For nearly 20 years Samaritans have supported prisoners in Shrewsbury’s Dana Prison offering a listening ear and kindly word to vulnerable inmates.
There are currently eight volunteers who visit Shrewsbury prison once a week to offer a valuable lifeline to prisoners. These volunteers are also involved in the highly successful Listener scheme which has been running since November 1994.
Under the scheme, prisoners are trained and supported by the Samaritans to use a tailored version of the charity’s helpline service. These prisoners, known as Listeners, then support fellow prisoners who are self-harming, feeling distressed or suicidal, in complete confidence.
The Listener scheme started in HMP Swansea in 1991 after a 15-year-old boy, who was being held on remand there, took his own life. He was, at the time, the youngest person ever to take their life in custody.
Dave, a Samaritan volunteer at Shrewsbury Prison said: “Prison can be a lonely place, especially if it is your first time in jail. The Listeners are there to offer face-to-face help for anyone that wants to talk. For those who become Listeners it helps boost their self-esteem.
Hopefully it also stops them re-offending but we never hear from them once they leave so we don’t know.
“We put up posters advertising the scheme in the prison, inmates sign up and then the prison authority selects a shortlist and then we interview the possible candidates for the scheme.”
Recently, the governor of Shrewsbury prison and the branch director of Shrewsbury Samaritans presented certificates to a new group of Listeners who have just completed their training.
The Listeners’ families were also invited to attend, along with three Samaritans.
David, a prisoner and newly trained Listener, said: “It is a rewarding job. Because I have not done much in life it is nice to find something that I am good at. I am happy working in partnership with the Samaritans and the prison service, and I also find the job very rewarding.”
Mike, Shrewsbury Samaritans branch director, said: “Without the vision and support of the prison service 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to start this vital service. To this day, the scheme succeeds because individual prison officers, prisoners and Samaritans volunteers put in the time and effort to make it succeed.
“Samaritans supports, without judgement, anyone who is distressed or struggling to cope and the prison population is at greater risk of suicide than the general population. Therefore it is vital that prisoners are able to turn to a Listener, or Samaritans, to talk about their problems.
“The scheme has other benefits too – it helps the Listeners themselves gain valuable skills they never knew they had such as higher levels of confidence, self-control and patience.”
A spokesman for Shrewsbury prison said: “The Listeners Scheme has evolved over the last 20 years between the prison service, Samaritans and the prisoners. Each party works in partnership to help vulnerable prisoners to stay alive. The close working partnership has built up to a stage that I could not see any prison without a Listeners scheme in place as it prevents so many attempts of self harm.”
As well as Samaritan volunteers and Listeners, Shrewsbury prison also has a dedicated Samaritans phone available to prisoners 24 hours a day should they need to talk to a volunteer.
Samaritans in Shrewsbury are always on the lookout for more volunteers to help with their service. If you would like to find out more call 01743 369696.
By Catherine Ferris