I was delighted when Phil Forder agreed for me to interview him. There is always a lot more to a person than their job so I wanted to learn more about him. When I asked why he agreed, he responded:
“Because you are a speaker of truth”
So, who is Phil Forder?
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc. “
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
One thing we have in common is our association with Suffolk, I believe you were born there?
“I moved from Suffolk at 3 weeks old. Mum and Dads parents were from Suffolk, we then moved to Somerset and to Harlow in Essex where I grew up. I am one of six children.
Just before lockdown, I found the time to go through my mum’s memories she had written down before she passed away.
Mum grew up as a child in Beccles, Suffolk. Working class, brought up in the country before 2nd World War.
Grandfather prisoner of war in Germany, but never spoke about it.
Dad was a strict Catholic and worked at Downside Abbey, in Somerset and whilst there trained in teaching.”
“We moved to Harlow on the outskirts of London, in limbo between two worlds and was voted as the 2nd most boring place in British Isles.”
But Living in Essex Phil felt excluded because of his sexuality and tried to avoid facing up to it.
Whilst searching for his own identity and a way of fitting in somewhere and searching for a way out of Harlow, he decided to train to be a priest, but 3 months later he realised that was not the direction for him.
Before college Phil hitched to Afghanistan then blagged his way into Art college without an interview even though he had failed most of his exams. During his time, he managed to get a sabbatical and hitchhiked a second time to Kashmir.
Was he running away again?
But the problem is you can’t run away from self.
Back to Art college to finish his course and was voted Student of the Year.
He decided to live in isolation in a caravan and worked in a wholefood shop and then was promoted to managing it. But still there was a struggle within as to who he really was and what he should do in life.
There were many changes in the pursuing years including being a father, wanting a different kind of education for his child led to home-schooling and eventually attendance at an alternative Steiner School. This somewhat alternative way of educating was based on the idea that a child’s moral, spiritual and creative sides need as much attention as their intellect.
Helping out in Kindergarten as an assistant influenced Phil to train as a Steiner teacher in alternative education.
“But after 8 years, I wanted to do something completely different”
“A friend who was a magistrate phoned me up and said there was a job going as an Art teacher at HMP/YOI Parc, talk about a baptism of fire”
Such a contrast from working in a nurturing environment where parents cared for their children, were financially secure and where children grew up in a healthy environment.
He was then faced with dysfunctional families reminding him of his upbringing in Harlow that he had fought so hard to leave behind.
“Many of the lads in the YOI had known poverty, had mental health problems, history of abuse, came from dysfunctional families, history of crime in their family, history of substance misuse in their family and had poor education”
“Look what they were born into, their formative years. These young men then become society’s problem by falling through every net and ending up in prison”
Phil’s job changed when he became Equalities Manager and as he aptly said to me:
“To make an impression on a person you have to work with them and not against them.”
He developed a course to help the inmates engage and address their behaviour as most courses focus on what is wrong with them. But some are so ashamed of what they have done they cannot talk about it or even admit it. Phil wanted them to focus on what was good about themselves, what they had achieved, and only then when in a position of strength and comfortable can you tackle some of the issues.
“I brought a three day course into prison “The Forgiveness Project” founded by Marina Cantacuzino. It’s an amazing course, it’s important to put yourself with the prisoners and teach by example”
“I joined the Sports Council for an equalities point of view and invited a gay football club (Cardiff Dragons) and a gay rugby team (Swansea Vikings) to play against the prisoners. I wanted to break down stereotypes”
Who has inspired you?
“One of the most influential person has been Barbara Saunders Davis, her life very much influenced by Rudolf Steiner, came from an aristocratic family having studied in Paris and lived on her estate in Pembrokeshire. She taught me self-worth, life, Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (a philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) which maintains that, by virtue of a prescribed method of self-discipline, cognitional experience of the spiritual world can be achieved) I was honoured at her funeral to read the eulogy”
In your Twitter bio you have an impressive list apart from your work. Can you expand on some of these?
“In 2015, I wrote a book “Inside and Out”, a compilation of writings from LGBT people within HMP/YOI Parc, both prisoners and staff alike”
This book was featured in the Guardian in an interview by Erwin James.
His boss at HMP Parc, director Janet Wallsgrove, expressed pride in what Phil and his colleagues achieved.
“This book is a statement,” she says.
“It’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual. It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”
Another book Phil wrote was:
Coming out: LGBT people lift the lid on life in prison: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/12/lgbt-people-prison-struggle-book
“When I first started working in the prison, I realised there was no art available on the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit. As there was no classroom available, I taught art on the wing, with up to 30 men although resources were scarce”
“Over the years I have been asked to lecture on various aspects of prison life mainly to do with LGBT in prisons”
“I am a trustee of two charities, the first FIO a theatre company that tells stories that are or would otherwise go untold or unheard
and the second is the Ruskin Mill Education Trust for young people with learning difficulties.”
The last words go to Marina Cantacuzino:
“In the 10 years I was closely involved with several prisons in England and Wales I met three exceptional staff members who worked far and beyond what was expected of them, and were responsible for supporting charities like The Forgiveness Project to deliver their programmes to help change prisoners’ lives. The other two people burnt out – and left the prison service but Phil is still there! He seems to have reinvented himself a couple of times but his complete dedication to supporting prisoners is I think unprecedented. I don’t know what it is about him – is it his sense of humour, his deep creative/artistic streak, his compassion, his humanity, all of this! – that allows him to continue and keep doing outstanding work in this field. I now follow his progress on Twitter but for a long time he was our mainstay in Parc prison – the person who brought in the RESTORE programme and ensured it continued even when he was no longer in charge of this area. A wonderful human being!”
Thank you, Phil.
Photo credit: contributed by Phil Forder