Self-inflicted deaths are over five times more likely in prison than in the general population.
Ministry of Justice (2018)
Another statistic I would like you to take on board is that out of the 325 deaths in prison, in the year up to September 2018, 87 were self-inflicted, over a quarter. However, let’s look at another statistic as reported in the Prison Reform Trusts’ “Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile – Autumn 2018” .
The Samaritans’ Listener Scheme is active in almost every prison across the UK.
In 2017, 1,540 Listeners were active.
Listeners were contacted more than 80,000 times during 2017.
The Samaritans (2018)
As any Listener will know, not all contacts are recorded, so I would suggest the 80+ thousand is rather a conservative figure, even though it’s almost the population of the prison estate. Another remarkable fact is, in the same time frame, there were only, just over 1,500 Listeners. A quick glance, only, at those two figures should show you how mightily important the Listener scheme is.
How does the Listener Scheme work?
Samaritans’ volunteers work with prison staff to select and train prisoners who have shown an interest in becoming a Listener.
Selected prisoners attend an intensive training course. This is based on the training that Samaritans’ volunteers undertake but is adapted to the prison setting. On completion of their training, Listeners receive a certificate and agree to follow Samaritans’ policies and values.
Prisons aim to have enough Listeners available round the clock, for anyone who needs them. Support is given in private to allow complete confidentiality. The policy on confidentiality is the same as it is for Samaritans volunteers. Knowing that the service is completely private often gives prisoners the courage to ask for help and talk about what is getting to them. Even after a Listener has left prison, their work as a Listener must remain completely confidential.
Listeners are not paid and do not receive any form of benefit for their role.
“Because of the Listener scheme, the prison service has at its disposal an incredible tool that can and does make a difference for those contemplating suicide and self-harm in prison.” Alex Audain, released Listener.
Being a Listener in prison, is a role I first entered into back in 2005, each time I returned back to prison, it was a role, that I almost immediately got back into. Speaking from my experience as a Listener, I know the difference having a chat can make to someones life. If we consider the figures in relation to the amount of officially recorded contacts, which is 80,640, one should be left with the thought of how many lives Listeners are responsible for saving since the schemes inception at HMP Swansea in 1991. I would say, on average, 10-15%, again a conservative figure, my callers would express to having real suicidal thoughts. The point, is not one to gain plaudits, it’s, without naming and shaming, to point out that in some prisons in which I have served, whilst being a listener I have been disappointed to form the opinion that the management and some staff see, not only the Listener’s scheme, but other peer led schemes, as intrusions on their time or that rep’s are all up to something. Again, being tarred with the same brush whenever there’s an infraction of the rules by a rep, the go to course of action, blame everyone.
This is a view from a former prisoner released in 2016.
Jacob Hill, 24, from Leeds, released from prison last April, was a listener.
He said the sense of helping others was the most important thing:
“I wanted to support others and you feel like you are making a difference and in that place it is hard, you don’t get to make a difference in prison, and volunteering with the Listeners gives you that chance,” he says.
Hill, an entrepreneur who who had founded a business while at university, was jailed for dealing Class A and Class B drugs at a music festival after falling into £17k debt.
He volunteered as a Listener in HMP Wealstun in Wetherby, Leeds, when he was moved there in September 2015.
“There was always a need for the Listeners,” he says. “It gives people a life-line. Many might not have the phone credit to speak to their families, or know how to talk to them about it.
“They can come to us about anything, some might be missing their family, others regretted the actions that led to them spending time inside.”
Since his release Hill has started up Offploy which aims to link ex-offenders with jobs.
He said: “It was the Listener scheme that gave me a real feeling of purpose, many would say the same.”
There can be frustrations, the Samaritans point out, when a prison officer is not available to facilitate a meeting with a Listener.*
“Can you imagine doing a night shift without the Listeners?”
Senior prison officer; Time Well Spent (2011)
* https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-37407546. Accessed 03/02/2018