Guest blog - how mentoring ex offenders fills in the gaps
Volunteer Claire Spackman writes about her experiences mentoring former prisoners for the Poole-based Footprints Project.
Walking down the streets of the towns near me, I see homelessness a lot.
I was one of those who would offer a drink or food to the odd person I could make eye contact with, but that was the extent of my effort. I did wonder about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and ‘if onlys’ of their lives briefly, but then would carry on my way.
At the start of 2019 I came across The Footprints Project website while looking for volunteering roles. This was the year I wanted to try and make a difference in my community.
I loved the concept that The Footprints Project reduces the risk of reoffending. By helping the offender reintegrate into a community that is not always kind and forgiving, addressing their circumstances regarding criminality on release of prison –such as joblessness, accommodation, illness, drug and alcohol misuse and poor mental health – then perhaps they would have a lesser need to go back to a life of crime.
This, to me made so much more sense than adding to the already fantastic efforts of protecting the community from being a victim of crime.
Generally, service users are referred to us by probation. Not everyone wants our help, needs it or even is polite about it. But for the ones that do ... The Footprints Project will try their best to fill in the gaps, make life a little more bearable or make introductions to other charities that can help in a more specialised way.
No matter what their past convictions are, most service users really want to make a connection with someone who can help without the feeling that they are being judged and condemned for their past.
I didn’t think for one second that I would become a mentor and make my mentees see the errors of their ways and become law abiding citizens.
I just hoped that by having one person to talk to who properly listened (there is a skill to truly listening that I am learning all the time too) their day may be just a little better and just perhaps they might not go back to old ingrained habits that have helped them survive their life before.
That was my intention – to just be a listener and to care. It is the best part of what I do. An hour over coffee or a 20 minute phone call can really help.
That's not all I do though. You can put as much into mentoring as you wish.
Leaving prison for some is hard. Dealing with the internet, mobile phones, even claiming benefits is a mammoth task when you don’t have a bank account or ID.
The prison services help most with the basics but not all offenders are happy to ask or allow that help.
The Footprints Project is a mine of information and contacts to help with things that set the path for people to have more self-esteem, and less anger and frustration.
With my day starting with a shower and breakfast, wearing freshly washed clothes, having a great night’s sleep in a warm cosy bed, with no addiction or habit to feed, I am better equipped to make well informed choices.
How would I feel after sleeping on the streets alone, afraid, cold, wet, hungry and needing a hit!?!
That's why when I make phone calls for one of my mentees to his doctors’ surgery at 8.30am to be put on hold with so many others while appointments are allocated. I have the patience to wait, explain what he needs, re-explain to someone else and come up with other ideas.
What’s my mentee doing? He is probably asleep. He isn’t lazy – he has been a drug user for most of his life. He has over 60 convictions for drug offences and has slept rough for five months since leaving prison.
My mentee hasn't had the opportunities to have even the basic entitlement that a child should have growing up, being able to depend on adults to protect him, and has little ability at this stage to make good choices.
Can I hold his hand through these seemingly simple tasks to see if I can make a difference? Can I find the patience within myself while his fight or flight mode kicks in – as he only knows about being used or being the user? While his depression gets worse because he has forgotten to eat or hasn't slept? Can I stand by him time and time again, while he does what he needs to survive in his world?
Of course I can. Because it's a short time out of my day, while it's his whole existence.
The mentee I'm talking about, by the way, now is in fantastic supportive accommodation. He is trying his best every day to attend appointments made to better his life. He has even started on the steps to recovery again. But maybe this time it will be for that little bit longer – or even forever.
Selfishly it was and still is a personal development journey for myself too. I get the chance to practice patience, kindness and being non-judgemental, while at the same time I am learning to be assertive, understanding and really interested in the diversity of each person’s life. It takes me out of my comfort zone and into a world that is far from my own.
I still walk down those same streets, but now see some familiar faces to say hi to.
Why are they still there? Because everything takes time and a whole lot of money. But that doesn’t mean that wheels aren't in motion. The council don’t have empty houses waiting and charities don’t have lots of money to share out.
And those I don’t know, I just ask if they're okay, whether they would like a hot drink, or mention charities that may be able to help. Other times I just do the easiest thing to do – smile – and perhaps start a small ripple on their very big pond.