All the research assistants contributed to all stages of this research - not just by conducting fieldwork, but by regular consultation throughout the process and through feedback on earlier drafts of the report. The research assistants were invited to write down their reflections on the experience of being a peer researcher. Here, we present excerpts from three of them.
I felt an immense amount of pride at being involved in the project and being able to channel the negative experiences of 'ex-prisoner' into something positive. I wanted to prove as a 'peer researcher' that I could do a good job. If somebody has faith in you, you want to show them that their faith in you was appropriate, and I suppose many other 'peer researchers' in the future may feel like that, and thus, should be given the chance. As a 'peer' I could 'feel' what the interviewees were talking about and understood what they meant if they used particular terminologies or jargon, which is a benefit.
I mentioned that I was an ex-offender at the start of my interviews, and I suppose this was in an attempt to get me 'onside' at the start of the interview. I found that some interviewees relaxed when I told them this, but because I mentioned this at the outset, I couldn't have predicted whether they would have been any more forthcoming with their answers had I not told them that I was an ex-prisoner. I also don't believe that you establish 'rapport' just by saying that you're an ex-con. I don't think rapport is developed by your 'status' alone, and so although I think it’s a brilliant idea using 'peer researchers', ability to interview, ability to make interviewee feel at ease and subject matter are perhaps as important as 'peer status'.
It’s a good idea to use ex-prisoners to carry out the interview because it can give hope to the people that you are interviewing, and may sow a seed that 'if they can do it then why can't I?' I am very grateful to the project, for being given a chance to channel negative experiences into positive ones, and I would thoroughly recommend using peer researchers again.
Another research assistant wrote:
I was struck by the pathways dealing with motivation and social inclusion. It seems to me that there is a place for the teaching of humanities and social
science in that part of the resettlement field - whether for service users or providers: staff; mentors or
volunteers. What is it, after all, that people think they are settling or resettling into?
That is an area that I have to declare a double interest in and it is something that could develop along with the new voting rights of prisoners. An understanding of, and a commitment to, the democratic process would surely contribute to a sense of social inclusion as well as social cohesion and is likely to have an even wider range of positive social benefits including desistance.
As already mentioned I have an interest in this particular field but I also have some
direct experience of resettlement. In the more than 10 years since I began my journey, 'Up From Prison' - this research position has given me the first work based opportunity I have had that specifically makes BAME exoffenderhood an advantage! I've worked on an employed and self employed basis in an extremely wide variety of jobs but thanks to family and the recommendations of friends I have never had to fill in an application form in which BAME exoffenderhood would have been a disadvantage - in other words I haven't filled in an application form: I have been lucky and I am acutely aware that the 'BAME exoffender Wanted' ad is a rare one down at the job centre.
My studies have been, and continue to be, an indispensable part of my own development and their relevance has been amplified in my mind as a result of this project not least because of the people I have been inspired and privileged to work with: both on the team and in the field. I have gained a level of clarity about my own ambitions and responsibilities as a result of our work which I am determined to develop and continue.
A third research assistant wrote:
The experience of working as a researcher on this particular project has been a positive learning curve. Being an ex-prisoner and coming from a BAME (Muslim) group myself, brought back memories my own prison and resettlement experiences, and from the beginning I soon realised that my own personal experiences, could in turn, bias my own research and understanding of the interviewees own resettlement experiences. Yet this was not the case, and it became apparent that my own prison experiences did not bias the research I undertook. If anything, the whole process was therapeutic whilst allowing me to gain a better insight into the resettlement needs of BAME groups. Still, I was saddened to hear the fear and anguish of serving prisoners and their families and the lack of knowledge on behalf of the prison service in terms of resettlement provision beyond prison walls.
I realised that nothing has really changed for the better, in terms of resettlement for prisoners in general, let alone those from BAME communities. Whilst interviewing prisoners who were about to be released, a pattern quickly emerged as most, if not all prisoners had the same fears and experiences, (mostly negative) on their resettlement needs being met. It seems that out of the fifteen or so I interviewed, only one had had a positive experience of his needs being met and he had another year to serve. The prisoners who had the shortest time to serve left seemed to be more angry and frustrated, having in some cases served more than ten years in prison, had only been engaged by the resettlement process in the last three months before their release. This was a common theme again and again and even after I interviewed an Offender Manager at the same prison, it became clear that the veracity of prisoner’s experiences were unshakable.
My passion for working within the Criminal Justice environment is ever prevalent when my own
experiences of being in prison, can help direct others to affect positive change in their lives, and educate those working within the Criminal Justice System.