BEST Trustees Annual Report 2019-20
BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth
Throughout the year BEST has had approximately 20 volunteers regularly visiting foreign nationals at HMP Wandsworth. On 23 March 2020, when the lockdown came into effect, we had to suspend visits until further notice. On 20 July the prison resumed Social Visits. However, visitor numbers have been halved owing to restrictions imposed by social distancing. Throughout the year, including the lockdown, BEST has continued operating in the prison, with the Director attending the prison 5 days a week.
The year in summary
At time of writing in late July 2020, a key priority is to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the Coronavirus crisis. This means, when the lockdown is more fully eased, getting back into action as swiftly as possible. Having built a strong team of volunteers we want to do all we can to keep them actively involved, and for BEST to revert to operating as normally as circumstances allow. The challenges will include ensuring compliance with the stringent healthcare regulations, such as no physical contact and the need to keep a “social distance” of 2 metres.
At time of writing in late July 2020 Foreign Nationals represent 49.7% of the prison population of just over 1,500. This is a higher proportion than usual, largely because Immigration has not worked in the prison since before the lockdown and this, combined with the Coronavirus crisis, has prolonged detention of many who would otherwise have been released. In the prison we are typically dealing with 30 cases a week, mostly relating to healthcare, exercise, education, in-prison work, contact with loved ones, appointing or chasing lawyers, understanding and responding to Home Office and other official papers (usually on deportation or extradition), preparations for release, with about 10% of cases involving concerns relating to bullying, incompatible cell-mates and complaints against staff.
In January 2020, after nearly 3 years as a Trustee and our Head of Training, Olivia Beer left us to concentrate on her career at the Ministry of Justice. She was replaced both as a Trustee and Head of Training, by Françoise Petre, who has previously worked with Hibiscus – https://hibiscusinitiatives.org.uk – and, as Françoise is security-cleared and key-trained, she has also worked in HMPW, including (until 23 March) regular attendance at the weekly BEST Friday surgeries in Legal Visits.
BEST prison visits remain a vital component of our core mission, delivering manifestly beneficial effects for the prisoners visited, enabling them to talk freely and openly and discuss whatever they want, including their own and their family’s support needs. Having said this, the fact remains that almost all the FNO’s we work with also require in-prison support, and providing that support requires us to operate regularly in the prison. Of necessity, this requires a number of volunteers who are security-vetted and key-trained and can, therefore, enter the prison freely and see the men on the Wings, as required. At present we have four such volunteers: Geoff Smith, the Director, Françoise Petre, Isobel Smallacombe and Leona Potter. In the year ahead we hope to add one or two more to this team of volunteers who can also operate within the prison.
Lack of funds (we currently have just over £400 in the bank) has meant we have had only marginal involvement with support “through the gate”, mainly involving 4 ex-offenders who became known to BEST while still in custody in 2018-19.
We are currently dealing with some 110 cases a month. Since 7 August 2019 prisoners can contact BEST via the prison kiosk, and to date (25 July 2020) we have had 596 kiosk applications. This represents 45% of the total number of cases BEST deals with, and each week we send relevant details to the Equalities Department, indicating name and NOMIS number of prisoners seen, and a short description of the subject matter. An overview of the total number of cases and the referral source is given in the table below:
Overview of BEST cases 1 August 2019 – 1 August 2020
|Referral Source||Referrals per month||Referrals per year||%|
Minor errors due to rounding
* “Other” is mainly comprised of Immigration, Healthcare, and “partner organisations”
As ever, it is impossible to overstate the importance of our relations with staff and these can honestly be described as excellent. Certainly, cooperation from officers on the Wings and senior management has been consistently strong.
Finally, we wish to stress how pleased we are with the calibre and commitment of our volunteers. Although still a relatively small group, BEST volunteers have made a hugely beneficial contribution to prison life and the morale of the men we befriend and support – helping them to engage more fully with prison life and view their longer-term future more positively.
Thanks to our donors
We would like to thank all those who have supported BEST with generous donations, most notably in the last year including Balham Baptist Church, the Wandsworth Quakers and a small number of generous private donors.
Although BEST has had another productive year we are acutely aware the charity needs to build its infrastructure: the most pressing need being to build a core team of full-time paid staff. Otherwise, over-dependence on a small number of key volunteers leaves BEST exposed to the risk that, if two or three key volunteers disappear, BEST may not survive. For this reason, and because BEST remains sole provider of a charitable service aimed at 40-50% of the prison population benefiting over 1,300 prisoners a year, a key goal in the year ahead will be to raise enough funds to build our infrastructure and ensure we survive and make an increasingly significant contribution to the quality of prison life – both for prisoners and prison staff.
Trustees Annual Report 2018-19
BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth
Registered Charity No: 1177625
BEST has made good progress this year, assisted by the allocation of an office on C Wing and strong support from prison management, enabling particularly close cooperation with colleagues in Safer Custody, Chaplaincy, Immigration, Equalities, and the officers on C Wing (now the main Wing for vulnerable Foreign Nationals). We expect our involvement with Immigration and Safer Custody to increase further when, as part of the drive to reduce self-harm and suicide, a BEST Visit Request Form will be delivered to all prisoners served with deportation or extradition papers, as planned in July 2019. This report will now be divided into the following sections: 1. Challenges, 2. Achievements, 3. Thanks to our donors, and 4. Summary.
