A mentor’s perspective

By 
Megan
  |  

Had I been an employee of the criminal justice system, then instead of walking out of the gate on my last ever release with a discharge grant I’d have left with a long service award. My first custodial sentence was in 1985 when I was 15. My last ever prison sentence I was released from in 2017. It was during one of several sentences in between those dates when I first came into contact with Shannon Trust. In 2005, a few days after seeing in the new year on D wing, which is now G wing, in HMP Pentonville, I was on my way to the now closed and demolished, HMP Blundeston in Suffolk. Blundeston, for several reasons, has a special place in my heart but none more so than this is where, in March 2005, I first became a Toe-by-Toe mentor for Shannon Trust and where my life, on the inside, began to mean something.  


I’d like to think fate or destiny played a part in my becoming a mentor.

At Pentonville - which wasn’t the cleanest prison or had much on offer inside or outside the cell - we had in-cell sanitation, but they were still putting electricity and TVs in the cells. On D wing only the 4s and 5s landings had been upgraded, the 3s were halfway finished, my pad mate and me were on the 2s. Typical. I couldn’t wait to get out of Pentonville. I’d badger staff to get me on the next bus out, no matter where it was heading. Then one morning, my cell-door cracked open, an officer asked me if I fancied going to Blundeston, there was space on a bus and it’s mine if I wanted it. It didn’t take me long to pack. 


As well as being a mentor for Shannon Trust, because the Toe-by-Toe scheme was relatively new, the prison officer at Blundeston tasked with this new project, David Banks, needed help in coordinating and promoting it. So a fellow prisoner and I also became coordinators for the scheme. 

 

What immediately struck me as a mentor about the scheme was its simplicity to use. One bright red landscaped A5 printed book and a pencil. The posters we had to promote the reading scheme were genius in their simplicity too. An image of a L-plate typically used by people learning to drive, the number 2 followed by an image of a book. From my perspective I could tell it said, ‘learn to read’. The posters certainly got a conversation going if nothing else. “What’s this then?” Not an untypical question as we went around the prison sticking these new posters up.


I’d like to think, for our learners, the scheme both then and now, was and is, not a scary thing to face. I recalled from my childhood how we learnt letters and words phonetically, which is exactly how Toe-by-Toe worked.  


Becoming a Shannon Trust mentor changed my life in so many ways as a serving prisoner, but without knowing how many times I would return to prison over the following years, becoming a mentor also provided every single one of my sentences thereafter with value and purpose. It wasn’t a reason for my returns back to prison, but it definitely made prison life better when I did return.  


Hindsight is a wonderful thing but not as wondrous as accidental foresight. By becoming a mentor I became a better person. I was learning so much more about myself as my learners progressed through the book. It wasn’t just about a mentor and a mentee it was also 2 kindred spirits from different worlds trapped in the same world. The chats and conversations I had with my learners were as important as assisting someone in their ability to read.  


I wasn’t just learning about myself, my learners, and my peers, I was also learning about life, and my life. Especially the darker parts of life. The parts you feel you’ve walked alone for so many years and yet, clearly, not the only one. We walked in the same shoes, however, we tied our laces different and the soles, and souls, were worn down walking a different path. It’s difficult to explain a feeling/connection like that unless you’ve felt it yourself, then you’ll understand what I mean. 


My very first learner and what followed after regarding his mum provided me with almost immediate validation that I had made the right decision in becoming a mentor for Shannon Trust. Billy the broom we called him on G wing in Blundeston. He was our wing cleaner at the time and on my oath he kept the wing spotless. So, after working with Billy for a few weeks, we were both on a social visit. I had my people visiting me, and Billy sat a few tables away had his people, which included his mum, visiting him. Billy’s mum, after speaking with a prison officer, made her way to my table to thank me for what I was doing for her son and told me Billy had written her his first letter in which he had wrote ‘I love you’, three simple words in a letter written by a son to his mum and yet you could’ve been excused for thinking Billy’s mum had won the lottery. Alright, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Billy’s mum was over the moon about receiving that letter and asked to give me a hug, which I accepted, before making her way back to Billy. What other reason would I need to not just validate my decision but also to do what I can to help my fellow prisoners in any way I could? Even if I could work out how many people I helped in prison over the years I’d be too modest to say, however, Billy would’ve made it all worthwhile if he was the only one.

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