Journey to Release: Counselling in a UK Prison

ISBN 978-1-909976-49-8, £14.95, Mo Smith, Waterside Press

“Those who have broken our laws…are desperate to tell their stories” is how this book ends. It is both fitting and atmospheric; fitting because abusive childhoods are often the cause of later anguish/anger, and atmospheric because despite Smith’s inside account being largely made up of vignettes and fleeting tales, at its core is a brutal yet elegant journey which leaves the reader with the desire for a greater understanding of our penal system.

For “50 minutes…they can be heard”, we are reminded via a poem in the middle chapter of this unique, plain-spoken work. “Not a number, a ‘perp’, a criminal, a druggie, an offender, a murderer” but a client, an individual, in a counselling room. And it is this sense of everyone – no matter what their station – needing 1-to-1 attention at some point in life that resonates deeply.

“There was no point anymore” Smith echoes on behalf of ‘O’ who was sentenced after a fracas in a pub and subsequently lost his business, his family and his future. Such simplicity catches you off guard. It burrows deep beneath one’s skin. The line between civilian and prisoner narrows having read this insightful book because “ordinary lives [do indeed] change in an instant”.

People mess up, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a manner impossible to forgive. Smith and her counselling team at HMP X – a Category C prison – cannot erase this, but they are able, through listening, reflecting, validating, digging and exploring, to shift the client to a less myopic place; one where “they can take responsibility” but also understand “what wasn’t their fault”.

The suffering and abuse which is very much the norm in these individuals’ lives – beaten with a belt, locked away without food or water, sexual assault, care home torment/trauma, abandonment, loss – explains the vulnerable state of many prisoners once they reach adulthood, along with their susceptibility to self-harm and suicide.

Smith manages to add a degree of grace and acceptance to such thoughts and by simply “turning up and showing the client that someone is there for them” recognises her own limitations. Moreover, counsellors are “often so completely wrapped-up in ‘getting it right’” that they fail in being ‘fully present’ with clients.

There are parts of this publication which disappoint as they are merely afforded surface attention rather than something more profound: “There is a certain way of handling things in prison and it is non-negotiable”; “Courses may be mandatory for their sentence, such as victim awareness or relationship courses”.

Perhaps the remit of Journey to Release is to offer a taster, however. And in this respect it has succeeded whilst injecting worthiness to the volcanic emotions of the oft-forgotten.

This review was first published in Private Practice, September 2018 issue, © BACP

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