Colleagues from a range of agencies celebrated the launch of a volunteer peer mentor scheme aimed at improving Through the Gate provision in Merseyside.
Through the Gate was launched by the government three years ago and is aimed at supporting people released from short term custodial sentences to make a successful transition into the community – supported by probation and partner agencies.
More than 40 people from across the criminal justice service met at Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company’s (M CRC) HQ to hear from speakers describing what the peer mentor initiative has to offer.
M CRC’s network developer Sharon Reddy (pictured) and volunteer coordinator Louise Grzyb developed the volunteer peer mentor scheme in conjunction with Shelter’s Caroline Griffiths, who manages the Through the Gate contract service commissioned by probation.
The scheme involves volunteer peer mentors linking up with prisoners at HMP Liverpool to support their release. Service users are referred to mentors by Shelter’s resettlement workers. Volunteers aim to meet with people preparing for release at least three times in the prison, and then post-release to help with things such as attending key appointments, arranging benefits and sign-posting to organisations.
The peer mentors feed information back to resettlement works and M CRC’s case managers, and typically work on issues such as: accommodation; debt and signposting to services like drug agencies and employment and training advisors.
Louise said: “We know from experience that people in custody often want to feel that the community cares. What more visible expression of that can there be than being met by volunteers, especially when many of those volunteers have themselves had similar experiences?
“Problems with Through the Gate are well documented. We don’t see peer mentors as a magic wand, but we do think that they can provide an invaluable bridge into the community so that we can genuinely offer a through the gate service.”
M CRC’s peer mentor provision recently received accreditation and already includes 40 volunteers. Three were present at the event, including a university student and two who – between them – have had several custodial sentences.
Klark Carney, peer mentor, said: “When I got out of jail there was none of this. I got given £40 and went to probation to tick a few boxes.
“I’d decided I wanted to spend no more time in jail. But after being out for a couple of days, I had nowhere to turn. I know I made my own choices, I made my own mistakes. But it’s tough when you feel there are no other opportunities.
“I’ve seen what it’s like when it doesn’t work. If I can do my bit to make that experience better for someone, that’d be fantastic.”
All volunteers receive six weeks of training, DBS screening and continued support during their period with M CRC. It is hoped each volunteer will commit to a minimum of four hours per week for six months.
Sharon said: “We cannot do this on our own. We all know we can only really help people with complex needs achieve successful outcomes if we all work in partnership.
“We are extremely proud of our mentors, they are amazing people, but we also know many other organisations have excellent volunteer schemes too and we are keen to create a vibrant network.
“Ultimately we all have the same aim: to enhance the service for our service users.”
Representatives from Riverside Housing, Apex, the prison service, voluntary organisations and the National Probation Service attended, among others, attended the event. M CRC will report back in six months about how the scheme progresses, and plans are already being drawn-up to expand it across the other prisons covered by M CRC and Cheshire & Greater Manchester CRC.
More details about the volunteer scheme can be seen here.
Louise is keen to hear from case managers if they believe a service user on their caseload who is in HMP Liverpool would benefit from the service. She is also keen to put in touch with anyone who would consider volunteering as a peer mentor. To contact Louise, email: [email protected]
Training for the next wave of volunteers begins on Thursday, April 26th. Service users can qualify if they have completed at least half of their sentence or order.