Although peer support programs have had a long history in UK prisons, in recent years, the sector has benefitted from an increase in research evidencing the benefits of service user involvement in prison programmes. According to the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2016), peer support refers to a wide range of activities where prisoners assist other prisoners. Examples of activities include: emotional support, mentoring, advising, facilitating self-help or learning, providing practical assistance and representation.
There are many potential benefits to peer support, including helping new prisoners adjust to prison life, reducing isolation, positive role-modelling, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Becoming a peer supporter can also have a positive effect on prisoners, by enhancing confidence and self-esteem, improving communication/organisational skills and behaviour, generating a positive self-image, increasing levels of independence, and gaining trust (Clinks, 2019).
Peer supporters have been an integral part of Belong’s Restorative Interventions in prisons, which run from a number of prisons and YOIs around the UK, including HMP The Mount, HMP Coldingley, and HMYOI Isis. Through the service, restorative interventions are applied to antisocial disorder or violence within the prison. Where it is safe and both parties are willing, victims of harm in prison have opportunities to communicate with perpetrators in order to explain the impact on them, have any questions answered and assist the harmer to repair harm caused by incidents of violence, and make decisions about the future. Belong Practitioners are supported by either paid or voluntary Restorative Justice representatives, who are recruited, trained, and supported by Belong. RJ reps help to diffuse conflict, and provide ongoing support to people in prison struggling with conflict. They facilitate mediation and shuttle mediation on low-risk cases, and with support, RJ conferences where appropriate.
We hear a great deal about the benefits of peer support from academics, Practitioners and others working in the CJS. But in the interview below, we hear directly from one of Belong’s RJ Reps. Serving a sentence at HMP Coldingley, they have been working with Belong for over 2 years. We find out what motivates them to undertake a challenging role, and why peer support is important to them.
I have been in prison for 17 years. Before Belong, I was always trying to give back by helping the prison system, which in turn benefits prisoners. I felt with my experience in and out of prison that giving back to help others is important. Therefore I have always tried to do rep roles that have a real purpose.
Before coming to prison, I lived a life of crime, I never worked but yet I would love the high life. I did whatever it took to help me get the good things and I didn’t care who was effected along the way. When I came to prison I kept the same mindset as I knew at the time it would help me be a major player in prison plus I was known from the city where I came from.
It took me years to change my thought process into a more proactive / pro social ways which mean I now wanted to give back and stop taking.
I first heard about RJ through a couple who visited many prisons telling their story about their son being murdered and later down the line them having contact with their sons killer. I know that through a number of meetings that they actually ended up becoming close and repairing some of the damage caused thanks to the RJ process. I know that Belong also introduced this couple to staff in a staff meeting which I am sure would have had a big impact. I also found that there was a lot of RJ approaches being used when I spent time in a prison that was a therapeutic community, we as inmates had to run our unit from the punitive sides but also the restorative side, that was really how I first recognised and understood the purpose of RJ.
My role as a RJ Rep is first to make sure we live and work in a safe environment, if a situation arises my aim is to make sure that all parties are safe and also for those involved to be given a chance to have their voice heard, this can be done through sit down meetings, letters, shuttled mediation. Sometimes a situation will arise there and then and in that circumstance I try and separate parties and give them that time to cool off.
I meet with [The RJ Practitioner at HMP Coldingley] daily and he provides me with any information regarding issues of conflict or someone who may benefit from my support. I then go and meet with all parties concerned with the aim of try to find the best way to resolve the situation and at the very least letting them know what the Belong service can offer and we are there to support them.
I do enjoy my role because I find that in most situations I can relate and therefore those that I talk to feel safe and comfortable talking with me. I believe prisoners being given a safe environment able to talk to each other can sometimes be far more beneficial than needing to get staff involved, unless required.
For me personally I am able to put myself in the inmates position and it helps me to open up discussions more and they can see that I have a genuine desire to help them.
I do get a great sense of satisfaction from the fact I am able to help others and I can definitely relate to their situations because I can remember times when the circumstances were different and I personally had no one to speak to like this and my mind-set at that point was that speaking to staff was a no no and I know that many prisoners can often feel that way.
Being in such a role has helped me develop as a person, it gives me strength and it helps me understand the importance of doing right, helping victims but also listening to the perpetrators side of things as their voice can be just as important. The role also helps me in general with building and maintain relationships, it keeps me focused on being positive and keeping on the right path.
I feel though my life all I did was take take take, but now I can give back.
One that sticks in my mind, I was returning to my wing when I noticed 3 members of staff and one prisoner who was very distressed, shouting at the officers about using the phone on the ground floor. At first I didn’t want to get involved because of my own personal safety but as I was assessing the situation I knew if I didn’t act that he would have been restrained. The prisoner was shouting verbal abuse and was angry because he had bad news that his mother had passed away. When I heard this I knew I had to take him away so I asked the officer if I could have a word with the prisoner. I was given permission because of my role and I was able to calm the inmate down, and listen to things from his point of view. I then spoke with the officers and asked if it was possible that the inmate could use the phone on the upstairs landing, the officers in turn said that this would be ok, I was then able to take the prisoner upstairs to use the phone. The inmate was happy for me to feed back to the officers his reasons for becoming angry and that he had now calmed down and now able to speak to his family. I also thanked the officers for being understanding and allowing me to assist and speak privately with the prisoner.
Hours later I revisited the prison to check on his wellbeing which he really appreciated. Although partially reactive that situation for me personally made a big difference to the prisoner and the officers and to what the potential outcome could have been.
I think it’s important because I have spent so long in prison and have been on the receiving end where I haven’t been able to have a voice and not having support from prisoners in high profile roles, I can really see the importance now of having that service.
I try to put myself in the situation and think who I would rather speak to in those moments, staff, officers or prisoners and I think a lot would choose prisoners. Therefore to me peer support is important especially if you feel alone as that could lead to a number of things such as self harm or suicide or even incidents where other people can become victims. If the support is there it can help people reach goal and targets in way that they feel comfortable, it helps give others a much more positive outlook.
Without saying too much and getting straight to the point I just think that allowing a voice to be heard no matter what the circumstances is crucial and has a huge impact, everyone has their own story to tell.
I hope to continue to grow as a person for the better, help others, speak to the younger generation and sharing my story.
I would love to give back because I know I have so much to offer, I can related to so many. I would love to have the opportunity to make people feel a sense of worth, that give me a huge sense of satisfaction.
From Belong, thank you to every peer supporter who have volunteered hundreds of
hours to help provide hope, rehabilitation and recovery to victims and perpetrators of
harm. To find out more about our work, please get in touch on