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Phil Forder is a budding activist – and a prison manager. He has worked at Her Majesty’s Prison Parc in Bridgend, South Wales for the past 18 years but his life changed fundamentally when he came out at the relatively late age of 52.
“I realised very much how difficult it was to wear a mask all the time,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation when we sat down to talk in a borrowed office deep in the heart of the Welsh prison.
And if it was difficult for Phil, who had previously been married to a woman, how much more must it be for the LGBT+ prisoners in his care?
“Prisoners wear masks all the time,” he says. “There are very few prisoners who are confident enough to just be themselves.”
Coming out was part of a process that led Phil to be tasked by the governor of HMP Parc to raise the profile of the LGBT+ community within the prison.
“But before I could get the prisoners to open up to me, I had to get the staff on my side,” he says. “This was really important.”
However, for a number of reasons, the prison staff were reluctant to engage. “People didn’t want to know, even LGBT+ staff were not joining the conversation I thought that was extraordinary.”
A lot of it was to do with fear of course, he says. “Fear of how people would react to knowing they were gay.
Yet Forder was not put off. He even went to the local Pride march on his own. But his own experience had taught him the value of reaching out to people – particularly the prisoners in his care.
So he set off to find out what the issues actually were. “I went and interviewed the gay staff I knew about what it’s like being gay in Parc prison; what sort of things you have to deal with.”
People shared their stories . “Not great epic works,” Forder laughs, “but a side of A4.”
He also turned to the gay prisoners and asked them to do the same. “And the thing that came up is that prisoners and staff experienced almost exactly the same issues, no matter what side of the fence they were on.”
G4S, Forder’s employer that runs a number of prisons across the UK, supported this by publishing the stories in several books. But now Forder’s eyes are on his plans to ensure that this work continues even after he steps down as a prison manager.
Reform is necessary, he believes, particularly when it comes to transgender prisoners.
“If I had a magic wand and could change the prison system, I would recognise people in their chosen identity, and encourage those prisoners to say, ‘recognise me for who I am.
Many of Britain’s prisons go back to Victorian times, Forder continues, when there were “just two ways of being: male and female – and everything else in between was not acknowledged”.
But times are changing and with it Britain’s prisons. Phil Forder is watching the future with keen eyes – and a mind to push for reform.
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