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June 17, 2009

Making a contribution from inside prison

One of many downsides of going to prison is that it severs the links between a prisoner and their family, friends and community.  Keeping these relationships alive while in prison can have a huge impact on the likelihood of reoffending.   A highly innovative approach whereby a prisoner can make a positive contribution to their community from behind bars has been trialled with great success by Time Banking Scotland and looks set to be expanded

In recent months it’s been difficult to pick up a paper, listen to the radio or turn on the TV without catching some mention of the prison system, usually a negative one. But contrary to popular belief, something good is happening within Scotland’s prisons.

The issues facing the criminal justice system are well documented. However, anyone who delves deeper into the prison system might be surprised to find a number of good projects which have failed to make the headlines.

Over the past 18 months an innovative volunteering initiative has enabled communities to benefit from the efforts of prisoners. It combines inmates who already volunteer their skills and time within the prison environment, and communities which have people willing to help each other using the principles of “time banking”.

Time banking brings people together in their communities and interest groups to share their talents in a mutually beneficial way. It is built on the idea that for every hour a person contributes, they receive the equivalent in time credits, which they can exchange when they need some help themselves.

This simple way of working has now been adapted and effectively used in prisons. The first project of this kind was launched between Castlemilk Time Bank and HMP Shotts and brings together a group of prisoners who are trained by the Samaritans and work on a voluntary basis by providing a listeners’ scheme for fellow inmates. This is a scheme which is available in many of Scotland’s prisons and offers a peer counselling service for prisoners who need support.

The introduction of time banking has enabled prisoners to earn time credits for every hour they volunteer within the prison. The time credits are then donated by the prisoner to the time bank and these can then be spent by members of the time bank in the outside world, who need help but cannot earn a lot of time credits themselves due to personal circumstances.

In Castlemilk Time Bank members have used the time credits donated by the prisoners to receive help with activities which include ironing, DIY and errand-running. Although entirely optional, some members have also visited the prison to meet the prisoners who had donated time credits.

The scheme’s success speaks for itself, as three further prisons have now started to develop similar initiatives and are being connected with Time Banks in Angus and Argyll and Bute Volunteer Centres. Prisoner volunteering activities include assisting others with CVs, literacy help or working on a prison magazine.

One of the more progressive opportunities from this initiative has been the ability of prisoners’ family members to access a service from their local Time Bank paid for by time credits that their relative has earned from volunteering within the prison.

For example, the wife of a prisoner could have her hedge trimmed or a prisoner’s elderly mother could have her weekly shopping done. This can help to establish and maintain the family links which we know are associated with reducing the risk of reoffending – such as a prisoner having a stable home and family relationships to return to after leaving prison.

This is particularly important given that 45% of offenders lose contact with relatives while in prison and 22% of married prisoners divorce or separate as a result of their imprisonment, according to the UK Government’s Social Exclusion Unit.

For the prisons involved the scheme provides a useful way to recognise the time which prisoners spend volunteering. This in turn can be used as a platform on which prisoners can begin to think of themselves as capable of making a valuable contribution to society.

Evidence suggests that if a prisoner’s positive contributions are highlighted to them it can help to improve their own self image. This is supported by research which shows that convicted criminals who are recognised and valued for their positive attributes and behaviours have a greater chance of being diverted from crime when they are released from custody.

Criminologists have discussed making use of this within a prison setting by holding redemption rituals in which prisoners are able to overcome negative labels they have of themselves and develop new positive ones. Time banking is an ideal tool to formalise this practice, by measuring and rewarding the prisoners’ volunteering through the use of the time credit currency.

Prisons are a community in their own right, and if someone who lives in that community – in this case a convicted criminal – is giving up their time to help that system work then we should recognise and encourage this in the hope that this pattern will continue when they are released back into our communities. Time banking facilitates this in a unique way.

As time banking flourishes and expands across Scotland, our aim over the next few years is to give every prisoner in Scotland the chance to make a contribution to a community.