Sunday, 7 October 2018

Living in Styal (Prison)

At Stockport in September Eddie Tarry, Community Engagement Manager at HMP and YOI Styal talked to us about the history of Styal Prison, the daily life in the prison and the activities delivered to benefit women on release.  He called his talk Living in Styal “Building Hope, Changing Lives”.

Eddie spent five years in the Royal Navy before joining the prison service and was also a football referee for 25 years.

The prison has 16 houses each now holding 16-20 women (formerly 36) set in 32 acres of land of which 2/3 is grass. About 70 women, some of whom have never had a job, work on the grounds. 

The place was originally built in 1890 as an orphanage which was closed in 1956 to be used for holding Hungarian refugees.

The first female prison opened in 1962 with prisoners being transferred from the then women’s wing at Strangeways. In 1985 a Young Offenders Unit was added and in 1999 a new remand wing was added because of the closure of HMP Risley remand centre. The remand wing is called the Waite Wing named after Terry Waite who used to live in Styal Village. It was designed to hold 180 but this has now been reduced to 140. The wing is painted in bright colours.

In 2013 Styal became a Complex Prison costing £16 million per year to run of which £8.2 million is spent on health care. Healthcare is provided by Spectrum Community Health CIC. In 2014 it became a resettlement prison, in line with all female prisons in the country, where prisoners are held for the last three months of their sentence as near to their homes as possible. In 2015 an Open House Unit was added for 25 prisoners in Open Prison conditions.

He went on to discuss a profile of the offenders. 46% have suffered domestic violence and 53% have suffered emotional physical or sexual abuse as a child compared with 27% of male prisoners. 23% self-harm compared with 5% in the total population, and 48% will be reconvicted within a year of being discharged.

On arrival from the courts prisoners are processed in the reception area. They receive an initial induction, a medical assessment, and risk assessments including cell-sharing risk assessment, following the death of a male Asian sharing a cell with a violent racist.

Attempts are made to reduce reoffending. The main focus is on addressing the offending behaviour. Programmes available include Thinking Skills Programme, Drugs and Alcohol Recovery Service, and Victim Awareness. Restorative Justice done on a voluntary basis can work.

Education is also important and concentrates on functional skills. Foreign nationals with little or no English, such as Colombian Drugs mules, are offered English as a Second Language courses.

Vocational courses include: hairdressing, beauty therapy, Industrial cleaning, IT, Horticulture and Radio presenting. Pay for work in the prison is about £9 per week.

Work in the community includes the Clink Restaurant which employs 14 women per session and the chance to get an NVQ level 3. Recycling Lives is a recycling charity that takes women on strict criteria and supports them on release. Silk ties made in the prison are sold in John Lewis. Fruit and vegetables grown in polytunnels are sold to staff and prisoners. Styal prison has had an entry in the RHS Tatton Flower Show for six years and has received 5 silver medals and one silver gilt.

Eddie showed a DVD of the work done by Recycling Lives but unfortunately the sound did not work very well.

Sunday, 2 September 2018


Julia Marwood of Manchester Stoics described how she became interested in Stoicism during her times as a student including going to Stoic Week. She downloaded a handbook of exercises and then joined Manchester Stoics. She recommended the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, which describes principles that can help with anxiety.

She gave a short history of Stoicism, comparing the Greek and Roman philosophers. In ancient times Greek stoicism was aimed at developing morals, while in Roman culture it was about gaining tranquility.  Zeno of Citium (333BCE) from Cyprus was considered the founder of the Stoic school of Philosophy which taught that Reason was the greatest good in life. He taught in Athens from about 300BCE. Other Stoics included: Musonius Rufus, Roman Stoic philosopher in the 1st Century BCE; Epictetus, born a slave, but ended up as a Stoic philosopher in Greece; Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor known for his philosophical interests especially Stoicism.

In more modern times Rene Descartes’ ethical philosophy was influenced by stoicism - his ethics gives a central place to the notion of appropriate action in a sense reminiscent of the Stoics’ kathekon (appropriate behavior). Within this category are included a human being’s duties to God and to other human beings, and actions whose aptness stems from their promotion of the survival and health of the body. 

Victor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and a holocaust survivor, had a philosophy based on Stoic Principles. He said; Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who in 1955 developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which led to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He said: The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. 

