In the Media

Samaritans prison listeners service threatened by public sector cuts

PUBLISHED September 24, 2011

Scheme introduced to prevent jail suicides celebrates 20th anniversary, but some fear it will soon be under threat Raj thinks he has "probably saved about four lives". Taylor isn't sure but has certainly seen rewards in helping some deeply distressed people as well as having the chance to think about his own mistakes. Both men are serving prison sentences at HMP Swansea for violent crimes and both are utterly convinced that their lives will be very different when they are released. They are among some 1,540 prisoners in British jails who are running the most extensive rehabilitation scheme in the criminal justice system, as prison listeners. They go into cells for face-to-face sessions with fellow prisoners and reassure new inmates, talking them through their first few days inside, a real danger time for those in despair at long sentences or fearful at the reality of being inside the tough environment of a prison. The Samaritans first tested the project in HMP Swansea 20 years ago this month. After a series of high-profile cell suicides and a rise in self-harm among inmates that began in the late 1980s with a rash of incidents in young offender institutions, the scheme has since been rolled out into 126 prisons and has seen suicide rates drop as for the first time desperate people had someone to talk to. It is a cost-free, voluntary approach that provoked strong resistance at first among those who believed it was the "namby-pambying" of convicted criminals and who worried that allowing convicts to talk in each other's cells was a security risk. But as the anniversary is being quietly celebrated and its success heralded by prison governors and inmates, many are worried that the cuts in the public sector and a rising prison population ? it hit new record levels on Friday ? will put the scheme in jeopardy. Jane Van Eyl, head of operations at the Samaritans, says less prison staff is a big concern: officers act as go-betweens in the scheme, escorting listeners to cells and looking out for warning signs in people who might be in distress or suicidal. "Of course we can't prove that the listeners have reduced suicides or rates of self-harm," said van Eyle. "but I think we very much can say that they reduced distress. The prison service take it very seriously and we know ancedotally that ex-listeners do not seem to be re-offending ? many go on to become Samaritan volunteers." At HMP Swansea, one of the most overcrowded prisons in the UK, governor Neil Lavis sees enormous benefits to the listener scheme. "I am quite proud it all started here at Swansea," he said. "The listeners do fantastic work. Prison staff today have to be multi-skilled, its not just lock, unlock, feed, get them to workshops, hand out the medications, as it used to be. Its a big change and massively demanding. We have a lot of very vulnerable people, a lot of mental health and drug problems and a listener can go and talk to someone and say 'I know what you are feeling', so they have a lot of credibility. Listeners are not mental health workers, nor are prison officers, and to some extent you can't measure what they are doing but it wouldn't be doing the scheme justice to say its not making a difference. We have had deaths in custody here, two last year, and the impact is massive. Because staff do care and when someone takes their own life it is devastating." Lavis said he accepted listeners was no substitute for professional counselling or medical help but said: "We can only do what we can with what we have. Its not so long ago that a suicidal person would come in and you'd stick a letter F on the card outside their door and that was it, there was no action or interaction ? I don't know what the F actually even stood for. My staff's first duty is to protect the public but they are expected to do that with humanity and treat the men with decency. Their safety is part of that." HMP Swansea listeners Raj and Taylor admit their work can be hugely challenging. "But its good for us and for others. My family will benefit from how I've changed when I get out," said Taylor, 33. Raj, 26, agrees. "I will be on the straight when I get out for sure. I don't want to make mistakes again. I've had a lot of time to think but listening to others helps you really break the barriers, and see your own offending behaviour. The experience for me has been about realising how everyone is unique. Some weeks you'll see no-one, other weeks it will be 15. When you get the call to someone you go and sometimes they don't even talk, they just sit there and cry. "Sometimes its just the rattling of the keys can drive someone to despair, that really get into people's heads and they think they can't make it through. People are most vulnerable just before and just after they get sentenced." Eoin Lawrence, head of safer custody at HMP Swansea, remembers only too well the dark days of high death-in-custody rates and is proud of the prison's seven listeners and of Swansea's approach to looking after vulnerable people. He lives locally and knows the pressures of unemployment and drugs out in this deprived part of Wales. "We reflect the current state of society out there, so we get a lot coming in with drug problems and alcoholism seems to be on the increase." Walking through the bleak Victorian prison wings, walls painted in cold institutional cream and lined with low metal doors to the small dark cells, Lawrence, his vast keys jangling through metal gate after metal gate, greets many of the prisoners in their blue T-shirts and grey tracksuit bottoms by first name. "Some of them will have been in and out for years," he says. "Some of them I know their dads. It's a poor community out there and you know there's not much waiting for them in way of a job or a house when they get out. For some of them they'll deliberately break their bail conditions when they get out just so they can be sent back in again." Lawrence admits the demands on his staff are high: Swansea has 435 inmates in a prison designed for half that number. New prisoners will be dropped off straight from courts with often nothing but a thin file of the most basic information. It will be as they are processed, strip-searched and issued with their worn prison uniform and much-used orange blankets, that officers will get the first inklings of drug use or self-harming by the marks on their bodies. And prison officers are limited in what they can do in rehabilitation or even self-harm prevention. "We do what we can with what we've got but yes its only a sticking plaster. That's why the listeners are so important. We have one on each wing and one in the reception wing where you really get a lot of frightened people if its their first time locked up. It can be a fine balancing act between what we are able to do and what people might need. We do have limited resources in officers whose first priority is to protect the public and who are dealing with large numbers of prisoners. "Officers can't put people they are worried might be suicidal on constant watch so having the listeners means they can go in and sit with them, all night if the need be. Self harm can be a very impulsive act and even though we try hard unless you put someone in a secure body belt 24 hours a day people will always find a way. Prisons have a lot of people inside who really shouldn't be here and we don't have mental health training. "Listeners have to be quite strong characters and we vet those who apply closely before they get training from the Samaritans. The training can be tough so they have to be committed." He also has the problem of constantly recruiting new listeners, so good is the scheme at rehabilitating men who get involved. "Our listeners tend to become such good prisoners that they get re-categorised out! We don't see them back in here again either." Men like Akiel Chinelo, 43, are the success stories on the other side of the wall. He became a listener during his time in HMP Parkhurst and HMP Strangeways after a cellmate tried to kill himself. Now released from his 11-year sentence for drug offences, he has become a mentor, life coach and arts worker.
"For me it helped my personal development. I don't know if I saved lives but you could certainly see that people would feel better after talking to you," he said. "Society benefits when criminals are rehabilitated and if prisoners can do that work for each other then everyone is benefitting. It's quite challenging and can be intense. Sometimes you have people who moan a lot and self-harm to get attention and other times you get the person who seems bright at lock-up and comes out in the morning in a body bag. Everyone is in their own individual jail, some deteriorate and some develop." Prisons and probation Mental health Public sector cuts Charities UK criminal justice Tracy McVeigh © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds