Peer inside

Chris has been a criminal for years. By his own admission, when he
opened his mouth in the past it was usually to get something.
Today, he is still opening his mouth, but this time it is to

As a peer adviser to help resettle prisoners on their release from
Wandsworth Prison in London, he has found it a life-changing
experience. “I interview people for 15 hours every week,” he says.
“I hear all kinds of stories. This is the start of something for me
– it’s had a profound effect.”

His work may not be the usual accompaniment to receiving the
certificate for an NVQ Level 3 in advice and guidance, but for
Chris, a Wandsworth inmate himself, simply qualifying has been an
extraordinary experience.

Last December, he joined the peer adviser scheme run by housing
charity St Giles Trust, which has provided housing and resettlement
advice to inmates at Wandsworth since 2000. The project enlists the
help of long-term prisoners to work with their short-term and
remand counterparts, whose housing needs, according to the trust,
are the most urgent.

Mike Rose, head of prisons for St Giles, says: “Without a home or a
base on release from prison, it’s difficult to get support
services, such as drugs services, because most are

“The best way to stop someone becoming homeless on release is to
get their tenancy saved, assuming they have one. If someone’s on
remand, housing benefit pays the majority of rent for up to 52
weeks. If they’ve been sentenced, benefit pays up to 13 weeks. That
way, they avoid getting further in arrears and stand a better
chance of getting accommodation and not re-offending. That
information has traditionally been difficult to get in prison.”

Peer advisers screen the inmates at induction. They assess whether
a tenancy needs to be saved or closed and also refer them, where
necessary, to drug, drink and mental health agencies in the prison.

“Without a doubt, between 85 and 90 per cent of the inmates
screened by us have addictions,” says Rose.

On top of a weekly prison worker salary of £8.40, the bonus
for peer advisers – and one built into the programme – is the NVQ
qualification. This is equivalent to two A-levels, and is achieved
over six months of theory and practice as a peer adviser.

The NVQ is such a pull that some peer advisers have foregone moving
from the austere B category Wandsworth to an open prison for six
months in order to qualify.

Peer adviser Dee, 34, who is serving a nine-year sentence, says:
“The NVQ opens up new directions. I’m now doing a diploma in
counselling and want to go into the addiction field. I’ve
interviewed people for recruitment purposes but I’ve never before
interviewed people with such a desperate need.

“I get thank-you letters from people who have got accommodation or
have got a tenancy closed through me. That’s a buzz.”

Dee is not alone in bearing witness to the scheme’s potential for
change. Wasim, 37, joined St Giles as a peer adviser last July.
“I’ve learned how to assess and how to listen and relate to people
more,” he says.

Others speak of building confidence for their release. Mark, 32,
says: “This has given me confidence, a lot more empathy, respect,
responsibility. I was fighting every day of my last sentence. Now
I’m doing a diploma in helping people with solvent abuse.”

The scheme is not an end in itself. Peer advisers are helping the
trust do its job – an overwhelming task, according to Diane Gault,
funding manager for the project, who recalls the scheme’s

“We were a small resource facing an overwhelming need,” she says,
adding that in April 2002 the trust realised it could not screen
all the 3,000 annual short-term and remand incomers to Wandsworth
as well as find homes for the 1,500 already leaving every year with
nowhere to live.

Recruiting the help of inmates who could empathise with many of the
problems that incomers were facing has been a powerful solution.
“Three case workers see the guys who are jumping up and down for
help,” says Gail Souppouris, St Giles’ operations manager, “but 100
people need to be seen each week. We couldn’t do it all

“Peer advisers look at individual housing needs – an inmate may
have an existing tenancy which can be saved, or may have been
homeless when they were sentenced,” says Souppouris. “More advanced
advisers can save tenancies by writing letters, and case workers
are freed up to deal with complex and sensitive cases with inmates
whose families don’t want them back or where mental health records
need to be accessed.”

In the 12 months to December 2003, 12 peer advisers have worked
with 1,250 prisoners. Seventy-two tenancies have been saved, 510
people have been given housing advice, and 350 referred to support
services. Before the trust’s presence in the prison, resettlement
needs were fielded by a small and dedicated group of prison

Other prisons use peer advisers for mentoring and advising on
issues such as housing and employment. The Kent branch of housing
charity Shelter provides housing advice to agencies working in all
nine prisons in its area, only two of which are peer-led schemes.
Marie Pinder, regional head of prison projects for Shelter, says:
“Most schemes are run by a mixture of probation officers and prison
officers. Peer-led schemes are still in their infancy.”

And St Giles is the first and still the only organisation to
provide peer advisers with a nationally recognised qualification in
a large local prison. The precedent is gaining ground – the
organisation’s peer adviser pilot at Bullingdon Prison in
Oxfordshire has dealt with more than 1,000 people in its first
year, and now plans to set up schemes in Brixton Prison and in
several Kent jails, including its first women’s prison, Cookham
Wood. The trust aims to take the project to 10 more prisons by

In terms of its impact for inmates, St Giles’ peer adviser scheme
is summed up by Rose: “This is a combination of getting alongside
others and getting a qualification.”

In addressing the need for secure accommodation on release, its
potential takes on a new dimension. According to the Social
Exclusion Unit’s July 2002 report, Reducing Reoffending, avoiding
homelessness on release can cut re-offending rates by up to 20 per

Help with finding accommodation on release is particularly vital
for ex-offenders with mental health problems, says Julian Corner,
chief executive of Revolving Doors, a London-based charity dealing
with mental health and the criminal justice system. “Our research
shows that 49 per cent of prisoners with mental health problems
have no home to go to on release following a sentence of less than
12 months,” he says. “The provision of secure housing is the most
effective contribution to individual well-being and more secure

Meanwhile in Wandsworth, the prison has asked the trust to start
resettling inmates serving sentences of less than two years. Rose
says: “Change is reverberating around the prison.” He hopes the
effect will expand out of the high walls of Wandsworth and into
communities at large.

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