Revisiting our Resettlement Advice Helpline

We hear from, R, another of our helpline advisor from our Resettlement Advice Service. At the beginning of lockdown, the nature of the helpline had “changed overnight” with an influx in phone calls from prisoners who were confused about what the crisis meant for them… read this here. We revisited the team to see what things were like now.

Of course the most glaring similarity between the beginning of lockdown and now is that the team are all still working from home, a challenge that they are continuing to adapt to. R says it hasn’t been easy but with regular team communication and solid working practices they have been able to keep the helpline running smoothly, solving problems and responding to queries both typical and unusual.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve felt that the helpline has gradually returned to normality”, R says, probably a combination of less initial uncertainty about changes, people getting used to the lockdown measures in place and also the expansion of the helpline in providing specialist support for prisoners from additional members of Nacro’s justice team.

Where they have had greater capacity from the extended helpline team, they have in turn had an increase in the usual kinds of helpline enquiries. “We are now seeing less worried family members calling about their loved ones in custody than we did in March and April as more guidance and clarity is made available”. Whilst there are still issues with prisoners being released without accommodation, they are seeing a measured return to their usual enquiries about disclosure and other criminal record or justice-related issues.

The helpline also provides support to employers, helping them to fairly recruit people with criminal records. There’s been an in increase in enquiries of this nature, “suggesting that businesses are continuing to recruit and people are applying for jobs again”.

From momentary telephone and email advice to prolonged case work, they have continued to support people with criminal records and ensured they are treated fairly and lawfully: “recently we successfully advocated for a pharmacist who’d had their conditional offer of employment withdrawn by the employer. We worked to reverse this and the individual is in the process of sorting out a start date”. It is clear that this kind of problem still exists, requiring their efficient and informed approaches.

When asked about his biggest worries for the near future, it focused around the struggle in gaining employment by people with convictions: “because of the higher unemployment levels as a result of COVID-19 and the subsequent increase in competition, I’m concerned people with convictions are going to find it even harder to find work. I anticipate more advising, supporting and challenging to ensure those with criminal records are treated fairly”. Looking at some of the feedback received (below) in the last few months, it is clear that the team will do just this.

  • You have been absolutely blinding in your advice and support today. Everything you explained to me was done clearly and calmly. I’m very grateful to you for your non-judgemental advice“.
  • I cannot stress how important your website has been in helping me get back to work after a conviction. I had a young family and marriage to hold onto when I lost my job, so your support was a life saver“.
  • You have definitely restored my faith in humanity and I really feel that the only way for people to be able to be rehabilitated is for them to be given a fair chance in life“.

 

Education and Skills Centres

We hear from a Senior Tutor, S, who leads two of our Education and Skills Centres in the East of England as part of a regional team. The Nacro Centres delivers Study Programmes for 16-19 year olds, with some opportunities for 14-16 year olds and adults who might have struggled with mainstream education. There are a range of vocational programmes, from childcare to motor vehicle, English to maths, including work experience and one-to-one support.

The Nacro Education and Skills Centres deliver face-to-face learning; the technical subjects are inherently practical, so remote learning has immediate challenges. S says the focus is on creating new ways to engage learners, whether through academic learning, pastoral support, or extra-curricular activities, blending both online working and paper-based approaches. They are doing some lessons over video, and staff email learners at the same time that they would normally see them, maintaining a sense of timetable and routine: “We want our learners to make progress with subjects, so we continue to encourage them to keep their aspirations high”.

Despite the crisis bringing immense immediate change to frontline services, S says Nacro teaching staff were ahead of the game and able to do some critical preparation before the centres’ closures: “we prepared lots of paper work and paper-based packs for learners to complete.” Nacro learners are using an approved App with which they can photograph each page that the App then collates into one PDF document for tutors to mark online. It has forced the team to be more innovative and use new kinds of technology: “we already have good equipment in the centres for this, but it has pushed us along even further”.

For learners who might struggle with accessibility of Microsoft programmes or devices at home, they have to consider other options and so the approach is fundamentally person-centred; where some learners can engage regularly online, others might have to be reached through phone calls, or even social media channels. “Our learners use social media a lot, so we’re trying to give learners structure on social media and, by extension, in life”, using these platforms for activities like a push up challenge, a weekly quiz, and photo challenges.

