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Year 13 Psychology Trip to HMP Onley

On Wednesday 6th May six students studying Psychology or Government & Politics (who were also over 18) along with Mr Clear – our appreciated driver- and Mrs Whorlow were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to visit HMP Onley, a male category C prison, where prisoners will generally be for shorter sentences or with only several years left. It was an extremely interesting day, and it completely changed our perception of what being in prison is like.

On arrival, we had to store all phones and belongings, and provide two forms of ID for security purposes. Senior Prison Officer Darren Brooks, along with Offender Manager Katie and Wing Officer Vicky first showed us the visitor’s centre, where we had a rundown about the different types of prisons, different types of cells and prisoner reward, and prisoner privileges. (Fun fact: the highest-security prisons are for the criminals with the most money; they have the funds to escape).

Just down the road from Onley is a juvenile prison for young people aged 9-15 years and sex offenders in denial private prison. We discovered that Onley is technically a London prison; its 742 cells are almost always full.  As a London prison Onley gets a lot of gang members, so throughout the day, we saw many of the different types of makeshift weapons that the average prisoner would be carrying for self-defence. It was scary just how many ordinary items could be made deadly, or the many different ways that drugs and mobile phones (also both in popular demand) could be smuggled in, such as in the soles of shoes, where prisoner and visitor would arrange to wear the same shoes on the day and then swap them during visitor hours.

After the visiting area and trying on different types of handcuffs, we next saw the reception where new prisoners would be inducted, then the I Wing, where the standard cells are – for low to medium risk prisoners. We were shocked by the simplicity and sparseness of these two-person cells, where a fraud criminal could be living with a murderer and each learn from the other. In contrast, we then saw the cinderblock induction cells for new prisoners, and the ‘luxury’ cells for good behaviour criminals mostly waiting to be transferred to open prisons (where you go outside to work during the day and come back at night). These single cells had been described by prisoners as ‘like Travelodge’ and were indeed very similar! (Hardly!) We had all gone in with very different expectations of prison conditions; the reality of the tiny rooms – without movie-style bars or concrete – was shocking.

We were shown around the gym that the prisoners sign up for, and the workshops where prisoners learn trades and work: joinery, forklift truck driving, and Halfords bike repair were just a few of the trades we saw. The money generated at these workshops may go to charity; prisoners also earn money to replace furniture broken, or extra items like duvets and snacks.

We then got to see the TCP (Taught Coping Programmes) unit where prisoners participate in ‘Resolve’ (for violent crimes to try and reduce their aggression levels and how they react to aggression) or ‘Thinking Skills Programmes’ to teach them coping mechanisms for their own emotions. It was so interesting to see how prisoners were encouraged to open up and actively help themselves across the sessions.

We were then lucky enough to be able to see the Command Centre, where the Governor and senior staff go to resolve major crises – the most common problem being a prisoner gaining access to the roof. Governor Stephen Ruddy was nice enough to answer our questions about weaponry and what impacts the short staffing levels are having on HMP Onley and a number of other prisons across the UK. We also saw a more positive insight into the rewarding nature of a career in the prison service, where officers can see inmates being rehabilitated.

We were then taken to the dojo and shown all the different types of defensive suits and weapons that Prison Officers may be forced to use in times of planned intervention or riots. The heavy protective gear was formidable at best; we were shocked when Darren explained that since prison changes several years ago, teams were having to stage planned interventions up to four times a day. These generally involved teams of three being sent in to deal with a prisoner barricading himself in the cell with weapons: typically the first officer would go in with a riot shield to drive the prisoner into a corner, and together all three officers would then secure the arms and head. We were lucky enough to see a demonstration too. What really came across was just how defensive everything was in the prison: all the prison officers were congenial, but protective, springing into action immediately if there was a chance anyone would be hurt.

Finally we got to have a question and answer session about the day, talking about the impact of mental health, sentencing length and parole, the worst prisoners that had been in Onley and examples of prisoners who had been rehabilitated into society. We also learnt more about the restorative justice programme at Onley - whereby prisoner and victim meet. However among the ten pairs of victims and offenders that had been brought together over the last 18 months, they had had no success.

We were all absolutely astounded by the amazing intricacies of the prison system – its unexpected rewards and brutal realities. Special thanks go out to Darren Brooks for showing us around  and answering all of our questions; Katie, Mr Whorlow, everyone on reception and Vicky for fielding our prisoner questions; Mrs Brooks and her team for explaining all about prisoner therapies; Governor Stephen Ruddy for explaining his prison to us; and the team who ran the combat session for their amazing control and restraint explanations; thanks also should be extended to Governor Whitmore for authorizing the visit; and last but definitely not least, Mrs Whorlow for organizing everything for us. We had a truly incredible day that is an once-in-a-lifetime experience nobody will forget. Thank you!