Problematic boundary issues

The difficulty of handling the boundary between the personal and the professional was brought home to me when I was a manager at Grendon Prison. Grendon was run as a therapeutic community, each wing operated as such a community in that the programme was one in which all prisoners were engaged in the process of helping each other to learn about themselves and their criminal behaviour and to change. The staff were part of the learning as well as the custodian of the prison rules and being responsible for security. This brought the staff close to the prisoners and broke down the normal functional divisions of responsibility. Crucial to the ethos of the approach was that in order to enable disclosure of the disturbing personal material that underpinned what were serious and often dangerous offences, prisoners had to be able to trust the integrity of the staff and be confident that disclosures would not be used and shared inappropriately.

It seemed therefore that because there was a greater risk of the normal boundaries between staff and prisoners being merged, that there was a greater requirement for transparency and clarity about roles. This had particular significance for the exercise of authority within the community, a hugely sensitive issue for prisoners whose experience prior to entering Grendon had led them to regard holders of power and authority as actually or potentially hostile.

When it emerged that a member of my team – an officer on one of the wings – had formed a personal relationship and moved to live with the senior prison officer of the same wing, my first instinct was to see this as raising some important professional issues. Was it right that the couple could continue to operate on the same wing? Theoretically, this could raise uncertainty for staff colleagues and prisoners about whether communication was professional or personal – if the two people disagreed about a professional matter, was this just an appropriate debate between two professional colleagues or part of some dynamics in their personal relationship. If they agreed on an approach to an issue, was this decided as part of the life of the therapeutic community or sewn up in their private discussions at home? What assumptions could people on the wing make about the boundaries of confidentiality?

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