Engagement levels from learners has been solid, even with those that might have struggled to participate when centres were open as normal: “there’s not been many weeks when we haven’t got all learners engaged or doing work”. All learners receive a minimum of one phone call per week which might involve checking in on wellbeing, that they understand COVID-19 regulations, talking about work or next steps towards employment or further learning. S says he has been continually impressed by the “innovative” ways staff are engaging and the ways learners are adapting: “our learners are particularly vulnerable so having consistent activities gives them a sense of purpose and motivation”.

As usual, the days are extremely changeable. Some staff may work with learners to give feedback about completed assignments, others may be engaging with learners who need emotional support. One constant thing that S highlights is the daily morning meeting with the team: “we do briefings, talk about what happened the day before, whether there are concerns with any learners around work or welfare”. It’s these regular meetings, he says, that provide structure and social interaction, a reminder that they are all in it together: “our centres are lively places and a big part of them is interaction, so working from home has been challenging socially”.

It’s not just the processes of teaching and learning that have drastically changed, but the processes around assessment and awarding qualifications. This is a challenge for the sector and having the support of the central team and colleagues across the country is critical. Right now, they are doing teacher-calculated results for the majority of courses. The more practical and competency-based assessments in, for example, the fitness courses means these qualifications cannot be awarded until the centres re-open. A worry for S is that “a lot of these practical courses happen in local gyms so until gyms re-open, that could provide a challenge”, a concern also for learners who might be relying on this qualification to take their career further.

Where there have been worries and issues, there have been even more successes. From one Personal Training learner who was inspired to create her own fitness business including logos and an account on Instagram (a huge hit), to another learner who was recently awarded with a certificate recognising her lockdown achievements after she completed high quality assignments on her mobile phone. S says, “we’ve had great feedback from parents who are impressed with the systems of remote working we’ve created and how engaged their child is”.

It is clear that social distancing will play a big part in education for a long time after lockdown. Because of this and the success with learners, S says that the Nacro leadership team will be looking to make use of these remote approaches and also regular extra-curricular activities. Above all, this has been a learning process, for all the Senior Tutors and their teams across Nacro, working together and allowing them to refine the teaching and support they provide, always putting learners at the core: “whenever normal returns and whatever normal looks like, I’m hoping ours will look even better”.

 

Young Person’s Housing Service

We hear from L and J, team members working in one of our housing services for people aged 16-25. The scheme houses young people who present as homeless and supports them to develop skills to set up and maintain their own tenancy.

Like all our teams that work on the frontline to provide vulnerable people with critical support, this young person’s service has undergone a transition and continues to readjust to the crisis. “The issues within our service and the support that is needed by service users hasn’t changed but we have adapted, introducing more remote support where we can”, explains L. There’s a lot more remote working and problem-solving, coming up with ways to support service users while keeping staff safe too. Because of the changes in shift patterns, “planning time has changed dramatically and we have to do a lot more immediate and short-term thinking”, says J.

The young people they support are vulnerable, so they need to provide a mixture of remote and face-to-face support. “It’s about negotiating that risk, working out the nuances of a new way of working,” says L. Personal protective equipment in the form of aprons, masks and gloves which they wear when they go in and  “do what needs to be done” means potential risk from the virus is minimised.

J reveals that “some service users were initially surprised with the changes, but it helped them to realise that this was serious.” Most have responded maturely to the circumstances, but there has also been some strain and she has seen a significant increase in mental health problems. Many of the young people are marginalised anyway, L says, “they haven’t got that massive support network and they can’t see the friends they do have.” Face-to-face counselling from external providers has stopped now so the service is finding a heightened level of safeguarding issues; J highlights they aren’t just supporting them emotionally, but that “staff have really rallied together to provide food, DVDs and printable activities to individuals who are struggling”.

Maintaining positive mental health of the young people is fundamental and so L explains they have relaxed rules slightly, allowing anyone who is particularly struggling to stay with family. The support provided is fundamentally person-centred, and where those who are coping well do not need much engagement, others need round-the-clock telephone contact – “checking on people multiple times a day, whatever is needed”.  Some of the young people don’t have a phone or don’t feel comfortable speaking on the phone, L says, “so where we haven’t heard from this person in a couple of days we need to go out and check in.” This might involve meeting up with a service user face-to-face to have a chat, practising social distancing but providing a physical presence. Ultimately, J says, “it is difficult to be sure of someone’s wellbeing without seeing them”.

Where the nature of interactions between staff and service users has changed, so has that between staff themselves. Now that they are often working from home, L shares that “all those little things we’d say to each other in passing in the office we can no longer communicate as easily”, potentially crucial snippets of information that now take more time and planning to share.

