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Crime Health Swansea West Wales

Prison officer’s award-winning work with Armed Forces veterans behind bars

Senior prison officer at Swansea Prison, Kevin Thomas (Pic: Richard Youle)

IN a section of D wing at Swansea Prison a group of men in red shirts are helping some of the facility’s more vulnerable prisoners, except they’re not prison officers.

They are instead Armed Forces veterans who are serving time themselves.

The mentoring scheme was set up by senior prison officer Kevin Thomas, who served in the Welsh Guards for seven years.

The small group of veterans used to be scattered throughout the prison before Mr Thomas helped bring them together on part of a landing on D wing. Realising they had team-building experiences and skills from their military background, he has been the driving force behind the mentoring programme. But he stressed that the veterans were treated the same as other prisoners.

For the veterans it helps generate a sense of pride in looking after someone. For the vulnerable cohort of prisoners it’s a chance to interact and develop a bond with someone who’s not in prison officer uniform. For the prison, it helps free up prison officer time.

“I felt there was this niche here,” said Mr Thomas. “I could see this being established in every jail in the country.”

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He has also developed links with outside groups, like Swansea Veterans Hub, and arranged fundraising fitness challenges such a 500km ride on a static bike and circuits of the prison with participants lugging an Army Bergen pack.

Mr Thomas said he was passionate about this work, and that much of it was done outside of his 39-hour-a-week role. He would love the mentoring project to attract funding and develop further.

Veterans explained they did basic tasks with the vulnerable prisoners – from encouraging them to have a shower, cutting their hair, reading with them, and trying to build their confidence.

“It’s a sense of caring for others – a protective role,” said one of the veterans.

Another said: “They (the prisoners) can talk to us differently to prison staff.”

“It gives you a bit more pride,” said a third. “You feel better about yourself, and it breaks up your day.”

A letter from veterans in support of Mr Thomas’s work resulted in him receiving an HM (His Majesty’s) Prison Service award. He has also been commended in the Butler Trust annual awards, which recognise those who make a difference in prisons and community justice settings. The 50-year-old, of Morriston, Swansea, is due to attend a ceremony next month where Butler Trust patron, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, will present the awards.

Chris Simpson, the governor at Swansea Prison, fully endorsed Mr Thomas’s Butler Trust commendation, citing his “unwavering dedication beyond work hours” and the “lasting impact” on the lives of those he helped.

Speaking in his prison office, Mr Simpson said the mentoring scheme helped foster pride and hope. “I think it’s that feeling of being part of something,” he said. “The effects are outstanding – I’ve seen it for myself.”

After leaving the Army Mr Thomas worked overseas in private security before becoming a prison officer 14 years ago. He worked in Parc Prison, Bridgend, and a prison in Utrecht, Holland, before joining the Swansea workforce four years ago.

He said Swansea Prison, which currently has 395 prisoners, was a safe facility and a good environment in which to work. “I don’t feel stressed doing this job,” he said. But he added that you had to keep on your toes and avoid any complacency.

There were 84,372 prisoners in Wales and England as of March, 31, 2023 – a rise of 6% compared to the previous year.

Asked what he believed made a good prison officer, Mr Thomas replied: “Life experience is massive. And being able to talk to people, and calm things down.” He added: “No two days are the same, and you meet different types of people from different backgrounds.”