Modern Stoicism is the home of Stoic Week, Stoicism today and Stoicon (conference). Donald Robertson was one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism and Stoic Week, and is the author of: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010); Build Your Resilience (2012); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Massimo Pigliucci, scientist and philosopher wrote How to be a Stoic.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a translation of selections from several stoic philosophers including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Zeno and others. It aims to provide lessons about personal growth, life management and practicing mindfulness

Stoic techniques for a happier life include:

The dichotomy of control (DOC) - the assertion that some things are ‘up to us’ (within your power), and others are ‘not up to us’ (not within your power).

 Negative Visualisation- appreciating what you have by imagining being without it.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Morality - A Tale of Three Evolutions

At Stockport in July Brian Gane of Central Lancashire Humanists spoke about Morality: a Tale of Three Evolutions.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” said Carl Sagan. The Big Bang resulted in the evolution of the universe. Gravity pulled together matter to make stars and eventually material from stars made planets. Under the right conditions amino acids were formed leading, after 3 billion years, to the Human Brain. Some examples of evolutionary stages include Pikaia which had the beginning of a spine and may have been related to the common ancestor of all vertebrates. Eusthenopteron lived in the mouth of rivers and moved into the shallows, developing a neck, lungs and stubby fins which eventually extended into limbs. Aconthostega was among the first vertebrate animals to have recognizable limbs. Tulerpeton lived in shallow waters and breathed air. Its limbs were stronger than the fins from which they developed and it could lift its head giving it an advantage over other animals whose heads only moved side to side. 

The animals that survived the dinosaurs were very small shrew like creatures which developed into modern mammals. Human beings have 96% genes in common with chimpanzees. Humans are more intense and better at reading faces than chimps are. As chimps have no whites to their eyes it is difficult to see where they are looking.

Brian claims that morality begins with early humans and he considered three moral clusters which contribute: co-operation, empathy and justice. Humans are born with a co-operative streak and this is shown by the behaviour of young children who are eager to help where they can. They would pick up items that someone had dropped accidentally, but would not pick up an item that had been thrown in anger. Examples of co-operation are when taxes are paid to obtain infrastructure etc that would not be possible for individuals. The ultimate in co-operation is the CERN project, funded by 10 countries and employing scientists from 100 countries. Threats to food supplies leads to tribalism in early humans. In modern times gangs and political organisations take over this role. 

Small children tend to get upset if companions are upset. If a child is put with an upset child he/she will join in. Laughter is also infectious. Smiling results in a release of hormones into the blood. People with big smiles tend to live longer than those who rarely smile.

A sense of good and bad begins at about 4 months of age and a sense of fairness is a very powerful emotion. Some issues where unfairness has been addressed, at least in part, are slavery, health care via the NHS, women’s rights, the labour movement. Gay rights and the legal system.

Legal systems have been internationalised. Interpol has reciprocal arrangements with other countries, and the International Criminal court was formed in 2003 to put on trial those people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity whose own countries will not or cannot put them on trial. The United Nations encourages Jaw Jaw rather than War War. The EU has the European Court of Justice and the European court of Human Rights.

The Brain has three levels of morality.1. Basic Instincts about In-Groups( Co-operation, empathy and sense of justice), and 0ut- Groups(tribalism), 2.Individual caring, 3. Societal caring (evolution of social norms). There is an expanding circle from the Human Family to International events.

According to Steven Pinker there has been a decline in violence from biblical times to the present day. And that in many areas (e.g. homicide, war and poverty) we are doing better than previously.

We are all connected.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Is Humanism A Religion?

At the Stockport May meeting John Coss considered the topic Is Humanism a Religion? Much of the answer depends on the definition of Religion, which is a toxic word in Humanist circles. John considered two definitions which he called Religion 1 and Religion 2. Religion 1 is the strict dictionary definition which includes supernaturalism; Religion 2 is a more modern definition which permits, but does not require, dogma or supernaturalism. John hopes that religions will increasingly drop these features but until they do it is best not to refer to Humanism as a religion. But it is still worth regarding Humanism as a religion in the Religion 2 sense.

So Humanism can be a religion or an alternative to religion. Less controversially it is: a belief system, a world view, a life stance, a philosophy of life, a moral perspective, an ethical system, a spiritual path, an approach to life and a meaning frame.

