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A look inside Askham Grange Women's Prison
9:29am Thursday 21st February 2013 in Features
Askham Grange Women's Prison near York has one of the best records in the country for preventing prisoners returning to crime on release. STEPHEN LEWIS finds out why
THE coffee’s top notch, the barista who serves us pleasant and cheerful. “You’re welcome!” she says when we thank her for delivering our lattes and decaff caramel macchiatos to our table.
This could be any High Street coffee shop: in fact, the staff are trained by Coffee Republic.
What makes Café Fairbairn different is that it is inside a prison – Askham Grange prison, to be precise.
And the ‘staff’ are all prisoners. Sam, our barista, is a 39-year-old mum of two sentenced to 30 months for stealing from her employer. Vanessa, the smiling woman behind the counter, is a 43-year-old mother-of-one serving a 32-month sentence for fraud.
You’d never dream it, to look at them. Vanessa, from Cumbria, blames financial problems for her decision to break the law. “At the time, it seemed the easy way out.” Sam, from Northampton, says she was ‘led up the wrong path by the wrong people’ and is now ‘paying the price’.
Both are adamant that, once they are released, they won’t return to crime. “Definitely not!” says Sam. “You realise that there are so many better ways of dealing with things,” says Vanessa. “Prison has changed me into a different person.”
You’d expect them to say that, of course. But the statistics seem to bear them out. Fewer than ten per cent of women released from Askham Grange will go on to offend again – one of the best records for any prison in the country, according to deputy prison governor Peter Smith.
To the casual visitor, Askham Grange scarcely seems like a prison at all. It was built in 1886 as a country house for Sir Andrew Fairbairn – and there is still something of a country-house feel to it. The grounds are immaculate, the brickwork mellow. But appearances can be deceptive.
There is an HMP sign declaring this is a prison at the front gate, and a warning that bringing in a mobile phone is a criminal offence. Up on the first floor – at one end of a beautiful landing – is another reminder that having a mobile phone in here is illegal: a bank of prison-issue payphones operated by special cards set into the wall.
The women sleep in dormitories – usually four to a room, though a few prisoners near the end of their sentences get to have a single room. There are TVs in most rooms, but the walls are covered in family photos and other items reminding the women what they lost when they broke the law.
The nearly 130 women here began their sentences in a closed prison. They were jailed for a range of crimes, including fraud, burglary, drugs, violence and even murder – a few of the women here are ‘lifers’ nearing the end of their sentences.
Previous inmates have included Tracie Andrews, jailed for life in 1996 for stabbing fiancé Lee Harvey to death; Anne Darwin, who helped her husband John fake his death in a canoe accident so they could claim the insurance; and – a long time ago – child killer Mary Bell.
All the women have earned the right to be here through good behaviour – and because they have shown they are now less of a risk to the public. But while it may be an ‘open’ prison, nobody is allowed out without a licence.
Look closely, and you will see uniformed prison guards: not many, but enough to remind you where you are.
The women follow a strict, daily regime. There are several roll calls each day – the first at 7.45am – and the ‘residents’, as they’re known, have a strict work and training programme.
There are rotas for cleaning rooms, and work schedules that include everything from laundry and kitchens to working shifts in the Café Fairbairn.
The emphasis, however, is not on work for work’s sake: it is on rehabilitation. The aim, says prisoner governor Diane Pellew, is to build up inmates’ skills, confidence and qualifications, so that when they do return to the outside world, they have a chance of making a life for themselves.
There are very good reasons for doing that, she says. “If they can go into paid employment when they leave here, the likelihood of them reoffending is greatly reduced.”
Hence the emphasis on rehabilitation. Askham Grange has a fully equipped education block operated by The Manchester College, which aims to ensure that all the women leave with qualifications of some sort. And there are a number of initiatives designed to provide prisoners with a real experience of work – and with the training and qualifications to go with it.
Café Fairbairn is one. Sam, who worked in retail before being sent to prison, and Vanessa, a former finance manager, both admit that their confidence was shattered when they were jailed.
At Café Fairbairn, they are gradually learning to hold their heads up again. They are being taught everything from the different types of coffee and where it comes from, to customer service.
During their work shifts, they serve not only prison staff and other ‘residents’, but also visiting families. “You start to think ‘I can do it!’” says Sam.
The ARC – or Administrative Resource Centre – is another. Set up just a couple of months ago, this is a business centre staffed by prison residents which provides ‘back room’ office support for local businesses – everything from cold-calling potential customers, to paperwork and marketing.
Ten prisoners work here, under the supervision of manager Claire Cutler-Casey.
One of them is 41-year-old mother and former accountant Jo. She was sentenced to 33 months for fraud. It was financial pressures that initially drove her to it, she says. She remembers feeling horrendously guilty. “But you take the initial plunge, and then one thing leads to another…”
She was devastated when she was sentenced to prison and faced the prospect of being separated from her daughter. “That was one of the hardest things to deal with.”
But she worked hard to be able to come to Askham Grange – and is now throwing herself into her ‘job’ with the ARC.
She makes business-to-business calls – though only to businesses which she has been cleared to call, stresses deputy governor Peter Smith – and uses accounts databases to provide accounting support for local firms and organisations.
She is beginning to get some of her confidence back, and when she is released from prison, intends to set up her own business – a ‘virtual office’ providing the kind of backroom support being offered by the ARC.
Askham Grange also operates a system under which women nearing the end of their sentences are allowed out to do voluntary and even paid work with local businesses and charities.
At any one time, as many as 50 prisoners will be working in the community – 30 doing unpaid work, and 20 doing paid work. That is “an essential part of the resettlement process,” says Susan Field, the prison’s head of reducing reoffending.
They tend to make excellent employees, says Diane Pellew. “They are so hungry to prove themselves.”
But why should these women – who are, after all, convicted criminals – be given opportunities that many who have never broken the law don’t have?
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Ms Pellew says. “Some people make bigger mistakes than others. A lot of the people in here are victims themselves – they may have been victims of abuse in the past.
“It is about giving opportunities, about breaking the chain. If we don’t stop it now, it will go down to future generations.
“If we can make them into decent citizens, everybody benefits.”
Opening up the doors to the local community
Askham Grange was built in 1886 as a country house for Sir Andrew Fairbairn, a Leeds factory owner, MP, soldier and philanthropist. It remained in the family until 1939 when Neville WF Wailes-Fairbairn, the then owner, was killed in a riding accident. His widow handed the Grange to the Government and it became a women’s prison in 1947.
The present governor, Diane Pellew, is committed to making the prison less mysterious to locals.
“We want more people to know about us,” she says.
The prison works closely with local voluntary organisations and businesses to create work opportunities for prisoners. And it also keen to develop itself as a conference centre.
The building provides a stunning setting, and can host up to 120 people in its conference facilities. Service is provided by prisoners, and accommodation can be arranged in nearby hotels. “We once hosted a transgender conference attended by 120 people,” says Susan Field, the head of reducing reoffending.
Yes, there are security procedures that delegates have to go through, says Ms Pellew. “But they are not that onerous, if we know who is coming in advance.”
One day she hopes Café Fairbairn may be able to open to the public.
And the prison also regularly puts on plays, inviting hand-picked audiences.
One such production – a performance of There Are Mountains by young Liverpool playwright Chloe Moss – even earned a review in The Economist.
The play was about the emotional difficulties prisoners can face on the day of their release, and almost all the roles were played by prisoners.
“One of the most interesting plays around,” the Economist’s reviewer said. “The quality of the production was outstanding.”
• To book a conference at Askham Grange Prison, call the conference booking line on 01904 772139 or email firstname.lastname@example.org