Delivering circles of support and accountability to protect communities from sexual harm and sexual reoffending


The Challenge of Establishing a Through the Gate Prison Circle

This week's guest blog comes from Neil Claughton, our Dorset Circles Coordinator and CSW Prison/Through The Gate Circle Coordinator, who is based at HMP The Verne.

In January 2019 Circles South West received funding to establish the first Prison/Through the Gate Circles of Support and Accountability, to lead the development and delivery of a new pilot project for men serving sentences for sexual offending at HMP The Verne who have release plans to Dorset.

This was the first time we had one of our coordinators actually based in the prison, working closely with the Prison Offender Managers and staff to establish and coordinate Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) pre-release, supporting transition ‘through-the-gate’, and on into the community. HMP The Verne is a Category C prison with a population of approximately 600 men all of whom are in custody for committing a sex offence.

There were a number of issues that had to be resolved before we were able to begin the process of identifying individuals suitable for one of our Circles.

Vetting: Every member of staff working inside the prison estate has to undergo rigorous enhanced vetting which in itself can take up to 3 weeks to complete.

Access: To enable staff to be able to ‘draw keys’ there is a half day key course and safety briefing to ensure every member of staff who are authorised to draw keys fully understand the standards required while moving around the estate for their safety and integrity of the keys they carry (a lost set of keys can cost in excess of £100,000 as all the locks would require changing and new keys made). You also have your fingerprint taken to gain access through the gatehouse and access to the key cabinets.

Communications: Mobile phones are not allowed to be brought inside the prison, not even by the Governor, and because of the nature of the prison, nor are any wi-fi enabled devices, for obvious reasons. Luckily all the staff in the offender management unit are extremely helpful and accommodating and will carry out all the necessary checks and research on our behalf of all potential Core Members, and of course there are good old fashioned ‘land lines’ for making calls.

Despite its Category C status there are no Releases on Temporary Licence (ROTL), the process which Circles would normally use as a means of setting up a CoSA while Core Members are still in prison. This presented us with our first challenge, how do we establish a CoSA inside the prison while at the same time ensuring our volunteers could access the building to carry out the Circle? The solution in the end was relatively simple, the Circles meetings could be held in the general visiting area where the Core Member was still inside the prison and the volunteers did not have to actually enter the estate but could be escorted to the visiting area without the need for vetting etc.

With all these hurdles overcome, we were ready to start to identify and set up out first Prison Circle at which point we identified our next challenge.

HMP The Verne is a national resource and as such the prison population is from every part of the country. We were trying to identify those individuals who were from Dorset and being released to Dorset. We did a trawl of the entire population and identified only three individuals who met our criteria. Of these three, one was unsuitable and one refused to have anything to do with us. Luckily there was one person who not only met all the criteria for Circles but was also really keen to be a part of the process.

A date was set for our first meeting inside the prison, all volunteers were selected and details passed to the prison security. Police and probation were on board and ready to attend the first meeting and then – Covid-19 hit!! The meeting was cancelled as no one, other than essential staff, was allowed access, not even family members. All we could do was wait, and wait and wait and it wasn’t until June 2021 when we could actually get back in to the prison and start the process all over again, by which time the identified Core Member had been released.

During the lockdown period the rules on ‘Offender Flow’ (the movement of prisoners around the country) had significantly changed. HMP The Verne is a training prison but was no longer the Dorset resettlement prison and as such all Dorset prisoners are now moved to their Resettlement Prison during the last 6 to 12 months of their sentence which, in this case is HMP Channings Wood – in Devon!

Once again we restarted the whole process, with fantastic support (and patience) from the staff in the Offender Management Unit, trawling through the entire population to identify any Dorset prisoners suitable for Circles. On this occasion we were able to identify one individual Core Member who was to be released to Dorset who was really excited to take part in a Circle.

We were able to identify volunteers who were able to attend the CoSA and we were really well supported by the Prison Offender Management Unit as well as the police MOSOVO and the probation officer who would be taking over the management of the case upon release.

I’m pleased to say that we started our first prison Circle in early July this year inside the prison. The Core Member said that he felt very comfortable with the meetings as it was the volunteers coming to him in his environment rather than having to meet total strangers in a place he didn’t know. A good rapport was built between the Core Member and the volunteers and we are now moving to the Community element of the Circle in late November upon the Core Member’s release.

This has certainly been a challenging but really enjoyable project which we can now build upon further as Coronavirus restriction are further lifted with the hope that we can identify more individuals to work with us in future Circles.

With thanks to all the staff in the Offender Management Unit at HMP The Verne and our Dorset Volunteers Alan, Emma, Harriet and Rob.

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