User Voice - Only Offenders Can Stop Re-Offending

Impact of Essex Peer Mentoring Programme Grows and Grows

Since October 2012, User Voice’s Peer Mentoring project with Essex Probation has been training ex-offenders to use their own experiences to provide support to other service users. The project harnesses the unique and invaluable experience of those who have successfully improved their situation to mentor others. With first-hand experience of how it feels to go through the criminal justice system, mentors can give encouragement and reassurance to those going through the same things they have.

Giving something back and helping other service users in this way is rewarding both emotionally and practically. Mentors, who are identified through a careful selection process, are able to add to their list of achievements whilst improving their own employment opportunities. Mentors have informed of the benefits they have reaped by taking part in the programme. This feedback has included; “taking part has helped me to stay on the right path”, “this training has helped me to come to terms with my own past and move on”, “by doing this training I can get a qualification and I have never had one before”, “the programme has helped to improve my self-esteem”, “by coming to the mentoring training I feel less socially isolated and actually feel that I belong”.

After completing the training the mentors receive a recognised qualification, an OCN Level 2 Award in Peer Mentoring. In addition, Essex Probation have committed to providing further support to mentors in the form of employment for successful candidates as Case Supporters. Four mentors have recently had successful interviews for Case Supporter positions, demonstrating the impact that the project is having.

This innovative Peer Mentoring programme aims to contribute towards the reduction of re-offending by offering a service that recognises the changes ex-service users of the criminal justice system make to their lives. Furthermore this programme is enabling such people to contribute towards the delivery of criminal justice services to aid their desistence from crime.

A joint statement from Mark Johnson and RAPt about the transformative potential of peer support

Joint statement from Mike Trace, CEO of RAPt and Mark Johnson, Founder and CEO of User Voice

The Transformative Potential of Peer Support: Why peer mentoring rightfully has a role in the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda and can help to reduce re-offending.

The Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy calls for mentoring support for offenders and identifies that providing peer role models and support systems has an important contribution to make in helping to turn offenders’ lives around.

The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPt), the largest provider of drug and alcohol treatment in British prisons, and User Voice, a pioneering organisation led by ex-offenders, have experienced the transformative impact of peer support in their work, and wholly support this position.

Collectively we believe that mentoring support can be pivotal in helping service users to believe that they can take responsibility for their actions and turn away from crime, and that this can have a significant and measurable impact on re-offending. Through our work we can provide evidence that offenders have a lot to give and a lot to gain from peer support, but that gaining a real understanding of what such mentoring support looks like in practice is critical to its success.   

Our Approach
RAPt and User Voice share a vision of how this can be delivered. To be effective, peer supporters must be highly committed, and well supported, individuals who have instant credibility with clients. They can say that they have walked in their shoes and represent the idea that – ‘if I could make these changes, so can you’.

We recognise the role that offenders have in shaping services and provision for themselves, and the value of one offender helping another. We do very different work in different areas, and as such can demonstrate the range and scope of peer-led work and its multiple benefits.

RAPt founded the first independent drug treatment facility in a British prison in 1992. Over the last twenty years we have continually developed and adapted our services to meet the ever changing and emerging needs of our service users (offenders with drug or alcohol problems), their families and carers, and to provide community based and through-the-gate substance misuse services. Peer support and the principle of one person in recovery helping another is a crucial feature of our intensive substance misuse programmes, which have been proven to deliver a 21% reduction in re-offending 12 months post-release (measured on the binary scale). 

Peer support can be critical to maintaining recovery especially at key stages of an offender’s journey, such as release or transfer when people are vulnerable to relapse.  All peer supporters have defined roles and responsibilities, backed up by a comprehensive package of stepped-training, support and supervision.

