Pastoral care for prisoners plays a key part of Andy Flanagan's day managing the gardens and grounds team in HMP Holme House, as Greg Rhodes reports.
The imposing perimeter walls of HMP Holme House hide the scale of operation that Horticultural Instructor Andrew Flanagan and the gardens department team have to wrestle with.
The Stockton-on-Tees prison, opened in 1992, holds 1,210 Category C prisoners, most of whom are actively engaged in life- and career-improving programmes to help prepare them for their return to the community.
Originally Category B, Holme House became Category C in March 2018 under a general operational restructuring.
Within the outer curtain wall runs an equally awe-inspiring lattice steel fence, topped with a double curl of barbed wire. That said, walking the 52-acre site is anything but claustrophobic and the diversity of provision across the estate is eye-opening.
In post since 2015, Andy manages a challenging yet fulfilling groundcare programme, largely delivered by Holme House prisoners under his supervision and that of fellow horticultural instructor Les Gray, 57, who's clocked up ten years here.
"This is a big operation," says Andy understatedly. "Some 60% of the acreage is grass and my priority is to make it all look as attractive as possible."
"As we have such a huge area to handle, Les co-ordinates the greenhouse work, planting out the beds and filling the planters."
"A major part of the work is creating an attractive face for prisoners, visitors and staff. Several areas are planned to be improved with plantings and landscaping, which will further raise the presentation and enjoyment for all."
The Gardens Department falls under the prison's Land Based Activities (LBA), managed by Jeff Wingfield, 56, who also oversees the waste management function and commands thirty-one years' experience in Her Majesty's Prison Service (HMPS).
"All prisoners receive a full induction course then a horticultural workright programme," Jeff explains. "Successful candidates can then progress to a City & Guilds Horticultural Skill Tests and NVQ certificated accreditation, so they leave here with a record of achievement."
Work areas cover turfcare, greenhouses, shrubs and borders, sports surfaces and the waste management unit - plenty of scope for prisoners to try their hand and train up in various sector disciplines.
"We train the team in handling various machinery and practices used within horticulture," Andy adds, "plus the different aspects and processes applied in caring and maintaining a synthetic sports surface."
"They are involved in all aspects of greenhouse production," he continues, "from seed sowing, plant propagation, hanging baskets and vegetable production."
"Training in shrubs and borders covers planting protection, training and supporting, pruning, mulching, firming and feeding - so we enable them to undertake a full programme of activity."
Activity and education rank high in Holme House priorities. Prisoners can keep fit indoors within the extensively equipped gym or train outside in all exercise areas that also include fixed exercise frames and equipment.
Meeting perennial demand for football, the three-quarter size 3G pitch looks resplendent, belying its age. "The technical services department installed it seven years ago," Andy explains, "replacing the original full-size sand-filled pitch due to building expansion, when another three house blocks were added to the four previously on site, nearly doubling the number of prisoners," Andy explains.
Immaculately maintained, the surface sees action four or five times a week, Andy adds. "Our Countax mini tractor and the comb, brush and roller attachments keep the surface in great condition. The pitch also stages PADS courses, when Army trainers descend for a fortnight's drills three times a year, but it's mainly used for football."
Prisoners working in LBA have to include Maths and English embedded learning as part of their engagement with prison regimes - the programmes Prison Industries division runs.
In charge of that is Maxine Gunn, who currently runs this side of things from a small but highly ordered classroom cum office. The prisoners team has recently laid foundations for its larger, modular timber-framed successor behind the greenhouses.
"I'm just one cog in a big educational wheel," she notes. "I assess needs in Maths and English, which are embedded in prisoners' jobs, and focus on functional and applied aspects, such as asking them how many flowers they would need to plant within a designated area or how to measure out stripes to a set width."
Evidence of the practical skills and artistry prisoners bring to the site is everywhere.
A splendid timber bird table, assembled in the expansive wood shop, adorns the Prison Governor's Garden, which his office overlooks, whilst a pair of dramatic hexagonal wooden planters straddle the entrance to the garden to complement beds bustling with colour, trees and eye-catching striped lawn.
