Inspiring peer mentors awarded in prisons

29 Nov 2016

In an overstretched, understaffed prison system, prisoners themselves are an increasingly valuable resource when it comes to education and rehabilitation. The Prisoner Learning Alliance recognised this in its annual awards held in September, with a category dedicated to peer mentors who have made an outstanding contribution to education in prisons. All nominations came from other prisoners; the men and women who have personally seen the impact of these individuals’ altruism and perseverance.

Over the last few months the PET team has travelled to their prisons to deliver the awards – in the form of a book of their choice - in person.

Habib, HMP Swaleside

“Let’s not make light of it; these people have saved lives.”

Habib is a life-sentenced prisoner who helped to set up Swaleside’s unique emotional wellbeing (EWB) scheme, which provides help and support to prisoners suffering from mental health issues. The initiative trains mentors to provide one-to-one counselling; particularly to those experiencing thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

Habib himself is always 'on call' to anyone experiencing significant mental distress. He also encourages men to sign up to mental-health related courses such as cognitive behavioural therapy and anger management, and regularly delivers talks to raise awareness of mental-health issues. An officer who wrote in support of his nomination, said: “Habib has shown a lot of courage in sharing his difficulties, which has led to others feeling comfortable and opening up, breaking down barriers and stigma to mental health.”

Habib worked with Debbie, a prison counsellor, to set up the scheme, which now counts around a dozen mentors. Easily identifiable by their maroon EWB-branded polo shirts, the mentors were well represented at Habib’s awards ceremony, which was also attended by Swaleside’s Head of Learning and Skills, Malcolm Whitelaw, Head of Residence Gary Sillifant and Habib’s family.

Governor Sillifant said that despite initial scepticism from staff about the value of the EWB mentors, Habib and his team had proved themselves “indispensable”.

“They get in to the areas and to the situations where white shirts [prison staff] act as a barrier,” he said. “Let’s not make light of it; these people have saved lives.”

As a result of the scheme, violence and suicides have reduced at Swaleside, said Sillifant, while the success of the mentors has also helped secure funding for an additional rehabilitation resource in a new wing for vulnerable prisoners.

Manza, a prisoner who became involved in the scheme after encouragement from Habib, gave a speech congratulating his friend. “Despite all his own issues Habib always helps other people. He sees the good in people even when the system has given up on them,” he said.

Thanking PET and the PLA, Habib said his win was a “team effort”. “I experienced my own mental health issues before going to prison, and I believe that bottling everything inside was a factor in committing my crime. That’s what has made it even more important to help people who are experiencing the same issues, showing them that even in prison there is hope.”

Habib selected a legal textbook as his prize, to ensure he was given the most up-to-date advice to prisoners who often ask him for help.

Tien, HMP Huntercombe

“You have chosen not just to change your own life for the better, but to help point others in the right direction."

HMP Huntercombe, on the outskirts of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, is situated within a large, green landscape. It has moved from being a Category C prison to a Young Offenders Institution and is now a prison for Foreign Nationals.

The prison made a fantastic effort in hosting a ceremony for Tien, a Vietnamese prisoner who is a Level 4 peer advisor and helps with the inductions at the prison. The room was filled with people who wanted to celebrate his success; from staff members, fellow mentors, learners, St. Giles Trust staff, Tien’s family and even Acting Governor Martin Hatch.  The Governor praised Tien’s role. “You have chosen not just to change your own life for the better, but to help point others in the right direction and help them change their futures,” he said.

One fellow peer advisor, who co-ordinated the group nomination of Tien, gave a heartfelt speech. He said newcomers to Huntercombe can feel scared and anxious, which can result in aggressive behaviour.  However he told the group that Tien successfully works with each individual to allay their fears and give them hope, making the prison “a more harmonious and a better place to be in”. He described the tireless work Tien puts into helping other prisoners to access education, even creating a Vietnamese to English dictionary of useful words to help communication between prisoners and staff.

In an emotional acceptance speech Tien said he was “really honoured”. He thanked St. Giles Trust and Bell Foundation for giving him the opportunity to train to be a Level 3 and 4 peer advisor.  He thanked the prison for trusting him and he thanked his family for their support and love. Tien chose an IT book as his prize which he immediately handed to his son to help him with his studies.

Nikki from St. Giles added said “Level 4 is a hard qualification to get.  It is a real step up and achievement and everyone is really proud of you.” 

On a tour around the rest of the prison, we were amused to see a huge number of posters celebrating Tien’s award on almost every wall of the prison. Tien is clearly someone hugely valued at Huntercombe.  One prisoner who nominated him were glad his achievements have now been recognised outside of the establishment and are happy he has “put Huntercombe peer advisors on the map!” 

Paul, HMP Rochester

"There are countless prisoners who owe the fact that they can read and write to Paul.”

Paul was nominated for his outstanding work supporting other prisoners in education while acting as a Skills Advisor at his previous prison, HMP Swaleside.

Paul, who is from a traveller community, came to prison in 2003 having never attended secondary school. Since then however he has achieved a raft of qualifications and is now planning to embark on an engineering degree. The prisoner who nominated him wrote: “Paul is enthusiastic and engages men with education at all levels, from all communities, in a way I have rarely seen in prison. He is calm and patient and always makes time for those in need of help. There are countless prisoners who owe the fact that they can read and write and have progressed greatly with their education, to Paul.”

Paul was initially placed on a secluded wing in one of the UK’s highest security prisons. “I would lash out to anyone I met. I couldn’t express anything, I was frustrated and angry,” he said. Since accessing education and progressing through the prison system, his mindset has changed enormously. “It makes sense to try and make prison better when we’re here,” he says. “It feels good to be paying back my community and using what I’ve learnt to help others.”

Paul selected Cell Workout, which was written by LJ Flanders in HMP Pentonville, as his prize. PET was pleased to invite LJ to present the hand-signed book in person. LJ said he was “hugely flattered” that Paul had chosen his book, which is due to be re-published by Hodder at the end of the year. 

The other winners of the outstanding peer mentor prize were Nicholas from HMP Parc and Samuel from HMP Thameside, who has now been released.