But there’s the emotional side of it too. Where J describes moments of feeling “demotivated” due to lone-working, L says it is “a difficult job now under incredibly difficult circumstances.” The already significant challenges of working with very vulnerable young people become amplified, which trickles down into a personal level. “Our staff are brilliant and so committed but it’s important to recognise that this is a challenging situation. We have to make a concerted effort to pick up the phone to our colleagues and check they’re ok.” There’s clearly a new form of emotional labour going on.

As the service works closely with other agencies, absorbing their changing working practices has proved challenging, described by L as a “domino effect”. Conversations have changed, and new kinds of battles have emerged to get the young people the specific help they need, whether that’s with social care, drug and alcohol services, or even medical intervention: “you’re even more of an advocate now for the young person”.

Continued dedication of staff, however, means that there are still many success stories. One new team member who only began working for the service around 10 days before lockdown started took on a case which ended up involving a very serious safeguarding issue. A young service user involved in exploitation had experienced domestic abuse; this staff member had worked tirelessly to ensure the service user entered an emergency women’s refuge, which means she is safe and receives all the support she needs for her complex needs: “a very positive outcome in very difficult circumstances”.

It is clear that despite the difficulties, adaptability and positivity are things that energise the team to keep going. In time, L says, they are sure to be reflective and assess what methods have worked for them, potentially solidifying these new practices to improve and streamline the support they provide. In the meantime, they will continue “rolling with the punches” and keeping the service users at the centre of it all.

 

Housing

We hear from S, the Operations Manager for our housing services in Lincolnshire for adults and young people. Alongside a place to stay, the support provided there ranges from low level help with tenancy management to higher level support with staff present on-site at all hours. Service users are often vulnerable, with drug and alcohol issues, sometimes with a history of offending or as victims of crime.

Much earlier this year, S says she was monitoring the initial stages of the pandemic, anticipating a fundamental transformation in the way they would be able to provide services: “We have services where contractually staff need to be on site 24/7 and I needed to consider what would happen if there simply weren’t enough staff who were well enough to work”. It became clear to her that there was a lot to prepare but she highlights that everyone has pitched in: “From early on we tackled the crisis as a team. The crisis has definitely energised us to prioritise and problem solve.”

The first step was identifying which staff and servicer users were the most vulnerable, including those with underlying health conditions. She knew that some of their tenants would need extra support with getting shopping and medication and some high-risk staff would need to work from home at all times.

When you are used to working in a housing service and doing face-to-face work it can be quite a shock to work from home,” S says. But those working at home are still providing important support over the telephone to service users. With the higher level round-the-clock support it is clear that this cannot be provided solely from home working, so there is still a member of staff working in this way in these services, with managers also coming into services once or twice a week.

Continuing to go into services, although essential in this line of work, is also a source of anxiety for staff and this is something that is at the forefront of S’s plans, ensuring that her teams are ok. She reveals that “wherever possible we have tried to share the workload” whilst for the staff working alone in the 24/7 services they have put in place systems which alleviate stress. These include a buddy in the form of a colleague doing the same shift – but on the telephone – who they can talk to whenever needed, and also a change in shift patterns “so that those continuing to deliver 24/7 services work 4 days on, followed by 4 days off, which will allow them to unwind.”

We have seen how the impact of this crisis goes beyond the world’s collective health and into all aspects: social interactions, employment, hospitality, leisure, and housing. Where the health care systems are feeling the strain, accommodation services have also noticed a change: “People are still becoming homeless and in some cases it is because of the strain that lockdown is placing on families” S says. Since lockdown began, 11 homeless young people have been referred to the service; normally there is limited bed space for those with complex needs, but because of the current circumstances they were able to be more flexible, and after taking some steps to manage potential risks, they accommodated all of these young people. The commissioners have been part of these decisions and have enabled this to happen; it really is a multi-level team effort with the safety of service users at the core. S adds that the commissioners “have been very supportive – they have helped us with sourcing PPE which means we have had enough since before the lockdown began, and also with food and toiletries for the young people”.

Like all teams working across Nacro, S highlights that communication between colleagues is key to smooth transitions in practice. Their teams keep in touch regularly with conference calls and S ensures she sends collective emails to all her managers at once so they all receive the same information: clarity and consistency, but also accuracy in periodically identifying changes to local procedures in relation to Covid-19. “Across Nacro, housing area and operations managers from different housing teams have been engaging in more regular conversations to share updates, ideas and problem solve together in a way that we didn’t before”, adding that this is something they will be sure to continue.