- Our peer support network is active in 28 prisons as well as the communities where we work
- Almost 100 ‘graduates’ of RAPt programmes are engaged as peer supporters
- A further 80 people are involved in volunteering activities supporting our post-release resettlement services

RAPt’s range of support is continually evolving and includes:

- The first national aftercare service for offenders who have engaged with substance misuse treatment inside prison.
- The only specialist residential substance misuse treatment centre for criminal justice clients.
- A national ‘Meet and Greet’ prison escort scheme which matches volunteers, of whom half are former clients, to offenders on release, ensuring a safe transition to accommodation or community rehab. 
- We are currently rolling out a new programme of dedicated through-the-gate mentoring support across seven prisons in Kent.
- Expansion of our Education, Training and Employment provision including a paid apprentice scheme leading to professional qualifications.

Much of our peer-led provision has been informed directly by service users. This includes the establishment of a programme of peer-led motivational support for service users receiving clinical substance misuse and wanting to progress to abstinence treatment, and a highly successful peer-led aftercare support group.

User Voice
User Voice is unique because its work is entirely led and delivered by ex-offenders. We exist to reduce offending by working with the most marginalised people in and around the criminal justice system to ensure that practitioners and policy-makers hear their voices. User Voice is well placed to gain the trust of and access to people involved in crime or who have direct experience of the criminal justice system as offenders and prisoners.

The entrenched exclusion of some of the people we work with can be a huge obstacle to service providers. The involvement of ex-offenders in rehabilitation services has many benefits, not least of which is the power of a narrative of success; working with ex-offenders can be a powerful way of motivating people who often have little self-belief that they can overcome the barriers they face. All the work User Voice has done suggests offenders want to talk to people who have ‘walked in their shoes’, which is why all our frontline staff are ex-offenders.

User Voice offers a wide range of formal and informal peer support services. As a result of the personal experience of our staff and volunteers all projects delivered have an element of informal peer support. We also deliver more formal peer support projects in a number of prisons, probation trusts and youth offending teams in which we recruit and provide accredited training (as an Open College Network recognised centre) to ex-offenders in order for them to provide support and guidance to others facing similar life experiences, through more structured mentoring. Our peer support is guided by the principle of being mentee-led. Examples include:

- Essex Probation – recruiting 20 peer mentors, training them for a Level 2 award and assisting them in order to develop relationships with up to 80 current Probation service users. A number of these mentors will progress to become paid Case Supporters, employed by Probation.
- CanDo Coffee – a new social enterprise that provides self-employment opportunities for vulnerable groups, including those with experience of offending, addiction and mental health. While the social enterprise is providing training and line management, it recognises the benefit of partnering with a user-led organisation to provide peer support to its employees to assist with any non-work related issues that may prevent them from continuing with or performing their role the highest standard possible.
- South London and Maudsley NHS Trust – delivering an innovative pilot project supporting individuals accessing employment in forensic mental health services, providing them with peer support.

Peer Potential
The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms offer the potential to work with offenders in a much more creative way. Given the undeniable pressure on resources, and challenging activity and outcome targets, bidding partnerships will need to find cost-effective ways to engage and motivate offenders to ensure high compliance, and measurable impact.

In our view this challenge is also an opportunity to embed mentoring and peer-led interventions and positive role models at every stage of an offender’s progression through the Criminal Justice System. We know that peer engagement on an individual basis or in a group setting is a significant change factor, and has the potential for much wider use. 

Significantly, it also presents an opportunity to establish how ex-offenders can mentor others as part of their own re-integration and resettlement in the community. Mentoring and support roles offer personal development, a position of trust and responsibility, and a way to develop leadership and inter-personal skills. Meaningful and realistic opportunities for offenders to progress from this point, gain bankable voluntary experience, and secure employment are needed to capitalise on this potential.

If you are in the process of putting together a bidding partnership, and agree that the creative use of peer support models will be crucial to successful bidding and delivery of Transforming Rehabilitation contracts, then please contact us ( to discuss how the unique culture and services of RAPt and User Voice can enhance your proposals.

User Voice         
Newburn Street,
London, SE11 5PJ
Registered Charity No. 1117438
Registered Company No. is 06820227 

Riverside House,
27-29 Vauxhall Grove,
London, SW8 1SY
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