The Amsterdam Declaration is a statement of the fundamental principles of modern Humanism and is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought. Humanism is ethical, rational, supports democracy and believes in personal liberty and human rights, values artistic creativity and imagination, and aims at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. It provides an alternative to dogmatic religion.

Humanists live as if there is no god or other supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in world affairs. 

John dealt with a range of views on Humanism and Religion of various non-religious thinkers including our own David Seddon, Alain de Botton, Noel Cheer, Julian Huxley, Albert Einstein and Ronald Dworkin. 

So what kind of thing is religion? And what is it about/for? Its beliefs are about matters of ultimate importance, community/fellowship, ethics, making sense of the universe, rituals and ceremonies, spirituality, the meaning of life and how are we to live?

According to the anthropologist, David Eller, Its functions fill individual needs, provide explanation for origins and causes, exercise social control, provide solutions for immediate problems and fulfil the needs of society. According to Jared Diamond it provides explanation, diffuses anxiety, provides comfort and hope and meaning in life, justifies obedience to the state, getting along with strangers and hatred of believers in other religions. 

There are some humanly essential pursuits that religions engage in such as supporting people through difficult times (chaplaincy, spirituality or emotional fulfilment, morality without authority, a forum for philosophical discussion and debate, and community fellowship that need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

It is difficult to get a consensus of a definition of religion. There are various dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions and many thinkers have provided their own definitions. E.g. Thomas Paine: “independence is my happiness . . . and my religion is to do good.” David Sloan Williams: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices that unites members into one single moral community”. Examples from various websites include: “an explanation of the meaning of life and how to live accordingly” and “Our human response to being alive and having to die”. 

From these and other definitions John concludes that Humanism is a religion according to some reasonable modern ideas of what religion is (Religion 2) He went on to discuss the implications of this conclusion for Humanism and the challenges ahead.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Suicide Prevention

Rising to the Challenge of Suicide Prevention: Psychological Approaches.

Stockport's April meeting heard from Yvonne Awenat, a Research Fellow at the, University of Manchester, Division of Psychology & Mental Health, School of Health Sciences.  She discussed her team’s research into suicide prevention.

In the UK there is one death from suicide every 90 minutes, so each year about 6,000 people die by suicide, and there are about 140,000 suicide attempts - that’s one attempt every 4 minutes.  These figures have only slightly reduced over the last 30 years.

There are various risk factors for suicide based on Demographics; History of suicidality and Mental Health Problems. There is an increased risk associated with: Psychiatric hospitalisation / Imprisonment, Depression, Psychosis, Trauma (PTSD), personality disorder, substance and / or alcohol misuse, adverse life events.

There is no accurate method of predicting who will die by suicide. Static risk factors cannot be reduced (E.g. gender). Current practices are flawed – most patients who died by suicide had been assessed at No or Low Risk. Suicide risk assessment scales have limited clinical utility and may waste valuable resources and are no longer recommended (NICE, 2011; Quinlivan et al, 2017)

Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments. Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments but should have a specific focus on treating the underlying psychological mechanisms specific to Suicide involving: Attention Broadening, Thought Challenging, Problem Solving Training, Mood Management, and Improving Self-Esteem & Resilience.

Qualitative Research involves semi-structured in-depth interviews to investigate participant or other stakeholder’s: ‘Real-world’ subjective experiences; views, perspectives, attitudes; understandings; needs, priorities, preferences. Interviews are audio-recorded, transcribed and analysed.

Qualitative Analysis involves a systematic rigorous method to identify patterns (or themes) within participants’ narratives, reading & re-reading transcripts, line-by-line coding, clustering similar codes together and Identifying tentative themes, then collapsing tentative themes to form final themes.

In experimental intervention, treatment is given by a qualified clinical psychologist or CBT therapist employed for the clinical trial over a period of 4 – 6 months, once or twice a week. There are normally 20 -24 sessions each of 30-60 minutes. 

One particular study was Cognitive Behavioural Suicide Prevention (CBSP) in Psychosis, also known as the Recovery Trial. It took patients aged 18-65 years on the schizophrenia spectrum who had previous suicide attempt and/or current suicidal ideation. There was improvement in suicidal ideation. A reduction in suicide probability, and an increase in self-esteem. However there was increased risk of depression. 

Another study (PROSPeR) for the prevention of suicide in Prisoners aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting an RCT of CBT for suicide prevention in a prison setting showed a reduction in self-injurious behaviour in the therapy group given CBT.

