My final week in England was amazing and reinforced the inspiration and key messages gained from Week One. Inspire – Empower – Change – Refresh – Inspire – Empower – Change. My inspiration comes from seeing and meeting with so many agencies across England who have this as the ethos underpinning their organisations. It doesn’t matter where the funding comes from. The ethos is the same. This ethos believes in ‘experts by experience’ and the service user being involved and progressing to all levels of the service.
The first agency I met with was Inspiring Change Manchester, Shelter. ICM provides a range of services for vulnerable people at risk of homelessness, including an advice phone line and legal help. They also have volunteers who have a pathway to peer mentoring and becoming a paid staff member. I had the opportunity to meet with Paul, Program Manager; Sarah, Development Manager; Mark, Hub Manager; Tom, a former offender and peer mentor now paid Program staff member and Rab, a long term former prisoner, now trainee with the ICM GROW program providing outreach services to hard to reach clients. The key messages from Tom and Rab are that all that happens across the whole service has input from service users; if you want to know certain things, go to the person with lived experience; the best advice comes from the person who has been through the problem and some people just need a bit of trust and faith after being told they are no good for years.
That afternoon, I travelled to Sheffield to meet with Professor Del R Fletcher from Sheffield Hallam University, who has been doing offender related research including peer mentoring for many years. We had a great discussion and Del showed me around Sheffield giving me a great insight and appreciation of the economic downturn, austerity impacts, social issues and the changing political environment. Some key messages; increasing poverty and lack of social mobility sees offenders parked. due to the complexity of post release issues and convictions for employment services. Del is very supportive of peer mentoring and the ex-offender led organisations such as User Voice who have now become a growing lobby group for change. We just need to guard against prisoner peer mentors filling the gaps for prison officer staff cuts.
The following day I had an amazing experience with Merseyside Offender Mentoring Services (MOMs) visiting HMP Liverpool, one of the oldest operating prisons in England that now holds 1,300 men. Adam, Program Manager and Lyn, former offender, and MOM volunteer now employed MOM peer mentor took me around the prison and gave me the opportunity to speak at length with current prisoners who are peer mentors in the prison, assessing and referring every prisoner for assistance and services they need on admission. I also spoke with a lifer who is a drug treatment program graduate who now runs a prisoner group session. MOMS sees every prisoner on the day of their release to make sure they offer post release mentoring and other services to everyone being released. MOMS also receives referrals from Merseyside Police, one of their major supporters for offenders in the community who would benefit from peer mentoring. MOMS recently received an award from the Queen in recognition of their mentoring services. Some key messages from my talks with prisoners: peer mentoring works as prisoners do not want to talk to prison officers but will talk and open up with another prisoner; and rehabilitation does not occur in prison, it starts on the day of release, in the community, but the community offers no support.
I then went back to Manchester, to Eccles to meet with the Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre and speak to the founder and manager Alec, and Lee and Stu who manage the Prison Project. Lee a former offender said they are in effect ‘social workers for prisoners’ helping people in the local community involved in the criminal justice system manage and address any issues that arise, from just needing a bit of guidance to disaster recovery.
The next day was my final day in Manchester and a further highlight of my trip. I took the bus out to Moss Lane West and soon realised the socio economic disadvantage in the area with the ominous looking Probation Centre with shuttered windows. I soon found a gem of a team working within alongside the Probation Service. Community Led Initiatives (pictured above) – created by two former offenders Peter and Matt. CLC now services two locations, Tameside and Manchester and have supported hundreds of offenders in the community and or those with substance abuse issues. I had an amazing day with the team. Peter arranged for himself and Matt, their two employed Support Workers,Zahra and Simone, both former offenders and volunteers; Jamie, a current volunteer with a history of foster care and imprisonment and Jordan, a mentee, a young man not long out of prison, who has also had a history of foster care and youth detention to meet with me CLC work closely with Probation Services whom refer cases to them. While I was there, one of the Support Workers received a glowing email from a Probation Officer complimenting her on her good work supporting a hard to engage offender. We had a great day of discussion, heartfelt sharing of our life stories and experience of the criminal justice system and a few laughs and a great lunch. CLC and Peter have recently both received significant awards in recognition of their work. CLC is built and operates on the ethos of supporting the mentee and volunteer to achieve their potential and goals and if it suits to then become an employed member of staff. CLC aims to recruit all their positions from within.
My final day in England, took me to Doncaster to meet with Jackie, the founder of the Cascade Foundation and Lynne her personal assistant. It was a very special afternoon. Jackie and Lynne took me out to Barnsley where their first foundation house for ex offenders is based. I met with and had a great discussion with Dale, who was visiting the two guys living there to support them. Dale has been out of prison for 18 months after years of care when young and then prison. He now has a place of his own thanks to all the support from Jackie, Dale and the other guys view Jackie as their Mum and their angel. Jackie is Dyslexic and understands the impact of such learning difficulties on people and the life time impact this can have if not diagnosed and helped when young. Dale stopped being taught to read when he was four years old. The other two guys in the house had similar sad childhood backgrounds and then traumatic years of in and out of prison time. The Cascade Foundation a vital service also working on the ethos of prisoner helping prisoner and successful ex offender mentoring and supporting the vulnerable prisoner due for release and for as long as they need post release. Dale has been back into Doncaster prison to talk about his story that moves many and gains the attention of those with the power to make policy.
So now onto Scotland, where so many English agencies have said the Scottish are even more advanced. I can’t wait. Stay tuned.