Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Was Out of Prison, and You Visited Me

In this Prisons Week, The government is about to announce plans for a mentoring scheme for those recently released from prison, to help them get their lives back on track and reduce reoffending rates.

In his speech (Chris Grayling) is expected to say that when an offender leaves jail they should be met by a mentor who would help them find a place to live and arrange training or rehabilitation from drug or alcohol issues.
Only those who are jailed for more than a year are currently given rehabilitation, but the prime minister wants all but a small number of high-risk prisoners to be supported by the end of 2015.
Mr Grayling will say everyone has a vested interest in "an enlightened approach to reducing reoffending" as "we can't just keep recycling people round and round the system".
He will say: "I want [released prisoners] to be met at the prison gate, to have a place to live sorted out, to have rehab or training lined up, and above all someone who knows where they are, what they are doing, and can be a wise friend to prevent them from reoffending.

And who will do this? 'Private and voluntary sector groups', according to the report. This seems to be a repeat of the approach to 'problem families' - the government has announced a headline figure, released a certain amount of funding, but has left it up to local authorities to identify who can make most progress on the issue in their area. Interestingly, our local 'provider' for supporting troubled families is a mentoring scheme, Yeovil4Family, based at a local church. There is some wisdom to this approach: a voluntary sector group doesn't represent 'the authorities' in the same way, and can be on the side of the client, rather than being seen as a big stick or Big Brother.

But released prisoners need more than just job training. Work is the solution to some things, but not all: a mentor programme needs to go further than that, and help people to change behaviour, to work through damaged relationships etc. Private training agencies which might be drawn to the rehab scheme will have part of the picture, but being a 'wise friend' is going to involve a lot more than lining up an apprenticeship or a work placement.

The deadline of 2015 is a worry - yes, the sooner ex-offenders can be supported well the better, but it will take time to get 'results', and this sounds more like a deadline set to coincide with an election than anything else. There will also be a lot of volunteers needed: locally the church has been a dependable pool of volunteers for all sorts of things, most recently family mentoring, debt counselling, a food bank, alongside a whole stack of groups for parents, preschoolers, youth groups, lunch clubs etc. But how much water is left in the pool? Is the government getting carried away by the level of volunteering for the Olympics, and assuming that time and dedication is available 24/7/365, rather than just once in a lifetime?

Jesus would want us to be the first in line to work with those released from prison, and I hope this scheme might be the trigger for some creative, imaginative and significant work. It might even be a natural cousin to the family support work that's just starting. But I worry that it's too fast, too quickly. What happens after 2015? It takes a long time and a lot of dedication to change a life.

update (11.15) the proposals are currently being discussed on 5 live, it sounds like the Grayling plan is to involve as many ex-offenders in mentoring as possible. 

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