• Institutions 13 August 2018 | View comments

  • 13th August 2018 | By David Jolley

    This week I went to Stafford Gaol. It was always Stafford Jail when I was at school, but the alternative spelling seems to have become the fashion. No clues from Chamber’s for why and wherefore. I had learned it houses nearly 800 male sex offenders. There has been a prison at Stafford – county town – since the 12th Century and the current building has parts which date from the 1790s. Oddly it was ‘mothballed’ between the wars but brought back into commission and took on its current role from 2014.

    There is a small carpark opposite the main entrance. The entrance is as seen on many TV programmes – entry via an intercom to a bare-floored vestibule with no seats but access to the uniformed, male receptionist through a grill. Items such as a mobile phone to be stored in a locker – key number against a register. I was expected and welcomed, then ushered via a locked door to await collection in another barely furnished room. Here there were seats and two cheerful, uniformed, female cleaners. In the ten minutes I was waiting, any number of uniformed people came in one door and of the other – every opening and closing requiring noisy key work from the noisy doors and locks. No use of electronics or keypads here – an almost fond confirmation of belonging and status from the routine.

    Jo – the senior chaplain – is so nice and we breezed through courtyards and doors, greeting men who were pleased to be recognised, admiring flowerbeds and appreciating the geometric beauty of three or four storey buildings, and exquisitely polished wooden doors (would this be rosewood?) on the corridor through the main building. Jo and her colleagues have offices and there is an impressive chapel – a very high vaulted ceiling, some stained glass windows and rows of chairs – Sunday services bring about 80 attenders. I learned about the work of the chaplaincy and the international context which has brought so many older men to gaol for offences committed many years ago. We read much of those who were famous in entertainment, and ongoing stories of churchmen, scout-leaders, football coaches and more, who took advantage of positions of trust. It is so saddening to find that good works have, in some instances, been motivated by illicit desires. For others chance temptation has been too much. There is a range and a mix – I did not hear how far the details are known or discussed.

    Jo is at pains to emphasise that the punishment is the loss of freedom and that life within the gaol is not to be characterised by a punitive regime of food, physical facilities or activity. Plucking oakum is not part of the schedule https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakum

    Most of our time was devoted to the day centre available to older prisoners – Monday to Friday, run by a ‘residents’ committee which has monthly meetings with the Governor. There is a range of craft and hobby activities, newspapers when the library has finished with them, and open access to a garden/yard where the men can spend time and tend their plants. It is a place where everyone is respected as a human being. There are counsellors. The chaplains make clear they are not professional counsellors, but they are good listeners and do have a code to share and recommend.

    We were able to see a cell. Cosy for one, but overcrowded for two. One bed is an upstairs bunk – you have to be able to get there. CQC would not find this acceptable in a care home.

    I have experienced, and liked, institutions throughout my life: schools, churches, colleges, mental hospitals, general hospitals and care homes, but this is my first prison. I have rarely been a ‘resident’ – just a few days in hospital to have my tonsils out aged about six and another few days in a general hospital dealing with a heart problems fifteen years ago. I did not like either very much, but friendship with others in the same boat and sensible care from nurses and others, punctuated by family visits, not to mention the expectation of return home, made the experience not so bad. My involvement in longer term care contexts has been as a professional who pops in for a while. Albert Kushlick coined a nomenclature which graded doctors as the briefest of carers, qualified nurses as next and unqualified or informal carers as 24 hour supports. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09638288009163968?needAccess=true&journalCode=idre18

    I have tremendous respect for those who give hands-on ever-present care in all these situations and for the management regimes which seek to make the life tolerable, even educational and therapeutic. Respect too for the residents who strive to maintain their individuality, standards and humour in these most dehumanising circumstances.

    I was touched and impressed by this experience of a brief visit to Stafford Gaol. Visiting on behalf of Christians on Ageing and seeing the life with the benefit of a chaplain’s perspective, it felt certain that physical health, mental health and the social prospects of the residents are being considered and respected, though people would want to do better. As for spiritual matters – a brief intrusion such as this is not the vehicle for discovery – but later life is the time for everyone to reflect and revise personal beliefs and values. The setting and the staff are making space and time, moderating as far as possible the distraction which can come from pain and punishment. There must be stories which can be told – We have much to learn.

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