How student projects at Leicester Prison have helped prisoners feel part of the community

A groundbreaking link-up between DMU and the city’s prison has helped transform the fortunes of the once-troubled jail.

HMP Leicester, which was the focus of a damning report by the prisons watchdog the HM Inspectorate of Prisons at the start of last year, has surged up the league table for UK jails in the latest figures compiled by the Ministry of Justice.

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Prison governor Phil Novis has hailed the partnership with #DMUlocal as one of the key factors behind the sea change, which saw the jail climb more than 50 places in the prison rating system rankings.

Academics and students from the university have been involved in a series of altruistic projects inside the prison walls, which Mr Novis believes have helped foster a new spirit in a jail which had been dogged by violence, overcrowding and drug abuse.

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Ventures have included:

•    Workshops involving prisoners and criminology students
•    The construction of a memorial garden honouring a much-loved member of the prison staff
•    A concert by the DMU String Orchestra, which is thought to be one of the first staged behind bars in the UK
•    A performance by the DMU Gospel Choir
•    A revamp of the prison visitors’ room devised by DMU interior design student Harriet Calland, with decoration work undertaken by student volunteers.

“The impact of the partnership is impossible to measure with metrics, but I have no doubt they are indelibly linked. They go hand in hand. With the help of De Montfort University, we have been able to create a feeling of community in the prison.

“The events have helped make prisoners feel part of a community, and feel part of Leicester. It has enabled them to think of something else but violence and drugs.”

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Mr Novis took the helm of HMP Leicester in February last year and vowed to tackle deep-lying problems in the prison.

“It was a dreadful place when I took over,” he said. “It was chaotic, and it was filthy. The staff were demoralised. The prisoners were demoralised. We were short of staff – and we’re still short of staff but that was only part of the problem, as we’ve shown.

“We were at rock bottom. I told the staff we would not be going any lower. I said ‘We are going forward, and my target is to be in the top 50 prisons within two years.’ We have hit that target in a year. We had a 21% reduction in violence. In the rest of the prison estate, it’s gone up massively. One prison has seen their rates of violence rise by 300%.”

The partnership came about following a meeting between Mr Novis and the Vice-Chancellor of DMU, Professor Dominic Shellard.

“I had never been to a university and I had no idea what a vice-chancellor was,” said Mr Novis. “I expected an old crusty character but Dominic is the most inspirational person I have ever met.

“He asked what DMU could do to help, and at first I didn’t know.  He said ‘what about doing something for staff first of all’ so we began by creating a garden to give them somewhere quiet to sit, which turned into a memorial for my secretary, Raghbir Sagoo who had just passed away after 28 years in the job.

“The staff saw the students arrive in their pink Square Mile shirts and thought ‘this is good’ and it gave everyone a lift.”

But it was the arrival of the DMU Gospel Choir that really caught the imagination of the prisoners and staff alike.

“That was the best thing I have ever done in my career in the prison service,” said Mr Novis.

“It was a beautiful day, and we were out in the exercise yard. Some of my staff came out with their grizzled features, and you could see them thinking ‘what’s this b******s?’ Within three minutes they were clapping along and smiling and the prisoners were dancing and singing.

“If only you could bottle that emotion, then you could sprinkle it when you needed it again and say to people ‘remember this feeling?’

“When I leave Leicester, whichever prison I go to next, my first point of call will be to the local vice chancellor and I’ll say ‘what partnership are you going to have with us?’ That’s the most ringing endorsement I can give.”

Mark Charlton, Head of Public Engagement at DMU, said: “Our partnership with Leicester Prison enabled us to develop one of our most rewarding programmes of innovative outreach.

“We are delighted at the transformation of the prison under the governor’s leadership, and at the way our students and staff have embraced the opportunity to give their time to work there with the men.“It feels like we are doing projects in the prison almost on a daily basis now. This is just the start for this unique partnership. Both the governor and I are meeting soon to identify how we can further evolve this exciting collaboration.”

The prison rating system is a data-driven report which examines a series of aspects of prison life, including the results of mandatory drug tests, staff sickness and the amount of activity hours for prisoners.

The latest annual rankings saw HMP Leicester rise from 104th position – just five spots off bottom berth – to 47th.

And in the table which groups similar types of prisons, Leicester now occupies second place, when it had been ninth, and bottom. “That’s actually more important to us,” added Mr Novis. “We are a remand prison, and they tend to be more challenging to run than other types of jail. Realistically, we can only hope to get in the top 30.

“Prisons at the top of the table tend to be open prisons and high security jails, which traditionally have more resources or less violence, which enable them to focus on the rehabilitation aspect much more.

“So we are absolutely thrilled with these results.”