News and events

Using nature to nurture

Professor Mike Holmes, Head of the Graduate Research School, and Emma Sandon-Hesketh went to meet with Michelle Baybutt, to talk about the success of the pioneering programme of training and environmental work for prisoners. This programme bridges research, development and teaching. Michelle is located in the Healthy Settings Unit in the School of Health, a Unit headed up by Professor Mark Dooris. Michelle is also currently undertaking doctoral research focusing on female prisoners’ experience of environmental work in the prison setting.

Can you tell us about your research?

I am the programme lead for Health Inclusion and Citizenship which has been a five year piece of work focussing on prisoner health, through focussed activities such as environmental work, resource development and some family related work. This year we obtained funding for a further year developing the environmental aspect of the initial project. So my main area of research is on environmental work and the impact that has on both prisoners and staff in the prison setting, and its impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Michell Baybutt

To be clear your research is all about improving the wellbeing of the prisoners in prison environments and essentially re-habilitating them back into the community – would that be correct?

That’s a fair summary. Depending on how we look at the prison setting, it can conjure up this image of an austere concrete environment which can impact adversely on the health and wellbeing of prisoners and staff. The environmental work is to turn that around.

We work with some prisoners who have got severe and enduring mental health issues. So for instance we have a project at Styal prison where I’ve been working with some women who self-injure and self-harm, who are housed on a unit with other similar levels of mental health needs. Engaging them in horticultural work, as a therapeutic activity, has demonstrated reductions in self-harm, perhaps because they are away from that unit where there are other self-harmers. They are outside, whether in rain or sunshine, engaged in focussed activities, which can be anything from planting out to nurturing plants, to laying garden flags. Have something to focus on other than their self-harm and other than the issues of other self-harmers or other people in distress around them seems to have a positive impact. In addition the activities are also part of their re-settlement and rehabilitation.

We have huge numbers of people coming through the prison system who perhaps have never worked, or are not used to a structure in the sense of a work ethic. Doing physical work in the gardens is part of a training activity to help them re-settle better so that they become better citizens on release.

They are more capable of being financially independent, more likely to find a job, and reduce their chances of re-offending.

What are the main issues that you have addressed with your research? Is it about engaging prisoners in the process or is it about analysing the effects of environmental work on the prisoner group?

There are two elements to this in that we have a Big Lottery funded piece of work at five prison sites, mainly male because that is the dominant gender in prisons, working with adult males and young male offenders, but we also work with the only women’s prison in the North West. The Big Lottery funding is through the Supporting Change and Impact Programme which provides quarterly data monitoring from which we gather information about numbers of prisoners going through the programmes of activity at each site, and link this to training and education. Also we have received some funding from the Deputy Director of Public Sector Prisons North West, which allows us to do a process evaluation which may be presented as case studies and for example to see if we can see reductions in self-harm and mental distress. I have a forensic psychologist graduate who is working with me from the prisons, to collect data from a general health questionnaire from people at each of the prison sites, to pick up more quantifiably and richer data. We are also looking at the numbers of ex-offenders through the gate who go into appropriate training and employment.

My work is focussed on a small group of women at Styal prison with life sentences, looking at social inclusion / exclusion factors, how they experience living in that setting and how being involved in this horticultural project impacts on and contributes to their health and wellbeing.

So this research is about both the effects on the prisoners’ lives within prison and also what happens when they go out into the community

Yes definitely! There are a lot of people in prison who are revolving door prisoners, and for whom prison is almost a home to them.

It represents a culture and an environment that they are very familiar with. We are interested in anything we are doing while they are in prison that is having a positive impact so that when they go out there is less chance that they are going to return – in relation to the horticultural and environmental work.

It sounds as if improving the quality of life within the prison may make being in prison more appealing. Is it supposed to be appealing, making it more appealing for re-offenders to return to?

There was a recent debate on radio about this. It obviously fuels people’s beliefs doesn’t it – you read things in the media about what prison is like but I don’t think for a minute that somebody who is a revolving door prisoner or any other type of prisoner would consider prison to be more appealing than being outside. However, I would perhaps suggest is that people struggle to cope when they are out because they don’t necessarily have the coping and life skills that perhaps you and I have. It’s like asking where did we develop those skills and how do we get to a point where we can live independently and securely and what is it about us that they haven’t got? It is probably about things such as family, peer groups and the engagement with education. Many people in prison have disengaged whether because of their educational ability being low or disengaging because of the type of classroom learning they experienced, or because they have perhaps been primary carers for drug using parents; they have missed out on a whole part of their life about skills, and social development. They feel more socially included in prison – they can cope better, they have a system and a structure around them, which some people might not like, but they get their laundry, and three meals a day. How can we better equip people who have been disengaged socially or educationally so that when they go back out they are better equipped to be able to deal with things? There’s a lot of positive work that goes on in prison about helping people to identify what their needs are to better address them when they come out so that they have got somewhere to go to, potentially they know the work and training is set up, or at least they are better equipped to go and look for work. The horticultural project was originally set up in recognition that a large number of people in prison have very poor levels of literacy, comprehension and numeracy skills, and that a classroom based approach was not going to work. Better to move the classroom to the woods. Not everybody was interested, but what has been really encouraging was that people have come along and then become interested. There are so many people in prison with low levels of self-esteem and self-value, but they get involved and suddenly: “I can do something”, “I may not be able to read and write but actually you know what, I have just turned over that greenhouse and look what I am growing”. They are not only learning skills, but they are self-teaching. “Why is the carrot crooked? Because we didn’t take all the stones out.” Their levels of self-esteem increase because they suddenly realise they are not so bad after all.