Elsewhere, the team created their own sensory garden, complete with shrub and herb planters surrounded by aquatically inspired mural art on the walls.
To the rear of the greenhouses, vegetable planters constructed by the prisoners are inscribed ornately with the words: 'Gardening - cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes' and another with 'Trespassers will be composted'. The output is not purely for internal application. The gardens department has linked with a community garden scheme in Peterlee, supplying 'Old English' styled signs for it.
The Holme House team l-r: Les Gray, Terry Mallerby, Derek Pears, Jeff Wingfield, Colin Steer and Andrew Flanagan
Andrew Pepper, 56, Band 3, Gardens Maintenance, manages the external areas fronting the main entrance and the bund at the rear, which requires chippers and chainsaws to keep it under control. "Although one of the team, Andrew works exclusively outside, which is a big task in itself," Andy notes.
Terry Mallerby, 60, a Band 4 member of the team, co-ordinates the waste management function, with Derek Pears, 67, and Colin Steer, 57, working with prisoners assigned to this aspect of land-based activities.
Given the size of the prison population here, the scale of the operation is necessarily vast. "Prisoners have the opportunity to sort their own waste for recycling," Andy says. "Waste paper is shredded and bailed, cardboard compacted and bailed and tins, clothing and bedding sorted, ready for the waste management operator, which collects three times a week."
Andy, still only 30, came to Holme House in early 2015 as a Band 3 Horticultural Instructor and holding a wealth of experience in turf management. "The bands reflect length of service and qualification," he explains. "I'm Band 3, whilst Les is Band 4 and Jeff Band 5." Qualified to Level 3 in Horticulture and Level 3 in Sportsturf, he also holds PA1 and PA6 spray licences.
Holme House presented a dramatic change in Andy's career. Starting out straight from school in 2005 at 15, he took a fortnight's work experience at Hartlepool United FC in what proved a true trial of his ambitions.
"My first job was sweeping and painting the stands - a test to see if I was cut out for groundsmanship. Then, in the closed season, I helped prepare the pitch for renovation."
The club asked Andy back for a further three weeks and invited him to stay on full time as their apprentice. "I jumped at the chance, completing my qualifications at East Durham College Houghall over the next two years."
His seven and a half years there were marked by a period of groundcare excellence at the club, he remembers
"The club was often in the news, nominated for various awards, including Pitch of the Year three times. The then head Dave Brown secured a Groundsman of the Year accolade, with Andy himself runner-up Young Groundsman of the Year in 2011. "Dave was my mentor - he taught me everything about the sportsturf industry," Andy recalls fondly. "I loved working there."
A "lack of opportunity to progress" however prompted a move. Born and bred locally in Hesleden, County Durham, Andy stayed close by, taking up the assistant grounds manager post at Sedgefield Racecourse in 2012. "Horseracing is my sporting passion," he reveals, and I had the chance to see it up close, working under Clerk of the Course Phil Tuck, a former jockey and Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. He's now racing adviser to the king of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh."
His ambitions thwarted once again by lack of opportunity, Andy spotted the Holme House post advertised, which noted the role of teaching prisoners about turfcare and horticulture. "A fresh challenge and certainly a different environment," he says.
The whole aim is to give prisoners job satisfaction and qualifications via purposeful activity under a process of rehabilitation that prepares them for release. They're a good team and deliver professional results in difficult circumstances.
"We liaise with outside agencies in search of job opportunities for them," Andy explains. "Councils were once a valuable source, but not any more due to budget cutbacks. Many prisoners seek to set up on their own as gardeners and they are well-qualified for that career when they leave here."
After Andy's 7.30am meeting with Jeff to set the day's schedule, he and Les prepare for the prisoners to enter Land Based Activities for their 8.00am to 4.00pm shift. Hands on with the team at all times, Andy and his colleagues in turn allocate daily duties across the site.
"The same twenty men come to LBA for daily garden duties. The waste bins party numbers around fifteen working in shifts seven days a week, so a total of thirty-five men will be in land based production on any day."
"Prisoners choose the activities they wish to undertake in Holme House. Some select educational courses, others prefer working outside as part of our team. After receiving their induction pack covering Health & Safety procedures, the LBA contingent undertakes a fortnight's probation in horticulture."