A randomised controlled trial of CBT for suicide prevention in inpatient settings (THE INSITE study) suggested that CBSP may be cost effective.

The CARMS trial: Cognitive Approaches to coMBatting suicidality is ongoing and has not as yet yielded any results.

Future studies will build on and extend exiting research on suicidal prisoners and psychiatric inpatients and explore new areas such as: suicide and bipolar disorder, suicide and alcohol or substance misuse, suicide and sleep problems.

There are the following sources of help for sufferers;

NHS - GP; A&E; NHS Direct 111, or 999.
Samaritans – Phone 116 123 24 hrs. all year 
NHS Choices – more resources 
The Sanctuary – Phone: 0300 003 7029      8pm – 6am overnight support

Sunday, 1 April 2018


In March Peter Baimbridge spoke to us about Autism. Autism is a Condition not a Disorder, a Disability, or a Disease. It is an observable state in which autistic people are different. They are Apple Macs in a PC world.

An MRI scan shows much more activity than a “normal” brain leading to some of the problems faced including a greater incidence of nightmares.

Peter described his own position. He has an IQ measured at 150 and has a degree and Chartered Status in Marketing and Sales Management and managed to trash a number of careers and businesses. He spent 30 years in and out of Mental Health Services before being diagnosed with Autism at the age of 56. He is now off medication and is self-managing his condition. He is using his experience and expertise to support, advocate for and to train others.

He has given presentations to various University Departments such as Clinical Psychology (University of Manchester) and Nursing (University of Salford). 

Peter created the charity Salford Autism which is run by autistic professionals. It provides support for everyone who is, cares for, or is affected by someone with an ASC and has a 24 hour emergency phone line.

Ordinary people seem nuts to autistic people, who do not do innuendo but work on precise information. The UK prevalence rate of autism is 1-1.5% but as it is thought that as many people go undiagnosed it could be as high as 5-6%. There is an impact on the health and benefit bill as most workers in the field do not understand the problems. Most children with autism look normal but with some abnormal attributes. Women are just as likely to be autistic as men but are better at “fitting in”.

Work is a big problem as 75% of autistic people are able and willing to work but only 15% have a job. 

When stressed autistic people, particularly children, can go into meltdown. Many people think they are tantrums but they are quite different. Tantrums are controlled, targeted, manipulative and stop when successful, leading to a happy aftermath. A meltdown is spontaneous, involuntary, random and unstoppable, leading to an emotional wipeout. It is similar in nature to an epileptic fit. To help someone in meltdown it is essential that one person only helps and keeps everyone else away. They should not tell the person to calm down but they should speak softly and reassuringly and wait it out. They should be ready to deal with the total emotional wipe-out the follows.

Autism is neither a learning disability nor a mental health problem, although mental health problems can be more common among people with autism and it is estimated that one in three of adults with learning disability also have autism. It is a life-long, pervasive, developmental spectrum condition with many facets, any of which may be present (or not) to a greater or lesser degree. 

Autism is an 'abstract diagnosis' arrived at with difficulty by assessment of reported behaviour. In communications and social behaviour visible indicators include: non-verbal to highly articulate communications, problems with unwritten rules of conversation & social interaction, difficulties with non-verbal communication, poor attention, single-channel processing, using and interpreting language literally, processing delay, and receptive language problems. Autistic people have different communication motivations, they find social interactions stressful and draining rather than energising and need lots of 'alone time' to 'recover' after socialising. They struggle with “rules” of social interaction and often “get it wrong”.

Autistic people have inflexible thinking and rigid repetitive interests. They struggle with imposed, unexpected or unexplained change, struggle to see another's point of view, and struggle to plan and organise. They are often focused on detail, missing the context, and struggle with imprecise or incomplete information. They struggle to generalise skills and learning, needing rules and clarity. They are often oblivious to common dangers (including danger from others). They need routine, ritual and structure for reassurance and often have obsessive special interests. 

Relevant legislation and guidelines include the Mental Health Act (1983), the Mental Capacity Act (2005), the Autism Act 2009, the Equality Act (2012), the Care Act 2014, Think Autism: updated strategy for adults with Autism in England (2014), Autism in adults: diagnosis and management (2012), Challenging behaviour and learning disabilities: prevention and interventions for people with learning disabilities whose behaviour challenges (2015).

