Britain’s prisons are fast becoming the most overcrowded in Europe. Despite an official capacity of just 71,500, the number of inmates in England and Wales alone is currently closer to 80,000.
A large prison population inevitably leads to overcrowding, which in turn leads to inhumane conditions and poor educational opportunities. Entire cell-blocks without toilet facilities are not uncommon and useful educational courses, such as brickwork lessons, are often severely oversubscribed.
Another problem is the soaring rate of reoffence: recent statistics show that seven out of ten young offenders will reoffend within just two years of their initial release. Thankfully, there are people all over the UK giving up their own time to offer support to prisoners on a voluntary basis.
John Bayley is a mentor co-ordinator for London-based charity Nacro and has developed a mentorship scheme known as the ‘Milestones,’ project.
The project, currently in operation at Portland Young Offender’s Institute, in Dorset, grants prisoners a mentor from the outside community who is able to support them through the difficulties of leaving prison, finding accommodation, getting a job and receiving an education. John has been mentoring young offenders at HMYOI Portland for the last eight years. He strongly believes in the life-changing power of the ‘Milestones,’ project. I went to visit him at Portland and asked him about Nacro’s work in the South West.
“Mentoring lays new foundations for young offenders. It puts alternatives into people’s minds,” says John. “It often surprises the lads that their mentors are unpaid, it suggests that people don’t just do things for money. If someone does a round-trip of 100 miles just to offer them support when they are released, it shows that someone feels they are worth helping.”
Inside the Young Offender’s Institute I am taken to meet some of the prisoners whose lives ‘Milestones,’ exists to help. Shaking hands with one such prisoner, inside his tiny shared-cell, I am surprised by the strange ordinariness with which he regards prison life and by the placidity of the other inmates.
“He’s been in and out since he was 15,” Bayley says to me as we walk through the prison yard, “Most of the lads here have been kicked out of school by the age of 13 and a chaotic family life is a common factor for lots of them.
“The Prison Service, like the Department For Education, is a huge governmental juggernaut which, because of its size, doesn’t help individuals. Here at Portland we are fortunate in having a dedicated resettlement team, working tirelessly to help find the prisoners accommodation and employment when they leave, but this isn’t typical.”
As we walk staff emerge from various security-doors around the yard and rush into a nearby wing to diffuse a violent confrontation before anyone gets seriously injured.
“This is the fifth alert today,” Bayley tells me, “gang culture is just endemic now, there’s no way for us to keep dangerous people separate.”
All this shows, of course, the imminent need for an effective rehabilitation program in our prisons. Could mentoring provide the answer?
One ex-Portland YOI inmate now works for a successful London-based television company. He ended up at Portland after leaving home at 16 and getting in with a crowd who sold heroin and other hard drugs around Portsmouth harbour.
While inside, he benefitted from Nacro’s ‘Milestones,’ project and, working together with his mentor John Masters, (a retired head teacher), he was able to fight off the statistical likelihood of reoffending. So impressed were members of a TV crew sent to film him for a Nacro DVD, that he was offered a job with their company.
Joy Gyde is one of a team of Christian volunteers visiting young offenders in the local area. “Many of the young offenders come from difficult family backgrounds,” she says, “some of them already have family in prison. Having a bad start in life does affect them.”
“We run a course called ‘Changing On The Inside,’ which helps them feel individual and unique. We use ‘The Street Bible,’ which uses language that makes its message relevant to them.”
“When they found out that we were unpaid volunteers they couldn’t believe it. They’re really only kids and when they see that we will come in to talk to them, without being paid, it changes their way of thinking.”
“It’s not about preaching, it’s about showing them care, helping them see that God loves them.”
Anne Rodgers (59) from Bath is a member of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for Ashfield YOI in Bristol. Independent Monitoring Boards are made-up of unpaid volunteers; they monitor day-to-day life in all prisons and ensure that certain standards of care and decency are maintained.
“We can go anywhere we want to inside the prison, without seeking permission: we have our own keys. One of us visits all the major areas of the prison each week and writes a report, which is then read by the governor. It’s compulsory for all prisons to have an IMB, it’s part of the Prisons Legislation.
“This country imprisons more young people than many other countries in Europe but I don’t believe that our young people are more criminal than other young people.
“There aren’t local juvenile prisons which means that young people get taken an awfully long way from home. At Ashfield we have people from London, Kent and the Midlands.
“When I started this voluntary work, three years ago, my own children were not much older than the prisoners. Working with young people seemed very important to me. You would hope that they still have a chance to turn around and live normal, law-abiding lives.
“I do feel depressed by the amount of young people with mental health problems in prison, secure mental health beds are in short supply, another problem related to overcrowding.
“Prisoners who feel that their complaints are being ignored can apply to see one of us and we can investigate their complaints, and hopefully solve them. It’s satisfying to be able to resolve a problem that is worrying someone.
“I really think that IMB members do make a difference at an institutional level. If I can help a young person with a problem I do feel satisfied. Talking to an outsider offers an injection of ‘normal life,’ for the prisoners, and I’m sure that other prison visitors feel the same.”
Prison Monitoring Boards are always in need of volunteers and members of ethnic minorities (currently under-represented) are especially welcome. Information and registration details are available on the Home Office website at imb.gov.uk.
Information regarding NACRO’s ‘Milestones,’ project can be acquired by phoning the Prison Resettlement Service on 0121 250 5235 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by James Harker
Published issue 53 - summer 08
Details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.
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