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Pact’s Basic Caring Communities
Background to the scheme:
The scheme began in 2008 as a two-year pilot project in HMP Wandsworth, seeking to harness the strengths of a supportive community in prison resettlement. Basic Caring Communities (BaCC) bring together a group of local, trained volunteers drawn from Christian church communities to provide prisoners who are due for release with through-the-gate support. This is achieved by offering a warm, human experience of community, including practical help and support (the project is non-evangelical in character).
Following the successful pilot at Wandsworth, the project has been extended to HMP Brixton, HMP Bristol and HMP Forest Bank and will shortly also be operating at HMP Pentonville. The project currently has over 100 fully trained volunteers and is looking to expand the scheme to further prisons.
Funding is in place for the next two years, and comes from a range of grants made by charitable trusts.
BaCC is coordinated by Pact (Prison Advice & Care Trust), an organisation that has a long history of delivering projects to support prisoners and their families. The project was initially developed in close consultation with the probation service, the prison service and the prison chaplaincy in HMP Wandsworth. Close links with these services have been maintained, with the majority of referrals coming from the prison chaplaincy and prison resettlement teams. In each of the areas that the project currently operates (London, Manchester and Bristol) good links have been built with a range of local agencies delivering support services such as housing and health providers.
The client group:
The scheme is primarily, but not exclusively, aimed at prisoners who have served multiple short prison sentences and who are facing social exclusion, often in combination with a range of other support needs. Negative peer groups and a lack of positive relationships are common among the target client group, which can make it difficult to sustain positive life changes after release from prison. Securing suitable housing, particularly for participants in London, was reported by the project manager as being a significant challenge, with many of the participants only having short-term bed and breakfast accommodation in place upon release from prison.
How it works:
A BaCC coordinator matches volunteers in the local community to participants who have been referred from the prison chaplaincy, prison resettlement team or who have self-referred. Volunteers meet with the participant while they are in custody to begin building the trust and the relationship at the centre of the approach. Every participant is met at the prison gates and provided with a mobile phone to facilitate contact with members of the community. Each community is made up of four volunteers, who meet with the participant on a rotational basis and who all come together for a group meeting or activity at least once a week. Meetings are typically informal and might entail going for a coffee, or offering support in attending key meetings or appointments. The frequency and length of contact is very much directed by the participants, although an offer of daily support is always extended. Communities typically last for three months, which coincides with the period in which the risk of re-offending is at its greatest (Stanko et al 2011).
The service model:
The emphasis in the approach is upon promoting self-help and encouraging a sense of responsibility among participants. “To walk alongside people when they come out, as opposed to a focus on ‘doing things’ for them”. The project operates an open-door policy in which those who have previously taken part in the project but subsequently returned to prison, are welcomed back. As the project manager explained “It’s about restoring a sense of community to people who might have no experience of it. It’s someone who believes in them and in a non-judgemental way is offering support".
While the aims of the project include reducing re-offending, this is not the sole objective of the scheme. Promoting a sense of belonging and personal growth among both participants and volunteers is a central objective of the project.
The project has supported over 50 prisoners to date. An independent evaluation is currently being carried out by NEF (New Economics Foundation) to give a clearer understanding of, and to demonstrate the way in which, BaCC creates positive, sustainable change in the lives of ex-offenders and the volunteers.
Early indications, however, suggest the project contributes to reduced re-offending, improved prospects in terms of personal well-being, employment and training opportunities, as well as housing and health outcomes. Three of the offenders who have been supported by a BaCC group have also gone on to work as volunteers on the project.
The project manager identified the diverse mix of support and personalities within a Basic Caring Community as a key element in the success of the approach. In adopting a community as opposed to individual mentor service model, participants are able to experience “what a positive community is like, and gain a belief that they’ve got something to contribute and that they’re worth it”.
Find out more about the project:
Further details of the BaCC project, including videos of the experiences of participants, are available on Pact’s website (http://www.prisonadvice.org.uk/bacc).
An independent evaluation of the service is underway and is expected to be available in autumn 2013.