Prisons need a positive ripple effect

As a review shines a light on our Peer Advisor Programme in prisons, our Chief Executive Rob explains how he believes it can bring real benefits to a struggling system

Another day, another story is published about a prison system buckling under pressure. Prison deaths have been making the headlines a lot recently and these tragic occurrences often occur when someone is newly arrived into prison.

The first few nights in prison – particularly if you are a first time prisoner - is a terrible time. For most it is completely unfamiliar, isolating and terrifying. My staff who have direct experience of this tell me that even the toughest men break down on the first night.

A newly-launched review into our prison-based Peer Advisor Programme has shown just how this can make a difference. It looked at our work training serving prisoners to become Peer Advisors in the 33 prisons we work in across England and Wales. Those involved in the review spoke at length to the prisoners who trained as Peer Advisors and the prisoners they supported.

A recurring comment was how Peer Advisors helped people settle into prison. They are trusted individuals who are readily available on the wing and are the ones prisoners can turn to when they are desperate. They are living proof themselves that it is possible to adjust to prison, accept and get on with your sentence. Alongside this mentoring and emotional support, the Peer Advisors can also offer practical advice and services to help prisoners access support services around health needs, housing and a host of other issues. They can help them navigate what can seem a baffling and bureaucratic system. They all too often defuse situations which otherwise would spiral into violence and further frustration.

This was especially the case in our Bell Foundation supported work with foreign national prisoners who can have a very difficult time adjusting to prison in a strange country with added barriers around language and literacy. This is a particularly vulnerable and overlooked section of the prison population and I’m very pleased our Peer Advisor Programme can have such an impact here.

Its benefits extend well beyond the prison gate. The reviewers spoke with Peer Advisors who had been released and taken the learning, skills and tools of their role into the community to offer its benefits there. One had returned to the US and was working for a homelessness charity. Another was working closer to home in an optician and valued the way her training had given her the personal skills to relate to customers.

My wish is for our Peer Advisor Programme to develop further and deliver its positive ripple effect in other prisons with these then extending into the communities around them and beyond. At a time when our prison system is suffering so badly, this is a way of giving those serving in it an active role in making a positive change – and is so doing helping their fellow prisoners, themselves and the Prison Officers create something good in a world where there seems only bad news at the moment.

Rob Owen OBE

Chief Executive, St Giles Trust