Therapy – the process of rebuilding in a ‘living, learning environment’ – insidetime & insideinformation

‘I was initially very skeptical about coming here but the welcome from the staff and community members was warm’ – community member Colin

Therapy isn’t for everybody. For some that go through the process it can be extremely challenging and since pandemic restrictions eased, therapeutic communities (TC) are in the process of rebuilding and returning to normality. Since June 2022, Warren Hill’s Democratic Therapeutic Community has returned to the unrestricted model. Full-on therapy is now in session.

Stressful wait

For the prisoner to successfully graduate from the intensive therapy, staunch motivation and genuine commitment is needed. The TC is where behaviors and beliefs are challenged on a daily basis by prisoners themselves and other community members, whether in small groups or in the community. Nick Pellegrotti, Warren Hill’s therapy manager notes, ‘If a prisoner isn’t anxious about something as intense as this, they’ve not thought of it through properly’.

For a ‘newbie’ arriving on the TC for the first time, the calm ambience, paradoxically, can be unnerving, but staff and prisoners are welcoming. Colin has been residing on the unit for a few months, ‘I’m currently awaiting the allocation of my core therapy group. I was initially very skeptical about coming here but the welcome from the staff and community members was warm. Although the atmosphere is calm, the waiting period could be stressful at times, from doing my HCR20 in great detail and not knowing whether I’ve made it into group therapy. I feel this ‘induction’ process could be expedited to relieve some anxiety.’

genuine desire to change

The culture of the TC encourages prisoners to support each other and therapists and facilitators believe in the process. ‘I genuinely think that to work well, and with longevity, you have to love and believe in it,’ says Nick. ‘The driving force for me is that knowing the job I’m doing makes a difference.’ This belief is evident, as most of the staff have been here a long time and share the same ethos. For Alan, the longest serving officer facilitator on the TC, mainstream prison became demoralizing. ‘I’d see the same faces coming back time and again. I know I would have become jaded and disillusioned with the service had I not got the TC job. It’s enlightening and really satisfying to see things such as the coping strategies people take away to lead a different life. Some have arrived at the TC having been in the system for a long time and felt hopeless. Seeing graduates with more hope for themselves move on to Cat D or Approved Premises makes the work I do worthwhile.’

There must be a genuine desire for the person to change. As such, most prisoners self-refer to participate in therapy through their OMU. Trevor, graduating after 4 years on the TC, is coming up to parole and passionately candid about his therapeutic journey. ‘It’s been really difficult all through therapy and it got harder the more aware I was made of my risks. It was particularly difficult to change the ‘automatic’, or unconscious defenses I had developed. These were highlighted by therapists and group members whenever I slipped into them, particularly victim stance. It can be so difficult to change. If you’ve not wanted to quit during your therapy journey, you’ve not done it properly.’


Natalie has been an officer on mainstream wings and worked with juveniles and young offenders before becoming a TC officer facilitator for the last 8 years, ‘the difference between mainstream wings and the TC is that those who choose to come here tend to want to work on their risk and go into more depth of their life and crimes. There has to be a genuine interest and belief in therapy for staff to do this role. Patience is needed and I give more of myself than I would normally on a mainstream wing in order to build trust between me and the prisoner.’

community meetings

Prisoners are expected to adhere to the constitution, which consists of the seven pillars of the therapeutic model which are the foundation of the TC alongside rules and boundaries. Individuals assume responsibility for boundary breaks and are encouraged to challenge each other when displaying risk. It’s part of the ‘Living, Learning Environment’. Even staff behaviors can be challenged by prisoners and noticed in community meetings. Everyone in the community confronts their own emotions. ‘It’s easy to forget it’s not personal when I’m challenged on mainstream landings,’ Alan explains, ‘but here, just like anyone else, I encounter and deal with it on a daily basis. In mainstream jail it would only happen on the landing but on the TC it’s in the community meeting.’

Staff recognize the fine line between authority and personal responsibility and feel okay about being challenged, providing it’s approached in a reasonable manner. Natalie lends some insight into how that feels for some staff. “For me, there’s a sense of anxiety if a challenge is coming into the community room, a worry about how I might be perceived, for example. Before working on the TC, I wouldn’t have responded in the same way. I would rather an inmate challenged me on the issue than hold on to a grievance. Often it’s not me a prisoner is having a problem with, it’s more what’s going on for them.’

departures and arrivals

Group therapy has now returned to three full sessions per week and the community conventions on Monday and Friday morning to discuss therapeutic or operational issues. ‘Groups can be emotionally and mentally draining,’ Matt, prisoner and peer support, adds, ‘especially when doing psychodrama too! It’s been worth it, though. It’s helped me with my emotional management and to build close relationships with people I might not otherwise have done. It’s tough being challenged in group by peers, especially on top of the guilt and shame I already feel about my offence, but support here is good from both staff and prisoners. Learning to use support is still a challenge for me, but I’m getting there.’

Warren Hill TC, like other regimes, couldn’t escape COVID restrictions and it was frustrating for both staff and prisoners. ‘It brought anxiety to everybody,’ says Natalie. ‘Prisoners became irritable and fractious with higher emotions. It was the same for us, too. It was an emotionally difficult time and we were more on edge, which created tension at times. It was frustrating having therapy restricted.’ Alan concurs, ‘With more bang-up than I’d like there to have been, and under COVID restrictions, it didn’t feel like a TC – there was less positivity.’ The unit also experienced departures and new arrivals of prisoners over the period and now needs some rebuilding, relying on senior members and ‘culture carriers’ to work with staff to return to the pre-pandemic therapeutic community model.

As therapy manager Nick reinforces, “The TC goes through difficult times, but we work hard to get things right…it’s a great place for people prisoners serious about making changes so they don’t reoffend…whatever their beliefs or backgrounds, here they want to change their behaviours.”

Therapy isn’t for everybody, and for some it doesn’t work out. It is not a cure but if it means someone can walk out of the gate with a sound understanding of themselves and their behaviours, the hard work and painful sessions will go a long way towards becoming a better person and living a better life.

Matt and ‘H’ are the editors of Warren Hill’s prison magazine – The Know

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