Whilst serving the final year of her sentence at an open prison in Kent, Karen was volunteering at Unlock as a helpline advisor when the prisons interpretation of a new ROTL policy framework saw all voluntary work placements revoked.

This article originally appeared on The Prison Reform Trust website and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

The Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) recently upheld my complaint after HMP East Sutton Park stopped voluntary work for all residents in October 2019, allowing only paid work placements. I had thoroughly enjoyed my voluntary job as a telephone helpline advisor with the charity Unlock for 10 months and would have happily continued it until release, but this was not to be. As a woman nearing retirement age, I was not seeking paid work on release.

It took five months to go through the whole complaints process. I had complained to the prison staff and governor, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), as well as writing to the Head of the Women’s Estate. All returned my complaint forms. So, I asked the PPO to investigate after feeling ignored by the internal prison complaints system.

In March 2020 the PPO upheld my complaint, agreed I deserved an apology and the volunteer role should be re-instated. Covid-19 delayed the reinstatement of the job, before my actual release. I received a written apology from the Governor (who is actually responsible for 2 women’s prisons, so very stretched). I appreciate the apology – and since my verdict, East Sutton Park’s local ROTL policy has been amended to allow voluntary work.

The new ROTL policy framework is meant to enable better rehabilitation and allow more women access to ROTL, but residents continue to struggle to get placements approved. As well as feeling under constant threat of withdrawal of ROTL at any time.

So what lessons should be learned from my experience? Firstly, I’d like to thank both the Prison Reform Trust Advice and Information team and Prisoners’ Advice Service for believing in me and helping to handle the complaint, as it can often feel as though most women prisoner’s complaints are ignored. I had to be very determined and couldn’t have done it on my own.

I entirely believe that officers – and governors – should receive special training for managing female prisoners as their needs are so different than the typical male prisoner. Blanket policies and approaches for women and men are not appropriate. From my own experience, this is especially important for older women. I am now over 60 years old, and still a human being with a life that matters.

Please do pursue complaints with the PPO if you feel your complaint is ignored by the prison. Don’t give up if you have a valid complaint.

By Karen (name changed to protect identity)

A comment from Unlock

Following a long association with HMP East Sutton Park, we were disappointed to see the government’s new ROTL policy being implemented in this way. Although it remains the primary objective of many women to find paid work, for some this is simply not the case.

Karen’s imminent retirement was a valid reason for her not seeking paid work and for those coming to the end of long sentence, or who have little work experience, voluntary work can be a valuable stepping stone back into the community.

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