Volunteer Mentors – A step forward in the Rehabilitation Revolution?

Chris GraylingAs the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ gathers pace, still heralded at the heart of the Government’s Criminal Justice strategy despite ministerial changes , one of the more eye-catching proposed policies mooted in recent days has been the plan to link every prisoner serving less than 12 months with a volunteer mentor on release.

Grayling said that the main aims of the mentors would be to help the released individuals find housing and training opportunities, two issues regularly cited by Criminal Justice academics and charities as major barriers on the path to ‘going straight.

So, what to make of this new idea? Whilst precise information regarding how this mentoring system would work in practice is still thin on the ground, I believe, whilst sounding good in theory and potentially being beneficial for both the released prisoner and the mentor, there are important questions to answer and address before any such scheme goes ahead. Yet, before we delve into the analysis, I thought it would be appropriate to hear from someone with experience as both mentor and mentee. Here’s Marvin Nuro, ex-prison turned mentor:

Having a mentor meant that when I got released I knew I had someone to talk to and tell how I felt. He was an ex-prisoner, so he has been through the system himself. He knows what it’s like and he knows the struggles.

Having someone can show a way to avoid stepping back into the old cycle of going back to committing crimes. It can be really tempting. When you come out there are two roads – the proper road, where you will struggle at first, or you can commit crimes. If you get away with crimes you can afford food and housing. If you don’t get away with it you’ll get those things supplied anyway because you’ll be in prison.

It definitely made a difference for me because I looked at my mentor’s life, saw how good it was and thought that if I took their advice my life could be similar.’

As Marvin attests, having someone to talk to who can relate to your own experience can be valuable thing, as well as knowing that hopefully come ‘rain or shine’ they’ll be a loyal and consistent friendly face. And it’s great to hear that on the face of it, Marvin’s experience was wholly positive, and that given the saddening rates of family breakdown associated with incarceration, having a stable and supportive presence could be of great benefit.

However, it takes more than a friendly face to help someone down the road of desistance. Indeed, given that the Government has previously acknowledged the valuable job probation services do in trying to help the prisoner with housing and job issues, to what extent will a volunteer mentor, who may not have any such professional expertise, be able to help out with these challenges? In other words, if professional help has been required in the past and present, why should it not be required now? Furthermore, given the complexity associated with these matters, to what extent will the volunteer, who will most likely have his or her own primary concerns (job, family etc.), be able to give the time required to help with such pressing concerns?

Indeed, as well as practical considerations, there are those that are relational too. Given what we already know about the rate of mental and emotional illness that currently goes undetected in the penal system, there are serious questions to be answered around appropriate personal boundaries and the extent to which the mentor, who may not have been exposed to such topic sbefore, might be able to help with these issues. There is also the very real possibility that due to these challenges, conflict may arise and at worst, harm to the mentor or the ex-prisoner. Thus, whilst these issues aren’t necessarily reasons not to go ahead with this policy initiative, the Ministry of Justice would do well to carefully consider these potential pitfalls and how best to help both the mentor and the ex-prisoner.

Hence, given that mentors may come into contact with ex-prisoners with a whole multitude of challenges to overcome on the road to desistance, the Government’s response to the extent to which these mentors will be expected to compliment, overlap or replace public, voluntary and third sector professionals will in my view be crucial in determining the success of this new policy. This potential response is made yet more intriguing by Chris Grayling’s recent comments that

The probation service does important work with difficult individuals – and I want to use that expertise as we transform our approach to rehabilitation.’

In this spirit, one sincerely hopes that mentors will not be viewed by Government as a revenue saving substitute for probation and other professional services who already provide a invaluable service in regard to those who have been recently released from prison. Moreover, although one might not need a qualification to be a valuable friend and someone to talk to, there are many questions still to answer regarding these mentors.  Although these questions  do not mean mentors cannot be a success in helping the ex-prisoner on their path to a life away from crime, it is imperative that their role is clearly defined and that there are clear frameworks in place to deal with the potential problems that could arise.

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