Our sector is rightly concerned about cash at the moment. Unprecedented cuts combined with unprecedented demands are undeniably having an impact on services. This can be the availability of services, the accessibility and thresholds of those services or the ability to innovate and partner and develop better ones.
Last week I wrote of my itch for work in schools and the education system. A similar itch exists around the criminal justice sector. Unlike schools, fewer people have had direct contact with them, and yet like, education, even the non-political take a view.
Following an intense baptism into the youth criminal justice estate in my twenties, I have skirted around criminal justice my entire career. From the sharp end in south-east London anti-knife crime work to our recent Serious & Organised Crime (SOC) Home Office Project and most recently, mentoring. There’s no denying the numbers and the cuts that the prison service has suffered.
And yet it feels curiously static, albeit I’m not entirely comparing like with like. Prisons in my experience were always stretched, always focussed on the priorities of security (not resettlement) and always full of well-intentioned people working in an almost impossible environment.
Now volunteer mentoring isn’t free! We go to great pains to explain that our prison and other mentors bring a great deal to the table, their ‘freeness’, in many ways being the least important. Good and safe mentoring costs money to run and our men and women being resettled from prison are worth every penny.
But despite their absolute commitment and passion for mentoring a person due for release, can mentors really make an impact against this tide of dysfunction? Because prisons haven’t changed in twenty odd years. They’re stills stretched to the limit, it’s still hard to work with agencies on the outside and their primary objective is still the day-to-day safety and security of the prison. Only now, they are releasing people to a worse prospect of getting housed, finding a job, having effective probation support and experiencing less tolerance from employers and the public at large.
Volunteer mentors can’t and absolutely shouldn’t try or think they can fix this. Their strength is in being another voice. Someone with no agenda. Someone to talk to when it gets tough (and it will!). And someone to talk through the options and opportunities calmly, impartially and with the wisdom that any living empathic human can bring.
Short of the massive amounts of cash needed to fix failed policy making, this is an impactful and cost-effective way of affecting positive change in someone’s life – because you can’t change the world, but you can change the world for that person.