On the Straight and Narrow

Volunteers from the New Bridge Foundation befriend convicts and help to ease their reintegration on release

Helping convicts integrate into lawful society is not the most fashionable of causes, but that has not deterred the New Bridge Foundation. Set up in 1956 by the late Lord Longford and his associates, it seeks volunteers who will befriend prisoners and help them to acclimatise to life on release from jail. This relationship exists over two stages, with volunteers befriending inmates in prison, and then working with them once they are released to assist their transition to freedom.

Chris Thomas, New Bridge’s chief executive, argues that with record numbers in prison the foundation’s befriending service is more vital than ever, particularly in the weeks immediately after release. For convicts who have served long sentences, this support can be of particular importance, as they may not have any friends or family left on the outside. In 2007, 188 volunteers made 901 prison visits, and exchanged 6,342 letters with 461 prisoners in England and Wales. As of late 2008, volunteers were in contact with 470 prisoners, and 100 former inmates. Volunteers usually work with the same convict for five years or more.

New Bridge runs other services aimed at steering convicts towards law-abiding lives, such as “The Learning Shop”, which was launched in 2004 at Low Newton women’s prison, near Durham. This gives inmates a chance to learn basic computer skills that, it is hoped, will assist them in getting a job on release. Another New Bridge service is the Liverpool-based “Prison Liaison Project”. This also started in 2004, and seeks to provide prisoners from Liverpool with accommodation and related support when returning to the city after release. Funding is provided by Liverpool City Council. In 2007, the scheme helped 126 prisoners from 17 different prisons.

New Bridge’s priority for the coming year is to expand post-prison monitoring and schemes that assist convicts in their first few weeks after release, particularly as Probation Service support does not extend to those serving sentences of one year or less.

The former Conservative MP, Jonathan Aitken, who served seven months in prison for perjury, is a New Bridge trustee. He emphasises that even for those fortunate to have a home and family to return to after prison, “your head is still in prison, and you will be confused and slightly neurotic. It is a great help having someone who – to a limited extent – shared your prison experience, assist your transition.”

The test of any charity aiding prisoners is whether the people it helps stay out of jail. Mr Aitken points to a study commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania into a Texas-based befriending scheme, the Interchange Freedom Initiative (IFI), which showed that it dramatically reduced recidivism. Only 8 per cent of IFI volunteers reoffended over the control period, compared with 67 per cent of non-IFI parolees.

One former inmate was happy to pay tribute to New Bridge: “Before I met my New Bridge volunteer – Jane – my life was empty. I was a selfish, arrogant person who thought the world owed him a living. I was nearing the end of my sentence and badly needed a change of direction. Jane helped me achieve this, and now, nine years later, I am head of a hotel grounds-keeping operation. I owe my new life to Jane and New Bridge, and will never forget that.”

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