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Opinion

Scotland has the perfect antidote to ex-prisoners’ reoffending rates

What happens when people first leave prison is a great indicator of whether or not they will go on to reoffend. The Wise Group helps ex-prisoners on their first steps to a new life – and the results are remarkable

I first saw Edinburgh when a plasterer let my girlfriend and me off in Princes Street, right at the centre of Scotland’s majestic capital. It was 6am on Christmas Day. We ran for a bus to get to her parents who lived in the suburbs by a stream and a hill. It was all so strangely new. And even though it was Christmas Day 58 years ago, you’d have thought it was an ordinary day. New Year was the big Scottish celebration, and Christmas seemed to stop at the Scottish border.  

Last week I arrived at Waverley station by train and the noise of Christmas music announced itself. I climbed the steps to Princes Street and the very spot where decades back I had been dropped was transformed. Popular Christmas songs buoyed the festive atmosphere of the large Ferris wheel in Princes Street Gardens, while the Scottish National Gallery was swamped in a kind of German Christmas Fayre. Fun is in the air and all around you. Love too, perhaps.  

I was not in Edinburgh for the lights, though, or to measure how in almost 60 years the city had become dripped in tinsel. I was here to talk to an audience of local authorities, prison mentors and social intervenors about the crisis of ‘release’. The event was organised by The Wise Group to showcase some of the work they had been doing around supporting offenders leaving prison and getting back into life.  

‘New Routes’ is the Wise Group’s wise way of helping ex-offenders stay that way, to not return to reoffending and prison. They work with 92 per cent of the eligible group of prisoners and when their programme is adhered to they are able to reduce reoffending to around 10 per cent. The eligible group is made up of people with sentences of up to four years (longer term prisoners receive help from the prison service itself). 

Wisely, they have commissioned a research group, the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, to measure and report on the achievements and outcomes of the programme. This is so important because, like doubting Thomases, governments and their civil servants need tangible evidence that the programme actually works.  

In fact it’s all about ‘mentoring’. I told the audience that I first met a ‘mentor’, my probation officer, when I was 10. He was the first consistent, thoughtful adult I had met. My parents and most of the people around me seemed to be lost in a world of punishment, dismissal and wishing things were different; or at least that I was. There seemed little evidence of careful and thoughtful adult thinking.  

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Mentoring is one of the strongest antidotes when leaving prison and thinking that it’s all downhill from here on. And that is why I made the trip, not just to see the Christmas lights and drink Scots ale in The Café Royal, just behind Princes Street.  I was there for the business that has obsessed me for much of my life, from the days when I was in the custodial system: why it is that rehabilitation is so hit and miss.

That support to helping someone out of prison and making a break with their past is the greatest of public savings imaginable, yet often sorely missing.  Of course, the greatest saving would be to not allow people to slip into wrongdoing in the first instance. We would remove all the social obstacles: poor housing, poor education, poor social support, poor parenting, poor employment. And expel people out of the orbit of poverty into something more sustainable and just.   

There is a ‘predictability of failure’ that potentially comes at birth for some. Not all people born into need get into trouble with the law, but it is often the most common of common denominators. It’s where you were born and what your family did before your birth that will greatly influence your relationship to poverty.  

One of the reasons we have to measure and prove the efficiency of programmes like New Routes, which works all over Scotland, is to convince government and the public of its usefulness. That is why it is essential that people like me, who are obsessed with such issues as social justice, should get to know what can be done.  

My own take on it all is that once someone is liberated from prison, they are yet to be liberated from the life that they brought with them into prison. They still carry the scars and the pains of their former lives.

What you deeply need to do is help people to get through this trauma. Mentoring, even simply picking people up at the prison gate, befriending them and taking them home, or to the various helping organisations, is often the best sign that someone actually cares. And then listening to them, helping with housing and work, and connecting sensitively with their families, are a godsend to someone rebuilding their lives.  

The programme works, with 9,000 local groups throughout Scotland to help people get back into the community. And that, to me, is the second use to which we can put New Routes. New Routes is getting people back into a place where they feel a part of things and not detached from those around them. Post-prison life can be a continuation of prison; but one without walls. 

Mentoring is a great bridge to help move prison into the background of one’s life, to begin to live a fuller and more useful existence.  

The Wise Group is a social enterprise that works to lift people out of poverty

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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