The gardens team is in constant touch with the communications room during the day. "We ask them for permission to move around the site to do the jobs, returning to base around 11.00am to 11.15am to clean machinery, replace it in the shed and check that no tools are missing. If anything is, we're in big trouble. Relax over a cuppa then they're off for their dinner before they return to us an hour later for the afternoon session."
The gardens team aren't idle then though. "I go to the gym over lunch, and Les goes every day too - all part of staff wellbeing. I've shed six stone in the last two years. I'm now 11st 8lb. Changing lifestyle has helped, as well as exercise and I only drink water now."
Eternal vigilance is burned into the team's psyche. "I had to take a course in personal safety techniques when I arrived and these are updated periodically so we are prepared for eventualities. We're all equally equipped to defend ourselves. Then there were all the call signs and the radio language to master too. Jeff, Les and I are the team's First Aiders and we are also qualified to drive forklifts."
Andy's duties, embracing all grassed and turfed areas, plant propagation and hard/soft landscaping, keep him busy, but the physical work only forms part of the story for him. "For me, it's about helping men on a new path and direction. Things don't always work out for them, but we try to put pride back into them so they can say 'I've done that' when they walk round the site."
"I tell them to view their day as coming to work and aiming to get the site looking as attractive as they can, whilst making the best from a bad situation, which being in prison is, of course. They seem to take that on board as seldom, if ever, do we encounter a problem."
"They are on course to learn life skills and horticulture to help make them better people. If they were not aiming for that, they would not be working in Land Based Activities."
"Rehabilitation is our number one priority but, however we teach, it's up to them to achieve their ambitions."
After twenty-six years in the service and quality in horticulture, Les has always loved this line of work. "It's all worthwhile when we receive a letter here telling how former inmates are progressing outside."
"All plants are grown from seed in our greenhouses, then planted out as summer and winter bedding. Staff come down here to buy hanging baskets in our spring/summer sale. Christmas planters are popular, as are wicker reindeer and polar bears the prisoners make. Some output also goes to the garden centre shop at HMP Kirklevington nearby."
Andy adds: "We had the opportunity to showcase what we do to the governor at a staff meeting recently and, from that presentation, 129 Christmas planters have been sold. News like that filters down to our department and is a great incentive for prisoners to excel."
Andy's still moving onwards and upwards on the teaching track by taking his TaQWA course. "Les can teach and assess. Once I have passed the course, I am a qualified assessor and hope to rise to Band 4 if a suitable position becomes available," he explains.
Turfcare at Holme House has to take account of the risk factors inherent in a typical management programme. Andy discusses budget and purchasing with Jeff. "If you put a good case, he usually listens," Andy says. "The Billy Goat vacuum we bought recently is doing a great job of clearing lawns and keeping litter down and our Viking rotaries are perfect for our needs."
"Potentially explosive chemicals and fertilisers have to be strictly controlled, although we apply slow release fertiliser twice in spring and summer then again in November."
This year's record-breakingly hot summer posed problems. "With no irrigation, we avoided applying anything to the lawns for nearly two months, and we only ever use a little Roundup for handspraying some areas."
Edging can be a bugbear in some areas, such as the main throughput for prisoners walking from the house blocks to work placements. "Contractors lay salt in winter to keep the paths and roadways ice free and that kills the grass edges, creating bare borders. I'm aiming to see if we can tackle the problem to help grass grow right up to the tarmac so that presentation is improved."
Some grassed areas have to remain "plain and simple" to limit the risk of anything being hidden, he adds.
Liquid seaweed poses no problems though. "We apply it when scarifying in autumn - prisoners too: we train and guide them on all the techniques."
Limited sun on some parts of the site has sparked Andy to specify a Green Shade seed mix, which he reports is doing well. "It was applied as overseeding under our September-end renovation, along with the slow-release fertiliser to kick start the grass."
Still cutting well into late autumn, the team keep to a 32mm cut height, "taking the tips off to harden it up."
