A Day in the Life of a Prison Recovery Worker

Uncovering life behind bars for EDP’s substance misuse workers inside Dorset’s HMP Portland

“Drugs and alcohol are just a coping strategy. Nobody sets out with the intention of being an addict”

Lauren, Substance Misuse team, HMP Portland

Portland lies on a stunning peninsula. The World Heritage site of Chesil beach is within spitting distance but for some residents of Portland, there are no views, except those of the sky! Portland prison has a capacity of 530 people with an average of 520 in residence most days, and is a busy place where a range of agencies work together to assist the sometimes complex lives of prisoners and get them to a more stable and positive place before release.

I spent the day with Lauren who works for EDP Drug and Alcohol Services as recovery worker at HMP Portland. She is one of  seven recovery workers helping to manage addictions in the prison settings. They are a little family. It’s obvious they look out for each other, respect one another and have each other’s back. It’s clearly a unique and exciting job but what sort of person becomes a recovery worker and what do they do?

‘Literally all sorts’ says Sam Cool the Service Manager for EDP Drug & Alcohol Services at Portland ‘but they have one thing in common, something that you just can’t teach. They are all able to hold their own and all care about the people they work with. That looks very different in each person and every one of our workers here is different, but you have to be able to acknowledge boundaries”.

Lauren has been working at Portland for three years and she started her prison career as an administrator. “Everybody has to understand how the administrative systems work, whether you are a manager, recovery workers or anything else. It’s the perfect first rung on the ladder”. She then moved into a more frontline role as a Recovery Worker and is now a confident, approachable and talented member of the team. Experience from other prison visits shows that Lauren’s journey is a tried and tested pathway for people who want to have a rewarding career within the prison service.

I met Lauren on a bright but chilly February day and we got straight to work visiting some of her regular clients.

As we made our way to the wings she stops to have a friendly chat with a man wearing the obligatory grey prison ‘uniform’ that all inmates wear but this man stands out from the rest by his red armband. A ‘red band’ is someone who has earned the right to have additional responsibilities and freedoms within the prison setting because they pose a low risk, have followed the letter of the law and have undergone special training as peer mentors. This one, Lauren tells me, is a great help to the Substance Misuse team because he has real conversations with inmates who are struggling with their addictions and helping them to manage situations which might prove harmful of threatening.

We head for Grenville Wing (where mainly young offenders are housed) one of four giant wings of Portland Prison to visit a prisoner who is due for release in two days’ time. Lauren explains that leaving prison is a highly risky time for any inmate as they move back into circles of old acquaintances who may have been partly responsible for the prisoner going inside in the first place and sometimes toxic friendships and relationships. Prisoner A is largely off drugs after a long period of dependency. She is worried about him because his tolerance is rock bottom and they have not had enough time to help him stabilise. He does, she states, present a high overdose risk. When the guards unlock his cell, he hobbles out with a bandaged arm and swollen leg. He used drugs overnight and fell in his cell.

Private space is virtually non-existent in prisons so we prop ourselves on a red billiard table in the corridor. Lauren holds a letter in her hand which she passes to Prisoner A. He opens it and looks through the contents. It contains a list of appointments which Lauren has set up for him and she gently but firmly urges him to attend each and every one of them. She talks to him about a whole range of issues from staying healthy and safe to using the community resources on offer. ‘EDP’s Reach Drug and Alcohol Service will help you though the next stage, but you have to engage with the process to keep you safe’.

Was coaxing him gently to attend really necessary? ‘Many prisoners don’t go to their appointments, which is why Footprints is such a help’. Footprints is a service which meets prisoners upon release and helps them to access essential services that can be the difference between going straight back into offending or making a clean break. They help ex-inmates attend their raft of meetings from probation, drug and alcohol support, housing, employment, any service that needs to engage with prisoners upon release. After giving him lots of strategies to avoid harmful situations, Laurent leaves him with one final piece of advice. “Just stay out of the drama. No one’s going to follow you around like they do in here. You have to make good choices. Lay some good foundations down in the community. It will really help”.

