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Wisdom Wednesdays: The impact of Foreign National peer mentors in Prisons

In today’s blog, we highlight the work of peer mentors in the Foreign Nationals Service at HMP Wandsworth.

27 April 2022

The Foreign National Prisoner Guide defines a foreign national prisoner as “anyone remanded or convicted on criminal charges who does not have an absolute legal right to remain in this country.”

Catch22 - Thameside - May18 LOW (64)

In the Foreign Nationals (FN) Service at HMP Wandsworth, the peer mentors are all serving prisoners; while some are FNs themselves, others are simply eager to support the FN population. They are spread out across the establishment, and the team does their best to ensure there is one representative on each wing, providing access to the service for everyone.

Peer Mentors are appointed through an interview process and then receive specific training to support them in their role. They report to Catch22 on a regular basis, and their key day to day tasks include: 

  • Keeping a written record which summarises the FNs they’ve helped  
  • Referring cases to other departments, such as Healthcare or Chaplaincy, where relevant 
  • Reporting concerns and matters of security including reports of prisoners being bullied, areas of frequent complaint, lack of access to essential prison facilities etc 
  • Supporting FNs with using the prison kiosk, canteen and other services, focusing on prisoners who speak little or no English  

Why we need peer mentors

At HMP Wandsworth, the aim is is to reduce social isolation of FNs and to improve the sense of community and purpose within the prison gates. Having confident and capable mentors .on each wing supports this, particularly as, within the FN population, there is a lot of mistrust and a lack of understanding of the UK Prison system. Having a supportive mentor can help FNs build their confidence so they engage with others on their wing.  

Due to the nature of the prison environment, Reps are often more knowledgeable about their peers than staff are and can pick up on important information which, when reported appropriately, enables the prison to provide the best possible support to the most vulnerable. When the representatives are being trained, there is a focus on safeguarding their peers and knowing how to appropriately manage disclosures.  

The impact of a Foreign National service

FN representatives are beneficial for any service within a prison and in the community, providing they are well trained, well-utilised and that they understand their roles and responsibilities. For these representatives and mentors, it is an opportunity for paid employment, a chance to learn new skills, and a great source of purpose. Catch22’s mentors are a huge support to the team, enabling the core staff team to focus on complex and challenging support work. 

Having this job gives me a purpose on the wing, it puts me out of my comfort zone at times, but it benefits other people which gives each day a purpose. – Foreign National Representative

I’d been in Wandsworth for a really long time before I got this job, since being in this role I’ve learnt a lot of new skills and have taken on a lot of responsibility. My relationship with staff has improved as well and I’m learning new things every day which I think will help me in the future. – Foreign National Representative

A calming presence 

Particularly for those in custody for the first time, FN reps provide the peer mentorship needed to settle into the prison grounds – from understanding the environment and knowing what services are available, to always having a friendly face available. Too often, existing mistrust of the prison system means FNs don’t engage with staff, workshops or other activities, intensifying the isolation,  

Having a peer on hand every day to introduce themselves to new arrivals and to point them in the right direction for support is key to ensuring that their first night in the new establishment, or on a new unfamiliar wing is a positive one. Reducing this early anxiety keeps prisoners safer and improves the impact of all other services within the prison gates. 

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