PLA case study #3 - Tracy Hammond, Communication and Engagement Director, KeyRing

What does KeyRing do?

KeyRing supports vulnerable people to live independently in the community. We started in London in 1990 working with people who have learning disabilities and providing support networks in small geographic areas. Supported by a volunteer, members signed up to be a good neighbour to each other and to share their talents with others. We have always believed that this is at least as important as paid-for support and have a strong volunteering and community connecting focus.

Today we work across England and North Wales, supporting approximately 700 people with learning disabilities. In 2006 we found that those who have been through the Criminal Justice System do particularly well when they work with us. This recognition led to us working in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust to set up the Working for Justice group, and developing learning disability awareness training for criminal justice staff. We have remained true to our values and community: volunteering and mutual support are intrinsic to all that we do.

Why is this important?

Our work is important because it is all about change for the better.

KeyRing was set up when the only real choices for people with learning disabilities were restrictive: group homes, living with parents, or even in long-stay hospitals. Back then it was important for us to show that different thinking was needed and this message rings especially true in today’s economic climate. Today, we work with local authorities to design cost-effective provision which enables people to safely stretch themselves and meet their aspirations.

Since its inception, the Working for Justice group has given a voice to some of the most disadvantaged in society and allowed them to make a difference to the way people with learning disabilities are treated in the Criminal Justice System, including contributing to the PRT report "No One Knows".

The group has also trained hundreds of criminal justice staff. We know that the quick wins and communication tips we have offered people over the years make the lives of both prisoners and those working with them easier.

Can you give an example of someone who has benefited from your work?

There’s a gentleman called Danny whom I have known and admired for around 10 years. Danny has a learning disability and came to KeyRing after having served 22 years in prison for a range of offences. Danny has done time in some of the most difficult institutions. The first offence for which he was imprisoned was non-payment of a fine for being drunk and disorderly. This led Danny onto a pathway of institutionalisation which saw him feel so much safer in prison that upon release, on one occasion, he got drunk, put a brick thorough his own solicitor’s window and called the police himself. Danny had neither the budgeting nor literacy skills to pay the fine and really stood no chance of staying out of prison without support.

Today, Danny is a proud man, he has talked about his experiences all over the UK and across a range of media. Danny’s story shows how our ethos of providing the right support at the right time, encouraging connections with others, and developing a sense of self-worth through mutual support have helped him to turn his life around. That he then went on through the Working for Justice Group to campaign for change for others is an amazing testimony to his strength of character.

Working for Justice group has given a voice to some of the most disadvantaged in society and allowed them to make a difference to the way people with learning disabilities are treated in the Criminal Justice System

What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your work?

I am far from alone in having a busy role but maintaining creativity when under pressure can be a challenge and so it is important to give myself permission to take some thinking time!

For KeyRing, I think the challenges are around the external environment and the need to provide excellent services with less money. However, these challenges can also be opportunities; simply cutting management roles and asking support workers to work faster doesn’t provide the outcomes or the culture that we’re known for. The challenge is to re-think what we’re doing, to hang onto the things that matter and make a transformative difference, and be prepared to let other things go. So, the challenge is to constantly evolve with the environment; to be ready to meet the demands of policy, but not pre-empt it in such a way that demand is not yet there.

How do you feel about the future of the education offered to prisoners?

As part of the PLA, Keyring pushed the Dame Sally Coates to recommend bringing a learning disability screening tool into prison, which she has done. I think it is imperative that something happens, and that any screening is properly followed up and that education is resourced to meet the needs of people identified. Members of the Working for Justice group tell tales of exclusion from education, inability to gain qualifications in things such as catering because they could not read, and finding education as difficult and disengaging as when they were in school.

Things are improving but for the sake of people like Danny, whose learning disability was not recognised until his last prison sentence, change needs to accelerate. Prisoners with learning disabilities need to be supported by a package or plan that involves prison staff, healthcare staff and education all working together to meet each individuals’ needs, particularly regarding helping to ensure a prisoner is fully equipped and eligible to return back into the community.

Read Keyring’s guide to engaging prisoners with learning difficulties, as presented at last year’s PLA conference, here.