Reach, EDP’s Dorset based community drug and alcohol service will pick up Prisoner A’s case upon leaving prison and help him to continue to manage and overcome his habits in the community.

On the way to our next appointment in a different wing (you have to be able to handle lots of stairs and be able to decipher a large ring of similar keys) I ask how it is being a woman in a male jail.

“I’m always very aware of where I am and I make sure I am safe’ she says. ‘I always let wing staff know where I am and carry a radio at all times”.

“As long as I am doing my job well, I would hope they will respect me. I’m always open and honest when I speak to them about what I do. I explain when I might have to break confidence and why because we have to put safeguarding first”. I know this first hand as she avoids risky situations taking us on a roundabout route through the prison to avoid having to move through spaces where prisoners are relaxing and exercising.

“I sometime help people work their way through their booklets if they have problems with reading or writing”

Matt, peer mentor on Raleigh wing, HMP Portland

Eventually we find ourselves on Raleigh, an adult wing of the prison. Before we meet our next client, Lauren introduced me to Matt (not his real name) who, although he is not a ‘red band’, is one of a number of peer mentors that the substance misuse service at HMP Portland have trained to be a listening ear on the wings.

He’s a tall, straight faced prisoner who clearly has a good relationship with Lauren. When I ask him if he enjoys his role his eyes light up. “I do. I really do”. He explains that he visits people in their cells if they have questions, or need a bit of support through a difficult time – “it helps that I have been there. They listen”. He has trained and has a qualification in peer mentoring and once a week attends a specific group for others who perform this valued role within the prison service. “I sometime help people work their way through their booklets if they have problems with reading or writing”. I ask him if he will use his peer mentoring qualification when he is released. He shrugs. ‘I might’.

We bump into Lauren’s next client in the corridors and this time find a small, private room to chat.

“Why do you think I am here?” she asks. “Because I didn’t have my methadone yesterday’ Prisoner B replies. ‘Someone took it from me”. He explains that he put it on the floor in the clinical room so that he could take another set of tables, but they were swiped by someone else. Lauren is watching his face avidly. “Can I ask, is anyone pressuring you?” she asks gently. ‘It was a genuine mistake Miss’ he replies and Lauren looks like she is inclined to believe him. She goes on to explain that because of the error, his prescription might be in jeopardy. “You are under threat of having to be put on rapid reduce’ Lauren explains. This is where instead of the slow release methadone, prisoners come down off their meds faster but she is obviously concerned for him. “You don’t want to become unstable”. “No. I don’t want to rattle around in my cell feeling bad. I’ll just get angry”.

With two weeks left of his sentence, Lauren is clearly keen to keep him focused on staying positive and gives him lots of practical ideas about how he can handle the situation in the clinical room in the future.

We return to the Substance Misuse hub on the far side of the prison to fill out the necessary notes and paperwork. Before she starts putting in the next round of calls to sort appointments and add vital updates about the physical and mental condition of her clients, I ask her why she does the job and the best bits from her perspective.

“It’s a family within a family. We’re a team” she says. ‘It’s all about relationships. We have to communicate and form good working relationships in the team and with the guards because they’ve got a job and we’ve got a job and sometimes I need them to help me and vice versa. “I feel so good when my clients ‘get it’. It can be hard work for low results but we all know what we’re here to do and we can’t work miracles but we do make breakthroughs and they make us feel good”.

Whether it’s prisoners who, because of the humanity and professionalism shown by the workers, open up and seek help when they are feeling dire, or if its watching someone make a 180 degree turn because of guidance they’ve had or classes they’ve attended. I look through the thank you letters and they are touching. It’s surprising the number of poems that people write to express their thanks and their feelings. I can genuinely feel the pride that they all feel in their jobs.

Why do you do this job, a job that is hidden to many people in society?

“Drugs and alcohol are just a coping strategy. Nobody sets out with the intention of being an addict. It’s because of trauma, or because you don’t like yourself. It’s never one thing. I can bring people back up. I can help them make better decisions”

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