Over the next 12 months the main challenge will be to make sure our capabilities keep pace with the increasing responsibilities the prison is assigning to BEST. At present, we have just over 30 active volunteers, though only half are currently engaged in regular prison visits. This is partly because some FN’s are still unaware of BEST and the services we provide, partly because of the high “churn” that is inevitable in a remand prison with so many FN’s (who comprise 1/3rd of the prison population at HMPW, currently some 570 men), and partly because we don’t yet have enough human resources for BEST to operate – as we and the prison management would like – as an integral part of the induction process on E Wing. As a result, when many FN’s are transferred from the Induction Wing they start prison life unseen by BEST, unaware of how BEST can support them (regardless of whether they speak English), and all too frequently with their essential needs remaining unmet.
There is no doubt that prison visits conducted by our volunteers in the Social Visits Hall are a vital feature of BEST services, delivering manifestly beneficial effects for the prisoners visited, enabling them to talk freely and openly and discuss whatever they want, including their own and their family’s support needs. Nevertheless, most of the FN’s we work with require in-prison support, rather than a visitor, and these services can only be supplied by volunteers working within the prison i.e. those who have been security-vetted and key-trained and can operate freely within the prison. At present we have only four such volunteers: Geoff Smith, the Director (in prison 5 days a week), Lavinia Aleri (in prison 2 days a week), and Isobel Smallacombe and Leona Potter, both of whom have recently received full clearance and are expected to be in prison three or four times a month. As highest demand for our services is for in-prison support, over the next 12 months we hope to add at least two and, ideally, four more volunteers who can also operate within the prison.
The other key challenge is to raise more funds. Owing to the high demands on time and money of supporting men “through the gate”, we have had to cut back on post-release support and plan in future to focus on in-prison activities, referring such cases to other organisations such as CRC, Migrants Organise, Social Services etc.
As many of the FN’s we work with are also illegals, their support needs are usually both urgent and extreme, with most released homeless and, as illegals, they are not allowed to work, receive benefits, or access public funds and are, consequently, effectively reliant on BEST to meet their survival needs. With great regret, in early 2019 we found we were simply unable to sustain our support activities “through the gate” and, having by April 2019 spent all but £200 of our money on post-release support, we had to freeze all further spending.
We therefore urgently need to replenish our funds, firstly so we can cover the costs of our in-prison activities, such as volunteer and essential operational expenses and, in the longer term, so we can employ a core team of full-time staff. Without this, there is a risk that, if BEST were to lose two or three key volunteers, the charity could simply collapse, wiping out our achievements to date – and we intend to do all we possibly can to prevent that from happening.
We are now dealing with 25-30 cases a week, typically involving help in accessing healthcare, exercise, education, in-prison work, contact with loved ones, appointing or chasing lawyers, understanding and responding to Home Office and other official papers (usually on deportation or extradition), preparations for release, with about 10% of cases involving concerns relating to bullying, incompatible cell-mates and complaints against staff. In addition to helping Foreign National prisoners, this is also an important way of helping prison staff.
Throughout the year support from senior management has been outstanding, marked by Governor Sethi (Head of Foreign Nationals) awarding BEST an office on C Wing in early 2019 and, in addition to the weekly surgeries in Legal Visits every Friday from 08:30 to 11:45, in January 2019 we started running weekly surgeries on C Wing from 09:00 to 11:30. With effect from August 2019, FN prisoners will also be able to access BEST via the kiosks located on each level of all the prison Wings.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of our relations with staff and, with BEST stickers now featuring on dozens of cell doors and BEST a recognised presence in all Wings, relations with staff are excellent. This was reflected in a letter of 10 June sent by Governor No 1, Jeanne Bryant, to the BEST Director, following commendation from anonymous colleagues acknowledging “the incredible work” done by BEST, adding: “This level of commitment and professionalism is highly commendable and is rightly being recognised. We applaud your “can-do” attitude and the enthusiasm you consistently display when carrying out your duties. Thank you and well done.”
Following a referral from Chaplaincy, in March we conducted our first visit to HMP Pentonville, and now have two volunteers (who live closer to HMPP) allocated to visiting there. In Spring of 2019 we also visited colleagues at HMP High Down to discuss launching BEST there, but for the time being – until we have more available volunteers – we remain focused on HMP Wandsworth, while planning to grow our involvement at Pentonville.
Finally, we wish to stress how pleased we are with the calibre and commitment of our volunteers. Although still a relatively small group, we believe our volunteers have made an enormous contribution to prison life and the morale of the men we befriend and support – helping them to make the most of their time in prison and cultivate a positive view of their future.
3. Thanks to our donors
We would like to thank all those who have supported BEST with generous donations, notably including:
LUSH – https://uk.lush.com, who made a very generous donation which helped us in supporting 15 men “through the gate” in 2018
St Anne’s Church, Wandsworth – https://stanneswandsworth.org.uk – who kindly donated half their Christmas collection in 2017, which was spent both on enabling our in-prison activities and supporting the 15 men we helped “through the gate” in 2018
St Luke’s, Battersea – https://www.stlukeschurch.org.uk/welcome.htm – for their generous support and donations, most of which was spent on travel and other essential expenses associated with our work in-prison.
While pleased with the progress BEST has made over the last year we are aware that to achieve our longer-term goals – notably, increase our capabilities so we can adequately discharge the increasing responsibilities assigned to us in the prison – we must grow our in-prison capabilities and strengthen our infrastructure.
Provided we can do this we are confident BEST has a bright future, capable of establishing wider recognition as a prison charity delivering services with long-term benefits for our primary beneficiaries – staff and inmates at the prisons in which BEST operates – and breathing new life into prisons being seen as places of genuine reform.
Isobel Smallacombe ……………………………………………….
Christine Julian-Huxley ……………………………………………….
Caroline Ayerst ……………………………………………….
Olivia Beer ……………………………………………….