Lying on largely clay soil, lawns need plenty of aeration. "They can be prone to some waterlogging in wet weather, but we've reduced that with regular slitting," Andy reports. "Three years ago, you couldn't walk on the grass it was so soggy."
The smaller lawns receive light scarifying, another overseeding and application of slow release fertiliser in March ready for summer, cutting down to 28mm in the warmer months, but mindful of the irrigation issue when temperatures soar.
"If thatch builds up in summer, we run the scarifier lightly over and apply the slow-release, taking us through to autumn."
The Trimax comes into play on large areas around house blocks and other large buildings. "We cut lower at 25mm, as this helps security identify any packages that may come over from outside," Andy adds. "It's just sound management practice really."
Walking the site gives you a scale of the task in hand. Acres of grass laid out in a multitude of shapes - long and thin, square or rectangular and others triangular, intersected with pathways.
"Our target over the coming years is to improve the look of the grassed areas that lie in front of the house blocks," Andy explains, "with soft landscaping to create more stimulating views from the cells."
A gust of wind suddenly whips up rubbish lying near the blocks. "Litterpicking is like painting the Forth Bridge," he says, "an ever-present task."
Tracks across a couple of grassed areas betray the fact that tractors and trailers had passed that way, undertaking lighting maintenance. "I complained about the mess they created and they have agreed to lay mats in future," Andy states.
Works are in progress on a grass mound by House Block 6. "This'll be a wildlife pond, complete with aquatic plants. Work's stopped for the winter now the weather's changing, but it'll be another feature for prisoners to enjoy when it's finished next year."
The visitor centre overlooks the memorial garden, with its Yin and Yang flowerbeds, whilst beyond, bordered by close-cut Leylandii hedging, young trees sprout, commemorating Holme House's 20th and 25th anniversaries.
A time capsule, sealed in 2017 and decorated with golden ochre bricks, is due to be opened in 2042. "We can only guess how things will be then," Andy remarks.
Ever alert to improving sports provision, in summer Andy prepared part of the grassed area "at very short notice" into a four-lane athletics track for a family sports day. "The stripes marked the lanes," he explains, "and the improvised facility proved popular with everyone."
He was also busy on a rectangular patch of grass near a vegetable polytunnel, now bare after the harvest of a bumper crop of tomatoes and chillies.
"We just about managed a bit of a cricket square here," he adds. "Prisoners could have a knock about and enjoy the fruits of their labours, literally, with a few tomatoes picked straight from the vine."
Perhaps the most striking feature walking round is the impressively broad striping the prisoners have achieved to create interest and liveliness, even when grass is the only plant present.
The 3G is striped too, summoning up a pleasantly natural presentation. "A comb, brush and light roll gives a great effect," Andy notes.
After endless unlocking and locking heavy metal gates dividing up the many fenced areas of the grounds - necessary, of course, to maintain site security - Andy's back at base after our trip 'round the block'. "I dream about it in my sleep," he laughs, but the team surely performs the routine many thousands of times a year - as natural a process as breathing.
What's in the shed?
Kubota LA854 Tractor
Viking MB545 rotary roller mowers x 4
Stihl FS55 strimmer x 2
Stihl KM130r pole cutter
Stihl BG86C blower/vacuums x 2
Honda Izy rotary mower
Honda HRX476 rotary mower
Honda FG315 rotovator
Earthway pedestrian spreader
Billy Goat lawn/litter vacuum
Husqvarna DT22 scarifier/aerator
Ransomes Marquis cylinder mower
Ransomes Matador cylinder mower
Countax C300h mini tractor with comb, brush and roller attachment
Artificial pitch maintenance.
Ferris pedestrian 36in rotary mowers x 4
Trimax Stealth S2340 mower with rollers
Ferris Reco flail mower
Echo tractor-mounted chipper
Fertiliser and grass seed
DLF Masterline Greenshade Mix PM60
Everris Sportsmaster Renovator Pro 14:0:5+Fe+MCPA+MECOPROP-P
Applied during lawn renovation period
ICL autumn/winter fertiliser (4:12:12)
Novatec Classic slow-release fertiliser 12:8:16+3+TE used throughout the year when applicable to provide a constant flow of nutrients to the rootzone