Engaging & Supporting Care Leavers in Custody.

November 12, 2020
Gail Kirkby
Care Leaver SupportNEPACS

InsightsOnline is pleased and indeed proud to continue its association with Care Leaver's week by introducing some amazing work being done in the North East Prison Estate by NEPACS to support care leavers in custody. Please read on, learn and be inspired!

Following Lord Farmers final review in 2017 one of the key recommendations was that:

Governors should be intentional about ensuring all prisoners who do not have family or other support – for example if they have been in the care system – are helped to form relationships with people outside or peers inside.

In July 2018 Nepacs were awarded an HMPPS innovations grant to deliver a pilot project in two north east prisons, HMPYOI Deerbolt and HMPYOI Low Newton, engaging and supporting care experienced prisoners.

The aims of the project were to improve contact with their local authority personal advisers, families, carers and significant others; and to improve resettlement outcome by supporting this group of young people to feel more connected to their communities.

Alongside one to one support throughout their sentence and planned release, long term aims included co-producing a programme with the young people which focused on issues that are important to them. These included:

  • Building and sustaining positive relationships
  • Improving communication skills
  • Developing independent living skills
  • Improving self-esteem and self confidence
  • Improving health and well being
  • Increasing a sense of citizenship.

When I took up my post in October 2018 one of the main areas of concern was the identification of care experienced prisoners.

At HMPYOI Deerbolt, governors felt the demographic was around 5% of the population.  

However we also knew that care experienced young people are statistically over represented in within the criminal justice system. This is why the project was commissioned and why as project workers we realised the importance of “getting it right”.

Government statistics published in 2019 reported that: Care leavers are estimated to represent between 24%2 and 27%3 of the adult prison population. This is despite less than 1%4 of under 18s entering local authority care each year

It quickly became clear that this number was underestimated and following work with OMU, staff and local authorities many more young people were identified. Within a few months we had 128 care experienced prisoners in our population of 472.

Once we had developed a procedure for recording each care experience prisoner upon reception I began by contacting all of the care experienced prisoners and explaining what the project was about and how I could support them.

In the beginning I was greeted by mixed attitudes ranging from despondency at their situation and lack of support, to shame and embarrassment when talking about their childhood experiences and crimes.

One young man in particular described how he had been “in care” from an early age due to his parents being drug dependant, leading to them being unable to take care of him or his siblings.

He went on to explain that having 54 placements in 8 years, ranging from foster care to care homes and finally secure residential schools, he found it difficult to trust people or make relationships and that he suffered with mental health and anxiety issues.

Although grateful for my support he didn’t think he would achieve anything and wouldn’t have anything to offer in group work or with the co-production a programme for other care leavers.

I explained to him that by sharing his experiences with me I had recognised that he was the expert not me and therefore had exactly what I needed to help me develop the project.

Another young man explained that although he was in the north east, his only family support (his sister) and his local authority young people’s adviser, were based in his home county on the south coast.

He went on to say that he felt he wasn’t deserving of support as he was a prisoner and was ashamed that he had resorted to crime following his family breakdown. I discovered that he had never had a visit in the last three years and that he was concerned that coming up to release he would have lost all ties with his local community.

I was able to contact the local authority for him and remind them of their obligations to him. 8 weekly visits were established along with support in letters to and from his sister and grandmother.

Following many one to one support sessions those important ties were re-established and he grew in confidence. His self-esteem even improved enough to enable him to represent other care experienced prisoners by speaking to visiting HMPPS professionals and sharing the difficulties that care experienced prisoners encounter.

He informed our practice whilst he was with us and continues to do so now in the community. Following his planned release we were able to ensure, with the support of his LA and COM that he had his own accommodation and he went on to secure a job.

He remains in touch with us and continues to support the project by speaking at care leavers conferences and raising awareness through various forums.

He has a lasting legacy at Deerbolt by inventing the phrase “ every jail needs a Gail” which to this day is repeated by our care experienced prisoners on a regular basis and fills me with pride every time I hear it.

The last two years have been a constant learning curve. Although I have worked with young people for almost 30 years, some of the life stories I have heard and the adversity many of the care experienced young people have had to overcome, has been both inspiring and heart breaking in equal measure.

I have come to understand that being part of a gang for some young people is they only way they were able to feel “wanted and part of a family.” Gaining the security and love amongst their peers that was lacking in their personal lives.

One young man described how he was first approached at 8yrs old by an older local lad,

“He noticed that my trainers were falling apart and offered to buy me some new ones, it made me feel wanted and cared for.” “He would come to my house when my mum was out of it on drugs and bring me food.” He described how being the youngest member of the gang when he was given “jobs to do” made him feel important and a “somebody.”

We have had many heated discussions mainly around him challenging my feelings that he was groomed and his beliefs that although the situation ended tragically, he was “looked after” during that time - although he is adamant he will never return to it.

As I explained we had clear and concise aims at the start of the project, but how it developed and progressed went way above our expectations. Not only did the young people embrace it they took ownership of it, especially around co-production.

 They freely shared ideas in group work session that were supportive and inspiring they “told” us what was needed in the programme and made sure every module was engaging and fun.

Not only did they help design the modules they chose the art work and colours used on the course materials.

The end result is the “Paving the Way” programme which covers all of the issues professionals thought it was it was important to focus on, along with the ideas the care leavers came up with. It includes profound exercises looking at relationships and practical things, for example measuring for curtains or cooking on a budget.

The original young people who helped develop the programme now assist with delivery to their peers, ensuring that they understand how important their input was to the process and allowing them to see how their hard work supports other and that they truly are experts by experience.

The final piece of development work again came from an idea put forward by the young people.

Following the completion of the grant funded project in March 2020 and the inability to secure any additional funding, Nepacs agreed to fund my post for a further 6 months while the prison continued to explore options. I explained to the young men that although I would be still in post, unfortunately my capacity to support would be reduced.

This is when they came up with the idea of peer mentors. Two care experienced prisoners on each wing, trained in listening skills, confidentiality and care leavers entitlements, who would be supervised by myself and would provide first contacts for any care experienced prisoner, hand out information leaflets and refer to me on their behalf of their peers where necessary.

We worked with reducing reoffending and activities, drawing up guidelines and a job description, along with a pay scales. Although the young men said wages weren’t a priority, I felt it was important that it was seen as employment, not only to provide accreditation but also to instil in them the importance of the role.

Post Covid we were almost ready to go live with the programme but unfortunately due to the restriction in regime, things have been delayed slightly but our first two mentors are being launched next week which is very appropriate being national care leaver’s week.

Covid has brought us all many challenges, however we have kept ourselves busy liaising with local authority colleagues and facilitating small socially distanced support groups, art workshops and poetry competitions.

Surprisingly many of our care leavers have enjoyed “lock down” as they have explained:

 Not having to move around the prison when at times they may have felt vulnerable or threatened, not having to attend education when due to their educational experiences they feel anxious about being in a classroom environment and not having to physically sit across the table to visitors asking numerous questions and increasing their feelings of anxiety and inadequacy.

Purple visits have allowed them to speak to people remotely, given them the control to end the conversation when they have felt overwhelmed and to see a beloved pet, grandparent or significant other who would never have been able to travel in person.

We are however all looking forward to once again starting group work session and developing new links with outside agencies like the princes trust which will support not only through sentence but more importantly upon release.

Engaging with our experts by experience now in the community, supporting them in having a voice and sharing their expertise with professionals, continuing the legacy of the original project.

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