Doing things differently: Have you met Joe from Switchback?
This London based resettlement charity, is growing its front-line team supporting 18-30 year old men make real, long lasting change after release from prison. We speak to Joe who is at the center of this process. His job is all about building relationships; supporting and challenging these men as they move through the prison gate to stick to their commitment to live life differently.
Can you tell us about working at Switchback?
Switchback runs an intensive mentoring programme and I’m part of the team delivering it. The prisoners who join the programme, become ‘Trainees’ and our aim is to keep them from going back inside when they are released. The culture here is very supportive and unlike other jobs making mistakes is celebrated! There are fantastic opportunities for training and personal development including a progression framework so that you can grow and increase your salary. All Switchback Mentors (SMs) are provided with professional external supervision, I find this really helps me to reflect on the work I do and ultimately become better at my job.
What’s it like being a Switchback Mentor?
We tend to describe the Switchback Mentor role as the hardest job in the world and the best job in the world! It’s all about working alongside our Trainees to help each one stick to his commitment to live life differently. The transition from prison to the outside world can often be harder than Trainees think and on top of that, we encourage them to challenge themselves and be in their stretch zones. Likewise, we as staff are also expected to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day! Each Switchback Mentor spends at least one day a week working from a prison. We find and talk to guys who show readiness to make a change after release and who want to build a different future. The rest of the week is based at our bright and funky offices in Shoreditch. On any given day I could be meeting a new Trainee who has just been released from prison, showing him around the office and training café where he’ll be completing his shifts as part of the programme. Or I could be doing an action planning session with a Trainee to review how his week has been and to plan for the next one. Other times, I’ll take small groups of Trainees to have new experiences such as visiting a partner employer to see how their business works. We even take Trainees on overnight camping trips to River Cottage in Devon!
What work had you done before?
I worked as a prison officer at HMP Wandsworth and as a resettlement caseworker at HMP High Down. Both roles involved working with offenders who had multiple and complex needs. As a resettlement caseworker I found that a lot of offenders were glad to see me as I could have a positive impact on their lives by offering practical support and guidance on things like housing, education, finance etc.
There are a lot of prison charities out there. What makes Switchback unique?
The thoroughness of the work at Switchback is rare and the success rate is remarkable. Only 12% of Switchback Trainees re-offend within a year compared with the national average of 46%. Switchback Mentors build and maintain meaningful relationships with Trainees and don’t just focus on support in one single area as other rehabilitation programmes out there. The Switchback Mentor that meets a Trainee in prison is the same person that meets him on his day of release and works with him for as long as it takes. I haven’t ever come across a through the gate organisation that works so in depth with ex-offenders and gets as many positive outcomes.
What is it like working with young men coming out of prison?
It can be fantastic because these guys have lots of energy and enthusiasm and have a great deal of potential but it can also be extremely challenging. Often these guys lack guidance and can be impatient, unrealistic, angry and test boundaries. I personally enjoy this challenge and see the value in supporting Trainees try out different behaviours and mind-sets during my time with them.
What do you enjoy most about the role and what do you find challenging?
The most exciting part for me is that after weeks and months of talking in prison, I love putting the talk into action and supporting these guys through their individual journeys. Although most of my time is spent with Trainees, the job does involve some desk time. When I first started I wasn’t used to using a database that required such accurate record keeping so this was an initial challenge for me. However, I have now learnt something new and added to my skillset.
What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to apply to be a Switchback Mentor?
Firstly it’s important to decide if this role is actually right for you. Being a Switchback Mentor will mean a whole new way of working and you need to have resilience as dealing with frustrations and setbacks are a common part of the job! The role does require good attention to detail so spend some time writing a really good cover letter explaining why this role is the one for you. If you have an open mind, loads of energy and want to get stuck in straight away then I’d say definitely check out our website and see how to apply, you won’t regret it!
Finally, can you share a particularly special moment for you as a Switchback Mentor?
We had a Trainee called Dejan. Before prison, he couldn’t keep a job for longer than a month even though he was highly capable. He struggled with time keeping and just getting out of bed. We worked with him on reliability, taking control and not blaming others for his actions. Recently he came back to visit us and we were delighted to hear that he has been in the same job since he finished Switchback in January 2015. It’s moments like these when someone reaches their goals that make this job so rewarding!