assisting the men with all their resettlement questions and concerns, Aiesha had also fulfilled an advocacy role with any issues, such as property loss. One prisoner due to be discharged that day was on a dirty protest and the resettlement team and prison staff were discussing the reasons for this and what could be done to assist him.
On our way out of reception, the officers reminded the resettlement team to call for assistance whenever needed, as they had assisted the team with some challenging behaviour that morning. We then met the whole resettlement team who are putting together the resettlement packs to give out and phoning prisoners in their cells to offer advice and support. The team leader has reorganised the team’s work to ensure social distancing and maximise efficiency within the restrictions of the current context. The team really appreciated her support of them as individuals at this difficult time, when it has been challenging and frightening to keep coming to work in the prison.
What’s next for Departure Lounges?
Looking more widely at our strategy for departure lounges, we are exploring other models with the help of our partners, including looking at the HMP Peterborough model in Thames Valley, to see what further support we can offer. Having gained ideas of the support offered by others, whether about sexual health, or offering clothes washing services, we are exploring how we could offer this in locations such as Oxford.
We are keen to continue the departure lounges after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, and would look to work with other partnership agencies such as St Mungos and Education, Training and Employment. This may not be possible across all 14 prisons we work in, but we are confident that the positive work being done is a sign that we can develop and provide this support.
It was a truly inspirational and pleasurable day to see all this great work, with the brains and drive behind the project, London CRC Head of Custody, Martin Larbey. Well done everyone!