You can never be fully prepared for working with offenders in the community.  (I’m talking in terms of the ‘cohort’, about the group that we can generalise about, that we make assumptions about and often base interventions on.) But I have to say that this training has gone a long way to make sure that I have the tools at hand to cope with whatever might arise.

Establishing and reinforcing the boundaries of the mentor relationship sometimes goes against every natural instinct you might have about interacting with people who need help, but they are essential in ensuring that the mentee achieves the success they strive for. The mentor enables the mentee to take responsibility and make changes to their own lives. Mentors do not help, they support. This is a professional relationship, it is not a friendship. There are goals and objectives. There are time limits. There will be an end.

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I am going to be a mentor to a prisoner.  To say that I’m a little apprehensive would be something of an understatement but I am one day into a three day training course that has already started to dispel at least some of my anxiety.

The training course is run by CLINKS, a national infrastructure organisation supporting the work of voluntary and community organisations that work with offenders and their families.  Their Director just happens to sit on the Prison Learning Network Advisory Board so I am fortunate to know their great work and so have every faith they will be able to shape me into the model mentor.

This first day provided an overview of the criminal justice system and the huge pressures that the prison (with over 130,000 people going through the prison system every year) and probation (supervising over 200,000 people on an average day) services are under.  It’s easy to see why volunteers are becoming an increasingly important resource across the CJS.

Even after this first introductory day, I feel that I am beginning to understand what a mentor is and does; it’s not about ‘helping’ or ‘enabling’ a person, both of which can be very disempowering, but it’s about supporting a person to enable themselves. It’s about supporting a person to build their own capacity in dealing with the challenges and obstacles that life can throw at them. 

Of course, nothing about that is simple especially when the individual you are supporting has most likely been part of a chaotic lifestyle throughout their lives, been caught up in a cycle of offending, and has multiple needs.  As a mentor, you might well be the first person who has ever listened to them and offered them objective support enabling them to move away from offending.

Day two tomorrow looks set to be challenging – ‘Handling difficult situations’…  Ok, anxiety levels rising again!

As an intervention mentoring works to reduce the likelihood of re-offending while increasing positive life outcomes such as education, training and employment for those individuals who might otherwise become locked in a cycle of offending.

Over the past year I have visited around 14 prisons across the country and in each have heard about or seen some type of mentor scheme taking place ranging from ones focussed on literacy like Toe-by-Toe to others focussed on housing needs like St Giles Trust.

These schemes, often delivered by agencies outside of the Prison Service, provide an essential and sometimes unique service to thousands of individuals across the CJS. They are essential to reducing re-offending – even the Home Office says so but there’s a problem in finding the evidence to prove it.

Thanks to the Ideas Project, I’ve been working with a Senior Officer at HMP High Down to set up a mentor scheme to help prisoners who have received sentences of less than 12 months (The Lighthouse Mentor Scheme). Even though our primary aim is to help the individuals involved we are not naive to the challenge of measuring and demonstrating the effectiveness of the scheme in a way that both recognises the individualism of the intervention and fits within a more standard framework of measurement to be able to prove our case.

There seems to be an appetite for mentoring as an intervention to become far more embedded across the prison service but the case must be proven beyond the anecdote.  The challenge is for all schemes to build a standard framework as well as agree an accessible common language.  The RSA Prison Learning Network is particularly keen to explore this further and will be developing a kind of ‘call for action’ in its final report due later this year.

Exclude me?!

January 28, 2009

I take it as a given that the world and his dog is online, using email, has a mobile phone and knows how to use it.  Well OK, my mum continues to struggle with predictive text and asked me recently ‘darling, what’s this about birds telling people what they’re doing’ – ‘do you mean Twitter, mum’ – but she’s there, she has a presence in this technologically driven world.

 

The proliferation of these technologies has created such a profound socio-technical change in the way we live our lives (I don’t remember a time without Google or Facebook) – 60% of current and 90% of new jobs require ICT skills and our social and family networks are increasingly maintained online.

 

The impact of these changes seems to be ubiquitous – a recent research report highlighted the increasing divide that the changes in the way young people communicate are creating between children and their parents – and they see each other everyday.  Imagine then, if you have been imprisoned, without access to any of these communication devices or facilities, unaware of the rapid changes that are occurring in the way we work, learn or socialise.

