Ex-prisoner Ken Denton had a “vision” of how to stop the cycle of repeat offending while inside, working as a volunteer with inmates awaiting release. Now that insight has been turned into a prisoner greeting scheme for men leaving HMP Leeds that is attracting attention across the UK.
The simple fact is that Denton’s scheme – meeting newly-released prisoners at the prison gates and supporting them at New Wortley community centre, within sight of the prison – works.
Of the 80 or so men who have participated in the scheme since July 2016, only two have been sent back to prison, whereas West Yorkshire’s overall reoffending rate is 34%.
“There was nothing out there for them,” Denton says, describing the moment he first realised that many prisoners awaiting release were terrified rather than excited. “Some of them see prison as a safe place, but we have to show them that there is another way. That’s when I decided I wanted to do something to help.”
The 51-year-old, who was released in July 2015 having served 16 years for fraud and threats to prison staff, had already made contact with the community centre while working for a charity on day release to prepare for his own exit. Centre manager Bill Graham immediately saw the potential in Denton’s idea.
Life can be bleak in New Wortley, overshadowed by the prison’s Victorian turrets and dominated by four multistorey blocks, which were until recently no-go areas rife with drugs. More people are registered disabled, there are more lone parents and life expectancy is 12 years below more affluent areas of west Leeds. Around 18% of the population is on benefits.
Graham had a hunch the Offender Support Team would work: “I knew we had the right atmosphere here. There’s no stigma – everyone knows someone who has been in prison or they’ve been in themselves. People’s main complaint was that they felt unsafe.”
Something needed to be done for the prisoners and the community centre could provide the positive focus and necessary resources in this pocket of deprivation.
“New Wortley is very similar to being in prison,” reflects Graham. “People do not feel supported, they do not have the chance to get out and a lot of people feel trapped.”
Using the community centre as the base, Denton and his team – one an ex-prisoner and two who have been in the criminal justice system – meet an inmate at the prison gates, having fixed his accommodation, benefits and arranged some kind of occupation. They give him a meal, then take him to his first probation appointment and ensure that he is happy with his release plan.
Most of the work has been done before release. Denton’s Offender Support Team – assisted by eight volunteers – goes into the prison every Friday for the “resettlement market”, where prisoners awaiting release can go to prepare. The team identifies prisoners in need of assistance and begins working with them months in advance.
Once out, released prisoners are supported on a weekly basis. Many volunteer on the bike scheme, renovating old cycles for sale or for local residents to borrow as part of the community centre’s bid to improve the area’s health. Denton’s team has also started working with the Tuesday night youth project, talking to youngsters aged between eight and 13 to try to stop them getting into trouble.
Denton’s own story is clearly an inspiration to the prisoners he helps. While inside he gained an Open University degree in medical science.
The results at New Wortley are eye-catching. Denton has had requests to do similar work at New Hall prison in Wakefield, and he is already working with Bradford prison and HMP Spring Hill in Buckinghamshire.
The Offender Support Scheme works because of the community centre, which Graham transformed and turned into a safe place for local people. They come for hot food, a chat, practical help such as mental health support and assistance finding work, or just because they are lonely. The place is staffed mainly by locals and generates income from its shop, cafe and laundry service.
It works hand-in-hand with the nearby medical centre, where GP Andrew Sixsmith says he sees many ex-prisoners. He has only six minutes to speak to patients, who may turn up at the surgery with no food or money. “What can I do?” he says. “I have also had patients wanting to commit suicide at my surgery and I know that I will not get the statutory suicide teams out easily, but I have walked them over to the centre, where somebody there will talk to them and get them into the system.”
The community centre’s groundbreaking collaborative work was recently recognised by the independent trust Power To Change, which awarded it £215,000 for refurbishments. It now functions as a health and wellbeing centre, having doubled in size.
A strong believer in practical solutions, Grahams insists that “if you have time to listen to people and to hear about the barriers in their lives you can begin to make a difference”.