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Dr Gill Buck, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work in the Department of Social Work and Interprofessional Education, has just published her first book, Peer Mentoring in Criminal Justice. She spent eight years as a Social Worker in a youth offending team before moving into research and teaching. Her interests include peer-led services, criminal justice, youth justice and the voluntary sector.

Peer mentoring works by facilitating people in criminal justice systems to talk about their problems (personal, social, financial, and more) with someone who has walked in their shoes and often been to prison themselves. That fellow-feeling, in turn, can motivate people to try their hand at community-based activities they might not have known about before or engage with services they may have struggled to access or trust previously. The focus for Gill’s research was seven not-for-profit organisations working in the North of England. These  ranged in size from the smallest (one ex-prisoner mentoring others still in prison, about to leave or living in the community), through organisations focussing on, for example, women or young people or those brought up in the care of the local authority, to the largest studied, with a team of more than 20 volunteers, most with personal experience of the criminal justice system or addiction.

Gill pointed out that having a peer by your side when taking those difficult first steps away from reoffending was crucial and she believes peer mentoring can set people on new paths for life, not merely prevent their reoffending.

She added: “Often society isn’t willing to accept people who have been criminalised and isn’t prepared to give second chances to people who want to put the past behind them. What peer mentoring can do is help people regain a sense of self-worth with someone who has already been on a similar,challenging journey.

“Peer mentors are living proof that people leaving prison can also carve themselves a new identity and, whilst this can be really inspiring, it is also incredibly difficult, particularly if you’ve had a long period of your life where you’ve relied on criminal means of supporting yourself or your whole peer groups have been involved in criminality or substance use. Changing from those entrenched patterns can feel really terrifying, but one thing a peer mentor can do is walk beside you and make that experience a little less scary.

“Peer mentoring can encourage people to leave crime behind but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about people finding a strength through an identity, a new sense of themselves when they have, previously, been stigmatised by society.”

Gill’s research not only examined the way peer mentoring works, but also uncovered ways in which the criminal justice system and society needs to respond more sensitively to the needs of criminalised people if they are to desist from crime in future.

She explained: “In my book, peer mentoring can be seen as a useful tool for critically-questioning some of the ways in which society puts obstacles in the way for people who want to leave crime and find a meaningful role for themselves. It shines a light on the ways that people are often let down by those around them as well as by services. Sadly and all too often, the result is that ‘ex-offenders’ experience great suffering and stigma which ultimately stops them leaving crime behind.”

Gill would argue that challenging situations force new ways of looking at the world and at each other, revealing untapped potential. Under the current circumstances of social-distancing and ‘lockdown’, there are many creative outcomes that could come out of what can feel like a purely negative situation.

She said: “What I have found, in researching this book, is that when we work alongside people as equals, when we honour and value the fact that they mistakes but also learn from them, their example can really help shape society as a whole to become a more humanising, empowering and empathetic place to live and thrive.

“When we work together as equals we can really overcome some of the worst situations we go through in our lives and I think we are already seeing this all around us in terms of our community responses to the Coronavirus crisis. It’s another message I would like people to take from my book.

“We have a tendency, as a society, to put people into ‘boxes’ stamped with a negative label so we can the stigmatise and exclude them, thinking that we’re making society safer when actually we’re achieving the complete opposite. When we see people as human beings with potential and the capacity to start afresh and work with them, that’s how we can all learn from one another’s experiences and see the flaws in our existing, excluding approaches.”

Peer Mentoring in Criminal Justice, published by Routledge, is available for order in hard copy or ebook format from here:


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