Regular communication with service users as well has been important in avoiding risky or worrying behaviour, minimising extra unnecessary work. Initially the staff working in the young people’s service were concerned about how the younger service users might respond to the restrictions of lockdown. Staff spoke to them about the circumstances, explaining “that we might need to change the way we support them if the government put restrictions in place”.

These kinds of conversations will have played a huge part in how well the service users have mostly adapted, making the jobs of the support staff that little bit easier: “I have witnessed our young people observing social distancing very well”. In cases where there have been issues, they have continued to communicate on a personal level about the safety of their own families put at risk, but also on a wider level about government advice which “has encouraged them to respect the restrictions in place.”

One of the big positives of the current situation has been the sense of community that has come about. Facebook donations from members of the public have included board games and books to keep their service users occupied, whilst in some cases neighbours of their tenants have helped them with shopping and medication.

The complexity of this kind of service and support provided makes it fundamentally hard to completely mould it into pandemic-friendly systems of work. Staff must still go in and provide face-to-face support to some of the most vulnerable in society, but you can see that the teams have worked tirelessly to find approaches that minimise harm to any person involved and to maximise the help they can continue to give in the circumstances; they truly are hidden heroes.

 

Prison Resettlement Teams

We hear from two members of one of our prison resettlement teams: a Resettlement Advisor and a Team Manager.

‘Proactive, persistent and flexible’ were the words which came across when both J and F described how they had managed to continue to provide support services remotely. Where J normally works in a prison providing resettlement support to people who are getting ready for release, F manages a team across a number of prisons. Like all of Nacro’s resettlement workers, they were moved out of their prisons and began working from home when prison lockdown began.

J says she is one of the lucky ones. “I work in a prison which has been really organised and we have set up good communication channels between different teams.” She continues, “In many ways, I am still doing what I did before, but from my house. I am helping people get support with their finances, get ID before release, and find somewhere to live.

But the big difference of course is that J can’t see or speak to the people she is trying to help. “Those are usually the conversations which give us the crucial information to help us do our job, and when we talk through options and make sure we get the right forms signed and prepare people with everything they need ahead of release.” Letters can at least provide practical information to service users. F adds that there is a lot of variation between prisons – in some prisons they are able to send emails to prisoners soon to be released, containing critical information about their release day. The service user cannot respond, but at least they can prepare people in some way. But this isn’t possible in all prisons.

F’s teams have adapted and overcome many challenges already – they have found a way to submit an application for ID without being in the same place. They are proactive in getting hold of the prison discharge lists and contacting probation officers to offer support and see what additional help they might need. The one thing still frustrating J is not yet finding a way to set up a bank account for someone as it needs a witness to the applicant’s signature. “I haven’t given up yet though!” she says. She has suggested an interim solution, which the prison is looking into.

The team have highlighted the particular effectiveness of receiving 12 week discharge lists so they can plan ahead for people leaving prison. But the challenge they face is finding out which prisoners have come in recently, including those on 1-2 week recall, who may have an immediate financial or accommodation need. People newly entering prison are at risk of eviction or ballooning debt. Many will be already vulnerable to the revolving door of re-offending, potentially even more so right now, so it’s important they receive support.

It is clear that much of what the resettlement teams have achieved is through sheer persistence. They have created a discharge pack for the prison to give people which includes: key information about where someone is being released to, their housing reference number, how the team has supported them with ID and finances, and what they now need to do, including who to contact. It crucially also includes information about COVID-19 and what this entails for being in the community. A team in one prison are working alongside another CRC team to create discharge diaries for prison leavers which include updated appointment times. As they can’t be there themselves, they are relying on the prisons to hand out these packs and diaries but can’t guarantee this always happens.

Both J & F highlight these working relationships with prisons as fundamental: “Not being in the prison means I am totally reliant on staff in the prison to help – the Offender Management Unit admin team scan all my post to me which  means I can access service user applications and can draft letters to creditors.” F similarly told us another team member she manages has “built up relationships across the prison which really helps.”

Finding her service users somewhere appropriate to live – obviously critical at this time – is J’s biggest challenge. Many of the people she supports would usually go into Approved Premises but with staff illness, she says that many are not taking new referrals or are cancelling places. “I then need to make very short notice referrals to local authorities.” says J. “Honestly, some have been brilliant. But others quite frankly have been terrible and I have had to waste so much time challenging refusal decisions which should never have been made.”

However, across the teams they continue to push hard to find suitable accommodation and staff have also found other ways to access funding to support privately rented accommodation.

