Fran Deschampsneufs is Samaritans’ Functional Lead for Prison Support, which is a voluntary role. Fran works closely with regional volunteers and Samaritans staff to provide guidance and advice to improve Samaritans’ work in prisons.
This September, Samaritans is marking the 30th Anniversary of the first prison Listener scheme in HMP Swansea. Now, almost every prison in the UK and Republic of Ireland has a Listener scheme and Samaritans’ support to people in prison is as vital as it has ever been.
The anniversary gives us an opportunity to celebrate our longstanding partnership with prison services and the valuable contribution the Listener scheme makes to reducing suicide in prisons.
Perhaps more importantly, it also allows us to recognise those pivotal in running the Listener scheme: Listeners, Prison Team Volunteers and Prison Staff.
Simply put, the scheme wouldn’t be able to achieve all it does without thousands of volunteers. It is a powerful demonstration of the positive effect that voluntary action can have.
How does Samaritans help?
Samaritans listening volunteers go into their local prisons to select and train people to be Listeners. Listener training for people in prison is similar to the ‘regular’ training volunteers in our 201 Samaritans branches receive.
Once their training is completed, anyone in prison can ask to speak to a Listener for a private conversation about the challenges they are facing. This peer support is non-judgmental and provides an outlet for that person to truly be listened to, enabling them to process their thoughts and emotions, and find a positive way forward. As well as speaking to a Listener in person, people in prison can also contact the Samaritans helpline.
Samaritans also provides postvention support following the distressing event of someone dying by suicide in prison. ‘Postvention’ refers to activities which support people bereaved by suicide, to facilitate recovery and mitigate adverse outcomes. Research demonstrates that individuals exposed to suicide have an increased risk of both taking their own lives and experiencing suicidal thoughts. Therefore, it’s crucial that those affected by suicide are reached quickly.
To reduce these risks, Samaritans volunteers and Listeners work together to provide space for people to talk through how they’re feeling, resources to help people make sense of their reactions, as well as offering guidance and training for staff.
Why is the Listener scheme needed?
We know that people in prison are at heightened risk of suicide and self-harm (with those recently released at even higher susceptibility). This is for a myriad of reasons. Factors which increase suicide risk are disproportionately common among people in prison. Those in custody are more likely to have a history of self-harm, experience of mental health problems, and have experienced deprivation and traumatic life events. Prison life can increase this risk further. The initial adjustment to prison life - loss of social contact, impacts on relationships, prison conditions, isolation, and a lack of control and uncertainty about prison sentences and the future - all contribute to the risk of suicide.
These, and other challenges, have been exacerbated by Covid-19, which has had a huge impact on the Listener scheme. Although the majority of schemes have remained operational throughout the pandemic, restricted prisoner movement and staff shortages have severely impacted the number of Listener support contacts that have been able to take place (26,000 in 2020/21 vs 50,000 in 2019/20).
Meanwhile, Samaritans has seen a significant increase in calls to its prison-specific helpline available in England and Wales. In the 12-months to the end of June 2021, Samaritans answered over 365,000 calls, an increase of over 60,000 from the previous 12-month period.
As such, we are hoping to return to pre-pandemic levels of support as soon as is safe and appropriate.
The future of the Listener scheme
A crucial element of marking this anniversary is our hopes of raising awareness of the scheme to people in prison and encouraging them to seek support.
This support is wide-ranging and not limited solely to people who feel suicidal - only around 1 in 5 people who contact Samaritans are. Samaritans are here to provide emotional support to anyone who needs it.
While recent suicide data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show suicide rates have not increased in the early stages of the pandemic (the latest available data) we can’t be complacent. We’re still learning fully how the pandemic has impacted people, with its affects likely to last for years to come.
What we do know, is that people in prisons are struggling right now. They need support, from Samaritans, as well as other like-minded organisations.
Could someone you know benefit from having access to a Listener?
People in prison can ask a Prison Officer to speak to a Listener, ring their cell bell or approach a Listener during association time.
They can also access the Samaritans helpline by calling 0845 450 7797, asking for the Samaritans phone or using the Samaritans PIN. It’s free of charge and calls are not monitored or recorded by the prison.
For more information on Samaritans’ Listening scheme, please click here.
Are you interested in helping others who are currently struggling?
Anyone in prison over the age of 18 can apply to be a Listener. The application process is run jointly between the prison service and Samaritans. Successful applicants will be trained by Samaritans so that they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to provide safe, confidential emotional support to other prisoners. Once trained, Listeners receive ongoing mentoring for Samaritans volunteers.
If you are interested in volunteering to support the Listener scheme, the first step is to apply to be a Samaritans volunteer.
For further information about how a holistic approach can support good mental health in prison, read Clinks' Whole prison, whole person report here