*names have been altered to protect identities*
At the beginning of the pandemic, our weekly peer support group ‘Next Chapter’ lost access to its venue. This was such a blow, as the group was a real lifeline to those who regularly attend. As this is a member-led group, we asked those who attend what we should do. The answer was clear: wherever safe and within restrictions we would continue meeting. So, from March 2020 to September 2021, whenever possible, we met in cafes, parks, museums, wherever we could. Below is a story from our long-term member James, and Calvin, a member who was released during this period and joined our group. James’ journey with Change for Good started way back in 2018 in HMP Wandsworth. James struggled with addictions and had tried recovery from leaving prison on multiple occasions.
James, “I think for me I struggled with taking support, you know? I didn't trust no one. My trust levels were very very low because I've been shafted time and time again by the system from early childhood and social services and other problems.”
While in prison, James met a project worker from Change for Good who discussed what support was on offer and introduced him to a volunteer mentor. From there James was connected with a residential recovery programme upon his release.
James, “From two attempts of trying to sort it out myself, thinking I was strong enough to do it on my own and ending back in the same place where you don’t want to end up: prison and addictions and a very unstable life situation. So, I said okay, right, let's give it a go, they said they want to help, let’s see what they're going to do.”
James went on to finish the full residential recovery programme and move on to his own accommodation. From 2019 James has attended Next Chapter every week and has been instrumental in supporting others who have joined.
James, “Next Chapter has continued giving me that support, encouraging me to move forward and take to take whatever comes my way as in problems, to just think them through and not react because most of my problems is through reactional behaviour; something's gone wrong and I've decided to make it go even more wrong, so sabotaging myself, in a sense. Next Chapter for me has been a guide and a support.”
Calvin spent the first half of the pandemic in HMP Ford, where he was referred to Change for Good before being released back to London:
Calvin, “When I was In Ford prison I spoke to a Change for Good worker – then with my volunteer mentor. When I got out, I was still very confused, very frightened, didn't know what to expect when I went home. I found it really hard trying to get back into the way of life, didn't know where to turn, felt very confused for weeks until I came here to Next Chapter. Since I joined the group, I feel a little better in myself every week because I feel I can get a lot of support from people here and I really enjoy coming.”
Being released since the pandemic is an extremely disorientating and anxiety inducing experience. The world had changed; many support services went online, there was new rules and regulations which only added to the difficulty of navigating a new life outside prison. James and Calvin’s experiences are summarised below.
James, “There have been dark times in the lockdown. I struggled with the last one. The first couple I kind of got through. Initially when they said it was going to be a few weeks, ok cool I can handle that, it's nice to have a break you know what I mean? There’s that psychological release that, okay things are slowing down, there is nothing required for me other than just to keep doing what I’m doing... That last one affected my wellbeing and I struggled.”
Calvin, “I felt very hard, it was like being in prison. I did struggle quite a bit because I'm sort of an outdoors person, I just didn't like that I was stuck in night and day and crying a lot, depressed. I take antidepressants now. I just found the very, very hard.”
When James met Calvin at Next Chapter, there was an immediate connection. They were both struggling with lockdown and James found real joy in supporting someone who was experiencing something he had been through.
James, “I get great joy and positive affirmation within myself every time I connect. I feel like I’m doing something positive and it doesn't necessarily mean for myself personally. There is a joy in supporting someone without wanting that reward, yet that reward is in itself, and so when I see people - just a kind word or a word of encouragement.”
Calvin, “I’ve had a lot of support from James. He has given me a lot of confidence because when he talks it’s all always about all positive things that come out of his mouth and when I get home, I feel to myself if John can do this, I can do it. So, I feel like a positive person when I leave here on a Friday, so I look forward to that.”
Calvin feels much more settled and continues to come to the group every week. James will soon have an ambassador role for Next Chapter, welcoming newcomers and giving support. James summarises his thoughts below.
James, “For me what is very important is that people who get discharged from a custodial sentence feel isolated within the prison and then when they get out,
that isolation doesn't end until they connect into whatever support systems they have.”
Picture above - Next chapter playing after restrictions eased.