What’s it REALLY Like Doing a Counselling Placement at HMP Brixton?

Two therapists share their stories…

The Awareness Centre (TAC) has been offering talking therapies to inmates at HMP Brixton for the last three years, through its contract with NHS England and working alongside IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies).

The counselling placement TAC offers at HMP Brixton is challenging and rewarding – allowing placement therapists an opportunity and experience they are unlikely to gain elsewhere. Inmates are offered 6 sessions to help them work through issues such as relationship challenges, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and how to adjust to the world when they are released from prison.

The placement is one day per week, and placement therapists see up to four inmate-clients during the day. The reason the placement is a whole day is to accommodate the unpredictability of working in the prison – for example, a scheduled session may have to be cancelled last minute because of lockdowns. Being there for the day means that placement therapists have the flexibility to see clients at other times.

An added benefit to doing a placement at HMP Brixton is that placement therapists are trained in triage – assessing clients’ needs and pointing them in the direction of either CBT or counselling. They can then triage clients during periods of lockdown, which means placement therapists can use their time effectively. The experience of carrying out assessments and short-term counselling builds the kind of expertise and skills that are valuable for a therapist’s future career, whether in private practice or employed within an organisation.

Group supervision is included in the placement twice a month – and a team leader also supports placement therapists at HMP Brixton.

To offer insight into what the experience of a counselling placement at HMP Brixton is really like, we asked two of our therapists to share their stories…

Lee White qualified as a therapist in 2012, then took a break from counselling before joining The Awareness Centre as a placement therapist at HMP Brixton in autumn 2016.

Lee WhiteI was interested in working with this client group to help give prisoners a voice and offer psychological help while going through the prison system. Brixton Prison prioritises the rehabilitation of inmates to help reduce the risk of reoffending, and that side of it appealed to me.

The security and vetting processes can take a while before you start work at HMP Brixton – but that’s necessary because you’re working within the criminal justice system. The big moment for me was getting my keys, which means I don’t have to be escorted everywhere around the prison. Walking around a prison can be a sensory overload in itself – so be prepared for the noise on the inside.

The counselling work with inmates can be hugely rewarding. You are sitting with someone who may never been listened to before. You can give them a proper relationship, and a lot of people in prison haven’t had that in their lives. You give them that.

Some inmates may be guarded at first while they suss you out, but once you build trust I’ve found they can quickly open up. We’re there to help them through a bad time in prison – perhaps they’re suffering anxiety or depression and feeling hopeless – and we can help them cope with their feelings better. We’re mindful that we can offer 6-12 sessions, and so we keep the work focused on what can be achieved in the here and now.

It is a unique type of work and I would recommend you choose a placement at HMP Brixton if you’re looking for the experience rather than just meeting your training and accreditation hours. There may be frustrating moments when there’s a lockdown and you don’t get to see your client that day, but it’s an amazing opportunity and you will get access to a client group that is so rewarding to work with.

Duane Yon is a BACP-accredited therapist, and has been the clinical supervisor at HMP Brixton since the contract began in 2014. He also works with up to eight inmates per week.

Duane YonI’ve always been curious about the narrative that men don’t engage in therapy and find it difficult to work with emotions. So I was keen to work in an environment where men were more open and desperate to be helped. That was the pull for me to work at HMP Brixton – as well as the opportunity to work alongside multi-disciplinary teams and other professionals.

There can sometimes be a challenge building a consistent relationship with your clients in the prison because they may have to be moved around during the day, there may be a lockdown, or there’s perhaps a visit from a lawyer. Sometimes sessions may be missed. However, once you’re in the room with them there is some honesty and authenticity and amazing things go on.

Themes coming through the work include historical trauma, relationship difficulties, guilt and shame based on past experiences, and a lot of abuse. When you delve into their early lives you can start to understand how difficult it was for them to grow up and get a job when they come from a background of care homes and having to get love on a conditional basis. There is a lot of anxiety and depression in prison, including anxiety about being released – especially when they don’t have a support network on the outside.

The work can be challenging, so it’s’ good to know you can rely on your team – including the team leader from The Awareness Centre – and support from fellow therapists on other teams. I offer group supervision twice a month, but my therapists can call on me at any time if they need support or just need to talk about a difficult client issue.

The inmate may want to share his whole life story, and the challenge is to focus on the presenting issue to work on in six sessions. Inmates may also present with multiple issues – including emotional and mental health problems, or addiction issues. Many of the inmates do their best to be on time and are committed to the counselling relationship. They are very grateful and polite, and they have a lot going on and a lot to contend with.

If you’re thinking of doing a placement at HMP Brixton then I’d say to you to bite the bullet. Yes, you have to go through a rigorous vetting process, but if you really want to work with men and trauma and be part of a team then it’s one of the best places to do a placement.

If you have some questions about the counselling placement at HMP Brixton, call our clinical manager on 020 8673 4545, or email counselling@theawarenesscentre.com Or you can apply online today.

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