On Friday, I joined Clinks staff members Anne Fox and Hazel Alcraft on a visit to Norman House in Islington, one of the many Home Group properties across the country where Stonham provide support to ex-offenders and people on bail.
When we arrived, Service Manager Liz was excited to tell us the fascinating story of Norman House’s history. The project was set up in 1955 by Merfyn Turner, a conscientious objector sent to prison for refusing to serve in the Second World War. His experience of prison life and the difficulties that continue after release led him to address two significant problems for ex-prisoners: lack of housing and lack of social ties. He set up a halfway house in which ex-prisoners lived together as a family and could begin to resettle into society, bringing into action his saying that ‘no man is born a criminal and no man is only a criminal’. After his death in the nineties, his family made the decision to donate the house to Stonham to carry on the work they had been doing for almost forty years.
Today, fourteen clients live at Norman House, who are all in various stages of their post-prison journeys. Each client has their own spacious room and bathroom and receives practical and emotional support, as well as vital signposting to other services, from workers at the house. Residents don’t just eat and sleep in the house, but are also involved in group activities such as cooking and local community events, and making decisions about the running of the house.
After Liz had introduced us to the service, we were lucky enough to meet four service users from Norman House and some nearby Stonham/Home Group properties, who gave us an insight into life after prison and the support they receive from Stonham. They all agreed that knowing you have somewhere safe and warm to sleep is the most important step towards rehabilitation and that, without this, addressing your other problems is virtually impossible. With stable accommodation and support at Stonham, they have been able to start rebuilding their lives.
This meeting was by no means a one off at Norman House – service user involvement is routine for Stonham. Service users work with the organisation to review serious incidents in services, to recruit new staff and to get involved in community events. Stonham have also adopted the Human Library approach, bringing together 80 people with diverse identities and experiences to shape and deliver equality and diversity in their services.
“It’s about finding the right support for my needs”
James*, an outgoing and friendly long-term Stonham resident, spoke of the lack of information he had received in the past. He was unaware of his entitlement to certain benefits and on previous releases would struggle with the difficulty of trying to address his problematic drug use and mental health problems while fulfilling the requirements of Jobseekers Allowance; the stress would lead him to re-offend and end up back in prison. After his last release, he was signposted to Mind mental health services and supported to apply for Employment Support Allowance, allowing him to focus on his drug use. That was six years ago; he’s no longer taking drugs and is now training as a peer mentor in order to use his experience to support others.
“The policies don’t seem to work with each other”
The men also offered their expertise on the policy surrounding criminal justice, suggesting that there was a problem in systems and reforms not being joined up, and that this leads to poor communication and people slipping through the cracks. The support and local knowledge at Stonham helps them navigate these complex systems, while relieving some of the anxiety ex-prisoners face about becoming homeless.
Working on the Clinks policy team, the expertise of our members and their service users is invaluable to fully understanding the current situation of the voluntary sector in criminal justice. Service users are a vital source of intelligence for our ongoing work and their feedback allows us to lobby more effectively on behalf of our members.
While seeing the impact of policy upon our members’ frontline work is informative, just as important is how uplifting it is to see services continuing to develop and innovate, despite the challenges facing them. Particularly encouraging is Stonham and Home Group’s commitment to involving their service users in decisions. Liz, the service manager at Norman House, spoke passionately about the importance of this, and outlined her plans to develop this even further, particularly for budgeting decisions in the house. This kind of involvement is key to improving the quality and impact of services for prisoners and ex-offenders, as well as giving service users a feeling of involvement in their community. If you’re interested in developing service user involvement in your organisation, you can visit the Clinks website for a range of resources and information, including our brand new Guide to Service User Involvement and Co-production
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The RR3 special interest group on Covid-19 will today convene voluntary sector leaders to discuss what is needed to mitigate the impacts of the virus on CJS voluntary organisations and the service users they support. We'll publish the key points from the discussion in a blog.