Mediation training in prison – conflict management at the sharp end

I was apprehensive as I approached the main door of a high security prison a year ago. I was there, with a Yorkshire Mediation Services colleague, to train prisoners and officers in mediation skills as part of the prison’s violence reduction strategy. All of my training as a mediator had taught me not to make assumptions but, as the various doors opened and closed behind me with a loud clang and the turn of keys attached to the Officer’s belt, I could not help but wonder what I had let myself in for.

The next three days were spent with six prisoners and six officers all keen to learn new skills and to help in resolving conflict. My apprehension evaporated with the first introductions. One prisoner ended the answer to every question with ‘Sir’. At the first break, knowing that a certain distance between officers and inmates was a necessary part of maintaining discipline, I tentatively suggested that this was not necessary with me. His response surprised me: “I don’t call you Sir because of your status. It was the way I was brought up; to show respect.”

All of the officers, relatively junior in rank and age, were enthusiastic and engaged. Prisoners and officers showed conspicuous ability in grasping new concepts and in role playing and quite a few realised that they had been mediating for a while without recognising that’s what it was. 

Like most role-playing exercises there was a lot of fun with officers playing truculent prisoners and vice versa and there was no shortage of volunteers willing to try their hand at mediating.

Yorkshire Mediation, like many organisations in the last twelve months, has had to adapt to the new Covid 19 environment and our volunteer mediators have embraced Zoom and other video and audio platforms to help to resolve community and workplace conflict. Zoom has become part of my toolbox for commercial mediation too.

Using an online forum to train more prisoners and Prison Officers will be a new challenge to us all. 

Our next training session, which is going to have to take place over Zoom, is scheduled in a couple of weeks and I am looking forward to an intense and rewarding week.