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How the Growth Project is changing prison culture

The Growth Project, which seeks to transform organisational culture in prisons, is set to expand into HMP Hewell and HMP Foston Hall in 2021.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Lewis’s Penal Reform Solutions organisation and has had a major impact at HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset since its implementation there in 2016.

The project promotes a rehabilitative culture using an all-prison approach, including management, staff and residents. The majority of staff and residents who participated at Guys Marsh stated it had a positive impact on practice, staff-resident relationships and prison cohesion.

“When I first worked with Guys Marsh residents it was a case of just taking offending off the table, finding out their core desires and purpose and who they wanted to be,” says Sarah. “In psychology they call it ‘self-actualisation’ – what impact they want to make on the world whilst they’re here. It’s about finding a path to desistance.”

One way of starting to implement the project’s ‘principles of growth’ was to get residents to write their own eulogies. It got them thinking deeply about what legacy they wanted to leave behind and who they want to be.

Sarah explains: “We nurture that, build trusting relationships, give them a safe environment to talk, create wellbeing, let them experience a bit of peace and joy. It’s certainly not about them talking to me about why they committed burglaries. It’s about identifying core goals and magnifying people’s strengths.”

This process proved inspirational and transformative for David Haze and Kam Stevens, two former Guys Marsh residents who identified their own paths to self-actualisation through the project. David is planning on scaling Mount Everest to raise awareness of prison reform while Kam (who is joining David on the expedition) has his sights set on writing and directing his own screenplay.

“We don’t talk about changing themselves, it’s more around the process of change, how they transform their identity and what they need in order to do so,” Sarah explains.

Sport has played its part in the process of growth. Wellbeing days and sporting festivals have been held inside the prisons as part of Penal Reform Solutions’ process of cultural change.

Penal Reform Solutions

“When someone is playing football they’re experiencing a little bit of normality, freedom and promoting their wellbeing,’ states Sarah. “Sport, when you’re part of a team, fits into our principles of belonging.”

Every individual on the project is part of the ‘growth team’ and considered a member for life, regardless of mistakes or lapses. “It’s unconditional. On the growth team you are loved, and we use that word quite intentionally,” says Sarah.

“When people go wrong in other parts of society they are rejected. That’s when they search for a sense of belonging and join a gang, for example. In the Growth Project, we’re here for you, even if you go back to prison.

“We talk a lot about being ‘uncomfortable’ in growth. We want to push yourself to such a level that you may fail, but you’ve got to embrace that.

“We talk about overcoming obstacles as if they’re never negative things, which of course they are, but we look at ‘through suffering we grow’ and ‘through failure we grow’. It’s about embracing and celebrating that, then asking, what can we learn from it? We don’t let obstacles become a stopping point.”

Penal Reform Solutions have gathered individuals and organisations from across the world to form the Growth Alliance, who collect their expertise to offer innovative, sustainable solutions, promote equality and build hope and positive change in the Criminal Justice System. Members span America, Denmark, Hungary, Norway and North Macedonia.

Sarah’s inspiration for Penal Reform Solutions comes in large part from Norway, where she visited during her PhD studies and after being appointed course leader for criminology and psychology at Portsmouth University.

“I found out over three years why Nordic practice was so exceptional and what the secret ingredients were. In that research, I recruited prison residents and staff and we co-created the Principles of Growth.

“I then sent my findings from Norway to Steve Robertson, the deputy governor at Guys Marsh, and he quickly wanted to start a full implementation for two and a half years. That was the first day I went live as my own business. It happened to be my birthday!”

Guys MarshSarah’s first task was getting the staff on board. “They were so broken, tired and without hope, some were being physically sick before going to work. They were immersed in a violent culture. I think their attitude was, ‘Let’s just give this crazy woman a chance!’” she says.

“The staff didn’t speak to me for three months, but I kept on going. Once they’d realised I wasn’t going to abandon them, they offloaded a load of trauma. That’s where it started. The residents were on board straight away.

“We implemented those principles of growth and have seen a massive reduction in violence and harm and increases in staff retention and wellbeing.”

Sarah is now preparing to implement her programme in HMP Hewell in Worcestershire and HMP Foston Hall, a female prison near Derby, in 2021.

“I’ll be starting with the staff there as well,” Sarah states. “It’s not about blame, it’s about understanding what the issues are, how staff feel and the impact their work has on them. It’s a whole-prison approach. The ‘them and us’, silo-based culture is unhelpful, so the staff will be my starting point.”

The Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice are currently linking Sarah with sport and physical activity providers who want to work within criminal justice.

“Dr. Lewis’s combination of experience and learning is enabling true reform to take place,” says Alliance of Sport Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Justin Coleman.

“She is using tried and tested methodologies formed through ‘lived’ and ‘learned’ experiences over a long period of time. These are not designed by the system, but outside the system. Sarah is demonstrating the values and principles of ‘development’.

“Linking Sarah with sports organisations ensures they are in a very ‘safe pair of hands’. Helping to formulate these partnerships is what the Alliance of Sport does. It’s what works and something we aim to emulate throughout our vibrant and impactful network.”

Read more about Penal Reform Solutions and the Growth Project here

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