From Maidstone, I headed straight to the even more evocative Rochester. Dickens lived here, and loved it, and brought the area alive in books including ‘Pickwick Papers’. He also described its looming prison hulks – and Pip’s famous graveyard meeting with the escaped convict Magwitch – in ‘Great Expectations’.
That said, when I arrived at the prison’s impressive old gate, I happily sat outside in the wonderful sunshine with a somewhat more modest expectation: to eat a sandwich while waiting for the allotted time and enjoying a short break. I was then late, because I hadn’t realised this entrance was now closed – the new one was a good five minutes’ walk away!
The prisoners said they felt safe in the prison, and praised the staff and staff-prisoner relations. They valued the range of peer support workers, highlighting the Listeners and VR reps in particular, and noted that VR reps had a mediation role here, which they said helped reduce ‘a lot’ of problems – the Shannon Trust and its many volunteers were rated too. They felt the Offender Council, which meets monthly with Senior Managers, and regular wing rep meetings, had a positive impact. They valued in-cell phones (‘they make a real difference’) and showers in some cells. Support for families, inc. ‘excellent’ visits facilities, regular family days, family photos on visits, and the ‘excellent fudge cake’!
The Managers highlighted the decent environment and an emphasis on clean and tidy grounds as a positive for all. They thought the prison generally safe and praised their ‘excellent’ staff, who they described as ‘caring’ and ‘highly skilled’ at prisoner management. Staff wellbeing days were highly rated, and the praised the ‘very proactive’ staff care team. Staff-prisoner relations were ‘good’, and Rochester was a ‘positive’ and ‘resilient’ place. They said the Offender Council ‘works well’ and was ‘constructive’. The mental health ‘in-reach’ service was especially good, and involving families in the management of prisoners in crisis was a real positive. Support for families, inc. in-cell phones, family visits, and the ‘outstanding’ work of Spurgeons children’s charity, was another strength.
The staff group were also positive about relations among staff, and between staff and prisoners, something they said was often remarked on by staff coming on detached duty, and noted strong support and a warm welcome for new staff. They thought the prison was generally safe. Support for maintaining family relationships (inc. from Spurgeons) was seen as a strength, and the Offender Council, and regular wing rep meetings, were ‘a very good thing’.