UK

Prison mentors: 'I've been in trouble almost all the time'

Image caption Ex-offender Wendy Rowley (right) met Anna after she left Bronzefield Prison to help her find a place to live

The government wants to give more prisoners on sentences of less than 12 months a mentor - who may themselves be an ex-offender - to try to cut reoffending.

The BBC's Andrew Bomford met a mother-of-two coming out of prison, and whose life has been "chaos" since her husband was murdered, to find out whether the scheme could work for her.

Anna's life started to go wrong the day she met the man who became her husband. He was a drug dealer.

She had had a good education, and a few decent jobs. She had worked for the head of Twickenham Film Studios, and she did translation work for the bankers JP Morgan, using her Russian language skills.

On a train back from her latest prison sentence - her 10th, she reckons - she recounts what happened to her husband in a calm, surprisingly matter-of-fact voice, considering what she was about to tell us.

"My husband was murdered when I was pregnant with my son. Since then I've been in trouble almost all the time," she says.

'Some drug score settled'

She is telling her story to Wendy Rowley, an ex-offender who now works for St Giles Trust, a charity working to resettle prisoners. Wendy has just met Anna at the gates of Bronzefield Prison in Middlesex. Her main job of the day is to find a place for Anna to live.

Intrigued, Wendy asks Anna what happened to her husband.

"We were asleep in bed and someone stabbed him in the back while we were sleeping. It was some drug score settled. You know - you live by the sword, die by the sword," said Anna.

"He died in my arms. The guy who did it got 22 years. It happened five years ago, and since then my life has been in chaos. The next guy I go out with will not sell or take drugs. It taught me a hard lesson."

Anna is a 36-year-old recovering heroin addict. She takes methadone and diazepam. She committed a long string of offences such as theft, shoplifting, and handling stolen goods to feed her addiction. Her latest prison sentence was six months. She was released after two.

She has two children - a girl aged 12 and a boy aged four. She could easily have lost them, but they have been brought up by a family member, so she hopes she can get to know them again. When she was on drugs she tried to stay away from the children.

It is a novelty for her to be met at the prison gates. "It's the first time I've ever had any help," she says as Wendy walks with her to the station. Between them they are carrying two big bags.

"Normally you just get kicked out in the morning and you're on your own. It's a vicious circle. You haven't got anywhere to stay, so you're out there committing crimes to pay to stay somewhere, so then you end up back in jail."

'Sofa-surfing'

Wendy is taking Anna to the Homeless Person's Unit at Hammersmith and Fulham Council, the area where Anna was previously living.

"A home is a foundation," Wendy says.

"It's the first thing anyone needs. Without that there's no settled environment. It makes them chaotic.

"They're sofa-surfing with people taking drugs, or where there's someone sexually exploiting them.

"Once they've got their own accommodation we can put everything else in place, and help turn them around."

This is part of the "rehabilitation revolution" promised by the government, using reformed prisoners, like Wendy, to mentor other prisoners and help them make the transition to life outside prison.

It is something which charities like St Giles Trust have been doing for the last 10 years, but is only now gaining wider currency.

The government is also switching increasingly to a "payment by results" method of working, whereby voluntary agencies are paid only if they are successful in cutting reoffending.

Wendy was sentenced to eight years in prison for importing drugs into the country. She had a chaotic life, just like Anna. But for 10 years now she has been going straight. She has been a mentor for six years. Anna says it makes a difference to be helped by someone like Wendy.

"We listen more to ex-offenders than other people who don't know where we're coming from. It's because they've been there and done that, so in a way we want to be like them.

"We want to do something with our lives. People who've never been an offender don't understand us as well."

Chaotic lives

But Wendy and other ex-offenders doing this sort of mentoring are being hampered by prison rules, which usually ban them from working inside prisons because they have a criminal record.

Wendy believes the service they offer would be more effective if they could work with prisoners prior to release as well as just meeting them at the prison gates.

"We can't get security clearance to go into prisons and do face-to-face assessments. If we could it would put the prisoners more at ease. They (prisons) need to open their minds a bit more. We can contribute valuable knowledge and insight into helping turn people around."

At the Homeless Persons Unit, Wendy and Anna begin their application for emergency accommodation.

Wendy is not confident that they will be successful, because Anna does not have any identification on her. This is not unusual for offenders who have led chaotic lives.

The project run by St Giles Trust, known as Wire (Women's Information and Resettlement for Ex-offenders) recently had an independent evaluation of 165 former prisoners they had worked with.

Between them the women had 5,268 proven convictions - an average of about 32 crimes each.

Some 88% of the women were reconvicted within a year of release from prison; however, after working with mentors like Wendy, their reconviction rate fell to 42%.

The project is paid for by a grant from a charitable trust which is due to come to an end next spring.

'Great result'

While waiting for a decision from the council, Wendy's phone keeps ringing. She has a large number of clients like Anna to help.

She hears about one with serious mental health problems whose court hearing has been suddenly brought forward several days without warning. She is likely to be released from prison later this afternoon.

Wendy is not impressed. "They just kick them out, knowing they're not ready, and knowing they'll be back inside again, sometimes within days."

It will mean a quick dash across London to find the woman. Just in case, she calls a colleague who can come and wait with Anna.

However, sooner than we were expecting they are both called into a meeting with a housing officer. Half an hour later they emerge. At first they look a little grim. Perhaps it was not good news. But then both their faces break into smiles.

"We got it," they announce triumphantly, like they had just won the lottery.

"It's a great result," Anna agrees, "I'm really pleased, and it's really helped having someone here with me. I don't think it would have gone so well if I'd been on my own."

Anna was placed in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation, and then, assuming the rest of her housing application goes well, she will be found a more permanent home.

It's the first step to what they both hope will be a new and brighter future.

You can hear more on Radio 4's World at One at 13:00 GMT on Monday.

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