Breaking down barriers to recovery in prison

ALLIANCE conference told about HMP Perth’s “recovery-focused” approach to addiction

Wednesday 19th June 2019

Attendees at this year’s Health & Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) annual conference heard about an innovative “recovery-focused” approach to addiction and substance use at one of Scotland’s prisons.

The first prison-based peer support group, recovery college, recovery walk and recovery café were introduced in HMP Perth as part of a pledge, made alongside the Scottish Recovery Consortium, “to become the first recovery-focused prison to offer recovery from the inside out.”

“HMP Perth held the first Recovery College within a prison setting, attended by me and Jean Watson, a Scottish Prison Service (SPS) officer, as students alongside 12 prisoners,” explains substance use case worker, Liz Mckenzie.

“This was an amazing and humbling experience for all and everyone in the room was neither staff nor prisoner…The first group of prisoners and staff became “Team Consortium” Recovery College graduates and…we were tasked to build a recovery community within the prison.

“Perseverance, passion, drive, education and a big helping of determination” is needed to help individuals recover from addiction in a prison environment, according to Ms Mckenzie.

In 2010 she started working in HMP Perth with Phoenix Futures – an organisation contracted to deliver an enhanced addiction caseworker service, that has now been integrated into the wider prison healthcare service delivered by the NHS.

“Jean Watson, who was a recovery-focused SPS officer in HMP Perth attended a Community World Café run by the Scottish Recovery Consortium (SRC) locally in Perth.

“She made a commitment that day to hold one within a prison setting. This was achieved in collaboration with SPS, casework team and the SRC and was a huge step forward in breaking down traditional barriers and alleviating SPS fears about bringing the outside world into the prison.”

Changing staff mentality was one of the challenges “in an environment built on punishment”.

One-to-one support for prisoners, facilitating harm reduction groups and bringing Alcoholics Anonymous into the prison one afternoon each week are among the ways she and her colleagues set about improving services.

An annual recovery walk also takes place inside the prison, again in collaboration with the SRC, which has “grown year after year with many other prisons now taking part.”


Throughout, Ms Mckenzie says she and her colleagues recognised “the importance of peer-led, lived experience as a valuable resource and one which our clients could relate to.

“The New Beginnings Recovery Café began inviting people with lived experience into groups to share their experience and hope. From the Café all the offshoots began to appear.

“We were creating a pathway recognising early and mid-stage recovery. We could see the enthusiasm of the members in helping support each other.

“There were satellite groups held in the halls facilitated by prisoners. This was another huge step in creating a trust between officers and prisoners. Recovery was becoming visible and “cool”.”

“Through facilitating groups and listening to our clients there has always been a recognition of the link between trauma, mental health and substance use.

“We recognised a need to address these issues if we were to support people in long term sustainable recovery and move forward in their lives positively without the negative impacts that adverse childhood experiences may have had on their lives.

 “A new group was created – “Moving On In Recovery” or MOIR as it is fondly known. The ethos being to look forward to where they [prisoners] were going and not look back at where they had been.”

In the summer of 2018, the ALLIANCE’s self-management team were invited to join the SRN’s write to recovery project in prison and meet with the MOIR recovery group in Perth.

As a result, the self-management team delivered eight group sessions with prisoners, focusing significantly on anxieties around accessing support services upon release from prison.

We have had some nice outcomes through the MOIR group. We have achieved several projects including achieving SVQs through Fife College, being part of a team, planning a social enterprise, baking, selling cookies and donating money to children’s Christmas party…”

“We continue to grow and evolve,” reflects Ms Mckenzie. “Two of the newest groups having started in Perth are an art recovery therapy group and an ADHD support group.

“We aspire to be able to keep meeting the needs of our clients and as things change, we hope that we can continue to change with them.

“We have built this community inhouse with dedicated staff and motivated prisoners. remember when we were still growing as a community and a prisoner said, “wouldn’t it be great if some day recovery would be as cool as the drug dealers are today”. Well we believe that we are certainly getting there.”