Staff are currently still working from home but are keen to get back into the prisons. The focus from both J and F, despite the challenging circumstances, is on the people they support: “Together we have all found a new way of working where we can provide as good a service as we possibly can.” Feedback, like this below, confirms that teams are absolutely still striving to help some of the most vulnerable in society:

Your intervention has made a real difference to Mr S, as he is now leaving the establishment tomorrow with accommodation arranged, a phone in hand and with every opportunity of a fresh start.”

 

Excerpts from the diary of a Nacro resettlement helpline advisor

As Nacro’s Resettlement Advice Service advisors began to work from home, the helpline changed overnight. Read the experience of one of our advisors.

2 April

Now in my fourth day of isolation and viewing the world remotely. I feel a little like Melania Trump in Trump Tower, except I’m confined with my partner in a bijou and compact one bedroom studio apartment in Deptford. Not quite the same… Had my first team meeting via Zoom today – strange seeing us all in our own parallel universe. Today the helpline was embattled with phone calls from despairing and worried prisoners and their relatives wanting info on COVID-19 and eligibility for early release. No one has any answers. There doesn’t seem to be any centralised point of contact for people. All prisoners, it seems, are in cell lockdown, we hear from people feeling desperate and suicidal -and I can understand why. I take a call from a prisoner in the South East who tells me they do not have in-cell toilets but as they are in lock down they are being given ‘receptacles’ to use. Another prisoner tells me they have run out of toilet paper and are using scraps of material.

Most of my colleagues are magically juggling home child care and the demands of the RAS helpline. By the way I’m growing a beard for my own amusement – a sure sign how desperate things have become!

3 April

Today I built a make-shift desk using two planks of wood from a dump, placing them on top of my bed side-tables. Covered in a yellow and red crushed velvet bed-throw and a bouquet of carnations it looked quite pre-Raphaelite and regal… Phone lines are still ringing like mad. Relatives are worried about their loved ones in prison – we are trying to reassure them the best we can with the limited information we have.

My boss has spent the morning speaking to colleagues from other services and researching the information that is available to pull together a Q&A guide to help staff answer COVID-19-related queries. Finally something concrete-Hallelujah! Our External Engagement Director is behind the scenes liaising with all the different departments and keeping us updated. Our Head of Justice & Health is working miracles trying to expand the helpline’s capacity with staff from other prison-based teams to support prisoners during this virus pandemic. Everyone has to adapt their priorities so quickly and these can change on a daily basis.

6 April

My week gets off to a good start as I take a call from a prisoner I first spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He had been due for release in a couple of days, was classed as highly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. He was supposed to be moving to Approved Premises, but didn’t have the details and couldn’t get hold of his probation officer, resettlement worker or his solicitor. He had run out of credit and had no way to even contact his family. I took a number for his sister and had contacted her. He has called to thank me, as this seemingly trivial intervention had resulted in his family finally managing to get in touch with his probation officer who had met him at the gate on his day of release to take him to his Approved Premises.

A few calls about employment and disclosure today provide some light relief from the emotionally-charged enquiries I take from prisoners. They are mostly from people applying to volunteer in their local area who are being asked to apply for DBS checks, wondering if a caution from ten years ago will be disclosed, or if they should mention a speeding ticket from a couple of years back. Finally some questions I can answer definitively!

9 April

For the first time today it suddenly dawned on me how completely different the helpline has become. No longer are the questions about disclosure and DBS certificates, but about who is vulnerable, who to contact to secure emergency housing when being released from prison with nowhere to go, infection control, early release eligibility. Usually, only 5% of our enquiries are from people in custody; now it’s over 60%. The nature of the helpline has changed overnight and we have had to re-train ourselves to answer a completely different set of questions. Questions that are socially and emotionally more demanding and complex: “I am diabetic and HIV positive so I am high risk. Can I still be released early” and “When I’m paroled shouldn’t probation give me temporary housing if my wife is self-isolating?” or “Will the substance misuse team still come and give me my methadone injections when I’m on released?” “Do I need to report to my probation officer on release… I don’t have  mobile… is it classed as essential travel or will I be stopped by the police?” Each day produces a newer set of problems for which we try desperately to find the answers.

On my way back from the supermarket I took the snicket through the council estate; suddenly I was cocooned in a cacophony of banging drums, horns, whistles and shouting. It was the 8 o’clock tribute to front-line workers. For a couple of seconds, in that moment, surrounded by lots of chanting happy smiley faces, I felt as if I was in a music festival in another time. I wonder: out of all this tragedy and death, what good will come out of it? What will the new ‘normal’ be?