Further Information:
National Autistic Society (

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Prisons - A Broken System?

In January Alan Brine spoke to us in Stockport on "Prisons - A Broken System?" Alan has been working as the humanist Chaplain for one day a week in Manchester prison for two years. Prisons are not the holiday camps so beloved of the Daily Mail. They are overcrowded with many prisoners sharing cells for up to 23 hours a day, eating their meals there and with a toilet in the same room. Every day prisoners are bussed around the country to extraordinary locations to make sure every last bed space is filled.  Prison reform is desperately needed and historically Humanists have been at the forefront of this cause.  Many prisoners are victims – of their upbringing or drugs. They are our prisons and we are all responsible.

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and the prison population has risen 80% in the last 30 years although there has been no significant increase in crime. Why?

There has been an increase in sentencing and there are new offences. We use prison for petty and persistent crime. In 2016 68,000 people were sent to prison, 71% of whom had committed non-violent offences, and 47% were sentenced to six months or less. The use of Community Sentencing has nearly halved since 2006 in spite of the fact that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentencing; and the numbers released on temporary licence (ROTL) have been dramatically reduced (40% in the last three years) in spite of the consistently high success rate.

Current challenges include: aging estate and overcrowding; recruitment, retention and training of staff; drugs and their associated problems; rise in violence against staff and prisoners; self-harm, suicide and mental health problems; and boredom and lack of purposeful activity. Young inexperience officers suffer and many older ones have old-fashioned attitudes. Poor health care in prisons puts further strain on the NHS. In the year to March 2017 344 people died in prison. A third were self-inflicted and nearly three in five were due to natural causes. Only 5% of the prison population are women but they contribute half of all self-harming cases. Serious assaults on staff have more than doubled over the last three years.

A wide variety of prisoners are in the same prison. Manchester prison has a large number of remand also has Category A offenders, kept in isolation, sex offenders and those with a price on their heads due to gang activity. First time offenders struggle to make sense of the system and many recidivists fear freedom. IPP (Imprisoned for public protection) prisoners are considered so dangerous that they cannot be allowed out until they demonstrate they are fit to be released – something that is difficult to do. The parole board system is broken, and even if released a minor offence results in immediate recall.

10% of people sent to prison are women even though only 5% of the prison population are women, so most must serve sentences of less than twelve months. 50% have experience domestic abuse and 30% were in care as children. 60% leave without a home and only 10% have a job to go to. 90% of the children leaving the family home are as a result of the mother’s imprisonment. Because there are few women’s prisons many are far away from home making visiting difficult or impossible.

Alan’s personal view of prison culture is: there is no such thing as a typical prison; the regime is confused and contradictory, unsafe and unstable; an alien environment for most - harsh, tense and raw; a place of hierarchy power and authority in which security comes first.

There are statutory obligations on the prison service regarding the provision of Chaplains. All prisoners must be able to practice their religion, have religious artifacts, celebrate festivals, have the opportunity for weekly religious services or meditation and request a Chaplain. A Chaplain from each denomination must be provided on request and the Chaplaincy Team have a duty to provide pastoral support for all prisoners in times of bereavement, serious illness, self-harm or suicide intent, or following a death in custody.

Humanist Chaplains are popular because they get things done. However there is some resistance to non-religious Chaplains and being a part-timer can be problematic when there are serious on-going situations.

Many prisoners find comfort in religion and there are advantages for some in being religious e.g. being allowed out of one’s cell to attend prayer meetings.

There is a need to work out protocols for Humanists working with religious colleagues.

Humanists UK trains and accredits humanist Pastoral Support Volunteers to work in hospitals, prisons, schools and the armed forces. Humanist PSV’s come from all walks of life, but share these qualities in common: a personable disposition, a profound sense of empathy, a non-judgmental attitude, a keen commitment to helping others, patience and a strenuous ethic of professionalism.

If you are interested in becoming a humanist pastoral care volunteer please contact:
Simon O’Donoghue 
Useful links: 
Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile Autumn 2017 
Howard League for Penal Reform: 
Prison Reform Trust 
The Bromley Trust 
Clinks – support for offenders and families 
Prisoners Education Trust 
Grendon Prison 
Prison UK: an insider's view 
@PrisonUK – Twitter page for Alex Cavendish – excellent