An amazing first week – inspirational, enlightening but also reinforcing. Successful ex-offenders are vital in the rehabilitation / reintegration/ resettlement process and need bottling. Every one of the agencies I met with agree. In fact, we need to couch our terminology to reflect the community, as prison is a community. Prisoners are service users and ex-offenders are former service users. However, they are also so much more than that. They are the vital link between the prisoner and other relationships be it their Probation Officer or Resettlement caseworker or a family member. For the prisoner there is no trust with a professional, but with the ex-offender, there is no barrier.
The ex-offender as a peer is crucial as through them everyone becomes relevant. Without recognizing this, we have to ask ourselves what do we mean by rehabilitation if government and non-government agencies still perpetuate the ex-criminal stigma by not accepting the role of the successful ex-offender in all areas of the criminal justice system.
My week in London, Kent and Exeter has reinforced my mission with my Churchill Fellowship project. Meeting with kindred spirits inspiring and learning of their services enlightening and exciting.
I first met with Bettina in NOMS (National Offender Management Service) in Clive House, and gained the overview of the criminal justice system in England and the massive ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ changes the system has been experiencing, in particular the privatization of probation services. It was great to hear that mentoring and peer mentoring is very much supported and encouraged.
I then met with Chris and Deb at Unlock in Kent, the innovative and ground breaking service for people with convictions and had the opportunity to listen in on their Helpline. The Helpline is operated by peers, ex-offenders in the community and / or prisoners on work release from the local prison.
Next day, Tim and Paul from Back on Track with Hestia Housing and Support were delivering Day One of their peer mentoring program at London Southbank University. Paul an inspirational trainer, had the filled room of people with prison experience completely engaged, insightful and motivated.
That afternoon in Tavistock Square I had a wonderful and stimulating meeting hosted by Richard at Clinks with Peter from Prison Reform Trust and Kylie from St. Giles Trust. St.Giles Trust an agency that has been training and using peer mentors both within the prison and in the community for many years.
My last day in London, took the Tube train again this time to Vauxhall and met with Lorna at Shannon Trust, a ‘by prisoner for prisoner’ reading program that has as it’s motto ‘every prisoner a reader’ and ‘no bars to reading’.
My highlight was then to spend all afternoon with User Voice (pictured above) and meet Mark, the founder and Lucy, Dan, Norm and Gary who are part of the team at User Voice. User Voice an inspiration for my project before I left and now unequivocally reinforced what we need in Australia. User Voice employs more than 85% of their staff as ex-offenders and ex-offenders hold positions in all levels of the agency – from Founder to volunteer peer, The work they do with democratic service user and prison staff councils in the prisons and with probation in the community is amazing. We have a long way to go to have such similar vital innovation but we can now be inspired to start.
My last visit in my first week was spending all day in Channing Wood Prison with Pip from Catch22 and her Resettlement team. It was wonderful to also meet Ben, the Activities Officer who is also a veteran and how he strongly supports peer mentoring, especially for prisoners who are veterans. They need a peer from the community to help them feel hope and manage their challenging isolating situation. It was a privilege to then meet two peer mentors and hear comprehensively how they manage the ‘pre screening’, referral and information provision service for the resettlement and vocational programs in the prison.
This week has reinforced the vital role successful ex-offenders can play in the rehabilitation process and also the depth and breadth of this involvement – from prison to the community and from the community into the prison.
Next week Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Doncaster. Stay tuned.