Radical scheme using ex-offenders to help prisoners is huge success

A radical pilot scheme that uses ex-offenders to rehabilitate prisoners has almost trebled the rate of those going into work or training on release.The first evaluation of the Scottish Government-supported scheme revealed that more than 2000 prisoners signed up to the pilot project, which uses reformed inmates to provide advice and support and ensure prisoners are put in touch with health and education services on release.

The scheme was open to those serving sentences of four years or less and managed to get almost one in five into training or employment – a significant figure, considering that most of those involved had committed violent offences and that traditionally fewer than 7% of those leaving prison go into work or education.  Of the 2861 who signed up to the project in prison, almost half continued meeting their life coach in the community. Only 25 of them had been in work before they were locked up, and more than half had 10 or more previous convictions.

The Routes Out Of Prison project, run by the Wise Group, uses reformed ex-offenders to meet people at the prison gates on release and to act as a bridge between them and housing, health and drugs rehabilitation services. The life coaches meet the prisoner at the gates and offer them support and advice Lawrie Russell, chief executive of the Wise Group Early results with just a small number of the prisoners involved indicated that they were not offending six months after release.
The results are expected to come under close scrutiny by ministers who are desperate to cut Scotland’s re-offending rates. Cara Jardine, one of the authors of the report, done by Edinburgh University, said: “Overall we felt that the evaluation was encouraging and that the model is an effective way of reaching a client group that is often difficult to engage with due to their often chaotic lifestyles and previous experiences of the criminal justice system.

“Re-offending rates are something we will try to get some measure of in this next phase of the evaluation.”The pilot began in 2006 in four prisons in the west of Scotland, including HMP Barlinnie. The prison service said it has had positive results and is now being rolled out across seven jails.
The report states: “Only 21% of clients stated that their offending was their only ‘barrier’ to desistance from crime, while the remaining 79% had at least one other issue in their lives. For 38%, their secondary barrier was drug misuse; for 34% it was alcohol misuse; in 31% of cases it was a health issue; and for 27% it was homelessness.

“Two-thirds of clients had been in prison at least once before, while around a fifth had been imprisoned on 10 or more occasions. The vast majority also had numerous convictions with 59% having 10 or more previous convictions.” Official figures show that Scotland locks up more people per capita than almost any other European country, and almost two-thirds of them reoffend within two years. Research has shown that the two biggest factors in reducing re-offending are having a job and being in a stable relationship.

In the first two years, the pilot received £1 million from the Scottish Government, £200,000 from the European Structural Fund, and £60,000 from Glasgow City Council. It is currently funded through the Big Lottery Fund and local authorities.

Lawrie Russell, chief executive of the Wise Group, said: “The project provides a bridging service to link people to the services they need on release. The life coaches offer to meet the prisoner at the gates and then offer them support and advice in the community whilst making sure they have access to the services they need. We hope to roll it out across Scotland.”

Jamie carries the scars of his past on his face. They’re as indelible as his prison record, but he is hoping to make a different mark with the remainder of his life. He is 37 and cannot remember how many times he has been to prison. In the past few weeks, he has stabilised his drug use and next week plans to begin an intensive detox. He would like to try to help others who have come through a similar situation.

Jamie, one of more than 2000 Scottish prisoners who have been through Routes Out Of Prison, was in his final weeks at Barlinnie when he heard about the project and met Jason Meechan, the life coach who now sits next to him.

“I’d heard that they could help with housing and thought why not? A lot of people knock it back – even the chance of an interview – but I thought I’d try it. I’m getting old and I want to see my family. A lot of people don’t want help. Without the support I’ve had though, I don’t know what I would have done.” Jamie says one of his greatest regrets lies in not attending secondary school. He started taking cannabis when he was 13 and slipped too easily into a cycle of gangs, residential schools, and secure units.

He spent his 16th birthday in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institute. He cannot remember receiving the scar that still splits his cheek in two.“I needed Jason to motivate me,” he says. “I really clicked with him and I listen to all his advice. It helped that he knows where I’m coming from.”
Mr Meechan, like most of the life coaches, is an ex-prisoner. He was in and out of jail for almost 10 years before he realised he needed to change. Most of the charges related to assault and robbery. He was addicted to alcohol and drugs.“They say you become your own best customer,” he says. “When my son was born, I was shocked into changing. I got help with my addiction and started up a construction business but realised I had a real passion for helping people. Now I’m paid to do something I love.
“It is about empowering the client to take decisions and getting them the help they need by putting them in touch with the right agencies. Going back into the prisons felt strange at first but it’s not an issue anymore. It helps that I can say to clients I have been there too.”
Source: Herald Scotland 9th Nov.2009

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