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Open the Gates - the story so far

Posted by Fine Cell Work on
Open the Gates - the story so far

Fine Cell Work’s Resettlement Service found to be a success

This is a guest post from Russell Webster, the independent external evaluator of Fine Cell Work’s Open the Gates programme.

Regular readers will know all about Fine Cell’s work training prisoners in high-quality, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells. The products of their labours are for sale on our website, but the work itself fosters hope, discipline and self-esteem.

Many of you, however, will be less familiar with Fine Cell Work’s resettlement programme. Open the Gates (OTG) was launched in 2017 to give people released from prison the chance to become part of a purposeful community, have a place of non-judgemental support where they can both share and expand their skills and feel trusted, valued and needed. The primary purpose was to support the transition back into the community and reduce reoffending. OTG operates out of dedicated workshop premises in Battersea and has helped 54 individuals since its launch.

I have just completed a formal evaluation of the programme based on the findings triangulated from analysis of monitoring data and interviews with service users (known as apprentices), staff and other key stakeholders. Read on to find out the evaluation findings.

An evolving project

As a new project, the format of OTG has evolved considerably over its early years; in particular in the way it has adapted to meet the needs of a group of individuals characterised by long periods of imprisonment and long-standing complex needs. The project has become much more of a supportive community, rather than the primarily employment focused intervention it started life as.

The coronavirus pandemic unsurprisingly had a very profound effect on the ways in which OTG operated. The whole Fine Cell Work organisation, staff, volunteers and apprentices, suddenly had an urgent mission to ensure that all the charity’s prison-based stitchers had sufficient work to enable them to survive being confined to their cells for a minimum of 23 hours per day. This crisis accelerated the existing momentum towards a much more organised, streamlined and productive operation in which the different functions and roles of staff, volunteers and apprentices became integrated in a common purpose with every individual valued for their own contribution. There was a shared sense of the work being even more vital which resulted in the development of a much stronger sense of self-worth. Productivity and morale increased markedly.

Outcomes

The 54 apprentices have achieved a number of important goals:

  • 20 have found work
  • 26 have completed work qualifications across a wide range of areas and levels.
  • 21 individuals have been helped to find secure accommodation

Apprentices have also significantly improved their psychological well-being, improving their confidence in finding work, their level of satisfaction with their social life and their confidence about starting a new activity.

A formal reconviction study of OTG participants has not yet been undertaken. However, OTG keeps in touch with all participants past and present and to date only one service user is known to have re-offended with three others recalled to prison for violations of the conditions of their release licences. Sadly, one OTG participant has died.

Apprentices identified 11 key benefits from their participation in the OTG programme:

Many apprentices said that FCW had been absolutely central to their attempts to re-adjust to life in the community. They reported that having constructive activity to go to in an environment in which they were both welcomed and not judged gave them a renewed sense of purpose and helped them re-build their self-esteem and emotional resilience. Many suffered from a deep sense of shame at their offences and FCW proved critical in helping them overcome these feelings and develop the confidence to reintegrate into society, re-build relationships with families (where possible) and re-join society through paid work or volunteering.

For many the impact of the programme could not be easily categorised. A significant proportion of service users talked not only about how much OTG had helped them resettle into the community on release from prison but, more profoundly, how it had helped them feel human again after the experience of incarceration. Individuals talked about how the programme had helped them overcome feelings of shame and guilt and had slowly built back self-confidence and self-worth.

“I was seen as foreign national who should be deported, so I wasn’t given the chance to go on any courses or programmes in prison. I was released with no money or rights. Ever since I was arrested, I have been seen by everyone as a second class person, that’s just not the case at Fine Cell. They don’t judge, you can come with any problem and they will be there.”

Apprentices talked about how important their time at the programme was and how they looked forward to their days at OTG. For many individuals who were living in hostels or temporary accommodation, often estranged from their families and having no friends, the sense of purpose and community at the Battersea hub was their main anchor in life. Apprentices talked about the relief and reassurance of feeling part of a community again. Many were profoundly affected by having their birthday celebrated or being given a Christmas present, often for the first time in many years and, for some, not since early childhood.

The supervising probation officers interviewed for this evaluation had a clear understanding of the project and all those who had close contact with their supervisees had a positive opinion of the impact of the project on service users. Probation officers highlighted the benefits of a positive structure and the value of being involved in doing work of a high quality.

Conclusion

Overall, I concluded that the OTG programme has proven extremely effective, meeting participants’ approval in terms of its quality and relevance as well as generating positive outcomes in terms of jobs and homes – the twin cornerstones of effective community reintegration. These easy to measure outcomes are also underpinned by ongoing professional psychological support which maximises the chances of programme participants not only moving away from a life of crime but also achieving a good quality of life, sometimes for the first time.

Become a champion of second chances and support our work, so that we can help more people to lead independent, crime-free lives. You can help us by making a donation becoming a champion of Fine Cell Work by signing up to a regular donation, or by making a purchase from our shop.

Read more about our Open the Gates programme including details on how to refer yourself or someone else. 

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