At 8.00am on Tuesday March 24th 2020 we (One Spirit team) had just pulled into the car park of HMYOI Cookham Wood when we received a call from Cookham Wood’s education manager asking us to stay put; she’d call back in 5 minutes and update us on their ‘Covid plan’. Sure enough, 5 minutes later she called back and apologetically told us the prison was now fully locked down.
For the next 6+ weeks all face to face / in person One Spirit activities ceased; mentors switched to communicating with their mentees, and where appropriate delivering sessions by zoom and / or phone. This worked well if the mentee had good Internet access – one mentee in particular was able to continue working on his business plan and setting up his record label with the mentor’s remote help – but with many of the cohort it was a poor substitute for the support they continued to need, if indeed it was possible at all.
By mid May face to face sessions gradually started to resume. It was noticeable that most of the young people (especially the younger ones) enrolled in the One Spirit mentoring program appeared generally nervous and confused about coming out, more unwilling than ever to use public transport and, given the stereotypes of this cohort being lawless and irresponsible it was surprising to see how confused and in even more need of solid guidance and direction they appeared to be.
The intensification of 2020’s BLM movement and the events preceding and following the death of George Floyd had no small impact on the individuals One Spirit works with in the community, 96% of whom are black or of mixed race heritage, and in what is almost post-Lockdown UK 2021 this impact continues to resonate. In addition and further heightening the intensity and vulnerability of the young people we work with the teenage murder rate in 2021, after only 5 months, has already surpassed that of 2020.
All these events combined have proved to be both a positive and negative motivator. Positively, the demand for our services from YOT has increased, young people’s attendance at sessions in the community has improved and it has been noticeable that most of the young people we are working with seem more motivated to find employment and / or enquire about further education. Negatively and perhaps predictably, the issue of isolation intensified during 2020, along with boredom, hopelessness and the loss of motivation. It was hard to get some young people to come out immediately after the first lockdown, but mentors kept up constant communication with their mentees and by late June 2020 face to face sessions gathered pace. This included mentors travelling to see young people in their communities around Greater London, and in some cases further afield if the young person had been re-housed outside London, as well as delivering sessions in one of the One Spirit mentor locations in either North West or South London.
In July of 2020 the education manager at Oakhill STC (formerly of HMP Aylesbury) contacted HMDT Music requesting the support of the One Spirit programme. Oakhill houses 14-18 year olds, who for various reasons have been deemed too vulnerable to serve sentences in ‘mainstream’ YOIs. One Spirit delivery started with groups of up to 4 young people within the main education timetable; as soon as One Spirit staff had keys delivery switched to 1to1 support sessions for specific young people, identified as such either because of their resettlement plans or because of other specific needs. One Spirit staff have forged great relationships with staff at the centre and delivered some crucial and valuable work with young people, some of whom have already connected with the programme in the community post-release. Ofsted recently inspected the centre and rated HMDT Music’s provision there very highly amongst the aspects of education and care that are working well:
The link with the Hackney Music Trust is both interesting and meaningful. It provides a very effective hook to engage the learners in other activities including self-evaluation and reflection. It provides an emotional outlet for the teenagers and work has been done with the management to secure an understanding that “what is said in the room, stays in the room” (unless there are security/safety concerns). The music activities provide a channel for the development of communication skills as the learners develop lyrics. As well as providing an opportunity to develop a long-term hobby, this work has a resettlement aspect as the young people are followed up on release. There are very close and effective links with the Music Technology teacher to ensure meaningful cross-over of technical and creative activities.
Gemma Howarth, Head of Education, Oakhill Secure Training Centre
In the last month (May/June 21) the prison service has given the go ahead to YOI establishments to restart work with outside agencies; HMYOIs Feltham and Cookham Wood and HMP Aylesbury have all been in touch with HMDT Music to discuss a resumption in delivery.
Work in the community continues apace, and of the 24 young people / adults currently accessing the programme:
- 33% are in college or further education
- 54% are in full or part time employment
- 91% have not reoffended
Young people, their parents / carers, and the staff working with them in statutory settings continue to give positive feedback about One Spirit’s programme:
“I can go studio with my boys, but it’s not the same. You were there with me when I was in jail and you’ve continued to be there since I came out. I’m not saying you’re my counsellor, but coming studio with you is like counselling, I need it. It’s fun and all that, but also it really helps.”
Young person engaging with One Spirit in the community
“We’ve just been talking for like 45 minutes and hardly done any music, but it was a sick lesson; thanks Sir.”
Young person after 1to1 session at Oakhill STC
“This is so helpful, there should be more things like this. I’m really glad I came with D today.”
Young person’s mother, attending a session in the community with her son
“I just wanted to thank you for sending over the updates on the young people’s progress. I wanted also to feedback to you on the service you offer as we have just undergone an inspection and your work was highlighted as a particularly positive intervention.
What stood out to inspectors was the fact that you were able to open up and remain a safe environment during much of the lockdown – providing a much-needed outlet for our young people. You were one of the few agencies to do this and this was appreciated hugely by the young people we work with and practitioners alike. Furthermore the fact that you continue to work with young people after their Order or YOT involvement is complete provides us with an excellent ‘exit plan’ for our young people and means that they continue to engage in positive activities.
It was also noted that through the excellent work you do in Oakhill and HMP YOI you have been able to offer some continuity for our young people from your work with them both in the community and in custody- this is hugely comforting to them at a time when they feel most alone and vulnerable.
Basically just a big thank you for all you do – please keep doing it!!”
Manager, Merton YOT