Bronzefield's bold changes

By Nina Champion 

Bold changes at the women’s prison include a refurbished education block, ambitious plans for technology in classrooms and cells and the adoption of industry-standard vocational qualifications and higher education.

Speaking at the launch event, the prison’s director Ian Whiteside said he wanted to keep "pushing the boundaries" to ensure education was placed at the centre of the prison and at the forefront of staff members’ minds.

Ian said a prison “operating in solitude” could not hope to meet the increasingly complex needs of its residents, while adapting to changes ushered in by the Coates review, the prison reform agenda and new inspection criteria. “The solution is simple,” he said. “The solution is partnership working.”

Bronzefield’s new strategy document is aptly titled Stronger Together. It identifies a number of key partners among the CRC and voluntary/community sector organisations such as Shannon Trust, Hibiscus, PET, St. Giles Trust, User Voice and The Women’s Institute. Bronzefield also has ambitions for a Learning Together partnership, in which residents will have the chance to study alongside students from Royal Holloway University.

Helga Swindenbank from London CRC and former Director of Bronzefield, supported the strategy. “There is nothing more powerful than good quality relationships to transform lives,” she said. She urged all prison sector leaders to put ‘service’ at the heart of their institutions, taking advantage of opportunities to plant seeds of hope and opportunity. She reflected on a former resident who told her that all she wanted was "a little bit of normal" in her life.   

Residents and former residents were also at the heart of the launch event, from making and serving the canapés, to collecting awards and speaking about their learning journeys.

One woman after another told stories of moving away from prison into a range of different careers; from volunteering at a drug counselling centre which led to full-time employment, to speaking with young people to divert them from crime.

To see so many women in one room who had discovered, and are now able to use, their talents and experience to benefit society was truly inspirational.."I’m loving life at the minute," said one woman who is combining studying at university with being a self-employed barber. She turned to one of the staff team and said “you believed in me, not a lot of people have believed in me”. It was a fine example of the ‘powerful relationships’ Helga had talked about.

Having a public document which reflects a prison’s strategy is a rare thing, as is a prison with its own Twitter handle (@HMP_Bronzefield was launched on the same day). In institutions that are used to operating away from public view, this outward-facing approach may feel uncomfortable. However, in a new age of governor autonomy this openness will prove essential in attracting and retaining partners from the outside world, and ultimately in enacting the ‘bold changes’ that are needed.