 

It’s clear that embedding technology – not necessarily just computers and the internet – is vital in prisons.  In Norway, prisoners have computers in their cells with internet access.  This might be shocking for some, but as the Norwegian prison officer explained to Erwin James, “… they must be able to access the internet, to help in their education and also so that they know they are still connected to the world.” 

 

Undeniably, there are some great examples of progress taking place in some UK prisons but we seem to be a fair distance away from the Norway ideal.  Movement is however in the right direction and the PLN will be exploring this further in its forthcoming reports.

 

 

Who are you conning?

January 22, 2009

Posted for Tez

The Sun’s headline called it ‘Con Air’. Costing £2 million, a new national prison radio station has been approved by the Ministry of Justice. NTL has won a 3 year exclusive deal to broadcast across all prison authorities in the U.K. The show will go out for 12 hours a day and will include educational programmes and messages.

I read that Shadow justice minister Edward Garnier would prefer prisoners to be working rather than lying on their beds listening to messages all day. The ironic thing is, we prisoners would like to be out working or doing something ‘purposeful’! But the reality is that keeping us locked up for longer saves money – a reported £17m – so if it’s likely to happen then shouldn’t the time be used for something other than listening to music stations.

Prison radio has existed for years thanks to organisations like the Prison Radio Association, helping prisoners to deal with a whole range of issues. This new national station will be broadcasting “specifically targeted audio content addressing a range of issues including induction, resettlement, health and exercise, drug awareness, family relationships, employment and finance – all factors identified as key to reducing re-offending”. The prison radio will provide a unique and innovative way to engage prisoners in education, especially those reluctant or disenfranchised from other more traditional forms of education. And it provides a chance for the prisoners’ voice to be heard, a voice that is often asked for but rarely sought after.

Some of the funding is coming out of money saved from prisoners being behind their doors for longer. And if it can go towards helping prisoners learn new skills that will help them in the uphill struggle of gaining future employment and in reducing re-offending, then why not??!

Blogging is new to me. I was trying to figure out how I might go about it and so was browsing some of my colleagues’ fantastic efforts (Design and Society, The Social Brain, Arts and Ecology).  The RSA Education blog  immediately offered me food for thought, especially a recent contribution on the fragile balance between risk and reward in the classroom.  Changing the way in which education is traditionally delivered and thought about will always bring about challenges especially in an Opening Minds context where capabilities take a central role and less tangible results might be considered alongside traditional examinations.

The balance between risk and reward could probably not be more fragile than in the criminal justice arena. Crime statistics, re-offending rates, sentencing and punishment have become staples in the electoral diet, often engendering a culture of risk aversion that acts as a barrier to improving the consistency and quality of learning and skills across the criminal justice system.

In an environment where a large percentage of the population have had a negative experience of learning through traditional classroom methods, where literacy and numeracy levels are alarmingly low and where most have had little to no experience of achieving qualifications or success in learning or work, it is increasingly important that any intervention is given the necessary innovative slant needed to engage this unique group of learners.

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) have traditionally been the drivers of innovation often on the periphery of the system and there are some excellent examples of independent organisations working in and around prisons and in the community tackling the causes and drivers of crime and criminal behaviour. But increasingly they are being invited to and taking up opportunities to work in partnership with the MoJ which is unsurprising given the MoJ’s efficiency drives, not to mention what the VCS have to offer. A key question is whether this comes with compromises and of what nature?

Tez and I attended the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies annual lecture last week which focussed on this question. Some people are obviously sceptical about who will bend most and the potential impact of greater collaboration on quality, content and ethos. It seems to me that, done sensibly, this is a move in the right direction.

If risks are such a determinate factor then surely, at the simplest level, greater voluntary and community involvement will act as a buffer to voters (and media) reproach and open up the possibility for greater innovation, knowledge sharing and development especially across the offender learning and skills departments.>

One of the things that the RSA’s Prison Learning Network is exploring is what part we can play in trying to overcome the problem of providing compelling evidence of the impact of offender learning. I believe that doing so is a critical precursor for a more sensible debate about what goes on in prisons. But because offender learning is provided by such a high number of small NGOs often working in isolation from each other, collating national evidence of impact is a major challenge. Is there a way of finding methods of aggregating evidence of what works and making this accessible to practitioners, government and the public?