Written by Harriette Douglas

In June Prisoners Abroad visited Huntercombe Prison in Oxfordshire, at the invitation of the then Deputy Governor Martin Hatch, who had met our CEO at a conference in Bruges last year. One staff member writes about the experience…

“Huntercombe Prison has an interesting history. Originally an internment camp during World War 2, it briefly hosted Rudolf Hess - on his way south after he famously parachuted into Scotland. It first opened as a prison in 1946, and currently holds a solely foreign national population. It was therefore of particular interest to us at Prisoners Abroad, as it gave us an opportunity to find out how the process we are accustomed to seeing works in reverse (with prisoners being deported from the UK rather than back to it).

Given everything that I have seen and heard recently about the state of UK prisons, I was pretty unsure what to expect. However, as the visit went on I was pleasantly surprised by what we found; a prison that was defying the current UK prison stereotype.

Governor David Redhouse made it clear from the outset that Huntercombe was lucky in that it had almost a full staff of prison officers – the chronic staff shortages seen in news reports thankfully have not had an impact there. He admitted this made the lives of both staff and prisoners a lot easier, but that is not to say that life in Huntercombe doesn’t have its challenges.

Since 2012 Huntercombe has hosted prisoners from 141 nationalities; currently there are people from 74 different nationalities there. There are followers of 13 different religions, as well as those who do not identify with any religious group. This mix can cause its own tensions and difficulties, particularly when it comes to communication.

Yet in spite of this Huntercombe seems relatively harmonious, and indeed that is the impression we were given by all of the staff and prisoners that we spoke to on the visit. I was particularly impressed by the leaflet I was handed by a member of the prisoners’ Rehabilitative Culture Council. He explained that the leaflet forms part of new prison officers’ training – in a session delivered by the prisoners - with the aim of making new staff aware of the potential issues and tensions experienced by the prison population.

It was refreshing to see that the active involvement of the inmates in running the facility was encouraged. At lunchtime we witnessed a staff spin class, being run by one of the prisoners who had achieved a personal training qualification during his time at Huntercombe.

This qualification was just part of what appeared to be an extensive education and training programme that was on offer to the majority of inmates (Governor Redhouse explained that there was limited space on the courses which meant that not everyone was currently able to participate).  We were taken to see where prisoners learn bricklaying and plastering skills. Our favourite stop on the tour was probably the workshop where Arctic camouflage nets are made, primarily because we were in disbelief when the Governor first told us they made them there.

We were taken to the visitor centre to see where families can meet with their imprisoned relatives. It was a nice area that looked as comfortable as could be expected – there was a play area for children and a place to get refreshments from. We were informed that visiting Huntercombe can be quite difficult for families, who often have to travel a relative distance to a prison that is in the middle of nowhere, and therefore not easily accessible via public transport. This is a situation the family members we support are all too familiar with, having the additional worry and expense of getting abroad.

We left feeling like we had learnt a lot about and from Huntercombe. One of the things that stuck with us was Stoicism, a philosophy of endurance and gratitude that an officer explained they had started teaching to the prisoners. A Stoic quote now routinely makes its way onto the fundraising team’s board as our featured ‘quote of the week’.”