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My day in Prison!

WCoMC undertakes a Board and Governance Review for Working Chance, a Charity dedicated to helping find work for female ex-offenders

 In order to gain an insight and an appreciation of the critical support provided by the Charity, Heather Matheson spent an afternoon with Working Chance inside Holloway Prison.  Heather has written the following Blog, capturing her experience of the day.

After some 25 years in HR and business management, I’d always prided myself on not assuming that stereotypical images applied to anyone but found myself having to check on just that point following an afternoon inside the walls of Holloway Prison.

I was there to give ‘speed interviewing practice’ to a group of convicted female prisoners expected to be able to join an employer’s workforce, in a paid or voluntary role, in the next six months.  I was picturing the women I’d seen on television in Cell Block H.  Caged women with hard edges, petty dramas, dangerous cliques, bullies.  All of them with baggage.

I’d told Jocelyn Hillman, the CEO of Working Chance, that I’d do it.  Fiercely passionate about her cause, she wouldn’t have had it otherwise in any case!  She had started this Charity to get these and other female ex-offenders back into work.  She knew this was the route to them re-building their lives, getting accommodation and for many, very essentially, getting their kids back.  I hadn’t regretted saying yes but the date of the day was fixed in my head and, as it came closer, I pondered it more.

17 other employers joined me outside the Prison Security Office.  Some great people, representing some great organisations.  It surprised me.  Pret a Manager, Mitre, Bank of Tokyo; lots of them.  Jocelyn accompanied me all the way.  These were other employers, just like me, feeling the angst but believing they would be doing something good today.  Whether they would provide job opportunities was another subject; they first had to see whether these women had the skills and attitudes that could be transferred into the workplace.

Entering the prison and queuing to get through Security, I was reminded of the airport regime. These people are not from the service industry!  I wonder if they’re directed to be gruff, to avoid the common courtesies that we all extend to each other every day. I wonder how they welcomed people arriving with deliveries at their homes?  Many doors were unlocked, relocked and locked again as we made our way towards the ‘education block’.  Entering the area, stuffy and without windows, I saw the positive messages on the notice boards, organigrams and flow charts.  Self-help numbers.  This area was dedicated to the future and to hope.   I remembered thinking that this must represent for them a great space.

Armed with tea and biscuits, we were briefed.  We had 15 minutes between prisoners. This was definitely speed interviewing!  At 10 minutes, we would get a nod and then would have a further 2 minutes to wrap up the discussion and note down our feedback.  The agenda was straight forward.  On starting, we would explore with them their ideal job, their motivations for this, the skills they thought they could bring to the role, and then they had to disclose to us why they had been jailed.  In a positive way.  We needed to cover the agenda.  In just 12 minutes.  I was nervous about this last disclosure bit but they knew they were here with us to practice this.  It made sense, certainly, but it was a tricky subject to broach.  How would I do this?  Would I say “What are you in for?” or was there a better way?  Could I focus on a gap within the CV?  My thoughts again returned to the women of Cell Block H and, looking at the expectant and anxious faces of my new employer-allies, I hoped the women would be easy on us!

Spread over two rooms, the nine interviewing tables each labelled with an employer name, we hushed as the imminent arrival of the prisoners were announced.  It was now.  A big breath.  This was to be my first ‘real’ experience of meeting a convicted felon, someone who had done something really wrong...

I glanced at Louise and we shared a wry smile.  She was here as an Observer and would listen to my interviews.  She was on the Board of a Trust committed to giving funding to Working Chance and wanted to see how they supported the Prisoners first hand.  I was pleased she was getting this insight.

A bustle at the door and the women were directed out, one to each of our desks. The next seven meetings scheduled for me were to be amazing. I could not have guessed at the emotions I would feel.  At 12 minutes, they’re short, possibly too short but you learn enough about them to know you want to help more. 

What I saw, what I heard, what I felt that day inspired me. I saw strong women. I saw women determined to get their lives back and bring their children home. I heard them talk about what they had learned from being in prison. How they really wanted a job and how they wanted a proper future for themselves. They were looking forward and believed in a new life. I felt proud to be a part of Working Chance’s Interviewing Day. I felt pleased that they wanted and really valued our help. For me it was an afternoon of a new experience; for them it was so much more.  It was an afternoon of hope, a step towards their new lives. I believe that I made a difference on that day and, probably more importantly, I can continue to make a difference every time they hold an interviewing day to give them this essential practice.

In quick succession, I met women wanting to work in finance, hairdressing, peer-mentoring and in retail.  The women were articulate, well-presented, focused on the discussions and able to describe how their attitude and skills would make them great employees. The women talked of how they knew they would have to build respect and trust with an employer and how this would take time.  They explained how they might do this and of their commitment to not letting people down.  I believe them.

As my last meeting closed, I glanced at my watch.  The time had gone by so quickly.  We were now to assemble for a group feedback session, where some of them would receive certificates for the hard work that they had done with Working Chance over the previous six weeks.  We were asked to voice our reflections of the afternoon.  Everyone felt like me.  They too had been inspired by these women.  Their resilience, their openness and their motivation, would take them forward positively.  Working Chance had given them this. Without exception, I could see how they would add value within a workforce.  The women thanked us for giving them this opportunity; a chance for them to sit in front of real employers and talk of a future.  I don’t know, maybe there are Cell Block H types within the walls of Holloway Prison but I didn’t meet them. I met a group of inspiring and strong women, simply wanting a Working Chance. Let’s give them that.




Assistant Heather Matheson

Anyone who can help Working Chance (employers, volunteers and supporters) should make contact with the Charity directly on 0207 2781532.  Please do.  You too could make a difference.