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Gang intervention services adapt to COVID-19 challenges

A young woman, wearing a backpack, adds to a wall covered in graffiti.

Our Catch22 rehabilitation teams in HMP Thameside are classed as essential workers during the current crisis. They work with prisoners to ensure their needs are met in the lead up to release, to mitigate risks and to ensure rehabilitation.

The team at HMP Thameside have been working on a rotating roster to ensure social distancing can be maintained, meaning one half of the team works from home one week and then they are in the prison the next.

At the prison, the Gangs in Prison service identifies the specific nature and impact of gang involvement in the establishment, and develops targeted intervention informed by local context and experience. Their service focuses on offering alternatives to gangs, a strategy which research suggests is more effective than the suppression-only approach used in many prisons.

Sharing learnings with other services

Simon Grant is from the HMP Thameside teams and, during his work from home week, he presented a webinar to Catch22 services across the UK on gang involvement identification and prevention.

The webinar resulted in some interesting questions from staff across all services, not just prisons, on how we can both recognise the signs of gang involvement, intervene when necessary, and most importantly, prevent the antisocial or violent behaviour. Particularly relevant for youth workers, here are some of Simon’s responses:

“What are the warning signs of potentially antisocial gang involvement?”

Warning signs can come in many different formats. At school, you may see obvious signs such as threatening or violent behaviour towards other students, truanting from school, or refusal to attend school altogether. Disengagement from learning or from the student’s usual friend group can be subtle signs something is wrong.

Behaviour may change significantly, such as not returning home until late at night, having a significant change in language or clothing, or using gang-affiliated signs. Substance misuse or being the victim or perpetrator of violent, property or drug related crimes. The sudden use of ‘street names’ or associating with peers known be involved in criminal activity are all warning signs.

“What can I do to support young people who I think may be at risk of gang involvement?”

  • Spend time with young people and build a trusting relationship. Too often we rush into finding solutions but sometimes it’s better to slow down and focus on listening and building an understanding of what the person’s background is and who they spend their time with. Who do they look up to? What music do they like? And why?
  • Engage proactively with families, schools and multi-agency services. If you’re working in the community, connect with others who can help you build a greater understanding of the bigger picture.
  • Have time and patience to let young people open up and change their lives at a pace that works with them. It can be difficult to not see a quick change, but tiny steps can result in huge change long-term.
  • Implement programmes aimed at violence reduction and finding prosocial activities.
  • Ensure all your team have a good understanding of the warning signs of negative peer relationships, such as disengagement from education, violent incidences at school, truanting or going missing, and withdrawing from family or usual friends.

“What’s your view on how we can help young people who are being exploited into criminal behaviour to recognise themselves as victims who are entitled to support? How do you think we can do that sensitively and respectfully without making them feel disempowered?”

Many people say young adults are hard to reach, but I don’t agree – I think some services can be too hard to reach. There are so many services out there that could be going into communities. When the service is the one trying to build the relationship, do we need to bring a young person into an office or somewhere they are uncomfortable?

It goes back to having empathy and an understanding of their background. Take the time to talk, to work towards their strengths and not on the things they’re disengaged with.

It’s our responsibility to reach out and to build trust. When you say you’re going to do something to find this person an alternative pathway, such as employment or an apprenticeship, you must follow through. Often, these individuals have been repeatedly let down before and haven’t seen an alternative route.

It we take the time and effort to help these individuals, we will empower them. If you just tell them to do something but no one is motivating them to do it, it’s a lot harder to get an outcome.

If you just tell them to go to college, we just won’t get a response. It’s about joining them on their journey.