May 5, 1997 is a day I will never forget, as it is the day my first son was born. May 5, 2022 is also a day I’ll never forget. It was the day I visited HMP Doncaster, as a guest of Teresa Bruce, head of learning and skills.
I have served time in several prisons up and down this fine country of ours, even a spell in HMP Cardiff, and ever since my release in 2017, as a guest, I have also visited a few prisons. Therefore, regarding comparison, I possess a decent amount of experience to do so. I must admit I have only ever served in a private prison on one occasion, in 2008, where I spent a few weeks in HMP Peterborough, on a lockout from Norwich prison. However, what I saw, first-hand, in HMP Doncaster is beyond comparison.
Their departure lounge is everything I imagined a prison departure lounge for people leaving prison, and a place for people meeting them, to be. I had been met at the train station by Sheeni, who then drove us back to the prison, and our first port of call was the departure lounge. In the nicest possible way, never having used a departure lounge before, it reminded me of one of the many day centres I had used when experiencing homelessness in my past. The first thing I had noticed was the rails of clothing they had for people leaving prison, not only were the rails full, but the quality of the clothing pleasantly surprised me. The rails weren’t full of the latest Gucci top or Versace jeans, but they weren’t full of tat that people didn’t want either. What a fantastic start to my full day visit.
We then made our way to the front gate, whether it was because of just seeing the departure lounge I don’t know but I wasn’t feeling the typical nerves I felt when previously visiting prison as a guest. I had no reason to, once we entered the prison, it felt really calm, and not as noisy (I refuse to use the q word). There was just something about the atmosphere, or lack of it. Serene would explain the feeling better. I know, right! In the past, serene and HMP Doncaster would have never appeared in the same sentence. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised.
I then entered a building, which for this blog, I have renamed the Institute of Inspiration. I was there in the belly of HMP Doncaster. There was the typical prison smell. There were the locked gates, the similar noise of gates being unlocked and locked. The windows had bars. The rattling of key chains and officers milling about, yet it did not feel like prison. The whole atmosphere didn’t feel like prison. It was one of the most bizarre feelings I have ever experienced.
I wasn’t in a prison; I was in an exciting vision. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. And in Teresa’s words it all started with a leaking roof and a planter, built by Sheeni’s team of lads, a massive wooden construction which also acts as a bucket for the leaking roof and waters the plants when it does. Genius!
Teresa is Teresa Bruce, the head of learning and skills at HMP Doncaster, and who invited me to the prison to see what they are doing. An invite I am so pleased I accepted, because they are making a difference. The they being, Teresa, Sheeni and the team, along with the support of Teresa’s boss, deputy director, Chris Clifford, and John Hewitson, director of Doncaster. Two men who later in the day I met in Chris’s office, another surreal experience in what turned out to be a surreal day.
I could write a book on my experiences yesterday, but the area I want to focus on is HMP Doncaster’s Market Place. A place where not only was I amongst my own but looking around it was run by my own. Is flabbergasted still a word? Well, along with feeling overwhelmed I was also flabbergasted. The trust given to the men, and rightly so, is something I’d never seen before, not even in an open prison, and this is a local B cat.
I’ll come back to what I physically took away from the prison in a bit, my main takeaway from yesterday’s visit is the people I met, the men who are serving sentences and work in the ‘Institute of Inspiration’. I had conversations yesterday which will live with me until my dying day.
At lunchtime, a buffet had been laid on, because of me visiting, see what I mean about surreal. The men who work down here arrive at 8am and return to the wing at 4pm, unlocked and working during patrol state is also another surreal experience.
Now on to what I physically took away because Market Place does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s a barber’s shop, a restaurant (which the men use, and staff, for their lunch), there’s a bike repair shop with the donated bikes being fixed and sold on, for no more than £60, a bistro, a woodworker’s shop. A sewing/craft shop and an art shop. All providing skills and qualifications in an environment where the collaboration of education, employment, through the gate and the future is clearly coordinated to benefit the men. In turn that reduces reoffending, the reduction of reoffending means fewer victims. Fewer victims mean safer communities and isn’t that something we all want? Each shop/workshop sell the items they make, and the money goes back into the pot, at first it goes into the till each shop has which is controlled by the ‘prisoners’ (a term I’ve used to make a point). I would love to see a shop in the centre of Doncaster where men on ROTL can work selling the items made in the prison to the public
I felt so honoured when I was given the opportunity to choose a gift to bring home from the sewing/craft shop and from the art shop. I was also given a furry key ring for Kelly (my partner) which I’ve shared below:
I’d like to bring this blog to a close by thanking everybody I met yesterday, not only was I made to feel welcomed but also a very important person. I also would like to say a personal thank you to Sheeni who was my personal guide for the day as I was permitted access all areas. I was even offered to visit the seg, which I nicely, but impolitely, rejected. I also want to thank, Teresa for inviting me up to see it all for myself. Most importantly, I want to thank the lads I met yesterday.
I’m not going to pretend that HMP Doncaster is perfect, or that there’s still a lot of work to do, but they are most definitely heading in the right direction and show what can be achieved through determination, inspiration, and cooperation.
Thank you, HMP Doncaster. Thank you.