If you get people who are working in a horticultural environment, but cannot read and are not numerate – do you get them actually being stimulated into reading at a basic level so that they can read the back of a seed packet to find out how to plant the seeds or working out how many plants they need down a row?

It’s fascinating, in prison you very rarely see people that obviously can’t read and write because they have complex coping mechanisms. Linked to some of our projects, we have engaged with the prison education provider and we now have horticultural courses. They have to produce a portfolio. They will draw and colour in and spend a lot of time drawing a picture of the plant they have worked with and then they find the words to express themselves. They tend to work with other people who can read and write, so they get peer assistance. I observed prisoners who I can’t say they didn’t read before, but then see them with their nose buried in a great big gardening book, because they have to find out – if I take these seeds and I keep them over winter, will they grow again next year. I think that’s a really interesting off shoot of the project.

Do you have people, who when they leave prison or even in prison, do some sort of qualification such as an NVQ?

Yes they can do some qualifications in prison. We have had some examples from the last programme of adult men leaving and going onto Myerscough College, and undertaking further courses. I think one went on to train as a tree surgeon, and other people setting up their own business, which is fantastic.

I think it is about setting people’s expectations. However you cannot run the project as if everyone will be able to set up their own business, but the fact that some people have done it just goes to illustrate it is possible.

Has there been exhibits of the work at flowers show – what was this, and what kind of impact did it have? In terms of impact, can you also talk about the benefit of gardens for the self-harmers?

Prisons do enter flower shows, so we have Kirkham Prison that annually features at Southport Flower Show, but they are an open prison. Logistically it is easier for them to be public facing. Styal is a closed prison, so when there was the suggestion that they might enter Tatton Flower Show, I think everybody drew breath – “How are we going to do that?”, and “It’s very expensive.”,

so they had to get lots of sponsorship and funding. The way it was approached was that the prison education, gardens and residential services all work together to produce a garden plan which was made of papier-mâché, rather than a written plan. It was called Metamorphosis and illustrated a prisoner’s journey through prison, coming in with limited skills, picking up new skills, increasing awareness and then making choices: “Do I stay on the same path or take a different path?” “Do I go to education, or to work?” They created this amazing garden, and then they had about two weeks of going out with a working party of women. The women had to be ROTLed (Released on Temporary Licence) so they were risk assessed to be out of the prison under supervision to build the garden at Tatton Park. At the show itself we had the women prisoners at Tatton talking to the public. One of those women was a prolific self-harmer on the high dependency unit, which has a really poor public image. The prison took a risk when they first allowed her onto the gardens project. Within the six to eight weeks of her starting on the project, she didn’t self-harm once. She was then picked to be part of the Tatton team. They won a silver award and were on TV on Granada Reports and Look Northwest. The morale and motivational boost that that gave the prisoners was one thing and for that person it had a huge impact. Also at Tatton we had another prisoner at the show who talked to the other stall holders, and was offered a job on her release a few days after Tatton. The interesting aspect of this was that the stall holder had been in prison, and then, on release had set up his own business. He knew the critical factor was leaving prison, and knowing where to go, and what to do. So he gave her that chance. These were the two big success stories just from Tatton.

In terms of longer term impact, have Styal taken any notice of this success? Have you been able to give them that evidence to say if you did more of this, you may have less negative behaviour?

This is what our current twelve month study is doing. The first part of the funding that we had for the five years was the development work, setting everything up, getting an infrastructure together, and collecting some evidence in terms of processes and systems. Our process evaluation for this stage was extremely positive and enabled us to identify progress and journeys travelled as well as areas for development. These twelve months are focussed on a number of prisons projects looking at, for example, reductions in self-harm, improvements in mental wellbeing, and take up of training and education. We hope to complete this by the end of March.

How would you summarise this project?

It’s such a big and complex project. I think it is about enabling the people to be better fitted into society when they are released from prison. It’s about knowing where they have come from and being able to work with them in a way that better equips them for life outside prison. You can’t just say to some people, you need a job. That won’t sort them out. By putting a project like this in place which is diverse and creative enough to move people along a journey and to help them with the fundamental things around their confidence and motivation and esteem. In other words it is about using nature to nurture change.