From The Bulletin, HMP Wandsworth, 16 August 2019
BEST at Wandsworth…
As BEST may be unfamiliar to a lot of readers, I’ll use some FAQ’s to explain our role in the prison and illustrate how we try to fulfil that role. Apart from shedding a bit more light on BEST, I hope this will encourage colleagues to refer suitable cases relating to Foreign Nationals to BEST and see if we can return some of the magnificent cooperation that has been so consistently shown to us ever since we started working in HMPW just over 2 years ago.
What is BEST? BEST is a charity whose full name is BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth. Apart from being a very welcome abbreviation for that unpronounceable mouthful, BEST is also an acronym for our key activities – BEfriending, Supporting, and working as a Team. The Team is about 30 volunteers, most of whom conduct Social Visits once a fortnight to FN’s who have requested a BEST visitor. At present, only two of us operate regularly in-prison – Lavinia Aleri (2 days a week) and myself, Geoff Smith (5 days a week).
Why Foreign Nationals? FN’s comprise about 30% of the prison population. And dealing with them often presents time-consuming challenges that, if not dealt with in a timely manner, can lead to further problems down the line. The most obvious example is language, which is a frequent barrier to communication and, in extreme cases, can be a total block. Rare as they may be, these extreme cases follow a clear pattern: if a newly inducted foreign prisoner can’t communicate at all he is likely to be on an ACCT, very possibly on constant observation; however, stress levels fall dramatically as soon as communications are established.
And that last point – about establishing communications and trying, not just to reduce stress levels, but also getting FN’s pro-actively engaged in taking responsibility for their own future – comes to the heart of what BEST is trying to achieve. It also explains why we work so frequently and closely with Safer Custody and Chaplaincy. In short, BEST aims to reduce and, where possible, overcome barriers that can prevent prisoners from participating in normal prison life, encouraging them to cooperate and adapt to a healthy prison regime.
What does BEST do? One of the first things we do is to manage expectations, which is why, after introducing BEST, we say: “When you tell us how you want us to help, it’s very likely we can’t do what you want – but so long as it’s reasonable we’ll take it seriously and do what we can.” Wherever things go from there, talking helps to reduce stress and, by sharing in words whatever is uppermost on their minds, that puts in place a platform – however shaky it may seem to start with – on which they can build confidence in themselves and the custodial environment in which they are living.
In an awful lot of cases that is the most important service BEST renders i.e. by letting prisoners talk and listening empathetically to what they have to say, this enables them to connect with reality and cultivate an awareness that – given the right attitude and a bit of oomph-from-within – they can actually cope. As regards the specifics, it’s up to prisoners to tell BEST how they would like us to help. In over 80% of cases, this involves one or more of the following: help in applying for healthcare, education, work, or exercise; guidance relating to deportation / extradition / transfer / or repatriation; help in getting legal representation i.e. appointing, chasing or replacing a lawyer; difficulties connecting with loved ones e.g. no PIN or telephone credit; complications with property e.g. lost clothes, need to access a mobile to get a number; and enquiries about complaints e.g. finding the right form, help to complete it in English etc.
Referrals – we live off, and warmly welcome, referrals, usually coming from CM’s, SO’s and Officers on the Wings, Key Workers, Safer Custody, Chaplaincy, Immigration, CRC, StandOut and, of course, the prisoners themselves – either from Foreign National Reps or directly from prisoners approaching us on the Wings. Prisoners can also access BEST by completing a BEST Visit Request Form and, as of early August, via the prison kiosks.
Crucially, because this is the real benchmark for whether BEST is working properly, we aim to be a resource that colleagues in the Prison Service and Healthcare know they can call on to help when working with Foreign Nationals – part of the same system, helping to lift some of the load, relieving some of the pressure, and cooperating in the same large-spirited and professional way that has been so consistently shown towards BEST ever since, back in 2017, we started out as “new kids on the block”. Because, when all’s said and done, it’s participating in that bigger, inclusive team that enables everything BEST does in HMPW and makes working here such an energising and pleasurable experience.
Geoff Smith – Director, BEST