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Prisoner Mentor Scheme – Five Years of Success

Prisoner Mentor Scheme – Five Years of Success

"They may not deserve a second chance – but they need one."

Operate Jericho, Prison Fellowship's prisoner reintegration scheme using volunteer mentors, celebrates five years of operation this month. The scheme matches mentors with prisoners six - eight months before release, and provides support to prisoners and their families for up to two years following release.

The programme was developed by the former Prison Fellowship National Director, Kim Workman, after visiting a successful prisoner mentoring scheme in Detroit. "I received a Churchill Fellowship in 2001, and spent a couple of weeks in Detroit. I was not convinced that the traditional approach to supporting ex-prisoners in New Zealand was working - there is a saying "a job and the love of a good woman" – which describes what we mostly happens now. The accepted approach is to meet the immediate needs of released prisoners – a job, housing, financial advice, meeting ongoing rehabilitation needs. The problem is that the offender still remains captive to the system – they are still largely dependent on the state for support.

"The Detroit visit turned my thinking around. Strong social support from good role models encourages ex-offenders to build on their strengths, rather than regard themselves as needy. The key is to build resilience in the ex-prisoner's family, so that they can meet life's challenges. A major part of that challenge, is preparing them to deal with the stigmatisation they are likely to face from the community. It's hard to re-enter the workforce, but it's even harder getting acceptance as a contributing member of the community. Having a mentor and social support from a church or community, makes it possible."

Kim recalls that it was difficult getting support for the project. "We started in 2003, with funding support from the Tindall Foundation and Lottery Community. We focused on the prisoners leaving the faith unit at Rimutaka Prison, and the Department of Corrections gave us access to the prisoners. Work and Income and Corrections came on board with funding in 2005, and we now have 52 trained mentors, thirty of them are active with prisoners within the faith unit, and 20 actively mentoring prisoners within the wider Wellington/Hutt Valley community."

The Department of Corrections is planning to evaluate the faith unit and Operation Jericho to assess the impact on reoffending. "There was very little evidence about the effectiveness of mentoring in 2001. Since then, research confirms the approach as worthwhile. A 2006 UK review of research into mentoring prisoners reported that continuity of contact with volunteer mentors is significantly associated with lower reconviction rates. That has certainly been our experience. We now have a number of "wounded healers" assisting us – ex-prisoners who have themselves become mentors."

The newly appointed National Director, Basil Wakelin, is confident that the programme will survive the next five years. " The Department Of Correction's new strategic direction, emphasises the importance of partnerships with community organisations. It wants to promote innovation based on a range of perspectives, collaborate with community providers, and allow services to be provided that reduce re-offending across the community. That is starting to happen with Operation Jericho. The transformed prisoners are asking us to help with family and relational issues, and we now have the opportunity to reduce offending by their children – it is now widely known that the children of prisoners are between 6 and 7 times more likely to end up in prison, than the children of non-prisoners. "

"The programme is very cost-effective. None of the mentors are paid, and their training is funded by public donation. "

"The exciting bit is yet to come", says Kim Workman, who will continue in retirement to supervise a project which prepares communities to support prisoners on release. Called "Target Communities", this project is funded by the Ministry of Social Development, and is directed toward preparing communities to overcome their fear and reluctance to accept and support prisoners back into the community. "Successful prisoner reintegration is a two way street – success is dependent on prisoners who are motivated to change – and a community that is willing to give them a second chance. We will be approaching employers, the business community, schools, and sports and community organisations, within identifiable communities, in an effort to get the community actively engaged in making a difference to the crime rate."


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