The Peer Mentor Scheme started off as a small idea of getting a few people together to support our clients, and it’s just snowballed. We’ve gone from a two week course and a handful of peer mentors, to a five-week accredited training programme and over 45 peer mentors!
As you would expect, there were initially a lot of challenges with a high security prison like Belmarsh. People couldn’t understand why we would put prisoners in a position of trust. Back then, rehabilitation meant harm minimisation, there was nothing else, so what we were doing was really new. We’ve had to do a lot of awareness-raising with staff, but it’s really paid off as they’re incredibly supportive now.
The biggest thing that has helped us win the trust of prison staff is seeing positive results. The number of staff who comment on changes in our peer mentors’ behaviour – the way they integrate and engage with different people - is huge. And the peer mentors themselves are now so knowledgeable about our service, they can act as champions for us within the prison, so from both sides we’ve seen this real shift in how Mentors and staff relate to one another.
From a service user engagement point of view, the peer mentors have been invaluable. I get offenders coming up to me, saying “please can I talk to a peer mentor”, because they feel more comfortable around a fellow prisoner. That’s obviously a huge confidence boost for the peer mentors, which is really important as self-esteem can be an issue. I’ve had a few mentors where you can really see the promise in them, but they’re so shy they struggle to engage in the group work. Seeing them slowly come out of their shells and grow in confidence is one of the best parts of my job.
I think one of the things that has really made this scheme work is the fact that there is some longevity to it. This isn’t just learning a few new skills; these guys will walk away with an NVQ and the option of doing a voluntary placement with us or one of our partners. It gives them a path back into the community.
There’s so much good stuff in this programme, and I just feel really grateful that the team here at Belmarsh have let us run with it. It was a brave step for them, but hopefully they’d agree that it’s one that’s paid off.
Emma Crowe is a Recovery Worker for the Peer Mentor Scheme at HMP Belmarsh, a programme supporting those in recovery to become mentors to new offenders with drug or alcohol addictions.
Read more about Pathways to Recovery at HMP Belmarsh.
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