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Supporting pre- and post-release prisoners through COVID-19

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How Switchback is supporting service users in and out of prison. Second in a series on how the criminal justice sector is adapting to coronavirus.

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Learning from the experts

This is the second in a new blog series chronicling the different ways in which organisations in the criminal justice sector are helping their service users survive the impact of coronavirus. It is written by Sam Boyd, Head of Policy, Impact & Communications at Switchback.

If your organisation – statutory, voluntary, or private – would like to share how you’ve had to adapt to be able to continue to provide your service, please get in touch.

"It could be worse. You could be in a 6x6 cell with just a kettle! I’ve got four rooms to go into.. a tumble dryer, a washing machine. This is nothing. It feels like so much space…it's about appreciating what you’ve got!” 

Michael, former Switchback Trainee

Lockdown

When the UK went into effective lockdown last month one of our priorities at Switchback was to ring up all our former Switchback Trainees – the young men we’ve supported through-the-gate in London – to offer advice and support.

What we found was most former Trainees were already showing amazing resilience and positivity in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Fairly quickly the roles were reversed and we started collecting tips from Trainees – the real experts in social isolation – to share with our staff and supporters for staying well during lockdown:

“Reading… I would tire myself out and keep active…squats, push ups, all sorts of exercise. Most important thing was creating a routine and sticking to it. I would make sure I was asleep at the same time each night.” – Jerome

“Sleep, working out, listening to music, reading or meditating. These are the things that kept me together, otherwise I would have had too much time too overthink things.” – Adnan

There were many more.

Of course, these are young men who had completed Switchback’s programme of intensive 1-to-1 support and real-work training, and built a stable life in work or education. So while men like Michael, Jerome and Adnan may now be able to ride out this period better than most, the outlook is very different for people stuck in prison right now, or being released into a pandemic with very little support.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Switchback has been putting plans in place to ensure we can continue to provide vital support for young men leaving prison while keeping our staff and everyone we are connected with safe. Many prison-leavers are likely to be at particular risk of Coronavirus due to high incidence of health conditions, homelessness and limited access to finance. In normal times, people leaving prison are often anxious about adapting to life on the outside and face huge challenges getting the support they need. This is being greatly amplified by the Coronavirus outbreak, social distancing measures and disruption to core services (benefits have moved online, for example, yet many prison-leavers don’t have access to a phone let alone the internet).

Adapting

The current situation also means that our Switchback Mentors are unable to go into prisons to support young men pre-release, all our staff are all working from home and our real-work training partners are closed. Switchback, like many charities, cannot operate our normal through-the-gate model in these conditions and there will be significant disruption to the ways in which we work and the number of people we can work with.

As a result, we know that creativity will be required to reach and support young prison-leavers and so we are radically adapting our approach to meet this need while adhering to government guidance and taking seriously our responsibility to the safety and wellbeing of our Trainees, staff and fellow citizens. Steps we are taking include:

  • Reaching into prisons in new ways – we’ve been writing letters to men in prison to encourage self-referrals and generating new referral routes from probation and other partners.
  • Use of technology – we’re continuing face-to-face meetings where possible but otherwise delivering all mentoring sessions remotely via phone and video to support mental health as well as assistance with access to benefits and housing, CV-writing, mock interviews and other systems navigation.
  • Health and wellbeing – we’re providing enhanced advice and support in this area to ensure Trainees can manage their mental and physical health at this time of high anxiety, and facilitating peer-to-peer support between Trainees.
  • Filling the gaps – for those that need them we’re providing phones with data, food packages and supermarket vouchers as benefit delays continue.
  • Collaborating with others – We’re forming new referral partnerships and speaking with other charities to learn from each other, share ideas and coordinate support.
  • Lobbying for action – We’re committed to advocating for prison-leavers in confronting this enormous challenge and we are working hard to influence the policy and practice of government, prisons, probation and others in how they respond. We’ve set out our calls to action in a briefing with partners here.

We’re not alone in making these kinds of changes and we’ve been hugely inspired by how other organisations have adapted with amazing speed and creativity to continue supporting some of society’s most vulnerable people. What this period has already shown is the incredible strength of the voluntary sector in responding to need at a time of national crisis, as well as rallying together to push for crucial change from government. We are very grateful to the funders who have already taken a supportive and flexible stance, as well as to Clinks, CJA and the many other organisations who are doing vital work to support the sector and push for reducing the prison population, enhancing support for prison-leavers and ultimately saving lives of prisoners, staff and wider society.

We want to express our solidarity with everyone living or working in prisons, as well as our friends in hospitality and other industries facing huge uncertainty.

At Switchback we will, as ever, commit to finding a silver lining. We have hope that this period can lead to improvements in the way we, and the justice system as a whole, operates in the long run. And we want to collaborate with others as much as possible to make sure some real, lasting good can emerge the other side. We believe the more we talk with others and share knowledge the better the chances are we’ll be able to find inspiring and interesting ways to overcome the challenges prison-leavers face in the short and long term.

If you want to work with us, share ideas or support our Trainees (particularly with access to technology or employment options) during this time, we would love to hear from you: please email team@switchback.org.uk.

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