'Everybody has the right to be safe in prison': Meet the Prison Listeners inside HMP Swansea

Watch the video report by ITV Wales journalist Hamish Auskerry

- The story involves subjects which some viewers may find upsetting

Walking inside a prison is quite an intimidating experience, even if it is just for a brief working visit.

Every few metres there's a heavy door that needs unlocking by the guard accompanying us before we arrive on the induction wing of HMP Swansea. This is where people stay for one or two nights usually before they are moved into their longer-term home for the duration of their stay in prison.

The length of their stay in prison will vary, but in some cases the effects on the mental health of those who spend time in prison can be a life sentence.

People in prison are a particularly at risk category when it comes to issues such as suicide and self harm.

Samaritans say the increased risk is due to a unique combination of pre-existing factors as well as the prison environment itself. People in prison are more likely to come from deprived economic backgrounds, more likely to experience alcohol and drug-related harms, and more likely to have lived through traumatic life events.

All of these factors are connected to suicidal thoughts, feelings and actions.

Iestyn is in HMP Swansea on remand for a drug charge

Inside the prison we meet Iestyn. He's here on a drug charge and has served 10 months on remand. He has just finished his Samaritans training to be a Prison Listener and is ready to help those around him when they need it.

"The reason I wanted to be involved is because it's good to help people", he told me. "I've been through some of this stuff in the past so it's good to reflect it onto someone else".

We also meet Steven, not his real name, who is serving a 9 year sentence for drug and driving offences. He's an experienced Listener and sits down with Iestyn to share some of his experience.

"We've got to build trust with a caller, they're not going to open up to you straight away", Steven explains to Iestyn.

"As the call goes on you build trust, and the more trust you build the more they will open up".

Listeners do not give advice and they do not judge. They are trained just to listen to those also living in prison in the moments when they need it most.

The call button in everyone cells can be used to speak to a guard, or a Listener, and Steven says the calls range from all aspects of life struggles like relationship and family issues all the way through to fear and discomfort in prison or general mental health concerns.

Tilly helps to train people in prison to be Listeners

Samaritans says there are features unique to the prison environment such as social and physical isolation, bullying, uncertainty about sentencing, inconsistent regime and greater likelihood of exposure to suicide can make this risk worse.

Tilly, also not her real name, is the Branch Prison Support Officer for Samaritans at HMP Swansea. Volunteers choose a "Samaritans name" when they start in order to allow them to safely help others.

Tilly says prison can be a scary place, particularly for those for whom it is their first time.

"When people come into prison they're often feeling lost and in quite a lot of distress. The Listeners are in a unique position to stand next to them and offer empathy.

"We train them to listen, we train them about self harm and suicide and they stand alongside them in the most difficult of times.

"Everybody has the right to be safe when they come to prison and the Listeners keep them safe by just listening to them and supporting them".

I asked Tilly what she made of the view of some in Wales that prison should be an unpleasant place, given it's usually a place where people are being punished for breaking the law.

"It's not about why they're in prison, it's about the fact that when people come to prison they serve their sentence, and then they leave and try to rebuild their life.

"People should be safe in prison, and that's where the Listeners come in."

Iestyn walks into the induction ward at HMP Swansea

The Samaritans are calling for the Welsh Government to place an emphasis on prisoners as a high-risk group when it publishes its forthcoming suicide and self harm strategy for Wales.

They want the discussion about combating suicide to be framed more widely, taking into account the range of life experiences and risk factors that contribute.

The Welsh Government say a publication date for their new strategy has not yet been confirmed, but committed to including "priorities to develop capability and response in key settings where the most vulnerable to self-harm and/or suicide might present.

"One of the key settings is prisons", it said in a statement.

The people in prison at HMP Swansea that we spoke to said it felt safer than others they had experienced, and that the Listener scheme was well-used by those living there.

His Majesty's Prison and Probation Service told us that most vulnerable prisoners have access to "round-the-clock care and mental health services".

In a statement it said: "HMPPS has ensured vulnerable prisoners get the mental health support that they need by increasing staffing levels alongside specific training on self-harm prevention.

The Prisons Service said it funds Samaritans through a grant that will provide £625k each year to support the Prison Listener programme.

Across the UK, HMPPS says it has increased staffing levels with a substantial increase of 1441 Full-Time Equivalent Band 3-5 prison officers in the 12 months ending 30 September 2023.

The Prisons Service says last year’s recruitment means there are now an extra 4,655 prison officers than in March 2017.

As we neared the time for us to leave HMP Swansea, I asked Iestyn what his message would be to anyone who is starting their time in prison during the festive period.

"Basically, we're here to help you. So don't be scared, if you need anyone to speak to, we're here".

If you have been affected by anything in this article, help and advice can be found here.

Samaritans is available day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

The Mental Health Helpline for Wales is available to take your call any time, day or night. Freephone 0800 132 737 or text 'help" to 81066 (charged at standard network rate)

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