On Saturday, I went to my first of two volunteer training sessions, where I am learning the skills involved in becoming a mentor to youth offenders in prison. I was very excited to start learning new skills after a year and a bit since I quit my full time job in marketing.
The training was with a rather inspiring charity (which I won’t name) that works in a number of youth offending institutions (YOI’s) across the UK. They support prisoners, or Mentees roughly 6-4 months before release.
Mentors (me) work towards getting to know their mentees personalities, goals, plans, likes and dislikes in order to form a positive relationship. The end goal being helping your mentee learn ways of living that aren’t related to crime, and to help the transition of being released from prison to wherever they may be going.
This is something I have been wanting to do for a while, and to be honest I can’t quite comprehend my luck with landing such an amazing opportunity in an area I have long been wanting to get involved with.
Everything regarding the training was perfect, the project manager, who was training us, was brilliant. She had turned the charity around from a very difficult situation involving an embezzler, and as well as stepping up to head the charity, was coping with a recent bereavement.
We were given packs, pens, water, breaks, and everything we needed to feel comfortable and supported in this new environment (prison!)
Three of the girls who were training with me all knew each other from University, they were all studying criminology, and in their second year. This was a bit scary for me as I knew nothing about this area except for the small amount of research I had done, but they were going to spend the rest of their lives doing it and already were 2 years into their degrees. At this point I was in admiration.
At first they all seemed really nice but as the training progressed, it transpired, two out of the three girls were arseholes. I’ll call them April and Avril.
In the brief ‘introduction to me’ which we all had to do, I stated why I was there and that I didn’t work fulltime as I was ill (my personality disorder) but I had worked all my life, apart from this last year. I mentioned had a keen interest in the role drug abuse and mental health play in the justice system and one day hoped to train for a paid role in this area.
After we had all introduced ourselves I learned everyone in the room had children apart from me. Naturally they talked about their kids, and I actively listened. The stages they were all in at GCSE’s, A-levels, University choosing, boyfriends, girlfriends, moving house, teething. All good conversation I could not really take part in but was not bothered, and was quite happy listening.
The general consensus between them all was that being a parent was hard. Tantrums and teenagers seemed to be their favourite go-to topic. However, determined to out trump the room at just how hard parenting is, April and Avril started dropping comments throughout the training like “you don’t know stress until you have kids” or “having kids teaches you all your worries before were minute”
Of course parenting is hard, and one day I will find that out (for myself) but the above comments sent me over the edge. They did not know me, or my life or what I have been through. Equally I did not know theirs.
The difference is, I was not saying things like “no one knows how hard life really is until you have experienced anti-psychotic medication withdrawals” or “you don’t know what stress until you have had to complete 6 months of alcohol rehabilitation to get therapy on the NHS”
We started to get onto the topic of how much personal information (life experiences) you can share with your mentee. First up was April.
April said something along the lines of “my life struggle is that I got pregnant in my early teens and then bought up a kid as a single mother and I’m now in my second year at University, can I share this with my mentee?”
Which is fine, good on her, she’s got something in her life that was/is not perfect and she wants to help others with her experiences. So of course she is allowed to share the information with her mentee (excluding names, dates, places and all that) which is exactly why we were all there. Sharing Knowledge.
The topic of self harm was introduced, a lot of prisoners in this particular prison have issues with self-harm. April asked, “If we have a mentee who tells us about his self-harming, what do we do?”
This was my time to mention that I am an ex self-harmer. I don’t like being a shrew, I like people to know my ‘weaknesses’ as I feel proud of what I have survived (just as April did with her single mother story). Ultimately what I was asking was, was it ok to share my knowledge of the things that have helped me to stop self-harming? I was thinking along the lines of printing off self-help pages from the NHS or MIND so that the mentee can read about it, and hopefully get a sense that it doesn’t have to happen forever.
I don’t know if it was just my paranoia but I felt like the entire room judged me on wanting to share this information with my mentee, like it was too personal or too tough a situation to talk about.
My opinion is that these guys in prison are going to have a lot of tough situations they will want to talk about, drugs, self-harm, mental health, money, death, children, having no family and no education. I’m not going to relate to all the situations my mentee may be in but it makes sense to be able to talk about the ones you DO know about!
It gets worse.
As we were about 3 hours into the training session we did a couple of team building exercises that got us all talking about ourselves to each other. I don’t quite know how it happened or why I felt the need to join in (crowd mentality?), but April and Avril started this sort of class war where they both tried to outdo each other on how lower class they were, comparing notes on what age they had their kids (the lower the better), where their babies fathers were (if you didn’t know extra points), which members’ of family (going back generations) had been in prison before, who was on benefits and lived in council houses, like the more ticks you get on their imaginary ‘how lower class are you’ quiz, the better a mentor you are going to be to these lads in prison.
It all felt a way to competitive. I had come there with little to no knowledge about what I was getting myself into, but that’s what the training was there for, to teach, inform and empower. I came out feeling like I had just been sentenced in a court as not worthy to volunteer by a bunch of girls my own age, hell-bent on proving their own amazingness.
This is unpaid work. I am dedicating my personal time to this, to help someone, to do something worthwhile again. The experience I had in this training session was ruined by their constant stupidity. But I’m not going to let it happen again. The next session I’m going to mentally prepare myself beforehand, so I don’t get made to feel weak or unworthy again.
Fuck you April and Avril.