Eastwood Park: giving women a voice creates a positive culture

PET recently carried out a project in Eastwood Park to involve learners in culture change. In March, PET’s policy team Clare Taylor and Morwenna Bennalick returned with trainer Jose Aguiar to see what had changed:

“You feel like a child in this place, being asked my opinion was a shock. It made me feel like an adult again,” says Katie, a PET-funded journalism student at HMP Eastwood Park. Several other women in the audience agreed. Going to prison had stripped away any sense of personal responsibility and infantilised them.

The women were reflecting on what it was like to be involved in a project working with staff to improve the rehabilitative culture of Eastwood Park, which was launched by PET in September.

Last autumn when asked by staff for their ideas on how to encourage more people to attend education, they suggested a re-brand of the department. They associated ‘education’ with school, a place where they had previously failed or where their children went, which was off-putting.

They were listened to. Months later, on March 30th we returned to Eastwood Park to attend the launch of Weston College’s first prison campus where the Governor says it is his job to “facilitate the women to have a voice.”

Governor Simon Beecroft said: “You change culture in many different ways - one is being clear in who you are. We are a community college.

"When I visited Weston College I thought this feels like a centre of learning. That is what we wanted here. Professionalising education provision is critical if we’re going to get women to leave prison and not reoffend.”

The project also led to the launch of the prison’s newsletter, Prisoner Voice, edited by Katie, who staff say is ‘an advocate for women’. The most recent edition includes a feature on the Governor, who said: “A month ago, whilst being interviewed by a journalist who is in this room, I thought wow - look at what we can do here.”

At the event, Katie, proudly told the audience, including her family who were on a special visit, about how good it has been to work with staff on the project and newsletter. For Prisoner Voice Katie includes contributions from other women at Eastwood Park and stories about women who got jobs and successfully returned into their communities since leaving.

“The newsletter is about letting women have a voice in a situation where they feel that they may not otherwise be listened to,” says Katie.

At the event, we were joined by teachers and managers visiting from other prisons across the country and the Gloucester Women’s Institute to learn from staff about how they established this new way of working with prisoners. Although the Governor said the process has been ‘a cultural change for the staff’, the Head of Learning and Skills Kate Byrant said they already involved women as peer mentors and were focused on positive outcomes.

Kate Byrant said: “Our can-do attitude here at Eastwood Park is what is driving us forward. We will carry on consulting with women here to see how this culture is embedding. It’s a really positive project and a privilege we can all be part of shaping their futures.”

Following a rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World’ by two women supported by the music therapy charity Changing Tunes, the launch ended with a tour of the department.

Weston College, which already delivered the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contract at Eastwood Park was keen to support the department’s brand refresh and provided poster templates and a professional photographer to visit the classrooms and workshops, to produce positive, tailored images to inspire learners. During the visit, we found out about innovative new horticultural projects and training in a call-centre where women gain practical work experience alongside qualifications.

The highlight was the soap-making class, where women learn a variety of skills from chemistry to marketing and the initiative pays for itself by putting profit from sales into the cost of running the course. Several of us came away stocked up on natural soaps smelling good and feeling even better!

When we left the prison and got our phones back we swiftly tweeted about the visit, leading with Governor Beecroft’s quote of the day about what drives Eastwood Park’s rehabilitative culture: “We can provide hope. We can provide belief that life in the future does not need to be what it has been in the past.”

By Susannah Henty, Media and Public Affair Manager, who accompanied the group.