My name is Rena. I am currently one of two peer advisors for Shelter at Askham Grange Open prison for women.
I was recruited for the Peer Project last October 2015; their first Peer! Before becoming a peer, I worked a number of roles, including supporting fellow prisoners with housing and debt issues. I also spent some time employed by St Giles Trust and a Housing Association.
We meet the women when they first arrive at Askham Grange (in our bright red t-shirts) as part of their induction process and tell them about the services that Shelter can offer them.
It is our role when the Shelter staff are not here, to offer support, advice and signpost the women to speak to the right people and organisations to sort out any problems they may have.
On first entering into prison, most women find it frightening and very confusing, with fears surrounding a number of issues. These range from the most obvious, which is "Will I get to keep my council/housing association housing, I have nowhere to live on release from prison, can you help me with accommodation for my tag? Can I claim benefits whilst I am in prison? How do I sort out all my debts?"
That is where peer advisors can play an important role. We can relate to the women on a personal level. We understand the fears and anxieties of these women because we have often faced similar issues on our own journey through the prison system.
We can be reached any time of the day and at weekends if required which is beneficial for those women who are at work during normal working hours when the Shelter staff member is available.
Here at Askham, our work involves helping the women to contact creditors to offer solutions for debt problems, assistance with filling in official forms and documents for housing applications and help with CV writing. We can signpost them to other organisations for issues with drugs and alcohol, domestic violence and relationships. We also offer an in-house Debt Awareness half day course for any women that are identified by their offender supervisor as needing some assistance; we will also shortly be offering a similar course on the benefits system.
We receive excellent support from our Shelter peer leader and lots of training which looks great on our CV and is good for any future employment.
Being a peer advisor is very rewarding; it's given me a sense of achievement.
To see a woman I have helped smile again is so heart-warming. It has helped me to gain more self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. Helping others has helped me to grow as a person and made me more outgoing and chatty. Though some would think that's a bad thing! Haha