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 called the prison safe and said staff-prisoner relations were good and generally positive. They thought the Listeners and VR reps were especially good, and noted that VR reps had a mediation role which they said helped reduce ‘a lot’ of problems. They praised the Shannon Trust and its many volunteers. They highly rated the Offender Council with its monthly central Senior Manager and wing rep meetings. They praised in-cell phones, showers in some cells, and ‘excellent’ visits in good facilities. They also liked family support, regular family days, and family photos at visits – and the ‘excellent fudge cake’!
Senior Managers highlighted the decent environment and an emphasis on clean and tidy grounds. They thought the prison generally safe and praised their ‘excellent’ staff, who they called ‘caring’ and ‘highly skilled’ at prisoner management. Staff wellbeing days were greatly appreciated, and they also praised their ‘very proactive’ staff care team. Staff-prisoner relations were described as good, and they thought Rochester was a ‘positive’ and ‘resilient’ place that had ‘bounced back’ from the threat of closure. They said the Offender (Prisoner) council worked well and was ‘constructive’. They thought the mental health ‘in-reach’ was especially good. They particularly praised families’ engagement with prisoners in crisis, and the involvement of prisoners’ families around visits etc. more generally, and they described the work of the Spurgeons Children’s Charity as ‘outstanding’.
The staff group were also positive about both staff-staff and staff-prisoner relations, a view in turn confirmed by the detached duty staff present. They also spoke warmly about the good support for POELTs from existing staff. They thought the prison was safe, and said family involvement was ‘excellent’. They called the Offender Council, including wing reps and meetings etc, ‘a very good thing’.