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Dr Alan Billings

Dr Alan Billings

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It was the prison officer’s last day before he retired. By chance, I was visiting the Young Offender Institution (YOI) where he worked. I was a board member of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales at that time and one of my responsibilities at that time was to visit YOIs in the north of England.


We got chatting. He told me about his life as a prison officer. He had spent most of it in adult prisons, only coming to the YOI in the last five years. As we talked he became quite relaxed and reflective. I asked him to look back over his career. I thought we might be able to learn something from his experience. ‘Have you ever known any men who managed to turn their lives round successfully? What made the difference?’

He looked startled and said – something I found quite revealing – ‘No one has ever asked my opinion before.’ Then he thought for a moment and said, ‘There are only two things that have changed the offenders I’ve known. One is religion and the other is the love of a good woman.’

My heart sank. Of all the things the government might be able to supply, ‘the love of a good woman’ and ‘religion’ were not going to be on the list.

It was only later that I did my own reflecting and realised that what he was pointing to could be replicated in other ways – proposals that could be supplied and could, therefore, make a lasting difference. The key factors that turn lives around are a sense of hope and human support.

A good example of this are the Navigator projects. We have two in South Yorkshire – Navigators in hospitals and Navigators in custody suites.

I came across the Navigator programme in Scotland. I was introduced to a man – in his mid thirties – who had been admitted to hospital after being stabbed. It was the story of his life – drinking, burglaries, prison, drinking, stabbing, hospital. But this time he had come across a Navigator.

The Navigator spoke to him at his bedside, explaining that he had been through the same experiences, finally realising that if he didn’t sort himself out he might spend the rest of his life in and out of hospitals and in and out of prison. Was that what the man really wanted? But there was help available to get him off alcohol and into a steady job. And he, the Navigator, would support him while that happened.

This intervention at that moment had made all the difference. It gave him that little bit of hope and that human support that he had never known before.

The Violence Reduction Unit will make a difference, will ‘work’, if we understand those moments when people are open to changing and what it is that makes it possible for them. At the top of that list of critical factors will be the possibility of hope and some dependable and consistent human support.

e dependable and consistent human support.